State and Local Politics-Introduction

This is a class in politics.  Politics is the management of conflict— it’s about “who gets what, when, how” (wrote Harold Lasswellin 1938).  One way people resolve (or at least manage) conflict is to establish governments that create laws, institutions, and ways to settle conflict (like courts).

Public policy consists of government decisions (laws, administrative regulations, court decisions) and actions.

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 Students often say this course is a repeat of American national politics because many similar topics like federalism, constitutions, and political parties are discussed.  Also, some say it’s not exciting.  We prefer to look at national politics and foreign relations—things at these levels are more dramatic and get more media attention.

 So why study at all?

State and local governments are one of the major sources of our daily well-being:  public services and specific laws on public schools (including higher education), police protection and criminal justice, property rights, marriage and divorce, and parks and recreation come from state and local governments. The textbook’s discussion of reduced state support for state colleges and universities illustrate the point well.

 The national government is important for policy making for the entire country in areas like national defense and foreign relations, and it shares some concurrent powers (those exercised byboth national and state governments) in many domestic policies. But it usually sets broad parameters in other areas, like those above, and is involved either not at all or only in a limited way.

 Second, state and especially local governments are closest to the people and can address the unique wishes and needs of their population.  Public opinion polls indicate that citizens also trust their state governments more than the national government.

 State and local governments can experiment with public policy in various areas, and other states may eventually use some or all of other states’ practices.  Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeisonce described the states as“laboratories of democracy.”  In recent years more power has shifted from national government to the individual states.  This is called devolution

 A fourth reason to study state and local politics is that, in a democracy, getting involved in local and state affairs teaches us skills in working with others, listening to different points of view, and working on solving problems that affect a lot of people.  The over 7,000 state legislators and many more local governing body members carry out the wishes of citizens. Some young people like Saira Blair, the West Virginia college student and state legislator, are exceptionally active in politics. You can either make your voice heard or not!

Settings for State Politics

States are similar in their governmental structures. They all have constitutions, elected legislatures and governors, state court systems, and local governments.   They all deal with issues affecting their populations:  water issues, education, and infrastructure (highways, bridges, roads, etc.). There are also important differences among the states.  The U.S. Bureau of the Census estimates that the population of the United States is over 328 million as of 2019 (you can check out the changing population yourself by searching  But individual states vary dramatically in terms of population size, population diversity and growth, religion, political culture, ideology, and their economies.

People often use the comparative method to study American states — that is, they ask how each state differs from the others.Most interesting is the sociodemographics(descriptions of people) in the various states.  These differences have real consequences in terms of the issues individual states face. 

The U.S. Bureau of the Census ( officially counts the national and state populations every 10 years (so the last official count would be in 2010) and makes estimates to update changes. You can look up the website and search information for the United States and each state yourself. Just make sure you specify whether you want “estimated” versus “official” data. So be careful as to what numbers you are using—“estimated” or “official.”

California’s population is over 39 million, Texas’ is over 28 million, and seven other states’ populations are over 10 million as of 2016. On the other hand, six states have population of less than one million. Some states, like Texas, are growing rapidly while others have very little population growth.  

Ethnic and racial diversity in states can create conflict.  Nationally, as of 2015, over 60 percent of the population is European American. Hispanics/Latinos account for about 17 percent and African Americans for 13 percent of the national population. Hispanics/Latinos have recently surpassed African-Americans to become the largest ethnic minority group.  Asian-Americans account for about 5 percent of the U.S. population, and Native Americans (American Indians) for about 1 percent.

Upper Midwest and New England states have small minority populations (except in major urban centers). Southeastern states have large African-American populations. States in the Southwest (and major urban centers throughout) have large Hispanic/Latino populations (including Mexican-Americans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and others).

Texas is more diverse than most states. There is no majority ethnic group (that is, no ethnic group comprises more than 50 percent of the population).  However, the White (non-Hispanic) group is the largest ethnic group as of 2015.  The Hispanic/Latino group is nearly as large; African American, Asian American, American Indian populations are smaller. 

In terms of religion, a slight majority of Americans are Christian Protestants. About a quarter are Catholics. Overall, then, about 75 percent of the population is Christian. However, other religious groups are increasing. Most southerners are conservative Protestants. Liberal Protestants are found in the northern tier of states from New England to the west coast. Catholics are found in the northeast, Midwest, Louisiana, and the Southwest.

Regions of the country vary politically.  Generally, the southern states (including Texas), plus the Great Plains and most mountain west states are more conservative politically; the Northeast, Midwest, and west coast states are more moderate to liberal. Generally there are higher taxes, more social benefits, more business regulation, and environmental protection laws in the more liberal northeastern and west coast states.  Ideologically conservative states (including Texas) are more likely to enact laws to protect property taxes, lower taxes and benefits, fewer regulations, and greater use of the death penalty.

Economies in the Northeast and Midwest are based on manufacturing (and agriculture in the Midwest). In the south and west, they were traditionally based on agriculture and industries like mining and oil and gas. Today issues like tourism, light manufacturing and services are now more important. Immigration patterns have mainly been from north to south. Also, there has been increasing immigration from Latin America (especially Mexico) into Texas, California, and the Southwest.

States dependent on one or two industries (e.g., West Virginia on coal mining and, in earlier years, Texas on oil and gas) focus their politics on these specific industries; states with complex economies (New York, California, Illinois, Texas today) have more complicated politics because of the demands of multiple industries.

Finally, political culture varies across the states and regions of the country. Political culture is made up of attitudes, beliefs, and resulting behavior of a group of people about the role of government and citizens.  This is becoming a little outdated since we are now such a mobile group of people, but it does reflect basic regional patterns of beliefs about government and how involved people should be in public affairs.  Daniel Elazar (1965) developed three types of political cultures (see Table 1-2):

 a. Moralistic political culture: government and public services should be supported for the benefit of all. People should participate actively in politics.      

 b. Individualistic political culture: in general people should solve their own problems and not rely on government; government should be small. People get involved in politics only when something personally affects them or they see government as a means to achieve personal goals.

 c. Traditionalistic political culture: the average person should not get involved in government which should be run by a few educated individuals (elites).  So voting turnout is generally the lowest in states with a traditionalistic political culture.  Texas has a traditionalistic political culture.


Politics:  Harold Lasswell (1938) wrote:  politics is the study of “who gets, what, when, how”
Public policy
comparative method
concurrent powers
political cultures=moralistic, traditionalistic, individualistic
Why study state and local governments?
How are states the same and how are they different? Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis:  states are laboratories of democracy

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