Politics & Policy

American Politics Has Become Hyper-Nationalized

And the demise of local news is making the problem worse.

Last week, more than 200 Minnesota newspapers published nothing but “Imagine a Day without Local News” — or some variation — on their front pages. In organizing the campaign, the Minnesota Newspaper Association hoped to draw attention to the critical role local news publications play in keeping the public informed across the U.S.; as one participating paper’s editorial read, “Newspapers are the lifeblood of a community.”

Unfortunately, like most local news, the stunt didn’t get much national exposure.

The American news appetite more and more favors national media, and local outlets and publications can’t keep up. Consider that while digital and print circulation for all U.S. daily newspapers is quickly reaching a low of 35 million subscribers, the average monthly unique visitors to the top 50 U.S. papers’ websites has grown by 3.5 million in just two years, a gain that does not extend to their local counterparts. During the 2016 election, only 10 percent of those polled by Pew Research Center listed local outlets as their main source for election news. In fact, the only demographic in which over 25 percent of people read local news for election coverage was those aged 65 and over.

As voters stop reading local news, American politicians put more and more emphasis on national issues. This may be why candidates competing for a small group of voters on a national stage are changing their messaging to appeal to a much larger group, including voters in different districts or even different states. As a result, many politicians seem to represent their local electorate less and less. Since 2000, U.S. House candidates have received more and more money from outside donors with each passing election. This trend culminated with the special election earlier this year in Georgia’s sixth congressional district, in which less than 35 percent of Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff’s $23.6 million in donations came from within the state. Who, if elected, would Ossoff have represented? The people of Georgia’s sixth district, or wealthy donors from California and New York?

Congressmen are becoming pawns in a game of national party dominance, and it’s for good reason that Americans feel deeply out of touch with them. In April of this year, three months after inaugurating the candidate who promised to bridge the gap between Washington and the American people, 62 percent of Americans said they believe the Republican party is out of touch, while 67 percent said the same about the Democratic party. The Founders intended representatives to be representative of their electorate, but they no longer are. Instead of a government fighting for the intentions of the American people, we have a government fighting for the intentions of one of two parties.

In George Washington’s Farewell Address, the president warned Americans that political parties were “potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people.” Today, the problem isn’t the parties themselves, but what we have come to expect from them.

As politics becomes more like a competition between two teams, local news becomes more of a distraction.

Trump won by campaigning to erase Barack Obama’s legacy, and Trump’s successor will win by campaigning to erase Trump’s. Too often, voters feel a greater allegiance to party dominance than to addressing the issues themselves. Parties have begun pushing a national message on all electoral levels because people are more willing to sacrifice ideological positions if that sacrifice helps secure party dominance.

As politics becomes more like a competition between two teams, local news becomes more of a distraction. If constituents are more and more willing to overlook local issues, it follows that candidates will care about them less and less.

By leaving their front pages blank, the Minnesota Newspaper Association outlets gave us a look at what we aren’t seeing: namely, the local issues that matter to Americans most after you strip away party allegiance. Every morning, the Newseum in Washington, D.C., displays the day’s news as told by the front pages of daily papers across the country. On days of extraordinary national grief, there is uniformity. On most days, however, local headlines don’t look the same as the New York Times’.

Local papers and the Founders’ idea of congressmen function in a similar way: They keep the focus on issues relevant to their community. Local news offers a unique opportunity to reconnect politicians with constituents who say their representatives don’t represent them anymore. National news outlets have a lot to offer, but the big picture has never looked blurrier. Perhaps in local issues, we can find unifying clarity. And in a time of such national division, maybe that’s just what we need.

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