Sorry, Tip: No politics is local anymore
by Mike Killalea, NSD president
Former Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously claimed that “all politics is local.” Well, in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere, the opposite is coming true: No politics are local.
Even Lago Vista's recent city government race showed signs of partisanship, despite its purportedly nonpartisan structure. Two candidates are officers of the local Republican Club (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Jerry!) And one prominent candidate told me that a “coalition” was opposed to him. “It didn’t used to be that way in local politics,” he observed. (These comments were subsequently amplified and commented on through social media.)
No politics is local anymore.
Increasingly, local elections are moving toward greater partisanship (1,2). We’ve certainly seen school board politics slide into partisanship. The frenzy was driven by conservative scare tactics — scares that kids will be “groomed,” or will be shamed for their white heritage by critical race theory. (In my experience, school-board meetings of the past were always excellent therapy for insomniacs. Today: Not so much)
Making local elections nonpartisan was a product of the wave of Progressive Era reforms of the late 19th Century. The goal was to combat machine politics. In those days, a mayor or other machine operator could dole out patronage jobs and contracts in exchange for votes to keep himself and his party in power (1).
Today, more than half of races in local US elections are nonpartisan. That’s a lot of data. And analyses show three primary tendencies for nonpartisan races (3):
Voter turnout tends to be an average 10% less in nonpartisan elections than partisan elections (also note 4)
Candidates' party affiliations have less impact on voters in nonpartisan elections
Absent party identification, people tend to vote for incumbents
Some jurisdictions are moving toward nonpartisan primaries as a way to ease the throttle off left-right extremism. The idea is that this will largely remove the threat of “primarying” a candidate perceived not to pass the day’s reactionary litmus test, I suppose.
However, one must wonder where this push is coming from.
Whatever the reasons and outcomes, nonpartisan elections can become Trojan Horses for partisans and incumbents.