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local politics & citizen competence

I haven’t had too much time to blog lately. Instead, I’ve been trying to complete a draft of a new paper that examines citizen competence. Citizen competence – which scholars study as a way of understanding whether (or perhaps to what extent) citizens are capable of contributing meaningfully to their democratic governance – is normally ascertained within the context of national politics. My paper tries to gain some leverage on how the scholarly understanding of citizen competence might look if citizens’ interactions with local as well as national politics are factored into the equation.

Without bogging down in details, past citizen competence research has two overarching conclusions: 1. Most citizens aren’t very competent – at least in any way political scientists have managed to measure competence. 2. The citizens that seem most competent are usually white, wealthy, educated, older men. My findings from local-level data suggest that, if we take a holistic view of citizen competence and include both local and national activity, the population as a whole may not be as adroit as we’d like, but the picture of the competent citizen shifts. (My approach is to study the level and distribution of political knowledge, as determined from a randomized survey of 1000 Philadelphians.)

First, women and minorities close the knowledge gap with whites and men such that the groups are nearly equally matched. This shift is driven by movement at both ends of the spectrum: whites/men know less about local politics than national politics while minorities/women know more about local politics than national politics. Second, socioeconomic indicators – wealth and education levels – that are relentlessly & positively correlated with national knowledge aren’t so clearly matched with local political knowledge. A pair of figures illustrate this very well:

The trend lines in the income figure are particularly interesting: not only do folks at the highest level of income know less about local politics than the upper-middle class folks, they are the only population subset to know less about local politics than national politics. (The education figure shows a similar cross-over, though educational attainment is always positively correlated with increased knowledge.)

Looking at these results, I’ve got a couple conclusions I’m mulling over. First, perhaps scholars should cast a broader net when assessing citizen competence. Maybe some people are – with good reason – more attuned to local vs. national politics and vice versa. Ideally, everyone would know everything about all sorts of politics (at least, that might be a political scientist’s ideal world). Realistically, having groups of citizens paying attention to disparate issues isn’t a bad compromise. It’s even better if these groups of citizens are diverse in composition. If they are distributed in patterns dictated by their personal/group interests, isn’t that what we’d expect from rational political actors? Second, how happy/sad should we be? On one hand, it’s great to find evidence that bolsters our reading of the competence of diverse populations. But, at the same time, as a scholar that’s concerned with local politics, the downturn at the top end of the SES figures is concerning. It’s vital to have mass participation in a democracy, but at the same time you need elite leadership. Without historical data, or really any other data, it’s hard to know how much stock to put in this finding. But, if for some reason – mobility, access to more national media, rigorous careers – elites are drifting away from local politics, this isn’t a good thing. Anyways, I’ve prepping a much more detailed, formal manuscript that investigates these issues. I’m sure I’ll post it soon, maybe it’ll even be published…by 2015.

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