National politics gets all the attention, but many important decisions–from police reform to housing development to tackling inequality–are made by local governments. Which voices are heard in local decision-making? Jesse Rhodes finds that local elected officials are ideologically much closer to White residents in their communities than Black or Latino residents and more conservative than the people they represent. Sarah Anzia finds that organized groups like police unions and local chambers of commerce influence local policy across the board. They both say that local policy choices follow the loudest voices of the repeat participators.

Guests: Jesse Rhodes, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Sarah Anzia, University of California, Berkeley 

Studies: Hometown InequalityLocal Interests


Matt Grossmann: This week on The Science of Politics, who are the loudest voices in local politics? For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.

Matt Grossmann: National politics gets all the attention, but many important decisions are made by local governments. Whose voice is heard in local decision-making? The answer matters, whether it comes to more housing, police reform, or tackling inequality.

Today, I look at the role of organized interest in unrepresentative local officials. Racial minorities are especially poorly represented compared to white conservatives, and public employee unions and business groups often get their way. I talked to Jesse Rhodes at the University of Massachusetts Amherst about his new book with Raymond La Raja, and Brian Schaffner, Hometown Inequality. They find that local government elected officials are ideologically much closer to white residents in their communities than blacks or Latinos, and more conservative than their residents.

I also talk to Sarah Anzia of the University of California, Berkeley about her book project in development on local interest groups. She finds that democratic cities and large local governments have more involved interests, but organized groups like police unions and local chambers of commerce influence local policy across the board.

Rhodes, La Raja, and Schaffner focused on citizens and elected officials, finding some large differences in representation, especially by race.

Jesse Rhodes: The main findings of our book were that there are really pretty profound racial inequalities and representation in local communities throughout the United States, that white residents of communities receive much more representation, both in terms of ideological representation on local councils, but also in terms of policy representation than do African-American residents or Latino residents in the same community.

We also found that there were some class inequalities in representation where more affluent residents received more ideological representation and policy representation. But the differences on the basis of class were not nearly as large as those on the basis of race. And so we conclude that racial inequality in representation and local government is really where the story is and is the big challenge to the quality of local democracy in the United States.

Matt Grossmann: Anzia is building on previous work on public sector union influence to show that interest groups matter in local politics.

Sarah Anzia: The book is an investigation of what interest groups do in local politics in the U.S. and how they can influence a variety of different local public policies. So just to put it concretely, it’s putting a spotlight on what is happening in the politics of city governments and why we get the policies we get and what interest groups have to do with that.

It’s also about how we need to devote much more attention to studying interest groups, and it sets out a framework for how we as research can best go about doing that. So what I propose in the book is a pretty big departure from the ways that interest groups have been researched in the past.

So the book develops ideas I’ve been thinking about for at least five years, probably 10 years or longer. My first book was on the timing of elections and how off-cycle elections, meaning those that are held on separate days from national elections can enhance the influence of interest groups. And a lot of my empirical work in that book focused on school districts and teacher unions, because there was actually some empirical research on interest groups in school board elections that I could rely on, work by Terry Moe and others. So there was some basis of knowledge to build on. And while I wanted to do more work in that book on cities, I discovered as part of that process that not much had been written about interest groups in municipal governments. So in a way, the stopping point for that book was the starting point for this one.

And also over the last several years, I’ve been doing a lot of research on public sector unions, mostly with Terry Moe. And we published an article back in 2015, pointing out that police unions and firefighter unions are well organized, highly active in municipal governments. And we showed that when they’re unionized and when they have collective bargaining, the result is greater spending on police officer and firefighter compensation, right? Especially in the form of fringe benefits. We’ve also written on the politics of public sector pensions and so on.

So my research on public sector unions and state local politics goes back a ways. And so somewhere along the way, back in late 2014 and early 2015, I started to sort of see and develop the broader implications of that work, and that was the origin of this book.

Matt Grossmann: They offer somewhat different takes on the big picture question of how much national political divides drive local politics. Rhodes finds some similarities with national ideological conflict and unequal representation.

Jesse Rhodes: Well, I think the conventional wisdom is that in local government, although there’s certainly conflict and often quite heated conflict, it has not historically been understood to be conflict that’s based in ideology, particularly left-right ideology like we see in national politics or in state politics. The local politics were typically understood to be different and much more focused on personality conflicts or differences about a particular issue, but not kind of pervasive conflict and conflict that is grounded in the same racial and class divides that we see in national and state politics.

Now, it’s important that although there have been a lot of studies of representation in local politics, there haven’t yet been, until our book, opportunities to really look at inequalities in the quality of representation received by different groups within communities. And the reason for that is there just hasn’t been the data available to study racial or class inequalities and representation.

Usually when people study inequality and representation, they rely on surveys and they look at differences in the preferences or the attitudes of different groups, and they try to match up the preferences of different groups to express preferences of elected officials or the ideology of local policy, whether they’re more progressive policies or conservative policies. But the challenge of that approach is that usually when you use surveys, you don’t have anywhere near the number of participants in the survey that you would need in order to study inequalities and representation in local government. And that’s why there’s been a very large amount of research on class inequalities and representation or racial inequalities and representation in national politics and also some in state politics.

But for the most part, it hasn’t, until our book, been possible to look at inequalities and representation on the basis of race or class at the local level. And that’s because we use a different set of data to study inequalities and representation in local politics. Instead of using surveys of attitudes, we use big data that includes models of the preferences of different groups within communities to look at the way that the preferences of these different groups match up with the preferences of their local elected officials. And also with the content of local government policy.

Matt Grossmann: But Anzia says there are real differences between national and local politics.

Sarah Anzia: I think there’s a tendency to take what we know and understand and our frameworks and the dominant paradigm from our study of national politics, and just try to see if it fits in local politics, right? We sort of take what we know and we test it out in the local case. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing to do. I myself have done that and for certain projects. But in this case, we really need to be attentive to what’s different about local politics. And the fact that interest groups haven’t really been studied and explored and how they might influence local policies.

So let’s just step back for a minute and talk about the literature on political representation, for example. It’s mostly about voters or certain types of voters, right? You measure public opinion on something and then you look at policies, and if those policies line up with public opinion, then it’s a sign of the government being responsive, right? That’s a fine thing to do, but why would the study of responsiveness only look at the responsiveness of policy to one set of political actors? What about interest groups?

There are some great studies that do attempt to consider interest groups, but the focus is still mainly on public opinion, and most of them don’t look at interest groups at all. And that’s true in local politics research too, all right? So this is the point I’m getting to. There’s been so much focus in local politics research these days on the role of partisanship and ideology and class. And some of this has come from data and measurement advances that are really pushed local politics research into the spotlight where I think it deserves to be.

For example, there’s a great study by Chris Tausanovitch and Chris Warshaw, and they find that there’s a strong relationship between the ideology of city residents and total city spending. So you have more liberal residents, you have more city spending. So it’s a fascinating finding. Now, we have to be careful though, about what conclusions we draw from that. The suggestion that often comes out is that, well, this means that city governments are being responsive to their citizens and ideology matters, that ideologies formed and national politics matter for local politics.

Now, here is precisely the place where I think, okay, this is exactly what we were missing by not studying and looking at interest groups and thinking about local policies, because there are interest groups that also have a strong interest in more city spending. They don’t often face much organized opposition to those interests. And we can’t just ignore them and say policies are responsive to voters. The whole way we think about local politics and political representation needs to be broadened so that it’s about specific policies and about interest groups.

Matt Grossmann: They agree that local politics shows unequal influence. Rhodes says they mostly found big gaps in racial representation.

Jesse Rhodes: We find that whites have very distinctive preferences and much more conservative preferences than do either Latinos or African-Americans, especially African-Americans. There’s a big gap in between what white residents of communities want and what African-American residents of communities want. And Latinos are typically somewhere in the middle, but are on average, closer to the preferences of African-Americans. Latino is more liberal than the preferences of whites. And so what these different groups want are different.

Second, whites are much more likely to turn out in local elections than are either African-Americans or Latinos. And that’s important because local elected officials have the strongest incentives to respond to people who turn out in local elections. And because of the turnout gap, the more conservative preferences of white residents are more likely to be expressed in local government politics.

Finally, we find that local elected officials are disproportionately likely to be white. They’re disproportionately likely to be affluent, and they’re even more conservative than our white residents in general, although they’re pretty closely aligned with the preferences of white voters in local elections. And so there’s a kind of perfect storm of factors that tend to produce both policymakers who are relatively closely aligned with the preferences of whites and actual policy outputs that are closely aligned with the preferences of whites.

Matt Grossmann: They also found conservatives are overrepresented, partially due to their greater participation.

Jesse Rhodes: Because of the bias in the nature of the electorate in local elections, that it tends to be people who are whiter, more affluent and more conservative, there’s going to be a tendency for there to be more conservative elected officials. After all, whoever turns out is going to have much greater influence on the ideologies and the preferences of elected officials than are those who do not turn out.

It’s important to keep in mind that because of the nature of local elections, there’s an especially strong likelihood that local elections are going to produce elected officials who tend to be closely aligned with more advantaged members of the community. Local elections are typically very low turnout affairs. Often, less than 20% of the eligible electorate turns out. Sometimes it’s much less than 20% in some communities. It’s 5%, 6%, 7%. Additionally, the reason for this low turnout situation is the way that local elections are structured. In many, if not most communities around the United States, local elections are not scheduled at the same time as are much more high profile and more interesting state or federal contests. And so these so-called off-cycle elections tend to exacerbate the tendency towards low turnout and the tendency of the turnout to be biased towards already advantaged members of the community.

Matt Grossmann: Some of Anzia’s findings match up to the local policy being more conservative than voters, but they’re not all on the same ideological spectrum.

Sarah Anzia: As I’ve presented some of the working chapters of my book at conferences over the last few years, many political scientists have said, “Gosh. Wow. It seems like the interest groups active in local politics are really conservative. Chambers of commerce, developers, police unions. These are conservative groups.” So maybe if you wanted to try to take all of this and force it onto the liberal conservative dimension, you might say, “Yeah, this is a contributor. Interest group influence in local politics is conservative.” Okay. I don’t think it’s safe to boil down all of local politics to the liberal conservative dimension that we’re all accustomed to seeing.

If chambers of commerce, for example, are associated with both tax abatement and easier development of housing, well, okay, is that conservative? Is that liberal? I don’t know. And what about police unions? In today’s politics, it’s tempting to say, “Well, they’re conservative.” Look, but they’re unions and they are linked to higher spending in cities. So, is that conservative? I just think that for local politics, we need to be willing to also take off the partisan and ideological glasses. It’s not that simple. Not all of it’s that simple. It’s still intensely political. I’m not saying it’s not political, it’s intensely political, but not always in the way political scientists are used to thinking about politics in the United States.

Matt Grossmann: Anzia’s findings match those of long-running studies of power and inequality in cities, but she does see some changes.

Sarah Anzia: We haven’t learned that much, because the community power debate sort of killed the study of interest groups. There are a number of reasons why people stopped studying interest groups. It’s really difficult to do. There are tons of endogeneity problems, there aren’t any great data, and of course, no one ever resolved the second face of power issue. Without getting into all of that, I tried to address some of the main problems that arose through the community power debates. But it’s very similar to that, as you say, that those with the biggest stake are most active. They’re focused on different things. They don’t always have a lot of competition. It’s not just about the voters. It’s not just about being responsive to city residents.

Now, there’s something big that has changed since the 1960s, which is the unionization of government employees. In 1960, there was almost no collective bargaining in the public sector. Private sector unionization was, of course, much higher, but public sector unionization was practically nonexistent. It was the passage of collective bargaining laws in the States during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that fueled the unionization of government employees. So the interest group environment today is very different from that of 1960, but the central ideas of the book are similar to those of Robert Dahl in Who Governs?, for example.

Matt Grossmann: Rhodes looks at class inequality, the original focus of these local power debates, but finds less there. The poor don’t have attitudes that are that different than the rich, so they don’t lose out as often.

Jesse Rhodes: The racial differences in preferences among residents within the community are typically much greater than are the class-based differences in preferences, and so one of the really important themes in our book is the theme of what political scientists call coincidental representation. This is the idea that even if elected officials are not directly seeking out and responding to and actuating the preferences of a particular group, that group will still receive a substantial amount of representation if that group’s preferences are close to the preferences of an advantaged group that elected officials are seeking to represent.

And so this is really important in the context of understanding inequalities and representation in local government, because, as we find in the book, the preferences of affluent middle class and less affluent, or the poor, within communities, there’s much more overlap between those groups than there are between whites, African Americans and Latinos. And so even though there are class biases in turnout, class biases in participation that tend to favor more economically advantaged members of communities, less advantaged members of those communities, nonetheless, are able to receive a respectable amount of representation because their preferences overlap to a much greater degree with those of more affluent residents.

Matt Grossmann: But Anzia worries that research tracking voters and elected officials misses the influence of interest groups on a lot of political outcomes.

Sarah Anzia: There’s this idea, going back to Paul Peterson’s book City Limits… which, by the way, I draw on heavily… that interest groups won’t be all that active in city politics, because cities are constrained in the policies they can pursue. They’re constantly having to worry about building and maintaining the tax base. So they focus on economic development and can’t really pursue the kinds of policies, like redistribution, that might draw in interest groups, or at least that’s the crux of the argument.

Now, most modern local politics research by political scientists, and there’s a lot of great stuff out there, it ignores interest groups entirely. So the good news is that the study of local government has really taken off in political science in the last decade, but it’s almost entirely about, like I said, voters and residents and candidates and elected officials. It’s as if groups and organizations don’t exist. Maybe that would be justified if there were no interest groups active in local politics, but that’s just not the case.

Matt Grossmann: It’s harder to study who these interest groups represent, but there are quite a few.

Sarah Anzia: When you’re studying interest groups, it’s not like studying individuals, because with individuals, for example, some turn out, some respond to surveys. So if you’re looking at the representativeness of turnout or of your survey respondents, you can compare the people in the numerator to the people in the denominator. You can’t do that for interest groups. There isn’t some underlying population of groups for the denominator, there just isn’t. And, this is important, we don’t even really have data, good information on what residents and citizens want from their local governments, especially for many of the policies that interest groups want.

I’ll just give you an example. Some of the things that interest groups want, like should a city go ahead with some business tax incentive, there are no public opinion polls on that. Most city residents probably don’t even know about the issue, let alone there being public opinion data on the question, in a typical case. So there are a lot of policy decisions that seem sort of in the weeds, but they’re really important, but not on most people’s radar, but they can definitely be on interest groups’ radar. So, that’s an important point.

Now, your first question, “What do interest groups’ communities look like?” I can definitely tell you about that. First of all, larger municipal governments that do more, meaning they have more policy-making functions, they have more political activity of interest groups than smaller places that do less. So in smaller cities and towns, say a place of 10,000 people, there aren’t that many interest groups. But once you start to grow the population, so look at cities of 50,000 people, in big cities there are usually active interest groups and often a lot of them.

The second thing I found is that, as a general rule, you tend to see the same cast of characters showing up in city politics. On average, the most politically active interest groups in American cities are local chambers of commerce, real estate developers, neighborhood associations, police unions, and firefighter unions. Those are what you can think of as the big five. Now, there are certainly other groups active in local politics, but those are the most active ones, consistently across the United States.

Matt Grossmann: She finds competition among groups, but not necessarily aligned in partisan terms.

Sarah Anzia: If you focus on cities whose residents sort of lean more democratic, they tend to have more interest groups. That’s because certain types of groups are more likely to be found in democratic places: all of the labor unions, public sector and private sector, environmental groups, groups representing racial and ethnic minorities. Whereas, other types of groups are everywhere. Business groups are found everywhere, no matter the partisan leanings of city residents. Now, this question of whether interest group activity is competitive and how that varies from place to place, there’s some nuance to the answer there. In short, the answer is yes, but it’s probably not what many people are expecting.

It would be tempting to hear that some of the most active groups are labor groups and business groups, and draw the wrong conclusion, because we’re conditioned to think that labor unions are aligned with the Democratic Party… with public safety being a little different, they align with both… and businesses are Republicans, and that these must be sides clashing with each other in local politics, just like they tend to do in national politics. That’s not the best way of thinking about it, not in local politics. Cities are not the federal government. They handle different issues, mostly. The politics is different and the interest group alignments and conflicts are different.

More often than not, chambers of commerce and developers are not fighting public sector unions or the building trades unions. They either care about different issues or they aren’t even on opposite sides. So it’s not the case that you get more groups, that means that they’re counteracting the influence of one another. Sometimes, that’s the case. Developers trying to get their projects built, yes, they are getting pushback from residents and maybe environmental groups and neighborhood associations sometimes. But chambers of commerce are not pushing back against police unions or firefighter unions in a typical city. That’s not typically how it works, not in local government at least.

Matt Grossmann: Rhode says that there are a lot of reasons to expect who gets elected to matter, but interest groups might be left out of the story.

Jesse Rhodes: There really are stark differences between what white residents want and what African American and Hispanic residents want within the same community, and that because there are pretty significant racial biases favoring whites, and who turns out for elections, and also significant biases in the demographic character of who’s elected to local office, we think that there are good electoral reasons to think that elections and who turns out and who gets elected plays an important part in the story in inequalities in representation.

That being said, I take the point that, in our work, we’re not able to directly measure the influence of intermediary groups, interest groups, and social movements, and I actually think that this is an area for really important future research. We need to know more about how better situated, more advantaged groups organize at the local level and how less advantaged groups organize, and to be able to assess differences in the quality and the strength of organizing across racial and class lines and how that might affect representation and inequities in representation at the local level. I actually think this is an area that is extremely promising.

I haven’t yet run across good data that looks at how well or poorly, or how much strength or weakness different racial and class groups have in terms of their organizing and their [inaudible 00:26:16] lobby at the local level. And I think that’s definitely somewhere where research needs to go next.

Matt Grossmann: Their ideological measure matches all kinds of other data, including measures of local policy. So they’re confident they’re capturing some important outcomes.

Jesse Rhodes: The measure of ideology that we use in the book is proprietary. We don’t know exactly what goes into it. We do know that the model is based on survey data that has been brought into the Catalyst database, and then Catalyst uses its available variables to model survey responses to policy issues, general measures of ideology and so forth. However, in the book in another work, Brian and Ray and I have gone to great lengths to validate the Catalyst measure of ideology. So for example, we’ve merged in data that measures the ideology of hundreds of state legislators. That measure of ideology is based on their roll call voting within state legislatures. And we found that the Catalyst measure of ideology correlates very highly with the measure that’s derived from roll call votes. We also aggregated the measures of ideology that Catalyst generates at the community level, and we compared those with ideology scores that were generated by Christopher Warshaw and Chris Tausanovitch based on survey data aggregated at the community level.

And again, we found that the Catalyst measure of ideology at the community level correlates very highly with the Warshaw and Tausanovitch measures. And so that gave us some confidence that the Catalyst ideology measure is a reasonable measure of ideology and it can be used meaningfully to study representation and inequality and representation in local politics. Now, of course, some might ask the question, well, if the Catalyst measure of ideology is based on survey data, is there the possibility that that measure is based primarily on a national political issues and doesn’t relate in meaningful ways to local political issues, which may not map on to ideology in the same way that national issues do. And so one thing that we did in the book to try to address that concern was to look at the relationship between the Catalyst measure of ideology at the community level and what we call the ideology of local policy or local policy liberalism.

So in the book, we constructed a measure of local policy liberalism that was based on the state’s adoption or non-adoption of a range of policies that are designed to address or ameliorate inequality in local politics. And if the Catalyst measure of ideology reasonably measures ideology at the local level, we would expect it to be correlated in a meaningful way with the measure of local policy ideology that we constructed from communities adoption of policies to ameliorate inequality. And it does. Actually, it correlates pretty highly. And so, again, that gave us reason to think that the measure of ideology that we use in the book is a meaningful measure of ideology at the local level.

Matt Grossmann: Anzia is looking at some hot local political issues, finding interest group influence. For example, police unions might be inhibiting reform with some similarities to the role of teacher’s unions.

Sarah Anzia: Again, I confirm that in places where police unions are more active in city politics, those cities spend more on police salaries and are more likely to offer police officers certain types of extra pay, like shift differential pay. They’re less likely to have any kind of merit or performance pay for police officers, and they spend more on police protection overall and those expenditures make up a larger share of city budgets. And on top of that, at least as of 2016, which is the year for which I could get data, cities that have more politically active police unions were less likely to have deployed body worn cameras. So is this similar or different from teacher unions? Okay. This is a good thing to think about. Most of the work on public sector unions has focused on teacher unions. The way we understand public sector unions is based heavily on research on teacher unions and public education because issues in public education have been salient for a long time.

There’s been a reform movement going on for a long time. And also far and away, the largest category of public sector employees in this country is teachers. So now look, there are some fundamental differences between the job of being a teacher and the job of being a police officer, and obviously, there are big cultural differences between public schools and city police departments. And a lot of observers nowadays are quick to draw distinctions between the two, right? And some distinction is definitely warranted, but the fundamentals of what public sector unions do, those are the same. Union leaders are there to represent the interests of their members. They are elected to do that. They go to the bargaining table and get active in politics to push for better compensation when it comes to teachers, right? Better working conditions for teachers, higher salaries, better benefits, more teachers, oppose merit pay, support the uniform salary schedule.

And also, this is something that doesn’t get enough attention. What teacher unions are also bargaining over is not just about employment and money, they’re bargaining over work rules, how teachers can and cannot be evaluated, how many minutes of instruction there are, and the process by which teachers can be disciplined, right? So the job of the union is to protect teachers’ interest and they negotiate over these things. This is the same for police. The job of the police union is to protect officers and fight for members’ interests, to fight for rules that limit how officers can be disciplined, for example. They’re doing the same thing, that’s what unions do. And it’s really hard to see why they would deviate from that, given that that’s how unions operate.

Matt Grossmann: And interest groups matter for local development politics as well.

Sarah Anzia: There’s terrific research on local housing politics. So far, it’s focused on the role of residents and voters and homeowners. And it hasn’t looked at the potential for interest groups to shape how and how much new housing gets built. So I look at a variety of local outcomes like the duration of the review process for the development of new housing units. And consistent with what other people have shown, I find that in places where citizen opposition to housing is greater and in places with more homeowners, those review times are longer. But also in cities where Chamber of Commerce are more politically active, the typical review period is shorter, right? So an active business community typically is linked to an easier shorter process for housing development. And I also look at how many housing units of different types are permanent in different cities. Again, places with more homeowners tend to permit less multifamily housing, but in places where the developers are really active and engaged, cities permit more new housing units, both for single family and multifamily housing.

Sarah Anzia: So the takeaway is that when it comes to rules and processes governing housing development, sort of more business involvement, it actually aids in developing more housing, right? It speeds up the process and more housing gets built. And I think that for those who think cities need to build more housing and an easier process for building housing, this is a case in which some of the most active interest groups are pushing for that. And it’s sort of uncomfortably the voters, public participation that is an opposition and often effective opposition.

Matt Grossmann: Local interests also drive the explosion in business tax incentives.

Sarah Anzia: In exploring the politics of business tax expenditures and why cities and even states and countries offer a business tax incentives to relocate or stay in a community, Jensen and Moleski focus on the logic of voters and politicians, which is a good starting point in my analysis, I bring in the role of interest groups. So in particular, what do business groups have to do with the likelihood that a city is going to use business tax expenditures? You think that they’d have some role because Chambers of Commerce want cities to be places that are friendly to business and I find that they do play a role. So in cities where Chambers of Commerce are more politically active, they rely more heavily on business tax incentives, and they also lose more revenue to tax abatement than in cities where Chambers of Commerce are less politically involved. So again, if you just follow the interests, you can really begin to see the impacts of interests groups on local public policies that matter.

Matt Grossmann: These key areas show the influence of groups, but they also show policies unresponsive to the poor and minorities. [inaudible 00:35:28] and Loracha found that local institutions and reform don’t seem to matter much for these big differences in representation.

Jesse Rhodes: The character of local electoral institutions don’t really seem to have much of an effect in moderating the degree of inequality of representation in local government. I mean, this really was counterintuitive and surprising to us. We actually went into this book assuming that local institutions would play a big role. We didn’t find that and that forced us to kind of reevaluate the way that we were going to go about doing our research and the kinds of conclusions we would draw. And so in the book, we studied a number of different local institutions, whether the local governments are selected bipartisan or nonpartisan elections, whether they are a mayoral or a managerial system, whether they have on your off year elections, whether any of these variations in local elections and the structure of local government affect the degree of inequality and representation that we found in the book.

And we really found limited effects. It is true that having elections on cycle with federal elections did reduce inequality and representation on the basis of race and class. However, those effects were actually very small compared with other factors such as the degree of overlap between the preferences of less advantaged racial or class groups, and more advantaged racial and class groups on one hand or the degree of racial and economic inequality within communities. And one of the striking and unexpected takeaways from the book is that social factors like racial and economic inequality within communities and the degree of overlap of preferences between different groups within communities, those seem to matter a lot more than institutional factors for determining how much inequality and representation there is.

Matt Grossmann: But they did find that small towns have much greater inequalities in representation than big cities.

Jesse Rhodes: We were not constrained by the size of the community. With Catalysts, we have essentially population data. Our data cover more than 240 million adults in communities throughout the United States. And the sample that we looked at in our study included everything from cities with over a million residents to very small towns with just a few hundred residents. And so we were able to look at inequality in representation on the basis of race and class in large, medium and small communities. And something that was unexpected, but really interesting that came out of the research was that we found that racial inequalities and representation, and to a lesser extent, class inequalities and representation were much greater in small and rural communities than they were in larger urban communities. And we looked at a range of potential explanations for why this might be the case and looking at or talking about racial inequalities in representation, what we found was that the reason why there’s greater racial inequality and representation inequality and representation in small communities compared to large cities was that there are much greater gaps between the preferences of whites and the preferences of non-whites, particularly African Americans in small towns than there are in larger communities. In larger communities, whites tend to be much more liberal than they are in small towns. Interestingly, if we’re looking at racial inequality and representation between whites and African Americans, African American, their preferences are very similar in large communities and medium size cities and in small towns. But the preferences of whites differ a lot, depending on the size of the community.

In small towns, they’re very conservative. In larger suburbs and cities, the preferences of whites are considerably more liberal. And so what that means is that as you move from small towns to large cities, the overlap between the preferences of whites and the preferences of African Americans increases drastically. In larger communities, they’re much more similar than they are in small towns. And so due to the logic of coincidental representation, African Americans are much better positioned to receive greater equality and representation in large communities than they are in small towns.

Matt Grossmann: Anzia finds that small towns lack as many interest groups, which may be part of the story.

Sarah Anzia: The smaller places do look quite different from the larger places, right? I mean the one finding of note that is connected to some of what they’re discussing is that in smaller cities and towns, there aren’t a lot of interest groups. And the ones that stand out in the smaller places are chambers of commerce, right? So the local chamber of commerce is sort of this fixture, an important group or organization in just about every city and every municipal government. And it’s really when you start to get to larger places that you see a broader array of groups getting involved. So I think that… A lot of local politics research focuses on bigger places, and yet as Eric Oliver’s research has shown, most people live in these smaller places, so we also want to pay attention to what’s happening in the smaller cities. So I think there are absolutely connections and how all this lines up to inequality, right? So how interest group involvement and their influence either generates or exacerbates inequality. This is a really important question.

Matt Grossmann: Rhodes says many of their findings could match a national story rather than be specific to local government. That’s what they’re checking next.

Jesse Rhodes: Due to the methods that we use in the book and the research design, we are not able to determine whether what we are showing is a distinctive local government phenomenon, or is on par with, or is just part of a broader story about inequality and representation in general. And actually that’s something that Brian and Ray and I are working on. We’re actually in the early stages of a project where we want to use our sample of communities and look at the representatives who represent those communities at the local level, at the state level, and at the national level, and using catalyst data to measure the ideologies of local elected officials, state elected officials, and members of Congress, all on the same scale to assess whether the inequalities and representation are similar or different at different levels of government.

And so I think you are right that our book is not able to definitively determine whether local politics are distinctive in their unrepresentativeness, but I think the book provides and the methods in the book provide a foundation for getting at that question. And that’s something that we were planning on doing and think is the natural next step in this research.

Matt Grossmann: Anzia is looking mainly at interest group policy goals, and isn’t sure how it maps onto broader ideological competition.

Sarah Anzia: I’m focused on policies and interest groups’ interest in them. And I try to cover a lot of ground, looking at several different policies in order to explore how group activity does and does not matter for them, right? So the focus is on interest groups and their influence. And I don’t, deliberately, I don’t attempt an assessment of how all this shakes out for different groups of citizens, right? It’s just beyond the scope of the book, and to be frank, most of the policies I look at, the effects on different communities can be debated. So I’ll just give you an example from some of my other work that’s not in the book. So take city and county spending on public employee pensions, I have a working paper where I show that in most places, city and county spending on public employee pensions has risen over the last 10 to 15 years, in some places by a lot.

So what do we make of that? Who is it good for? People hear this, and they immediately want to put it in the left box or in the right box. But the truth is it probably doesn’t belong in either. On the one hand, you increase spending, that increased spending on public employee pensions is paying for the benefits of public employees. So you’d say, “Well, maybe that’s good for the left.” But then what I find is that cities and counties are responding to rising pension costs, not by increasing revenue, but by cutting back on local government employment. So shrinking local government, that is not necessarily good for the left, and it’s not clear who benefits from that. So the bigger picture is that local governments are responsible for providing these important goods and services that affect the day-to-day lives of everyone living in the U.S. And if it becomes harder for local governments to carry out these functions, everybody’s impacted, especially those most dependent on public provision of those goods and services.

Matt Grossmann: They’ve all see possibilities for change. Rhodes is waiting to see if protest movements can increase representation, but says that’ll be hard to achieve.

Jesse Rhodes: The Black Lives Matter protests that we saw over the summer, and that are still continuing, are arguably the broadest scale protests with the highest degree of participation that we’ve ever seen in this country’s history. And really importantly, these protests are not limited to larger cities and college towns. They actually are permeating the United States, including in suburban and rural communities in conservative states as well. And so I think a really fascinating question is whether the energy in this movement is going to continue. And if so, how it’s going to affect local politics going forward. One of the very sobering conclusions of our book is that the go-to institutional reforms that often appeal to activists and interest groups, right? So changing the structures of local government, changing the ways that elections are held, changing the ways that officials are selected into office. That that’s not really where the action appears to be in terms of determining the degree of inequality and representation.

What we’re finding is what really matters is the extent to which more advantaged members of communities understand and agree with and overlap with the less advantaged members of their communities, and also whether those communities are characterized by more or less inequality. And because issues of racial and economic inequality and of a kind of political indifference to the plight of less advantaged members of communities have become very salient issues, I think it’s going to be very fascinating to see whether these movements are going to have a lasting impact on the way that more advantaged members of communities think about local politics. I mean, the early returns suggest that the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter has had a significant impact on the way that more advantaged Americans, whites in particular, think about politics, how they think about racial issues, how they think about inequality. And if that continues, if that change in whites’ understanding of racial and economic inequality and systemic racism sticks, if it becomes institutionalized, then that could become a basis for more profound and systemic changes in local government.

Matt Grossmann: Anzia agrees that policing policy might be changing, but says it can’t be momentary mobilization. The groups they’re up against are in it for long haul, even when attention dies down.

Sarah Anzia: First of all, this is a changing environment. One thing that is changing rapidly is that there’s now a greater awareness of the racism and misconduct, for example, that’s been allowed to exist in police departments for goodness knows how long. This has been going on for a long time, and in recent years because of technology and the horrors of what this looks like for people and communities of color, it’s been put on full display for everyone to see. And thanks to the growing social movements and the mobilization of grassroots groups, we are seeing change in the dynamics of local politics, right? And so I collected data on interest group activity in 2015 and 2016, and you can start to see the role of groups representing racial and ethnic minorities in the data I have, but those were still early days, right? So I think this is a changing environment.

Sarah Anzia: Now, I think that there’s also, and this is sort of the depressing take, but the realistic take, that there’s a thing about interest in politics that we can’t ignore and forget here, that there’s a tendency for issues to flare up and then quiet down, right? And public attention expands, and then it contracts accordingly. But the regular players, right? The interest groups with a big stake in what cities do, they do not stop paying attention. They’re always there. They’re trying to exert influence even when it looks like nothing is happening. So I think we need to keep that in mind when we think about the long term of what city politics is going to look like.

Matt Grossmann: And a lot of influence happens behind the scenes when the public is paying less attention.

Sarah Anzia: I think it does paint a picture of the powers that be, who’s going to be there. And I think what it shows clearly is that we have this tendency to think about and to study power and influence by looking at conflict and looking at events and where there’s news coverage. And actually a lot of the power is exercised when it looks like there’s nothing happening, right? And the day-to-day stuff, because those aren’t the kinds of things that get people excited, that get people to participate in local politics, but the groups that have a big stake in what’s being decided will absolutely be there, right?

So it speaks to the necessity of being present at those planning commission meetings, for example, right? In order to really make a dent and really have an impact on public policy. And look, there’s the reality here though, that certain stages of policymaking the public is not able to be involved, right? So you can’t go in most places to watch what happens in collective bargaining, right? That’s not something people have access to. So I think that there are lessons here and that it helps to make plain all of the quieter stages of policymaking that result in the policies we ultimately live by.

Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossman. Please review our recent episodes at or anywhere you find your podcasts. Thanks to Jesse Rhodes and Sarah Anzia for joining me, please check out Hometown Inequality, and then listen in next time.