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An era of nationalized voting: How presidents and parties became local issues

Joe Biden and Donald Trump along with the cover of the book "Nationalized Politics"
Jordan Uplinger
Wyoming Public Media

Have you noticed local issues taking a back seat to much bigger national debates? There’s a name for that - it’s called nationalized politics. A trend seen in voters and politicians alike, where the focus starts in Washington and trickles back to your town hall. That’s the topic of a new book, "Nationalized Politics: Evaluating Electoral Politics Across Time", co-authored by University of Wyoming professor Ryan Williamson. Wyoming Public Radio’s Jordan Uplinger sat down with Williamson to discuss what exactly nationalized politics looks like in Wyoming and across America.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 

Ryan Williamson: So when we talk about nationalized politics, we're talking about people caring more about which party is in power and less about who represents them and in their specific district or state. And so local issues take a backseat to national issues and these top-down forces, like presidential elections and the issues that they focus on. So when we talk about nationalization, those are the things that dominated politics during these highly nationalized eras, like we're seeing now, and like we saw in the 1800s.

The difference is in the 1800s, a lot of this nationalization was a function of electoral rules. We had a party ballot where you couldn't vote for candidates from different parties, you functionally just supported the party's slate of candidates, or you didn't vote at all. Now, about 100 years later, we're seeing a resurgence in nationalization, but it's not a function of electoral rules. We see people consciously making a decision to support the party's slate of candidates. They're not splitting their tickets, they're not thinking about localized issues. They just care about getting their preferred candidate into the White House and voting for as many people as possible who will support that same agenda.

Jordan Uplinger: So for a Wyoming voter, they're concerned with the federal government's involvement in the expansion of broadband in the state versus they're concerned whether their local representatives are going to support the presidential candidate that they like or not. Which one of these is “nationalized politics”?

RW: For the sake of example, we'll say Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, and that's who people in the state are generally supportive of. It's going to be much more likely that someone's going to say “I'm supporting Trump, Trump's policies, and people who will also support Trump's policies.” It's much less likely, not impossible now, but much less likely that voters are going to fixate on something like the federal government's relationship to the expansion of rural broadband within the state of Wyoming.

Wyoming is actually one of the best examples of how nationalist politics have played out. You have Liz Cheney, who, by all measures, is a very conservative Republican, had been a really good kind of bearer of the Republican Party brand for a long time. But in defiance of Trump with the January 6th committee, you see that fracture, you see that idea of her not being Republican enough. And so candidates who are willing to be “Republican enough” or “Democratic enough” are going to fare a lot better than someone who's trying to make some high minded nuanced arguments about, you know, both parties have good ideas that should be pursued. We just don't live in a time where that's going to be very productive or successful.

JU: I wonder if top-down politics is leaving room for a grassroots third-party movement to cover overlooked local issues? Or will candidates just need to assimilate into a national party if they want to get anything effective done?

RW: Unfortunately, I fear it's the latter. I think candidates will just have to kind of toe the party line on these national issues. That is kind of the easiest way to demonstrate to voters that you are a good Republican or a good Democrat worthy of support. And to the question of, you know, is this leaving room for a localized grassroots third party to emerge? The Democratic Party is the oldest political party on the planet, and the Republican Party isn't that far behind. One of the ways that they've been able to exist for this tremendously long time is by evolving. And one of the things that they do in the event that something like a third party in a district, just state, or even the entire country, if one were to emerge, one of the parties will look at the platform, think about some key planks that they can then bring over into their platform, and therefore kind of take the wind out of the sails of any third party movement. So the parties were designed in such a way to kind of ensure that these third parties don't emerge.

One of the unique characteristics about American politics is that we build our coalitions on the front end. In other countries, you have a parliamentary system. Different parties have to come together in order to form a majority coalition. We do a lot of that on the front end. Only in American politics can you see someone like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, exist in the same party in the same chamber at the same point in time. In another country, they would be from different parties and then only governed together temporarily, under a coalition style government.

JU: Has there ever been a time in American politics where American voters really were part of an active party apparatus or really had to, on a national level, work to form, like in other countries, a coalition government?

RW: There was a time when people consciously voted for Democrats in Congress and Republicans for the White House. This idea that Republicans were good on foreign policy and the economy. But Democrats were good at providing localized benefits to districts. They were good at ensuring a safety net, and people liked the idea that the parties had to engage in competition and cooperation in order to realize policy goals. That's not really the case anymore.

JU: So it feels like we're all very used to this kind of [mentality]. When something happens nationally, that's when we rally. If it happens at home, talk to your local politicians and hope they're also Democrats or Republicans. Has it already happened, has politics already been nationalized, or are we on the front end of this, and it's only going to get more and more so?

RW: I think we are smack in the middle of this highly nationalized era. And I think it could become even more pronounced before it ultimately subsides, if it ultimately subsides. But there are limits to that. At the end of the day, people still want good people to represent them who pursue policies that are relevant to them. And so it remains to be seen, I think, how far we can go with nationalization before voters start responding to something else.

Jordan Uplinger was born in NJ but has traveled since 2013 for academic study and work in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He gained experience in a multitude of areas, including general aviation, video editing, and political science. In 2021, Jordan's travels brought him to find work with the Wyoming Conservation Corps as a member of Americorps. After a season with WCC, Jordan continued his Americorps service with the local non-profit, Feeding Laramie Valley. His deep interest in the national discourse on class, identity, American politics and the state of material conditions globally has led him to his current internship with Wyoming Public Radio and NPR.

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