American politics has been “nationalized”—with state and local concerns pushed to the margins by national issues. This is an increasingly common media narrative about U.S. elections. The veteran Washington Post correspondent Dan Balz recently argued that it “may be time to revisit the old axiom from Tip O’Neill, the former Democratic House speaker from Massachusetts, who famously said that all politics are local.” The political analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote a similarly themed article for Roll Call titled “All Politics Isn’t Local Anymore.” In making their cases, Balz and Rothenberg both pointed to the current race for the governorship of Virginia, which comes to an end next Tuesday. The New York Times reported that ads from the Democratic candidates, Terry McAuliffe, and the Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, “indicate that national is the new normal”—as the two men have clashed “more over the cultural issues currently inflaming national politics than traditional tension points like state and local taxes.” What’s causing this pattern, and what are its effects?

Daniel J. Hopkins is a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized. Hopkins says the rise of nationalization largely corresponded with the polarization of U.S. politics in recent decades. He notes that the trend is driven to some extent by polarizing forces in national media—and the decline of local and state-level journalism—but also by changes in state political parties, along with candidates’ growing incentive to court party activists with national messaging and raise money from across the country. Hopkins sees some advantages to nationalization—it can make choices clearer for voters and infuse sleepy state and local elections with the passion of national debates—but it’s also directing a lot of attention to superficial symbolic issues rather than the primary responsibilities of state or local officials.


Graham Vyse: What’s happening here?

Daniel J. Hopkins: I started tracking the nationalization of American elections for governor more than a decade ago, and with each successive year it was clearer that the phenomenon was only intensifying. A nationalized political system is one where the same issues, concerns, and divisions animate national, state, and local politics. It used to be the case that you had Democratic governors in Republican states like Nebraska and Republican governors in all kinds of Democratic states—you still have a bit of that in Maryland and Massachusetts—but the ability of particularly the Democratic Party to win governor’s races in Republican states has been limited in recent elections.

You see a lot of nationalization in Virginia. Partly there’s national attention on the governor’s race because there’s a nationalized political audience—people constantly looking for the next sign of which way the country is trending. Virginia holding these off-cycle elections for governor and the statehouse [in neither a presidential nor midterm election year] is a very useful bellwether. Virginia also gets attention for another reason related to nationalization—it’s just outside of Washington, D.C., and many members of the D.C. press corps live in Virginia, so it takes on outsized importance. The key idea is that even Terry McAuliffe, who was formerly the governor of Virginia, is making substantial arguments based on national politics rather than the specific policy challenges Virginia faces.

U.S. Geological Survey, 1928

For any one politician or political actor—even somebody with the resources of Glenn Youngkin or Terry McAuliffe—it’s so much easier to ground your arguments in the kinds of issues that have already been proven to work nationally than it is to try to make a distinctive argument or develop your own brand.

Vyse: What’s the history of this phenomenon?

Hopkins: I’ve looked at phrases like “I’m an American” versus “I’m a Kansan” or “I’m a New Yorker” in books, going back basically to the founding of the American republic. In the 19th century, people in New York thought of themselves, to an important extent, as New Yorkers. Of course, in the Civil War, the Union Army was organized on the basis of states. State loyalties were paramount.

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