I’ve always had a problem with the way that we Americans think politically about scale, especially the conventional wisdom that local government is somehow inherently better or more democratic than national government because it’s closer to you. This is a rather problematic belief; local government can be just as dominated by local elites as national politics is by national elites, and the lower profile can actually make local politics less transparent than national politics (thought experiment: how many of you can name your local justices of the peace, or could give an explanation of the platform of the current incumbent?).
But worse of all of our beliefs about scale and politics is the idea that local government is somehow inherently non-partisan, that “there’s no Republican or Democratic way to fill a pothole.”
Because the truth is that, in a democratic government, ideology is everywhere. There really are progressive and conservative ways to fill in potholes, run public schools, and provide transportation and other social services, and unless we approach local politics with that in mind, it’s very easy to allow conservative methods to become dominant.
Ideology at Work:
The idea that local government is apolitical really derives from a false conception of what local governments do, and the good government belief that people of all ideological lines want to be good public stewards – without recognizing that ideological disagreements about what government should and should do shape how people think a good public steward should operate.
Ideology thus seeps into local politics in several ways:
- Forms and Levels of Public Service:
To begin with, progressives and conservatives disagree about what forms of services the public sector should provide, and how much in services it should provide. The conservative vision of government is largely one of a “night watchman” state – the public sector provides primarily public safety and property protection services, and the rest is provided by the private sector. The conservative vision also emphasizes as little taxation as possible as needed to fund said limited services, and that taxation should harm property as little as possible.
The progressive vision of government emphasizes an activist government that provides public infrastructure, public goods like education, public utilities, and social services to people in need of help. It also emphasizes a broad tax base and a progressive structure of taxation, so that people pay what they can afford to pay. Moreover, the progressive vision also includes a generally higher level of services – schools should be well-funded, public transportation should be abundant, not the bare minimum, and social services should be generous enough to make a real difference in people’s lives.
These are areas where ideological conflict is absolutely likely to occur. You see it all the time in fights over local tax and bond measures – the same conservative arguments that government is inefficient and wasteful and that taxes are always bad get trotted out no matter whether the issue is paving a street or universal health care, and progressives need to respond in turn with the argument that government makes people’s lives better.
- Distribution of Public Services:
The history of segregation in America should be an instant sign that the distribution of public services matter deeply. The local funding of education through property taxes (and a complementary real estate market based on perceived quality of education), for example, has a powerful effect on the racial and class distribution of housing and education – and this can call into being a powerful politics of defending property values against a dangerous other, but often disguised by public professions of conservative beliefs in decentralization of government. Similar effects can be found in transportation and other areas of infrastructure.
Likewise, it has long been a commonplace observation in political science that political pressure groups from higher socioeconomic status groups are more successful in reaping disproportionate shares of public benefits; communities of educated professionals are better able to keep themselves informed on local politics, are more practiced in forming political action committees and other pressure organizations, can raise more money to reward or punish elected officials (especially when the higher turnout rates of more affluent populations is taken into account), and can more easily turn to the courts or the media to challenge the government.
To progressives, therefore, one of the objectives of local government should be to distribute public services in a redistributive fashion, ensuring for example that schools in poor neighborhoods are equally funded to those in wealthier areas, that all areas receive the same relative level of service in terms of infrastructure, maintenance and repair, and the like.
- Delivery Structure:
The structure by which public services are delivered is where one finds the “Republican” and “Democratic” ways to fill a pothole. To conservatives, road maintenance is best done by privatizing the roads, and letting the free markets forces push the new owners of the private roads to improve their new property. Lest you scoff that local governments would never let ideology push them to such an extent, there are already privately-operated toll highways operating in Indiana, Virginia, Texas, and other states.
It can also be dealt with by letting out government contracts to private firms, which has often been the preferred choice of moderates, especially in regards to public works and similar construction projects. However, this method also has an ideological stance that it takes in regards to what roles the public sector should take, the efficiency of private corporations, and the relationship between the state and the free market. Even when contracting is taken as a mainstream approach, conflict breaks out over whether local governments should hire the cheapest possible contractor, regardless of how they pay and treat their workers, or whether there should be some sort of standards and regulations, whether it’s prevailing wage or living wage statutes or something else.
It can also be dealt with by creating a Department of Public Works and hiring public employees to build and repair roads. The direct provision of public services, especially in areas in which the public might be in competition with private corporations (public utilities being a good example), immediately creates ideological disagreement: conservatives will always hold that the public sector should not be doing anything that the inherently more efficient private sector should do, and progressives will generally respond that public/private competition counteracts the negative impact of private monopolies. Finally, even when direct provision of services (sanitation, police and fire, etc.) has a political consensus, there will still be conflict over whether said public employees should be union or non-union.
- Priorities Are Ideological:
Finally, political priorities are inherently ideological. One of the major themes in the 2009 Santa Barbara city elections by the “Preserve Our Santa Barbara” PAC was that progressives had cut public safety positions in favor of “non-critical” areas like social services for the poor. This is hardly uncommon. In general, we can speak of a general model of conservative priorities for local government that emphasize subsidies and tax breaks for businesses and an unlimited budget for public safety (law and order being the local equivalent for “national security,” and the local police and fire budgets the equivalent of the Pentagon’s ever-increasing appropriations).
By contrast, progressive local priorities tend to emphasize increased provision of affordable housing, public education, and other social services that are intended to include otherwise excluded communities within the circumference of the commonwealth, and in general work to redistribute resources to the less well-off.
Progressive Local Government:
If we accept that local government is just as ideological as any other, then an outline of a model of progressive local government can be seen. This model begins with a commitment to progressive taxation and redistributive public services as a means to reduce economic inequality and combat poverty. These services, especially in the realms of transportation, housing, education, and jobs, which all combine to shape the socioeconomic structure of a community, should work to ensure that people can afford to live close to where they work, earn a living wage that would enable this to happen, and make use of sustainable and inexpensive mass transit.
At the same time, progressive government should also pursue a collaborative approach with public employee unions, one of the few other groups in the political process who have a vested interest in creating a progressive and redistributive approach to local government. In this fashion, we can construct a kind of “municipal social democracy,” where the interests of public employee unions, progressive groups, and working families are united in a single drive to create a sustainable and employment focused method of development that emphasizes a high-wage, high consumption society, rather than a race to the bottom to court businesses.
In the end, we must always remember that political ideology is both horizontal, in the sense that the progressive movement pursues similar objectives whether it’s in California or New York, but also vertical, in that the same desire for a more just society drives political objectives whether it’s at the local, state, national, or international level.