The Nationalization Of Politics

Over at, Dan Hopkins makes one of those observations that seems so obvious once you’ve read it…

Hopkins addresses one of the troubling features of today’s political reality: the nationalization of our politics. As he notes, the actions of state and local elected officials have an important and immediate effect on our lives–why, then, do Americans seem  fixated on Washington, D.C. almost to the exclusion of local politics?

He attributes much of the change to the transformation of American media markets, and how that transformation has affected voters’ knowledge and participation levels.

According to Hopkins, Americans are increasingly turning away from media outlets that provide state and local coverage, substituting Fox News or MSNBC or other sources providing national coverage for their hometown newspapers and television news reports.

The effects are felt in turnout numbers:

It’s not exactly news that turnout for state and local races is lower than turnout for presidential races. But this pattern’s very familiarity may have obscured just how surprising it is. After all, states and localities take primary responsibility for schools, transportation and criminal justice, three policy areas that can have a major effect on people’s day-to-day lives. And if people were motivated to vote primarily by the idea that their vote might decide the outcome, they would be far more likely to cast a ballot in a small local elections, where their odds of being the decisive vote are much higher, than in a national one.

In a federalist system, it is always noteworthy when national politics draw a disproportionate level of attention — and all the more so when the gap between national politics and state and local politics has been growing sharply. That’s exactly what has been happening in the past few decades: Voter turnout for president has remained roughly constant while turnout for state and local races has fallen.

Hopkins is correct in noting that, since 1980, Americans have increasingly turned to national media to learn about politics.  Where I find his analysis wanting, however, is his attribution of that change to a perceived advantage that these national content providers have over what he calls “older, spatially bound media sources.”

I think Hopkins misses a far more compelling explanation: local news has become dramatically less newsworthy, when it has survived at all.

Television news has always been more superficial than newspaper reporting–it also has depended on local newspapers more than most viewers appreciate. And we’ve lost local newspaper journalism.

Not long before the Internet became ubiquitous, major chains like Gannett were busily buying up local newspapers. When Internet competition cut dramatically into the profits generated by those local papers (Craig’s List alone cost them billions annually in classified advertising revenue), those papers became far less profitable. Many were still saddled with the debt incurred when they purchased the local papers, many of which had been bought at a premium justified by pre-Internet profit margins.

Most papers responded as our local newspaper did– by drastically cutting editorial staff.  Today, our daily paper has little to no news content other than sports and entertainment. No one is regularly covering the statehouse or city hall. There are no beat reporters assigned to school board meetings, or city-county council meetings, and on the rare occasion when a reporter is sent to cover some government activity, he or she lacks the background knowledge needed to ask the pertinent questions, or to really understand what is going on.

State and local government has become less visible and accountable because we have no local journalists devoted to making making them visible or holding them accountable. (And speaking of accountability–a recent study conducted by a Notre Dame professor has confirmed a direct correlation between a rise in the cost of local government and the loss of local newspapers.)

We aren’t reading the local paper any more because there is very little actual news to read.


  1. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Gannett bought 6-7 local newspapers in Indiana, or as many readers of this blog refer to as, “Alabama of the Midwest.”

    Our local Gannett owned rag is horrible. Quite frankly, I’m surprised they don’t pull all reporters to Indianapolis and produce an Indiana Today newspaper.

    But guess who funds the majority of their expenses?

    Advertisers, not subscribers.

    It’s been a death spiral because digital ads are much cheaper than the newspaper. Consequently, the owners cut staff to the bone making the paper even less readable…etc., etc.

    I’ve worked with Harvard professors on solving this problem, but funding is the primary issue. Citizens don’t want to pay for solid journalism…they want their beliefs confirmed.

    I crack up when I read comments on the IndyStar when readers call it a “liberal rag.” Seriously?

    The lack of free press is one component contributing to the “dumbing down of America.” Whether intended as Noam Chomsky would say, or an unintended consequence of a capitalistic marketplace and technology, the effects are real.

    The bigger question and one briefly touched on…who does this serve? When the free press is nothing more than carriers of advertisements for the local chamber members and doesn’t have the knowledge or permission to serve the public by holding the government accountable, who benefits from this ‘marketplace phenomena’?

  2. Our local TV news spends more time on national news than local stories. I can watch any of the three letter networks for that, I can’t get local news from them! Perhaps it’s because they are on for hours and need to fill it somehow.

  3. “We aren’t reading the local paper any more because there is very little actual news to read.”
    Regarding Sheila’s final comment I will add; there is actually news but it isn’t published for us to read. Only selected, abbreviated national and international news is reported by local newscasters after weather, road reports and the morning criminal activity with almost daily body counts.

    “I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Gannett bought 6-7 local newspapers in Indiana, or as many readers of this blog refer to as, “Alabama of the Midwest.” I will add to Todd’s Gannett reference the 4-6 page USA Today sample copy we have receive inside our daily Indianapolis Star since Gannett purchased USA Today provides no more news than the Star. Per Wikipedia; “USA Today shares the position of having the widest circulation of any newspaper in the United States of America with the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.” I’m going to jump in here and say it is that unsolicited sample copy in Gannett owned newspapers which has increased their circulation count.

    As for “…the actions of state and local elected officials have an important and immediate effect on our lives–why, then, do Americans seem fixated on Washington, D.C. almost to the exclusion of local politics?” I should have saved my late yesterday comments to post on this blog. Regarding my contact with my City Councilor who is asking for my support again since disappearing from sight after being elected; I went to the Council Home web site for information before replying to his E-mail. Copied from their Home Page, “The Indianapolis City-County Council is responsible for adopting budgets, levying taxes, authorizing appropriations to fund city and county operations, as well as enacting, repealing or amending local laws. They also appoint members to certain boards and commissions that serve the community in various areas.”

    So; why indeed have we almost excluded local government, elected by us, and believe we can accomplish anything at the top level? I have asked my City Councilor for information regarding the Democratic party in general as they are not forthcoming with any action, goals or a party foundation worthy of our vote, our only bit of power at any level of government. The Indianapolis Power & Light Company is requesting a second rate increase in approximately 18 months; 9 Democratic members of the City-County Council have formed a committee to oppose this increase, my City Councilor is NOT one of them

  4. “Hopkins addresses one of the troubling features of today’s political reality: the nationalization of our politics.”

    The following is a couple of lines from Folio Weekly, our major alternative newspaper here in Jacksonville, ten days ago:

    By Line: “Clear as Mud: The limits of Transparency in government”

    “One closing salvo—this is a city where, sooner or later, every dissident is dealt in. Yesterday’s rabble-rouser becomes co-opted, like Winston Smith learning to “love Big Brother.” By the time most people get the institutional knowledge to form effective critiques, the institution finds a place for them.”

    “Sure it comes with a muzzle and a straitjacket. But consider the garment’s fine workmanship. And the prestige of wearing the uniform.”

    ~A. G. Gancarski

  5. There is a free local newspaper in my county that contains local news, including obituaries. The only drawback is that it is published only weekly.

    I stopped my subscription to the local daily newspaper, owned by Gannett, back in early 2008 after years of frustration that it only took one to two minutes at most to read the local news. The rest of it was and still is filled with national news and advertising. They fired local reporters long ago or cut their pay to poverty levels so that they had to find other employment.

    On the rare occasion that I attempt to read it online (they started offering it online just a few months ago), it still only takes one to two minutes to read local info and there are far too many right wing commentaries to stomach. I am guessing that the largest number of their subscribers are the businesses that place ads. I really don’t know how the paper has survived this long.

  6. Nancy; Indianapolis Star doesn’t bother with national or international news and the USA Today sample only rarely actual articles on either level. Down the left side of the front page are posted a few 1 or 2 paragraph articles sometimes referring to actual news. USA Today used to be an interesting source of news; since purchased and distributed by Gannett, I have often wondered what it is now.

  7. I agree with Todd above. In total, our sources of news are controlled by a few, and that stifles local news as the owners of the media sources don’t want to invest in a local news structure, but just reprint national news. The local newsprint media source for most of the state is not worth the paper it is printed on and I hate to waste $2 on an issue.

  8. some of those beat reporters have been beaten back at the door also. when media was changing and gannett was to bring usa today, it seemed generic, and not as deep. though some front stories were deep, the mainstream was already floundering. i was raised on the nyt, newark evening news and la times. many colums had quest journalist,with stories,views,opinions. now with the dnc descidingly to fence off the independant presidental canidates,along with general elections who have independants running, that third vote,still hasnt gotten into the parties head,were tired of the staus quo.many states still dont reconize the third party either. did any of this make any news today. the phone rang,and the usual dnc looking for money.. go away, new news,im not supporting a regime that has stiffled the progressive runners,while we still see corprate democrates. tell pelosi,shes not in our game anymore.. seems a shame,our democracy depends on the front page,only

  9. James Howell; I agree with you that our local paper, Indianapolis Star, is not worth the paper it is printed on. Even more interesting is your comment that it isn’t worth paying $2 per issue. A month or so ago I reported I had not received my daily delivery; they said they would credit my account. I pay $37.70 monthly for daily delivery; they credited my account with 26 CENTS. No delivery again today; I will watch for that 26 CENTS to again be credited to my account.

  10. By way of contrast, New York City, where I live, is awash in local news: The three network affiliates offer decent coverage, though it’s heavy on crime and tragedy. Better is NY1 News, a 24/7 news cable news channel that covers the five boroughs of NYC with a special emphasis on politics and civic affairs. The public radio station, WNYC, also has wide and in-depth coverage of NYC and the tri-state metropolitan area. At the micro level are neighborhood newspapers all over the city. The Villager is the one for my neighborhood, Greenwich Village. And this is not a complete list of sources. So size of audience makes a difference, I would say.
    At the same time, in Burlington, VT, there is a I great weekly paper that is free called Seven Days, that provides great local news coverage. And that’s a pretty small market.
    I would venture to guess there are sources of local news in Indiana beyond TV and newspapers, but it might require active searching to find them. I went to Earlham College in Richmond, and my dad was born and reared in Evansville, so I know a little more than average about the state. Through friends and acquaintances, I see occasional stories from the Palladium-Item, which is still around since my undergrad days and seems to be a decent publication. A Google search on ‘Indiana Political News” turned up a pretty substantial list of sources.
    Of course people have to have an interest in the first place, and time to pursue the information, which is more the problem, I think. I agree that traditional forms of local coverage have been decimated, and that’s bad. But, in today’s economy, many people are simply too busy surviving to spend time keeping up with the political news at any level.
    But I’m hopeful change is happening. New forms of information sharing are emerging (see list above) and will continue to develop. In addition, the surge of interest in local politics and elected offices since the presidential election bodes well for political change, which come with a concomitant increase in coverage and availability of information. (And an improvement in the economic circumstances of struggling individuals and families, one hopes!)

  11. Marv @ 7:42 brings up an important point – the co opting of dissidents, where possible and bringing them into the establishment.

    Don’t Make No Waves…Don’t Back No Losers An Insiders’ Analysis of the Daley Machine by
    Milton L. Rakove, published in Sept. 1976, brings up this situation of absorption of progressives or minorities into the establishment. Those being assimilated or absorbed are carefully vetted. They are permitted to offer some dissent, but it is carefully controlled. The assimilated have as you say >> the prestige of wearing the uniform.

    Howard Zinn bring this same issue up, allowing what appears to be a progressive voice, but at the same time maintaining control.

    Farrell Dobbs, Teamster Local 544 leader wrote:

    Independent labor political action requires more than an organizational break with the capitalist two-party system.

    If a mass party’s program remains limited to seeking reforms compatible with capitalism, the workers will find themselves trapped in procedural norms designed to serve the interests of the ruling class; opportunists within the party, who put their personal ambitions above mass needs, will act as de facto agents of capitalism; and what was meant to be an emancipating social movement will degenerate into a narrow instrument that helps perpetuate the very injustices it initially set out to correct.

    Thus the hopes and aspirations of the working people become frustrated.
    The Big Media whether it was large newspaper chains of a century ago, or the conglomerated McMega-Media of today are creatures of Capitalism. Thus, reporting on capitalism’s failure to deliver prosperity to all Americans will not be permitted. The “boom and bust” cycles have to be accepted pieces of the capitalist system in order for it to survive. Thus, we have a national triage every few years the 99% must endure.

  12. JoAnn,

    If the Indianapolis Star doesn’t bother with national or international news what is actually printed in that paper? And, more importantly, I am wondering why you pay for a subscription. What value do you receive for your $37.50?

  13. In Rochester NY we have a Democrat city governement, an independent city school board, and because of white flight going on for 50 years, the rest of Monroe County is Republican. Many suburban town governments, many suburban school districts, a few village governments and a couple of county governments.

    All in all I would say that huge pile of government works reasonably well. Local politicians, local voters, local issues, local funding. We pay dearly for education which can be controversial but generally people want good education so funding it is something that everyone whines about but in the end pays for the quality.

    The state level is, on the other hand, as dysfunctional as local government is functional because New York is divided into New York City and the rest of the state, generally called “upstate”, and the issues each has are completely disconnected. Generally upstate is Republican and the city is Democrat.

    History tell us that the country has moved relentlessly from local government issues to world government issues so there is a natural progression to broader government having to address the hard cultural issues and local government the relatively easy management ones.

    I think we New Yorkers, understand that broader government is harder to do than local government but as the population and inter connectivity has grown it’s where the growth in need has occurred while the growth in capability has not kept up. That seems to me also true of businesses. There is a size that can become necessary but also becomes beaucratic because nobody can understand all of the parts of the whole. Running both broad government and broad businesses require the best of collaboration combined with leadership and that level of working together is counter cultural to most people.

    Perhaps in the end what makes broad governance challenging is getting different cultures to recognize and accept their cultural differences yet make collaborative decisions for the greater good among people who are inherently cultured differently.

  14. Nancy; we get some crime reports, notices of a few meetings, the Op Ed page or 2 with daily unfunny Republican political cartoon, obits, a few reports on bills passed, crossword puzzle, a few cartoons and movie, list classified ads and a TV Week magazine with listings about 1/4 wrong, the sports section plus Colts news also in the main section, and that sample USA Today. Occasionally there is something of value or a rare, short series on vital issues; one on the escalating abandoned buildings problem and the foolish tax law which keeps them escalating about 2 years ago, about the time we had a short series on LGBTQ issues. I often ask myself why I maintain the subscription; probably decades of habit. Being deaf and disabled; I am limited in activities so the TV Week is somewhat useful, I do the crossword puzzle and at age 81, read the obits every day. Your newspaper filled about 2 minutes of your day; the Star fills about 5 minutes of mine. I jump start my body with 2 cups of black coffee and jump start my brain with the daily crossword puzzle; the Sunday crossword is much more challenging. It isn’t worth the money but it is all we have available. Something like our local Democratic party; not worth the money but all we have available.

  15. I worked for newspapers in Indiana covering government and politics during the 70’s and 80’s.

    When I first started with Pulliam’s news group, which at least included Indianapolis, Muncie, Phoenix and Vincennes, we had two local newspapers, each fully staffed, and they were profitable. We had beat reporters, typically one for each area: City government and courts, county government and courts, police, education, arts, business and general reporting.

    Everything that we submitted was then edited, both for content and style, then was proofread after it was set in type (proofreaders have been eliminated by Gannett to save money).

    Although the papers were owned by conservative Republicans (Dan Quayle’s family, basically), we were generally (not always, but for the most part) free to cover the news as we saw fit as professionals within the boundaries of the law and ethics of professional journalism, without interference from the corporate management.

    Enter Gannet, and other corporations that are only concerned with the bottom line, not high quality community journalism.

    The morning and afternoon papers, which each published state and local editions, have been slashed to one morning edition. The staff is skeletal. I’m guessing they have about three reporters to cover the entire community. With no one covering them to speak of, local government is rampantly corrupt and is under continual FBI investigation.

    Community newspapers were staffed with trained journalists who knew how to report objectively and gather all sides of the story. I can find political news on the internet, but I have no way to know how dependable it is, whether it comes from professional journalists, or just those pushing their own agendas. Television news channels just seem to be an endless stream of talking heads, editorializing and pushing agendas. It is increasingly difficult to distinguish between news coverage and editorializing.

    It may be hard for people to believe, but as journalists, we weren’t interested in promoting certain political views. We were interested in informing the electorate, accurately and objectively, so that the citizens understood their local government and could make well-informed decisions in the voting booth.

  16. JoAnn,

    Might I suggest that you consider purchasing crossword puzzle books of varying challenges and find a website that contains local and national tv listings for your area? You may also be able to access the obits online or in some type of free local publication.

    I know about the difficulty of breaking habits. When I finally came to my senses and admitted to myself that I was maintaining my local newspaper subscription out of habit I was able to admit to myself that I was setting fire to money that could be better used elsewhere.

    You have mentioned that you survive on a very limited income. Perhaps freeing up $37.50 might allow you to free up cash for things that might bring you joy or for things that you may find much more useful.

    Just something to think about.

  17. JoAnn,

    I just checked the Indianapolis Star website for obituaries. Without a subscription I was able to click on people’s names and read their obits. It was free to view.

  18. Nancy; I did forget to mention we get a breakdown of end of legislative session info on bills passed. On line obits and crossword books would be a partial solution but that TV Week is the only listing available and being at home alone 98% of the time, TV is my source of news, only source of entertainment (especially movies) and the closed captioning is necessary; TV Guide only lists some programming from 7:00 – 11:00 p.m., some cable channels I subscribe to, some I don’t, no info on local listings. The free local publication, NEUVO, is excellent but cannot subscribe; it is free and in those news boxes in downtown areas but not in outlying areas which is where I live. As I said about the Star; it isn’t worth the money but all that is available for a number of reasons. Occasionally the Star does print my Letter to the Editor, but rarely the past 2 years or so.

  19. Well, Pete, we who did not know by your posts you’re a New Yorker are now confirmed in our view by your writing that you could not possibly be an “upstate” Hoosier. I thank you for your posts.
    IMHO we need to mitigate somehow the effect of the “opiate of the people”, one of the dumbing down pollutants of our national politics.
    We need to keep on reminding citizens who might pass on the Midterms that 2018 is arguably a much more important election than 2020.

  20. JoAnn,

    I understand. It sounds like you do get a little bit for your money spent on the Star.

    In case you are interested, here are links to a couple online tv listings for Indy. You may have already checked them out. If not, they might be able to fill in some gaps that may happen in the Star.

    My local newspaper never provided tv listings. I now use online apps to find local tv listings and info.

  21. Marv – Thanks for a revealing quote from a Jacksonville alternative press. Winston had a lot of problems in his fascist society before he finally concluded that he loved Big Brother. I think we are in that lead-up phase to Big Brotherdom today and, that unless stopped or at least slowed, our democracy is going to go down the Memory Hole. The decline of an effective media into a propaganda means is not the problem but symptomatic of the problem. There are other such symptoms too numerous for me to lay out here, symptoms that we must as an awakened polity take to heart and resist via the polls and the streets, if necessary.

  22. The Indianapolis Star is run so badly by Gannett that the reader has to look hard for more than occasional mentions of Indianapolis at all. Frequently, stories in our paper are from Evansville, Muncie, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Richmond (Indiana). These stories have already been run in their respective newspapers and are used simply for filler around the advertisements.

  23. I don’t feel as bleak about the Indianapolis Star as the rest of you. I have online subscriptions to the New York Times, Washington Post and two foreign newspapers, but I want to have the Star in hand as a paper copy. (I insist on having a live voice to hear my complaint when it isn’t delivered, knowing it won’t do any good to tell them I don’t want to read it online, I want to hold it. But I grouse personally anyway.)

    I have two items next to my computer right now. Trying to figure out this Matthew Kandrach of the Consumer Action for a Strong Economy who merited an entire column in praise of coal and its value to Indiana on Sunday’s editorial page. Maybe some of you know more about him, not much online. And if someone is knowledgeable enough about this subject to write a seething letter to the editor in response, I hope you’ll do it.

    The other article from June is about “Ohio farmers think they found Indy 500 balloon.” (June 1)
    Buried at the end of the article by Emily Hopkins and Sarah Bowman, who are listed as covering the environment for IndyStar, is the following info: The “environmental team” is burying BSA balloons identical to those released at the racetrack to see if they are really, as claimed, biodegradable. I intend to write the journalists to say “Great!” and ask more about the “team” and their projects.

    The Star is expensive, but I’m determined to support what sparks of good local journalism exist.

  24. MG@12:46 pm wrote, “Trying to figure out this Matthew Kandrach of the Consumer Action for a Strong Economy who merited an entire column in praise of coal and its value to Indiana on Sunday’s editorial page. Maybe some of you know more about him, not much online.”

    Never heard the man’s name before today, then did a quick Google search and learned that he’s the Vice President of the “60 Plus Association”, apparently one of the nation’s larger groups representing senior citizens. Kandrack is listed as one of the 3 lobbyists employed by the “60 Plus Association”.

    According to Open Secrets, the link below lists the clients for Mr Kandrack’s lobbying association in 2016.

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