Every fourth January, all political eyes turn toward the presidential primary in New Hampshire. One theory on why New Hampshire deserves its prominent place in the American political calendar is that the state is better than any other at democracy. Its citizens developed this skill set, so the story goes, by creating a democratic ecosystem in which ordinary citizens were heavily involved in civic life: participating in town meetings and voicing opinions about every expenditure and tax increase. This form of direct democracy has been viewed as admirable, but perhaps slightly quaint; some argue its model would be ineffective for more populous, diverse, and heavily urbanized states.

Entirely dismissing the model set by states like New Hampshire, however, would be a mistake. Lessons on how to solve problems at the local level ultimately bubble up into how the nation is governed. When citizens solve problems in their local government, they learn to work with their neighbors to come up with solutions that please a majority of the people in their communities. This will influence which people enter public life and what lessons they learn at the beginning of their political lives when they are still flexible. These individuals will then bring these skills with them when they run for, and win, federal office. 

For many decades, Americans have been moving into neighborhoods and communities composed of people more and more like themselves. This self-selection has resulted in more political jurisdictions with less political diversity. As a result, many cities, suburbs, and towns are governed by city councils and mayors who largely view the world, its problems, and their solutions in similar ways. While probably almost none of these bodies views itself as philosophically monolithic, the view for an outsider can be different. For example, a recent headline, “Progressives MIA in San Francisco mayor’s race,” is probably viewed as laughable from anywhere else, where every San Francisco candidate could be viewed as “progressive.”

This homogenization of local viewpoints results in fewer and fewer Americans working together across political divides to solve problems. The country has thus lost the opportunity for local, practical problem-solving, as in New Hampshire town halls, that could and should be the training ground for Americans learning how to get along and solve problems with people of different political perspectives. The choice of training ground matters for at least two reasons: first, who is attracted to local politics, and second, what problem-solving habits they are developing. If the training ground is local government, which is about coming up with solutions to everyday problems, then it will probably attract more people who want to see real solutions for real people. It will naturally exclude those who want to merely posture and promote their own political advancement. 

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Local Issues, Local Solutions

Eighty-one percent of Americans live in urban areas, but their populations are spread out across many jurisdictions, with more than half living in various suburbs rather than the city center. All of these local governments, whether the old city center or newer suburbs, provide practical services like infrastructure development, public safety, and parks that virtually every citizen cares about. Most members of the public want fewer potholes and burglaries and more pickleball courts and parks. Although there can be political differences about issues like hiring private companies to provide public services and how to solve the root causes of problems like homelessness and crime, generally speaking, the public cares most about whether local problems are solved, not how they are solved. Since federal policy tends to feel more abstract to many citizens, it is easier for candidates for federal office to campaign and for voters to vote based on vague platitudes, such as who is more “MAGA” or who is more compassionate, than at the local level where results are easier to measure. If the people who reach federal office haven’t been trained to focus on solving problems and collaborating with different kinds of people through service in local government, then it shouldn’t be too surprising when politicians in Washington spend their time fighting with and demonizing the other side.

If local politicians expect to be reelected, they have to focus on solving problems that are immediately relevant to their communities and the real people who live in them. This expectation of results from local government has translated into trust in local government. A recent Gallup poll indicated that 67 percent of Americans have either a fair amount or a great deal of trust in their local government, compared to only 32 percent who feel the same way about Congress and the Senate. Service in state governments is rarely the solution to this training problem because state governments have also moved toward one-party rule and so don’t contribute to learning how to work across political lines to achieve results. In only six states do the two parties share power. In the rest, either the legislature and the executive branch share the same party, or one party has super-majorities in the legislature, thereby allowing the party to make all decisions unilaterally.

Metropolitan Mergers and Bridging Ideological Divides

One way to encourage politicians to work together across viewpoints and philosophies is to encourage people to live among others with different backgrounds and viewpoints. While people may not want to move from Manhattan, New York, to Manhattan, Kansas, they could consider supporting mergers in American metropolitan areas. These merged metro areas would be much more diverse in viewpoint than current old center cities, inner suburbs, and regional edge towns. In order to deliver the quality of local services that would result in reelection, the expanded cities’ politicians will be forced to work together to solve problems. For example, the inner-city representative will have to be more mindful of taxes and the exurban representative will have to recognize that social workers or mental health professionals, in addition to police, might be a necessary part of public safety spending. Citizens would then learn to collaborate across differences—since the mergers would bring together a wider range of types of citizens to one governing body—then apply these skills to national problems. The wider range of people together under each expanded local government would much more closely approximate the national mix of viewpoints. When this group addresses local problems, they will have no choice, if they want to be reelected, but to collaborate on improving their city.

This process would have many ancillary benefits, including better planning and more efficient government operations. For example, intra-city transportation can result in new economies of scale that free up funds for other priorities. But more importantly, merging populations and viewpoints could force the kind of pragmatic problem-solving that will ultimately fortify our democracy.

There are many precedents for metropolitan mergers. Following the examples of Nashville, Tennessee in 1963 and Jacksonville, Florida in 1968, one of the early mergers of the modern era was Indianapolis’s “Unigov” in 1970. The start of the city’s renaissance over the next couple of decades, during a period in which many of its regional peers were viewed as rust-belt failures, is often locally dated to the moment of regional unification. Yet even in one of the birthplaces of the modern unification movement, the city has long since outgrown its expanded borders and now faces the same issues as many other cities across the country. Much of the region’s Republican-leaning population has moved into the surrounding counties. In Hamilton County to the north, for example, thirteen out of fifteen county elected officials are Republican. In nearby Hendricks County, ten out of eleven are Republican. In contrast, all Indianapolis city-wide seats and nineteen out of twenty-five council seats are held by Democrats. If Indianapolis were to merge with its surrounding counties, bringing together city and suburbs in a new greater Indianapolis, there would be much less dominance in the new larger government by either party. Thus there would need to be more discourse, negotiation, and compromise across the region if local politicians wanted to get anything done, because the governments would no longer be solely Democrats talking to Democrats in the city center and Republicans talking to Republicans in the suburbs. 

Since these cities set the merging example fifty years ago, many cities have tried to merge their regions into one jurisdiction. Some, like Louisville in 2003, succeeded. Others, such as St. Louis in 2013, have failed. Such projects fail because suburbanites tend to seek separation rather than unification, aiming to insulate themselves from what they perceive as uniquely urban violence and dysfunction. 

When politicians show up in Washington and don’t know how to work together, they fail to solve problems.


Rethinking Our Local Models

When politicians show up in Washington and don’t know how to work together, they fail to solve problems. For example, from the center-left environmental point of view, it is too difficult to build new transmission lines necessary to bring more clean energy sources, such as wind and solar, to market. At the same time, the center-right would like to see new, cleaner-than-the-status-quo gas pipelines built, including to places like New England, where the alternative is often shipped-in, foreign liquefied natural gas or fuel oil. National leaders more practiced at developing solutions satisfactory for all could come up with a way to negotiate a deal that would enable the construction of both types of infrastructure. Such a solution would create construction jobs, lower energy costs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With politicians used to getting their way, one side refuses to countenance any effort that facilitates the use of fossil fuels and the other is hostile to what it sees as an excessively subsidized sector. By contrast, local officials in a politically heterogeneous community who refuse to compromise (and therefore accomplish nothing) will probably fail to be reelected. At the local level, citizens tend to reward practical, tangible results over ideological purity from their elected officials.

Currently, under the status quo, when liberals live in one town and conservatives live in another, conservative voices rarely have an opportunity to contribute to solutions for problems that are regional and national, but which are often viewed as particular to inner cities, such as addiction and homelessness. This also tends to result in more extreme policy-making as opposed to more gradual, incremental changes. 

For example, in the Summer of 2020, local politicians’ support for center city police departments declined after several high-profile incidents involving alleged police violence. Whether or not calls to slash police budgets were successful, many politicians stated that they did support cutting budgets, implicitly and sometimes explicitly blaming the police for social ills. Whether caused by this response or not, in the next couple of years, many cities saw higher rates of crime. For example, the murder rate in Seattle reached a thirty-year high in 2023. A 2017 USA Today survey revealed that 72 percent of Republicans believed police to be “honest and trustworthy,” while only 48 percent of Democrats believed the same. 

In a merged metropolitan area, solving such problems would be the responsibility not only of representatives of poorer, inner-city neighborhoods, but also of wealthier, single-family-home-dominated suburbs. In fact, they would have to work together. Learning from these experiences would better equip local politicians for federal office. Compromise, collaboration, and meaningful change would prepare them for the practical and ideological battles awaiting them in Washington. 

Image by zhu difeng and licensed via Adobe Stock.