Earlier this summer, Kansas Republicans attacked the state’s Democratic governor for purportedly not taking border security seriously, despite Topeka being slightly closer to the U.S. border with Canada than it is to the Mexican border. (I assume, of course, that that’s not the border of which they spoke.) Local and state-level politicians often take actions aimed more at garnering national attention than on the concerns of the citizens who put them in office — for example, by signing quixotic and arguably unconstitutional legislation intended to prevent social media companies from moderating as they see fit, as Florida demonstrated.
Like the N.F.L., their reason for doing so is deeply enmeshed in the media ecosystem — a thoroughly national media environment, to be specific, in which people often choose a network based on their political perspectives rather than where they live. As local news outlets decline in number, a few once-local newspapers have become national and international powerhouses (like The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times).
But the nationalization of politics is a problem for America and for Americans. In many major cities, fewer than 15 percent of Americans participate in local elections that determine how, when and why their tax dollars are spent. And now even those local elections are viewed in national terms, as the Kansas example demonstrates.
A candidate may have wanted to run for office to fix a bad road or get a corrupt politician out of office, but her win is often cast as either a victory for national Democrats or national Republicans, a rebuke to Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Every election has become the most important election, the election that turns the political tides or transforms the national stage.
But local elections aren’t supposed to transform the national stage. There’s no playoff run for state or local elections, no cross-country competitions, no need for every politician to make a national play. There is the basic idea underlying federalism: that some places are run differently than other places, and that’s fine. Decisions voted on by residents of Reno, Nevada, should be decisions that make sense to Nevadans, not decisions that have to make sense to me, because I don’t live there. The idea that every Democratic or Republican city or state would need to perform politics in the same way as every other city or state that shared their party in power is an idea that doesn’t make sense if you’ve ever been to places as different as Seattle or Columbus or Miami.
The nationalization of sports has enabled me to watch my favorite teams wherever I live or visit, and once left me infuriated on the steps of a shopping center on Ponsonby Road in Auckland about a game taking place across the world. But the nationalization of politics is enabling our worst group instincts. Politics isn’t sports. A “team victory” doesn’t exist. And while the Cincinnati Bengals may have to play games in Los Angeles, Houston or, God forbid, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati’s (and Ohio’s) politicians don’t. And they should stop trying.