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Local Political Participation

Abstract and Keywords

This article explores local political participation, what it is, and how it differs from other forms of political engagement. The author covers theoretical explanations of local political participation and discusses gaps in the existing literature.

Keywords: local politics, political participation, political engagement

Philosophers and observers from the early days of the American republic have applauded, even romanticized, citizen participation in local self governance. Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of democracy required the participation of the yeoman farmer in local affairs. Although Jefferson did not use the term, localism is an apt descriptor for his belief that small government, close to the people, would promote citizenship and virtue among the population (Syed, 1966). Alexis de Tocqueville suggested that the participatory nature of town and township government in the early- to mid-18th century United States was one of the young republic’s defining characteristics, and that the high degree of participation in local affairs by citizens was important to the success of the U.S. as a vibrant democracy (Tocqueville, 1990).

Even in the nationalized media environment of the 21st century, local participation is still held in high regard. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Sarah Palin emerged on the national scene as Senator John McCain’s vice presidential running mate. At the time, much was made of her start in politics as a city council member of the small Anchorage suburb of Wasilla, Alaska. The narrative was that local issues engaged her and started her on her journey to national prominence. Although her case is obviously not the norm, local political participation is seen as both a steppingstone in and as a cornerstone of American political culture, as the “proving ground of a democratic citizenry” (Oliver, 2001: 15).

Philosophers, pundits, and scholars alike hold local participation in high regard, at least in the abstract sense. However, in many ways local political participation is like family farming—romanticized in the political culture but practiced by relatively few. For example, most city council meetings are lightly attended affairs at best, turnout in local elections can be abysmal when compared with national voting rates, and the average citizen would likely have difficulty naming her mayor, let alone county commissioner. It (p. 96) is fair to say that the philosophical promise of local political participation far exceeds the actual outcomes.

A similar point could be made about scholarly examinations of local participation. Theoretically, the strong tradition of local participation and the large number of relatively autonomous local political entities could provide a rich set of possibilities for research. But it is fair to say that the study of local political participation lags behind this potential. Why is this? With a few exceptions, local political participation is not considered a separate form of participation, different from participation at the state or national levels. What logically follows, perhaps, is that the concept thus does not require its own set of models to explain outcomes; scholars interested in local political participation need not reinvent the wheel. However, the present essay argues otherwise: Local political participation does have some unique and substantively interesting characteristics that deserve more exploration and analysis than they have been receiving.

This essay explores local political participation and how it differs from “other” forms of political engagement. The first question to answer is, “Is there a theory of local political participation?” Surprisingly, as described in the next section, this question does not have an easy answer. The second question is “What is local political participation?” Scholars do not always make a clear distinction between local and other forms of participation, so a discussion is warranted. Finally, the essay will conclude with a discussion of some of the unanswered and conceivably important issues in local political participation.

The Subfield of Local Political Participation?

Most review essays about urban and/or local politics begin with a lament that the subfield in question is woefully understudied (e.g., Marschall, 2010), and in most cases this type of claim is justified. At first glance it would appear that local political participation is no exception. Other than perhaps the area of local turnout and voting (see Hajnal and Lewis, 2003; Kelleher and Lowery, 2004), there have been relatively few studies that focus exclusively on local political participation narrowly defined and as a distinct behavior. Rather, local political participation is usually considered as a category—a measurement—of political participation more generally.

The most important studies of American political participation in the last 50 years include measures of participation that could be considered local. Indeed, most of the behaviors in these studies are connected to the local political environment. In other words, local political participation has been extensively, if not explicitly, studied under the more general category of political participation. Because the act of political participation is almost always inherently local (“all politics is local”!) the vast field of political (p. 97) participation contains studies that touch upon local political participation through questions asked or behaviors studied.

This presents an interesting conundrum. It is inaccurate to say that local political participation has been ignored—it is present as a quantity of interest or dependent variable in a significant proportion of participation studies. Yet there are very few theories that focus exclusively on the local aspect of participation, and perhaps more important, the determinants of them. In other words, there is no grand theory of local political participation—outside of some theories specific to distinct contexts (e.g. Oliver, 2001, focuses on the suburbs), there is no theory of local participation.

What does this mean? In most subfields, this would present a problem—it would indicate a distinct lack of understanding about some important aspect of the political world. This is not so clear in the case of local participation. It may be that most of what needs to be known is “taken care of” by the more general theories of political participation, or that there is no local component worth examining. Thinking in these terms gives rise to questions: Is local participation different? Why? Does it matter? The answers to these questions are not as easy to answer as one might think—the concept of local has many different meanings and it is not always easy to classify the behavior.

The Characteristics of Local Participation

The United States has a long tradition of a strong civil society that presents many opportunities for citizens to become engaged and involved with the political process. Many of these opportunities arise at the local level, as there is also a tradition of local autonomy and there are many entities of local government. This surfeit of opportunity is also a challenge as it increases the complexity of the system in which individuals choose to—or choose not to—participate. This section describes the complexity of the participatory process at the local level in the United States and how this complexity makes difficult a single theoretical orientation of local political participation.

What is Local Political Participation?

In Verba et al.’s classic formulation, political participation refers to activities individuals engage in with the intent of influencing government outcomes. This action needs to be voluntary and active rather than passive (Verba et al., 1995: 38). These activities range from the relatively lowcost activities of voting to the more costly and engaging acts of lobbying government officials and participating in political protest. Almost without exception, each act of participation can occur at any level of government, in local, state, or national politics—there is a direct analogue. For example, voting occurs in municipal (p. 98) elections as well as in national ones; one can contact a city council person as well as a member of congress; and one can lobby an official to change his or her vote on an act of legislation. The costs may be different, as well as the titles, but at all levels there are more similarities than differences—participation is participation is participation.

Local political participation, then, should be easy to define as those acts that individuals engage in with the intent of influencing local government activity, where “local government” means those entities defined by the United States Bureau of the Census (2007): General purpose governments, like counties, cities, towns, and townships, and special purpose districts like school districts and single function districts. While this seems intuitive to the point of banality, it is important to note that it is not always clear what the terms “local” or “participatory” mean. First, every participatory act, regardless of level, has some local angle to it because of the highly geographic nature of American politics. In Tip O’Neill’s famous formulation, all politics is local. Contacting a member of congress, for example, is in many ways a local act; the member of congress, after all, does represent the locality in which a constituent lives. Even that most national of acts, voting for president, has some localness to it, at least if one has to go to the precinct polling place to cast a ballot.

Second, the line between community participation and political participation can be fuzzy. Neighborhood associations, for example, are local and political, and being involved in one can influence the lives of those who live within the neighborhoods’ boundaries (Putnam, 2000). Yet neighborhood associations are not governmental in the traditional public administration sense of the term, with public authority granted by constitution or statute. In other words, formal boundaries may unduly limit how participation is defined. This is similar to the difficulties scholars have had in distinguishing between civic engagement and political participation where voluntary problem-solving community activity can be considered the former rather than the latter (Zukin et al., 2006: 7). Yet studies of political participation usually consider informal community activity to be a form of participation (Verba et al., 1995: 42).

Finally, it is not always so easy to classify participation at the local level because local governments are, in most cases, direct service providers—or are at least responsible for the provision of the service. Citizens can be considered consumers of a local good or a bundle of local goods provided by the locality (Tiebout, 1956). This creates an interesting dynamic for participation, in that sometimes the contact with government is akin to calling the cable company to complain about a service disruption. Is calling a city’s citizen service bureau (e.g. 311 in New York City) a participatory act? Does a complaint logged on a city website about a pothole mean that a citizen has fulfilled his Jeffersonian duty in the arena of self-governance and reliance? The line between what is participation and what is merely interaction, can be pretty difficult to determine.

Most surveys of participation contain a question about whether a respondent has contacted a government official, but it is not clear if this is the type of contact that pollsters have in mind. The act of contacting an elected official certainly requires a certain amount of engagement even if the purpose is to solve a specific problem, i.e., constituent service, although calling a city department to complain about a burned-out streetlight (p. 99) certainly seems less political and perhaps less participatory. In any event, this is an area where perhaps clearer distinctions need to be made.

The more general literature on political participation has in the main not worried about these nuances. Much, but not all, of the literature on political participation is not concerned with the local aspect of the action and makes very little distinction between the levels at which individuals participate. For many, the very act of participation—voting, contacting, protesting, etc.—is more interesting than the level of government at which the act is targeted. For example, in their classic study Who Votes?, Wolfinger and Rosenstone (1980) focus on the act of voting in the general, without regard to context, and the factors that lead to compel individuals to engage in the act of voting (or not). Although substantively speaking they focus on national elections, in some sense the actual election is irrelevant—why someone votes is a function of individual socioeconomic status and this relationship holds true whether the vote is being cast for the president of the United States, for the governor of a state, or the county drain commissioner. With some notable exceptions, this lack of focus on context is common in the literature on political participation.

In a similar vein, some scholars use local acts of participation as variables to be explained, but the “localness” of participation can be seen as merely incidental to political participation. Thus, while many surveys ask questions about local political participation they are seen more as one of many aspects of participating and not as independent, theoretically distinct activities. For example, the Citizen Participation Study used by Verba et al. (1995) asked questions specific to local participation but they were more or less treated as measures of participation rather than measures of local participation. At the same time, they are certainly not excluding local participation, either; the civic voluntarism model they outline transcends the boundaries between national, state, and local participation.

The above caveats aside, scholars studying local political participation have focused on a relatively few sets of common types of participation and they are essentially defined as participatory acts at governmental levels other than the state or the federal. If you vote in a local election you have participated in local politics. If you attend a meeting or contact a local official, even for very specific service questions, you have participated locally. And obviously those scholars believe that the differences merit attention.

What Sets Local Political Participation Apart?

If local political participation is merely a subset of the field of political participation, why study it? As will be described in this section, there are two aspects that distinguish local political participation from its more general counterpart—the large number of participatory opportunities and the relative accessibility of those opportunities. These aspects really give local political participation a distinct character worthy of its own classification.

(p. 100) The first aspect that sets local political participation apart is the wealth of opportunities. The tradition of localism and the high degree of autonomy afforded local governments in the United States means that there are many potential points where citizens can get involved and engaged. The term “potential points” refers to governmental institutions and individuals with which citizens can interact in a participatory fashion. There are tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of these potential points. The actual number of opportunities to participate is impossible to quantify exactly, but a decent proxy is the number of local governments provided in Table 5.1.

Each one of the 89,476 governments provides a set of participatory opportunities. The county and sub-county governments are classified by the Census Bureau as “general purpose” governments as they tend to provide more than one service. The services provided, however, vary from state to state and even vary within states. For example, in many states counties provide all the services most associate with a municipality—police, fire, public health, etc. In other states, primarily in the northeast, counties exist more or less in name only. “Special purpose” governments provide a single service. To provide a few examples, school districts educate the children, sewer districts collect and treat the wastewater, and parks districts provide recreational opportunities to the citizens of a specific geographic area. The U.S. Census Bureau provides an exhaustive list and is very careful with its definitions—both general and special purpose governments need to exist as organized entities, have governmental character, and substantial autonomy (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2007).

Some of the entities are more participatory than others, primarily due to their institutional structure. Many of the entities have elected governing boards, which means (p. 101) that citizens are needed to run for office and citizens are needed to vote in elections that select from those running for office. Each of the entities also represents a point of access for citizens who want to advocate (lobby) on a specific issue or set of issues. Finally, these many entities provide many public hearings and board meetings that provide chances for public input—a form of public participation. This public input could range from speaking during the public comments session to staging a noisy protest during a local council meeting.

Table 5.1 Governments in the United States, 2007

Type

Sub-Type

Totals

Federal

1

States

50

Counties

3,033

Municipal

19,492

Town or Township

16,519

Subcounty

36,011

Special Districts

37,381

Public School Systems

13,051

Special Purpose

50,432

Total

89,527

Developed by the author based on data from United States Bureau of the Census (2007).

Table 5.1 provides a good sense of the participatory opportunities but it both under- and overestimates the number of possible participation access points. Because certain types of school districts (“dependent school districts”) are excluded from this table, the number of participatory opportunities is likely higher. Dependent school districts are those that are under control of the state or local governments, for example, “intermediate” school districts in Michigan or the state-appointed board in the City of Louis, Missouri. Not all would have elected school boards (although some do) but they likely have a nonprofessional representational structure of some sort and would thus provide opportunities to participate. At the same time, Table 5.1 likely overstates the number of possible opportunities for participation, as many of the special districts are single function districts that have appointed boards, very little visibility, and that operate like a business or a nonprofit. For example, many water districts have “customers” and seem more like a regulated utility than like a government entity that encourages political participation.

As noted above, there is a great deal of institutional variation both within and across the categories of local government, providing a rich yet asymmetric environment for individual participation. There is variation in representative structure. For example, some counties have a commission form of government while others have a county council and executive; some cities have a strong mayor form while others have a council-manager form; and special districts greatly vary in the level of independence they have from other jurisdictions. Certainly the varied types of structures offer citizens different opportunities for participation.

But yet there is more variation of the representative structures. Some local governments elect their executives and their governing bodies, while in others they are appointed by some other authority. In many, but not all, cases, the “other” appointing authority is the state or the elected board. The literature in this area is scant, but the elected versus appointed distinction not only changes the politics (see Huber and Gordon, 2004 for a study of judicial appointment) it also changes the incentive structures for an individual to participate. And yet there is still more variation. For those structures that have elections, the mechanisms used to select the officials differ. Some entities have nonpartisan elections while others are partisan; there are local governments represented by At-large, district, and mixed representative bodies; and some hold elections in conjunction with state and national elections while others explicitly hold them at different times of the year.

It should be clear by now that there is significant variation in institutional structure. An exhaustive classification of the variation across the types would be exhausting and (p. 102) not particularly helpful to the task of this essay. But it is important to keep in mind that this variation provides a useful laboratory to assess the effects of institutional structure on participation, and, as will be discussed later, scholars have taken advantage of these opportunities.

The second aspect that sets local participation apart is accessibility. Although there is very little (if any) research in this area, it seems reasonable to assume that local government is more accessible than state government and certainly the federal government. Given the high degree of fragmentation, it is likely that a citizen knows someone in local government personally, or at least knows someone who knows someone. By extension, the probability of obtaining a desired outcome through personal networks should be higher. Although this concept of accessibility is more of a theoretical Jeffersonian ideal—there is very little research in this area—there is some evidence to suggest that citizens know their local officials personally in small town and small suburban contexts (Oliver, 2001: 39).

Rates of Participation

Local political participation also differs from other levels in the rates at which individuals engage in the activity. Interestingly, the differences are context dependent and are somewhat contradictory; there seems to be an inverse relationship between the cost of the act and the likelihood of an individual doing it. When the participation is relatively costless to the individual, participation is lower at the local when compared to the state and national levels; when the cost is relatively high, there is a distinct local advantage.

The relatively costless form of participation is, of course, voting. Study after study has shown that turnout in local elections is abysmal, even when compared with the already low rates in state or non-presidential national elections. Hajnal and Lewis (2003) cite a number of studies (Alford and Lee, 1968; Morlan, 1984; Bridges, 1997) to argue that local turnout is so low as to be a threat to democracy. Although there is significant variation across cities (Trounstine, 2010: 410), most local elections are low turnout affairs. The best estimate is that turnout in municipal elections is approximately half that of national elections (Hajnal and Lewis, 2003: 645–6). Caren (2007: 31) cites examples of single digit percentage turnout in (relatively) major cities like Fort Worth, Texas, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Berry (2009: 64–5) convincingly draws upon logic and case studies to argue that turnout in special elections is probably even worse than general purpose government elections. That is, citizens are far less likely to vote for drain commissioner than they are for mayor, and they are less likely to vote for mayor than they are for president. The reasons for this are complex (and discussed later in this essay), but this is one of the few consistent findings in local political participation—turnout in local elections occupies last place in an already low division.

But of course participation is not just about voting, there are other aspects that are perhaps more important and perhaps more effective for the engaged citizen. Contacting an official directly with one’s concerns, for example, is a much more precise and proactive (p. 103) way to offer feedback than is voting against an incumbent who may not understand the message one is trying to convey. To continue the example, if one is not happy with the response from the official through direct contact, then running for city council against that official is certainly an even more direct way to strive for, and perhaps achieve, one’s political and policy goals. Voting is neither direct nor proactive.

The findings on other forms of local political participation are not so clear in terms of the differences between the local, state, and national levels. It is first important to make a simple logical point based upon elementary algebra. Because there are by definition more local elected officials—in fact, many more—there are more opportunities for individuals to participate by running for office. The most recent estimate, made by the Census Bureau in 1992, was that there are 493,830 local elected officials in the United States (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1995, 1). This exceeds by a factor of nearly 1000 the number of elected officials at the national level and by 26 the number at the state level. Whether this fulfills the Jeffersonian ideal of small democracy is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is clear that, by definition, rates of running for office are higher at the local than at the state or national levels.

Even though the number of local elected officials is high in absolute terms, it is probably too much to assume that more than a very small percentage of the population will ever run for office. Other forms of participation beyond turnout and running for office are worth examining. As with turnout, there are few studies that focus on obtaining a national portrait of other forms of participation. However, some of the fundamental works on political participation over the past few decades have measured the extent of non-turnout participation. In lamenting the decline of community in the United States, Putnam (2000, Ch. 2) argues that participation in local political activities has, without exception and across multiple dimensions, dropped over the 25 year period from 1970–95. Using Roper data, Putnam does not compare the trends across the levels of government, but it is clear he is arguing that local political participation is becoming an exceedingly rare if not extinct part of American political life.

One could come to a more sanguine perspective on local political participation after reading Verba et al.’s (1995, Ch. 3) definitive description of participation from their Citizen Participation Study (CPS) data. Local political participation is not the focus of Verba and his colleagues but their CPS did ask questions specific to the activity. As with Putnam’s data, involvement with local politics beyond voting is a relatively rare act. For example, only 17 percent of the respondents in their study participate in an informal community activity, which is quite a low threshold for participation, and this was the highest percentage of the questions asked specific to local participation. Yet when they compared specific acts of local participation with the state and the national levels, there were some intriguing and consistent differences. For example, of those who worked on a political campaign, 50 percent of respondents worked on a local campaign, twice the levels in state or national campaigns. Contact with public officials had similar if not so dramatic differences. The only act in which local did not exceed the others was in the area of campaign contributions, which suggests that, at least for local political participation, time is more important than money. This seems reasonable as the relatively micro (p. 104) nature of local politics means that campaigning is more than just buying ads in the metropolitan television market.

As the discussion has hopefully made clear, local political participation does have some factors that distinguish it from its other colleagues. It still is not clear though if these differences amount to a variable to be factored into a model of political participation more generally, or if the differences mean that local political participation warrants its own set of theories. The next section assesses the explanations of political participation in light of the intriguing differences presented above.

Explaining Local Political Participation

What sets explanations of local participation apart from national and/or state participation, or political participation more generally? In local political participation there is a focus on the contexts, institutional and social, in which individuals reside and their effects on participation. Arguably, the American Voter (Campbell et al., 1960) model of behavior, with its reliance on a national sample, ignores the possible effects of location and context when it comes to explaining political participation; the focus instead is on individual factors. Scholars of local political participation differ from this perspective by arguing that the characteristics of where individuals live have explanatory power on whether they participate and in what fashion. In other words, geographic context plays a role in an individual’s participatory calculus.

The focus on context does not mean that individual factors are dismissed or completely ignored. In fact, the individual reasons for participating are always included in models that explain political participation. There are no theories arguing, for instance, that local political participation is disconnected from socioeconomic status (SES), or that Verba et al.’s (1995) Civic Voluntarism Model of resources, engagement, and recruitment does not explain at least some aspect of an individual’s decision to participate in some facet of local political life. No one argues that mobilization does not play a key role in the calculus (Leighley, 1995). An individual with a grade school education is not more likely to contact his city council member than a college-educated fellow citizen. Every model, then, contains individual-level measures along the lines of education, income, and other “usual suspect” demographics.

The focus on context is the primary additional factor that gives local participation an orientation distinct from other participation subfields. There is a rich, albeit relatively recent, tradition of scholarship that emphasizes the importance of geographic context. Huckfeldt’s (1983) work was certainly not the first study of context (see Durkheim, 1951; or Berelson et al., 1954), but it was among the first to make a direct theoretical and empirical link between the local geographic context and local political participation. The basic theoretical link, if you will, is that the characteristics of context act upon an individual in ways different from her individual traits.

(p. 105) Political science more generally has engaged in a lively debate about context and its effects (see Books and Prysby, 1991; Agnew, 1996; King, 1996), and the debate has yet to be settled. This is because direct evidence—evidence that is more than correlational—is difficult if not impossible to come by; most findings are like Oliver and Ha (2007), which concludes that community characteristics are statistically significant after controlling for individual factors. These types of findings will always encourage skepticism among those who do not believe that context is worth measuring (King, 1996). Most scholars interested in local political participation argue however that local context is theoretically a strong idea and that the statistical correlations are applicable evidence. To argue otherwise would suggest that local political participation is dependent only on individual factors, which would mean that the local participation would be no different from participation at any other level.

Assuming, then, that the context matters, which is the appropriate geographic context to use when assessing local political participation? There are two broad categories; institutional and social. Institutional refers to the political, usually formal and legal, environment in which individuals are located. The general and special purpose governments described above are the institutional contexts of interest in local political participation: Counties, cities, school districts, and special districts. Social contexts are those entities whose boundaries are not necessarily proscribed in law, primarily neighborhoods and social networks (Huckfeldt, 1986). The choice of which level is driven by careful theorizing and there may be multiple levels at work on a single individual (Baybeck, 2006). Although they are substantively different, the institutional and social contexts work in similar ways on the individual; they factor into an individual’s decision calculus on whether to participate, and they do so (but not necessarily in the same way) for every person in the same context.

The vast majority of studies on institutional context focus on one variable, turnout in local elections. A significant majority of these focus specifically on turnout in municipal elections. Very little work, if any, has been done on explaining the turnout in elections for county, school district, and special district governing boards (but see Berry, 2009, for special districts), and few focus on cities outside of major metropolitan areas. Work that has been done on municipal elections focuses on the various mechanisms of election described above and their effects on turnout. Other recent review articles have covered these differences in detail (see Marschall, 2010; Trounstine, 2010), but it is useful to briefly note some key findings and to discuss their effects on participation.

Studies of turnout in municipal elections suggest that the so-called “progressive” reforms depress turnout. These include the council-manager form of government, where a professional city manager performs the administrative function, nonpartisan elections, At-large elections, and elections not held concurrently with state and national elections. All of these institutional structures lead to lower turnout in municipal elections (Alford and Lee, 1968; Welch and Bledsoe, 1988; Hajnal and Lewis, 2003; Caren, 2007) and there is a distinct effect of depoliticizing municipal government—the more administrative the city, the lower the turnout (Wood, 2002).

(p. 106) Another strain of the literature dealing with institutional effects on participation has been a focus on the size of the locality (almost always the city), where size is defined not by geographic area but by population. Kelleher and Lowery (2004: 721) nicely encapsulate the primary debate as one between “small is beautiful” and “large is lively.” In the small is beautiful camp, the theoretical argument suggests that local political participation is higher in small, homogeneous communities, as the population shares a significant number of interests and thus feels more efficacious (Oliver, 2001). This idea is consistent with a long line of literature that examines the effects of suburbanization on politics and participation (e.g. Gainsborough, 2001). The larger is lively camp argues that larger cities, particularly ones that span metropolitan areas, are more likely to contain heterogeneous populations. When there is heterogeneity, there is conflict, and when there is conflict there is incentive to participate. Thus citizens in large, metropolitan areas are more engaged and more likely to participate (Dahl, 1967; Kelleher and Lowery, 2004: 726).

Like any good academic debate, the end result has been somewhat conflicting findings when the theoretical abstractions are translated into specific tests of hypotheses using empirical data. Oliver’s (2001) exhaustive study examines many aspects of local participation and finds that participation decreases as city size increases, while Kelleher and Lowery’s (2004) analysis finds that large, concentrated metropolitan governments lead to increased voting turnout in local elections. Both use somewhat indirect methods of testing—finding significant relationships after controlling for demographic factors—and neither has conclusively established causality. Since they each use different data, the former at the level of the individual and the latter at the aggregated metropolitan area level, they do not exactly contradict, either. Quite clearly, more research needs to be done in this area.

Social context provides the other geographic frame by which to examine local political participation. In this context, the theoretical link is not about how the environment impacts incentives, as it does with the institutional context. Rather, it focuses on how an individual’s surroundings control, constrain, or filter the flow of information to the individual. Depending on the composition of the context, these flows either encourage or discourage the individual to participate in local politics (Huckfeldt, 1986).

The primary unit, at least in research on local political participation, has been on the neighborhood, and the findings have been relatively consistent—the more challenging the conditions, the lower the level of participation. That is, residence in low-income, minority-dominated, and/or poverty-concentrated neighborhoods diminishes the likelihood of participation, all else equal. These findings have been confirmed across a variety of local acts of participation, including voting (although in national and not necessarily local elections (Alex-Assensoh, 1997) and community group participation (Huckfeldt, 1979). Being a member of a minority group in a poor neighborhood further reduces the likelihood of local political participation (Cohen and Dawson, 1993). Neighborhood is not the only unit used—some have used counties to find similar results (Giles and Dantico, 1982; Matsubayashi, 2010). The sum of these findings strongly suggests that social context matters.

(p. 107) The above two contextual environments—institutional and social—have dominated the research that attempts to explain local political participation. This research has clearly demonstrated that there are factors other than someone’s individual characteristics that influence her decision to participate. However, it would be quite myopic to assume that these two factors, no matter how expansively examined, cover the universe of possible effects. To some extent, the domination by the contextual approaches has nearly, but not completely, drowned out other possible causal factors. For example, an intriguing area of research focuses on the role that nonprofit groups play in participation through community organizing. Nonprofit groups can be neighborhood associations, social-service agencies, and churches. In political science, at least, this is a relatively novel direction, but the initial findings are at best mixed. Much of the research focuses on urban areas and finds that nonprofits do have a positive impact on the political incorporation of minorities into the political process (Hula and Jackson-Elmore 2001). At the same time, however, evidence is somewhat preliminary and has focused on the outputs of community organizations rather than the actual effect on individual participation (LeRoux, 2007: 414). Studies that have focused on the effects of participatory institutions such as neighborhood associations echo Berry et al. (1993) and suggest that the correlation between the existence of these entities and the participation rates at the local level is very complex and subtle.

Future Research Directions

As should be clear by now, much of the research on local political participation has focused on the geographic aspects of the behavior—how the spatial environment influences the likelihood of participation. This is reasonable, considering that local political life is inherently rooted in (relatively) small spaces that we call communities, cities, counties, or neighborhoods, to name a few. In order to move forward, however, scholars need to have a clearer understanding of the implications that modern life has for local political participation. That is, telecommunications and transportation technology have made it easier for individuals to transcend neighborhood and city boundaries and to build and maintain regional, national, or even international networks of friends, family, and/or like-minded colleagues (Cairncross, 1997; Wuthnow, 1998; Baybeck and Huckfeldt, 2002). Gone are the days, if they ever truly existed, of the relatively isolated but highly participatory community. In other words, the meaning of geography has changed.

Scholars of local political participation need to do a better job of understanding this relatively new geographic reality. Will place-based measures remain as important predictors of local participation? Have they declined? Are less geographically-constrained social environments and networks (Huckfeldt and Sprague, 1995; Huckfeldt et al., 2004) better predictors of local political participation? For example, is a national friendship network a better explanatory variable than one’s community? At the very (p. 108) least, research on local participation should pay attention to the emerging literature on social networks and non-local political participation (e.g. McClurg, 2006), which has done a good job of making the causal connections between the aggregate and the individual behavior.

Technology also brings about a second set of questions regarding the media environment and its effect on local political participation. The decimation of the daily newspaper—or at least the local content in it—and the emergence of social media have changed the means by which citizens get their political information and these changes have had impacts, usually negative, on political participation (Prior, 2007; Hindman, 2009). This shift has accelerated in recent years and it is difficult to project what things will look like in two, five, or ten years, but it is reasonable to assume that rapid change will continue and that the metropolitan daily as traditionally understood will be an anachronism. This new environment presents both obstacles and opportunities for participation. On the one hand, local news stories are no longer covered in depth by the major news outlets of the locality, which may mean that citizens are unaware of an issue that might motivate them to participate. On the other hand, an issue may go viral and reach citizens through social networking sites, motivating them to get involved. How does the new media environment influence participation? Are the mechanisms different at the local, as opposed to the state and national levels?

The third set of questions deals with the normative aspects of participation. Most view participation and citizen engagement as positive for a democracy and to be encouraged. A logical corollary of this is that a society should maximize opportunities for its citizens to participate—and with its smorgasbord of local governments, the United States certainly does provide these opportunities. However, as noted in this essay, the complex arrangements may actually confuse citizens and depress local participation by increasing the information costs (Baybeck, 2006; Berry, 2009). So it is important to ask, can there be too much of a good thing? Is a complicated institutional structure, with overlapping authority and accountability, good for a democratic and participatory society? These questions are not so easily answered, but they get at the heart of what the American ideal of localism is all about—that decentralization, fragmentation, and autonomy of local government leads to more democratic, participatory, and representative government.

Finally, we know comparatively little about non-electoral forms of local political participation. The relatively well-developed literature on local voting should continue to move forward, of course, but other aspects of participation—contacting, attending meetings, just getting involved—are as important. What are the effects of institutional and geographic context, for example, on the likelihood of a citizen attending a school board meeting? Why would anyone attend a public comment session? Why do people run for unpaid local government offices that usually mean constant hassle and complaints from your neighbors? Oliver’s (2001) work on the broader aspects in the suburbs represents a good first step, but there is room for analysis that includes other, very different, contexts, and there is also room for work on the multiple layers of local politics.

(p. 109) Conclusion

What would the early boosters of localism make of the environment of local political participation today? It is of course difficult to say—the institutional arrangements and technology are far more complicated today than in Jefferson and de Tocqueville’s day. It is clear, however, that localism survives through the immense number of participatory opportunities that exist at the local level in American society. Today there are more opportunities to participate than there were 200 years ago. But it is also clear that most citizens are not taking advantage of the opportunities. Perhaps citizens are easily overwhelmed by the possibilities—there are many different types of local governments, functions and authority overlap and are contradictory, and there are likely too many of them. Should we want to increase local participation—and most agree this is a good idea—we need to better understand the causal factors behind it.

As this essay has noted, it is these environmental characteristics—variation, complexity, abundance—that set local political participation apart from its state and federal colleagues. Substantively speaking, the rich number of opportunities means that by definition participation is higher at the local level, atleast when looking beyond the relatively simple and relatively costless act of voting. Because more citizens participate locally than at any other level (again, independent of voting), understanding its determinants is important. Theoretically speaking, localism has been and remains an important philosophy in American politics. Because of this, measuring and explaining localism through local political participation is also crucial. In other words, local political participation deserves more attention than it gets from political science, and hopefully the next few years will take us there.

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