Bryan Caplan  

What's Wrong With Urban Politics?

Alternative History... The Economic Outlook...
David Schleicher continues to turn his powerful intellect to the under-studied subject of urban political economy.  Lack of information is always a problem in democracy, but...

...voters in national elections are provided with a coping mechanism, a bit of publicly provided information, given to them directly at the moment of voting, the party label on the ballot. As Morris Fiorina argued, voters develop "running tallies" about the parties, using retrospectice evaluations of how life has been under one party or another. That is, they gather over time about the qualities, successes and failures of each of the political parties to develop a scoresheet or tally that will provide them with guidance about how to vote in the future...


Voters in local elections -- at least those that use partisan elections -- are given information too, but it is of a lower quality. If I am right, the party heuristic provides only very weak information at the local level. As a result, big city voters are left largely adrift without the tools to provide much meaningful input in local elections. Voters use party labels almost exclusively, even though they carry little information, because they don't have any other information. Given rational ignorance, this means that big city elections do not regularly generate representative outcomes.

But why don't voters just do retrospective voting?  If outcomes are better than normal, re-elect the incumbents.  If they're worse than normal, elect their opponents.  You don't need to make a big effort to gather this information.  Just stroll around your city, and ask yourself "Do I like what I see?"

I don't see any reason why this wouldn't work if tried.  The problem, I suspect, is that urban voters won't try it.  New Yorkers are Democrats, and even the terrors of the 70s and the revival of the 90s weren't enough to change that.

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The author at The Volokh Conspiracy in a related article titled Why Is There No Partisan Competition In City Council Elections? Some Proposals: writes:

    As I’ve been blogging all week and as I argued in this paper, the lack of partisan competition in city council elections, and big city local elections gen...

    [Tracked on December 12, 2008 1:49 PM]
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sourcreamus writes:

Retrospective voting would mean that voters would have to admit to being mistaken in the last election. It would also carry the stigma of having to be disloyal to one's party. Being politically ignorant and disloyal would be too big a blow to most people's self image.

John Thacker writes:
New Yorkers are Democrats, and even the terrors of the 70s and the revival of the 90s weren't enough to change that.

Arguably people are willing to change that for a few big, high-profile races like mayor, but aren't willing to take the time to actually learn about down-ticket races, or trust someone who claims to be a "Bloomberg Republican" or whatever.

El Presidnte writes:

Urban politics should have strong correlations with urban economics. Population density, agglomerations, lifestyles, and modes of production that accompany urban settings might influence voters to think of themselves as needing and wanting different policies to suit their environment. Their party bias is likely shorthand for their policy bias. Whether or not their preferred party implements their preferred policies, and whether the policies bring about preferred outcomes, is something else. I'm not sure to what extent voters can operationally identify these three distinct concepts (Party, Policy, Outcome) and conceptualize the interaction between them when they vote.

bp writes:

Is the answer the median urbanite?

Steve Sailer writes:

Is this such a complicated question?

Big cities in America tend to be dominated by Democratic politicians because the kind of people who live in big cities -- minorities, gays, and white people without children -- tend to be Democrats

Kurbla writes:

Democrats are leftists, Republicans are rightists, and for majority of people, that's it. Few people close to the center change their votes on the base of the qualities of the candidates, past results etc. but not many.

Max M writes:

Not sure if retrospective voting would work. If you have a fiscally conservative politician in office - its likely his impetus to lower spending and taxes would not have substantial positive effects in the short run (before the next election cycle). The big-spender would, on the other hand, tax the long-run in order to achieve some short-run local economic boost.

If that is the case, fiscal conservative politicians are doomed not by demographics, but by fairly short election cycles and even the nearsightedness of voters.

Richard writes:

Bryan's question assumes that voters in local elections even know which candidate is the incumbent. Except for maybe the mayor's race, that assumption probably is unrealistic.

Bo writes:

Following the points above, the population of a city isn't exactly the same over time. New York City has a reputation for being leftist: those who moved there as leftists in their 20s may consider moving away when they become more right-wing in their 40s. They'll just be replaced by other leftist 20-somethings, however.

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