The term local may assume different meanings. As clarified by Nancy Ettlinger, it can indicate a neighborhood, town, or metropolitan area in the context of a region or nation; it can refer to a region in the context of a nation; and it can signify a nation or even a multinational region in the context of the global economy. Yet a common element exists among these: local politics expresses a political tension between autonomous multiple centers entitled with a certain degree of freedom and a legitimate power structure. Therefore, the concept is strongly tied to the dimension of centralization decentralization in a given territorial organization of power— two poles of a continuum along which lie many experiences of center-periphery relations.
The Concept of Local Politics
The formation of the modern state has represented a process of evolving centralization of power that has reduced the level of fragmentation of politics. Before its rise, power was divided territorially among empires, kingdoms, principalities, cities, and other self-governing entities, as well as functionally among the political, religious, and economic spheres. The slow and incisive process of state formation exerted normative and structural pressures to centralize cultural, political, administrative, and economic regulation capacities within societies. The principle of local liberty was never meant to be an obstacle to the national government’s entry into local affairs. Yet state building has been unable to conduct to a complete homogenization of political space. As Stein Rokkan has noted, the state is not distant from the notion of territory as a delicate combination of centers, the gathering places where the major decisions are made; peripheries, the areas controlled by these centers; and transactions among the centers and between the centers and the peripheries. Although the state provides a centered hierarchical system control over territory, this framework does not exclude the existence of local actors.
In the early twenty-first century, local politics remains an essential dimension of modern political life that represents an essential and integral part of existing nation-states. Locality is the main locus of citizen identification and participation, representing the institutional context closest to citizens. This is a position that partly echoes the assumption made by nineteenth and twentieth-century theorists on local self-government. For instance, John Stuart Mill wrote that the very object of having a local representation is so that those who have any interest in common that they do not share with the general body of their countrymen may manage that joint interest by themselves.
Such a position was based on two main arguments. First, local elected institutions are essential because they widen opportunities for political participation and educate citizens in the practice of politics and government; second, these local institutions oversee the affairs of the locality—based on local knowledge, interest, and expertise—so that local services are provided more efficiently and effectively than if they had to come solely from a distant central government. Based on this normative view and ideological premises, the spread of democratization has emphasized the values of autonomy and self-determination rather than external direction from a central government.
This valorization of local government has continued, as institutional reforms in many Western countries have allocated competencies and powers to the municipal and regional levels. Since the 1980s especially, nation-states that in the past showed a more centralized model of administration have been evolving toward a more decentralized governmental system. For instance, Belgium arrived at a federal arrangement in 1993; the process of French décentralisation was begun in 1982; and Spanish local autonomies were strengthened in the early 2000s even in the presence of constitutional dispositions written in 1978. Also, the Italian case can be considered as a paradigmatic example, as at the beginning of the 1990s the valorization of local politics occurred through the introduction of direct election of the head of local executives. The strengthening of majors and regional presidents has provided a more immediate identification of local political power by producing a shift from collective to individual control over the formulation of governmental programs and from collective to individual accountability.
These trends are not limited to the Old World, where reduction of the role of central governments is functional to the state members’ participation in the framework of the European Union. In the United States, the debate over federalism and the role of government is a prominent component of the political agenda. In this context there has been a revival of decentralization from the federal government to state and local governments. The influence and power of the national government grew continuously in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; in the early twenty-first century the pendulum began to swing back toward the states. Locality also has become a focal point of democratic political development in formerly communist countries in central and eastern Europe, central Asia, and Latin America. The establishment of local institutions in these countries has been seen as a way for democratic self-determination rather than top-down direction.
From Community Studies to Cross-National Research
Despite the centrality of this object of analysis, local politics has not been conceived as an autonomous field of research. Some classical contributions on power in the United States have been conducted at the micro scale by considering local politics as the mirror of the whole society, and case studies by political scholars such as Robert and Helen Lynd, Floyd Hunter, and Robert Dahl concentrated attention from the 1930s to the 1960s on specific towns to study of power structure within given communities as well as in the United States. For instance, in their pioneering work on Middletown, the Lynds considered such specific aspects of social life as employment, maintaining a home, raising children, leisure, religion, and community activity. Middletown—an invented name for Muncie, Indiana—was selected by the authors as representative of the United States because it was of manageable size, ethnically homogeneous, and fairly self-contained. Given that it was a “typical city,” it was argued that the findings of the Middletown study could be applied to other cities or to life in the United States in general with few reservations. Especially in the Lynds’ second volume, Middletown in Transition (1937), the theme of social change was faced, analyzing the dramatic effects of modernization that between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries produced a growing separation between the business and working classes, undermining community solidarity and weakening consensus. Although the authors explained how the methodological features of their works did not permit inferences from the single case of Middletown to be made for the entire country, the spirit of their work nonetheless suggested that despite some local and sectional peculiarities, Middletown was the country in miniature, almost the world in miniature.
Also in other studies, local politics was not considered an autonomous field of study, yet a mirror of national politics. For instance, following the Lynds, in 1953 Hunter in Community Power Structure studied the regional city of Atlanta, Georgia, and reflected on the consequence of the presence of a power elite on the American democracy. According to the author, only community studies permit scholars to observe power relations with precision and assess the strong connection between economic power and political influence. Hunter’s analysis of the demographics of Atlanta sustained the ruling elite hypothesis that asserts that within some specific political system there exists a group of people who to some degree exercise power or influence over other actors in the system. He looked for the “real” holders of power rather than those in obvious official positions, by using the so-called reputational method, which consists of finding a panel of citizens believed to be knowledgeable about the community and asking them to rank the names of the most influential people in the community.
Dahl’s 1961 Who Governs? focused on another American community, New Haven, Connecticut, but reached different conclusions from either the Lynds or Hunter. Dahl’s book became the basis for an influential theory of pluralism that stated that participation in the decision-making process was rather widespread, at least widespread enough to preclude the characterization of the political process in New Haven as controlled by a ruling elite of social and economic notables. Dahl’s student, Nelson W. Polsby, would subsequently pursue Dahl’s line of reason further. In 1963 he published Community Power and Political Theory, which extended Dahl’s conclusions on New Haven to other cities and even to the national level. That same year another scholar, Aaron Wildavsky, published an account of Oberlin University politics under the title Leadership in a Small Town (1964).
However, although Dahl himself encouraged comparison between more communities that show a different level of pluralism, rarely have community studies been dedicated to the comparison of communities within different national contexts. The study of local politics has been confined by national boundaries, and even the most theoretically oriented studies have not aimed at formulating generalizations beyond the limits of a single national system. It has only been since the late twentieth century that a body of political science literature has been dedicated to the comparative analysis of center-periphery regimes. For instance, Edward Page and Michael Goldsmith focused on a range of seven unitary states to demonstrate the differences between two center-periphery regimes: the northern countries regime, including Britain, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden; and the southern countries regime, including France, Italy, and Spain. Three aspects are regarded as particularly important in these regimes, namely the functions of local government, the discretion under which these are performed, and the access of local decision makers to central government. Countries in the first category show more functions and a higher degree of discretion in terms of regulation, controls and tutelages, and financial power and capacity. In particular, Britain represents the clearest example of dual politics, for its evident separation of central and local government, as opposed to France, which provides a sort of osmosis between central and local political powers. Italy and Spain subordinate local authorities to the upper level of government, despite institutional reforms to alter this equation. Starting from a cross-national comparison, some models of local governments also can be identified. Goldsmith has proposed a classification based on three ideal types that signal different political cultures: the patronage model, which aims at allocating resources to specific individuals or groups, especially developed in southern Europe; the economic-development model, the main function of which is fostering economic development, with a neoliberal approach to market regulation (Australia, Canada, and the United States are closest to this ideal type); and the welfare model (empirically corresponding to the local government systems of Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia), which is particularly engaged in satisfying social rights through the provision of public services to lower classes.
Such contributions help overcome one of the main limits of literature on local politics, which according to Jerzy Wiatr refer to within-nation rather than to between-nations comparisons, with the result being a narrowness of theoretical perspectives as well as of a tendency to present local political phenomena as if they were totally specific for every nation. Yet showing differences in terms of local politics—within or between nations—opens inevitably the debate on factors explaining such variance.
Explaining Variance in Local Politics
In the 1960s a new approach was defined that stressed a new role for political culture in deter mining political and economic performance. In some cases specific subcultures were investigated to explain the absence of political and economic growth. Edward C. Banfield’s study of the southern Italian regions, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1956), concentrated on a specific community, Montegrano. This was done to show an explicit contradiction between the social conditions of Montegrano’s inhabitants—poverty, ignorance, exploitation by the upper class, conservatism, distrust of the state and all authority, and fatalism—and the lack of initiatives of collective action, with significant absence of voluntary associations, scarce value attributed to political parties, an underdeveloped local press, and no lobbying activities directed toward improvement of community life. Citizens seemed to be directed only to maximize the material, short run advantage of the nuclear family and assume that all others would do the same.
In the early 1990s, Robert Putnam and his colleagues compared fifteen Italian regions from their inception in 1970, based on the assumption of different administrative capabilities. Through a composite index of performance comprised of twelve indicators of institutional success and failure that combined qualitative and qualitative methodological instruments from elite and population surveys to statistical data analysis, Putnam measured different levels of performance of Italian meso-governments. They arrived at the paradoxical conclusion that regional reform appears to be exacerbating, rather than mitigating, the historical disparities between Italy’s northern and southern regions. Discrediting the common economic determinist argument, they attributed the underdevelopment of southern Italian society to a lack of a culture promoting civic engagement, trust, and ability to cooperate. Indeed, they traced the reasons for current disparities among Italian regions back to different historical paths—southern Italy was dominated in the Middles Ages by an autocratic and feudal government and a powerful church, whereas northern Italy showed traditions of civic republicanism.
If studies tied to the concept of political culture present the merit of questioning the relevant theme of the relationship between individual agents and political structure, they also conversely show some limits in presenting a restricted conception of social change. It can be argued that they propose a vicious cycle from which a territory with a given political culture cannot transform itself.
Other approaches better recognize how institutions shape politics. For instance, examining the ways in which institutions structure social and political behavior, new institutionalism argues that policy, politics, and behavior can only be understood in the context of the institutions in which they take place. According to this view, politics presents a certain degree of autonomy and may influence values, norms, identity, and roles. Indeed, as structures that regulate human interaction and define the incentives that determine the choices that individuals make, institutions also determine the performance of societies and economies over time. Such an approach has been applied in many fields of research, including local government: an example can be found in the Francesco Kjellberg’s 1975 study of two Sardinian communities. Neoinstitutional perspective must be appreciated for its opposition to the tendency to portray politics as a reflection of society, political phenomena as the aggregate consequences of individual behavior, and action as the result of choices based on calculated self-interest. Yet some critics also have affirmed that neoinstitutionalism, tending to avoid monocasual explanations, has yet to produce a clear theory of political change.
Conclusions: Local Politics as Units of Analysis?
Literature on local politics has not been sufficiently developed as of the early twenty-first century. More particularly, three deficiencies can be identified in scientific contributions relative to this area. First, notwithstanding some classical political science works dedicated to the local dimension, contributions on the subnational level have shown little cumulativeness of results. Frequently, studies on local dimension have been used to test hypotheses on the functioning of the political system as a whole, and as a result, they approach scenarios from different perspectives and therefore reach incompatible conclusions. For instance, sharp distinctions exist between the elitist and pluralist schools in the field of community studies, and these provide very different interpretations of local decision making and politics in general. Arnold Rose noted that The Power Elite was almost a bible for a younger generation of new leftists, underlining a focus more on the “I believe” than on proof search activity (Pranger, 1969).
The second deficiency of the study of local politics is the low number of analyses devoted to cross-national research. As noted earlier, adoption of a comparative research strategy has been limited, so that it is very difficult to generalize research results and to be certain that social-structural regularities are not merely particularities, the products of some limited set of historical or cultural or political circumstances.
Moreover, probably the main weakness of the study of local politics concerns the lack of autonomy of this field of research. Only rarely have local systems of government been adopted as an independent unit of analysis, yet, local politics is more than a component of national politics and possesses its own rules and functions. Following Frank Bealey’s work, it is not difficult to recognize the relevance of some subfields, such as the organization of local institutions and their developments; the electoral politics of local councils, their meetings and decision making, their contacts with local interests and pressure groups; party organization; local elites and their exercise of power; center-periphery relations; and, in particular, the efforts of local politicians to obtain benefits for their localities by approaching central authorities. Future trends in local studies may concern several areas of interest for political science, shifting attention more fully onto a significant sphere of political life.
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