America’s Hidden Crisis of Power and Place

Our country’s path to political influence involves defecting from your hometown and congregating in one of a handful of wealthy neighborhoods. It’s undermining trust in government — and corroding our democracy.

I do not remember the year, but I remember the moment. It was a beautiful summer afternoon in Plattsburgh, the small town where I was raised in the North Country in far Upstate New York. Every year the dark winters gave way to a bright summer defined by Lake Champlain on one side of the town and the Adirondack Mountains on the other. The summers were anchored by a singular event, the Mayor’s Cup Regatta and Festival, which drew spectators from all over the region to celebrate the boats sailing on Lake Champlain.

My family had just finished our fun at the neighborhood beach watching the boats when we went shopping at the Grand Union supermarket. We entered the checkout aisle, and there, right in front of me, I met a celebrity equal in my mind at the time to Michael Jordan and Michael J. Fox together: the mayor of Plattsburgh. Mayor Carlton Rennell. My father thanked him for promoting the Mayor’s Cup along with the socialist mayor across Lake Champlain (a young Bernie Sanders). My mother talked to him about being a former teacher and thanked him for being good to unions.

My trip to the supermarket was more than 30 years ago and a few hundred miles from my home now in D.C. It was a moment that was completely forgettable, and I have always wondered why I still remember it. I was raised by two social scientists who had pictures of political figures from all over the world in our house, but there was something different about actually meeting the political figure from across town. It may sound corny or at the very least extremely earnest, but this is the truth: I think this moment stayed with me because, even as a kid, I appreciated knowing that the person who made the Mayor’s Cup — and in turn made my summer — had to wait in the same Grand Union line that we did.

Rennell wasn’t the only politician like this in the North Country. Consider another local leader, Bill Owens, who in a 2009 special election became the first Democrat to represent some parts of the North Country in Congress since before the Civil War. In 2010 — the worst year for Democrats running for Congress in 72 years — he retained his seat and did so one more time in 2012. Owens grew up in Long Island but lived in the North Country for 30 years, raising three children there before eventually running for Congress.

Owens retired in 2014 to return to Plattsburgh, and he was succeeded by someone who has now risen to national prominence: Elise Stefanik. Before Stefanik replaced Rep. Liz Cheney in the House GOP leadership, becoming a national face of Trumpism, she was known locally as a political talent of the first order — but one who, in contrast to her predecessor, had built her career outside the area. Though she was raised just south of the congressional district in Albany, she made her name as an adult in some of the most politically powerful metropolitan areas in the country: in Boston and Washington, places that were a world apart from the Grand Union in Plattsburgh.

The North Country is more rural, and less diverse, than much of the United States. But it is emblematic of one of the most disconcerting, least-discussed aspects of our national political life: America is experiencing a political crisis rooted partly in the concept of place. Our political elite in both parties are disproportionately connected to a few neighborhoods in a few metropolitan areas that are distant and different from the places they are supposed to understand and govern. For too many of these people, the road to political influence involves effectively defecting from the places they know to the places where there are people it is important to know. That leaves many places in our country governed by strangers rather than neighbors — with disastrous consequences for American democracy.

We are and always have been a country defined — and divided — by place. James Madison wrote more than 200 years ago in the Federalist Papers that the United States would be a “large ... republic” composed of political communities sorted by geography.

For a long time, place shaped people’s lives in part because it was so hard to get anyone or anything to other places. Madison gave a speech during the first Congress worrying that political leaders would need “liberal compensations” to incentivize them to travel great distances. When the capital of the young country moved to Washington, and Congress met for the first time there in 1800, members endured difficult travel conditions. The roads were so bad at the time that, as Fergus M. Bordewich recounts in “Washington: The Making of the American Capital,” “it was customary for drivers to call to their passengers to act as ballast by first leaning to one side and then to the other, to keep the coach from overturning.” The mail situation wasn’t much better: In some parts of the country, deliveries or collections could be spaced a week apart.

For the most privileged Americans, the power of place, while very real, has become harder to see — because their places change more significantly and more frequently.

Advances in technology and transportation have obviously changed these dynamics, expanding the number of weak ties that people can have over long distances. But place still matters a lot — more than you might think — in defining who many Americans are. In the average county weighted by population, according to a study from the Journal of Economic Perspectives, 55 percent of Facebook friends live within 50 miles of one another, even though only 1 percent of people live within 50 miles of one another. Childhood is defined by being in the places that your family chooses for you, and after high school you can finally pick your own place to live — yet one analysis found that college students on average move less than 15 miles from their childhood home. Another study found that the median distance that adults live from their mother is 18 miles.

Robin Dunbar — an evolutionary psychologist at Oxford best known for the “Dunbar number,” his finding that the number of friends people can have has remained remarkably consistent across history and societies — has shown that the key to closer relationships remains shared in-person experiences. Charles Hunt at Boise State University and I have started to study these issues nationally, but we began with a survey of undergraduates at Boise State. Even though they are a much more mobile group than the general U.S. population, 58 percent believe that “most of the people who are most important to me live close to where I live.”

The power of place persists in politics as well. Yes, people are heavily influenced by political and media figures they do not know — from cable pundits to Donald Trump. But people’s political engagement is shaped in important ways by those they know. Many studies have demonstrated that hearing our neighbors have voted or want us to vote increases the likelihood that we will turn out to vote. In the survey Hunt and I conducted, 63 percent of students reported that most of the people they talked to most frequently about politics live close to them.

Since places are their own communities with their own self-reinforcing worldviews, it stands to reason that, in our democracy, the people who represent those places should genuinely understand them. A democracy that allocates power by place is, or is supposed to be, an intimate democracy. Not all democracies are set up this way — countries like Israel and the Netherlands allocate power through national systems of proportional representation — but in the United States, our political leaders are meant to govern people with whom they share a lived experience anchored in a place.

The need for political elites to be connected to the places they rule is different from the need for other elites to be connected to the places they influence. Plattsburgh is in the middle of the American economic spectrum, but a phrase I heard a lot there as a child was that if you really wanted to make it to the top, you had to “get out.” Many of the most talented residents left to work in places like Boston or Houston. This was celebrated rather than scorned — and for good reason: Plattsburgh expatriates can still make great products for those in Plattsburgh even if they are living elsewhere.

Democracy, at least here in the United States, is different. Congress is the most obvious example of place-based democracy in practice, but presidents are elected by the electoral college, which is a place-based institution (although unfortunately some of these places are given far more power than others because of geographical discrimination). Federal officials across the executive branch — from the Department of Justice to the Environmental Protection Agency — are divided into regions and sometimes located in those disparate places.

These rules are decades or centuries old, and yet the desire for government by neighbor is still broadly and deeply felt. As part of his forthcoming book, Charles Hunt explored how connected candidates for the U.S. House were to their districts. He looked at factors like where they attended high school and college and their professional experiences in the district. Candidates with substantial connections to their district outperformed expectations by as many as 9 percentage points — a difficult feat during a time when party is thought to predict so many votes. Hunt believes this is likely happening because these candidates turned out more voters from their own party and attracted more voters from the opposing party.

There is probably no better example of these preferences than what happened in the Bronx and Queens in 2018. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over incumbent Joseph Crowley in a Democratic House primary is now remembered as a story about ideology — left-wing voters revolting against a moderate congressman. And of course that was part of it. But it was also a story about place. Ocasio-Cortez was a bartender who was born in the Bronx and returned there after college. When she launched her campaign, she alleged that Crowley had lost touch with his district: Someone who “doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air,” she said, “cannot possibly represent us.”

Most Americans still realize how much their place shapes their lives and choices. However, for the most privileged Americans, the power of place, while very real, has become harder to see — because their places change more significantly and more frequently.

Those with professional or graduate degrees are nearly three times as likely as those without a high school degree to move across state lines in a given year, according to the American Community Survey and demographer Lyman Stone. These numbers are even more dramatic among the highest-status educational institutions: As of 2015, 85 percent of Harvard first-year students moved from outside Massachusetts. And those Americans more willing and able to move toward opportunity tend to concentrate in the most privileged neighborhoods in the most privileged metropolitan areas. In 2019, 9 percent of Washington’s population moved from outside D.C. The comparison here is admittedly imperfect, but in the congressional district where I’m from in the North Country, 3 percent of the population moved in from a different state or country.

The energy of places like Washington is part of what makes them so attractive, and that energy exists because there are more new people from new places saying new things. If people are always coming and going, though, it can be harder to remember that they share the same place now. Many studies have found that people who live in the same place for longer have more of an attachment to their communities, and, for some of them, that is why they stayed there in the first place. Being more connected to the larger world, by contrast, can mean being less connected to your immediate world.

In the study about Facebook, just 27 percent of Facebook friends of people living in San Francisco County were within 50 miles of one another — roughly half the percentage for America as a whole. When I am interviewed by reporters in the North Country, they care that I am from Plattsburgh. No Washington reporter has ever asked me if I am from Washington.

Place matters even in the most mobile of neighborhoods. The preschool and playground in our D.C. neighborhood — where we have seen the same people every day for years — remind us how lucky we are to live in this place. Still, when so many other people around you are changing frequently, it is difficult to remember just how much influence place exercises in all of our lives.

The divergence between two groups — a narrower slice of the most privileged people who are more defined by their moving, and those Americans who are more defined by their staying — is even more dramatic among our most powerful political figures. The most important political elites have strong reasons to move and few places to move to. There are great opportunities to invest money or conduct medical research in many places. But there are just a few places that have the greatest political opportunities.

The factors pulling political elites toward just a few neighborhoods — which are much whiter and wealthier than the rest of America, among other differences — are strong. One could choose innumerable examples, but take two political biographies that are representative of how the path to power has worked in recent decades.

Paul Ryan was elected to Congress in 1998 from Janesville, Wis., current population about 64,000. Ryan attended college outside Wisconsin. He then moved to Washington, where he would work as an aide to one senator and a legislative director to another. He also worked for influential Republican Jack Kemp — learning things and building relationships far from Janesville that he later described as important in his career.

In 2017, Jon Ossoff ran in a special election in Georgia to fill an empty seat in the House of Representatives. Ossoff was raised in an area close to the district in which he was seeking office, but went to Georgetown University and attended graduate school in London. He had not lived in the area for some time and did not live in the district when he was running for office — so he could not even vote for himself. Ossoff touted his experience as a “national security aide” in Washington during the campaign. He lost that election, but in 2020 ran for the Senate — and won.

Ryan and Ossoff do not share the same ideology, but they do have one thing in common: Like so many of their colleagues, their path to power ran through places other than the ones they were from. It is telling that only about half of new members of Congress in 2021, according to Forbes, had a degree from a college or university in their state.

The need to raise money, it should go without saying, is a huge reason aspiring politicians must form deep connections outside their districts. In the last House election in the North Country, the candidates raised $20 million — with the Washington and New York metropolitan areas contributing more than the North Country itself.

One study in the journal Political Behavior found that in the 2005-06 congressional election cycle, about 5 percent of America’s Zip codes — concentrated in a few neighborhoods in a few metropolitan areas — were responsible for 77 percent of all individual contributions to congressional campaigns. And Anne Baker at Santa Clara University found that, from 2006 to 2012, the “average member of the House received just 11 percent of all campaign funds from donors inside the district.” The trend in this direction has been dramatic. In 1990, according to a study in Political Research Quarterly, out-of-district donors accounted for 42 percent of individual contributions to the median incumbent in the U.S. House. By 2010, that number was 72 percent. And candidates from both parties have a similar geographic distribution in their fundraising: Republicans also raise lots of money from New York City, and Democrats also raise lots of money from Houston.

Every two years I receive emails from North Country friends from both political parties telling me they are visiting D.C. to raise money and need a place to crash. (I was approached about running for Congress in the North Country years ago, but quickly decided it wasn’t for me.) I have heard this experience described the same way by many of these people: They call it the all-important “Washington Trip.”

Not surprisingly, money raised from other places changes the way politicians vote. In a new paper, Brandice Canes-Wrone of Princeton University and Kenneth Miller of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas find that, in almost one-third of the votes in the House of Representatives from 2005 to 2017, there was a difference between what constituents desired and what national donors demanded. More than 80 percent of the time, the representative sided with their national donors and not their constituents. And this wasn’t just about heeding the will of highly partisan donors — because there was often still a divide between what the partisans within a district wanted and what the partisan national donors wanted. When the partisans within the district wanted something different than the distant donors, 66 percent of the time the representative voted with the national donors.

The donors whom elected officials are listening to are also products of places — but other places. These donors have attitudes shaped by what their neighbors think just like other people do. And donor neighborhoods are quite unlike the rest of America on many important policy issues, such as how to manage social welfare spending or whether and how to increase taxes.

But this phenomenon isn’t merely about politicians or the donors who influence them. Politicians with weak connections to their home districts or states can translate to staffers with weak (or no) connections to these places. Charles Hunt and I found that members of the House of Representatives more connected to their districts were about 40 percent more likely to have a chief of staff with prior employment experience in the state where the district is located. The leading producer of congressional staff is the school where I teach, George Washington University, in D.C. Beyond Congress, presidents nominate thousands of individuals to the executive branch — and a study by Anne Joseph O’Connell of Stanford Law School found that almost 30 percent of them are already in the Washington metropolitan area at the time they are nominated.

Outside of government, the story is much the same. The Post-Star, a newspaper in Glens Falls as powerful as any in the North Country, has only about one-fifth the number of newsroom employees as it did 10 years ago. Meanwhile, according to the Pew Research Center, more than 20 percent of newsroom positions are in New York, Washington or Los Angeles.

It is important to note, by the way, that the influence of political movers transcends the usual categories of urban and rural. The most politically powerful places are just a handful of neighborhoods in just a handful of superstar metropolitan areas. Baltimore and Phoenix are major metropolitan areas, but they are relatively minor political players. Rural America is overrepresented politically in many ways — but even rural America is often governed by leaders from distant and different places.

The upshot of all of these developments is that political power today often involves choices between political movers rather than between movers and more locally rooted leaders. There are business leaders and doctors and lawyers in the North Country; many of these figures could make great candidates for office. These people rarely get a realistic chance to run, though, because they are not the type of people who can raise millions of dollars or who can arrange to be interviewed on CNN or Fox News, which is what people increasingly must do to rise to power. It’s notable that one of Stefanik’s challengers for 2022, Democrat Matt Putorti, grew up in the district but has lived in New York City in recent years. He registered to vote in the district two weeks before announcing his candidacy.

Our political elites were always going to be political movers to some degree, and that is both understandable and necessary. Seeing the country and the world makes for better political elites. The diversity of people and perspectives that are available from living in different places simply cannot be achieved by staying put — particularly if staying put means staying in a place that is not very diverse. If everyone in a place stays put then everything in the place will stay still, yet the world changes, and every place needs to change with it. Moreover, modern government is technocratic, and technocrats can more easily be created if large numbers of talented people are living next to and learning from one another. Every industry is dominated by people who had to leave their homes to learn how to be the best in their industry.

The problem is that, to benefit from places with great privileges, people do not just connect to their new places; they also disconnect from their old places. New colleagues replace old colleagues. New friends replace old friends. Couples meet and are married in these privileged places, and children are born and raised there. The result is partially a national elite that understands what the entire country needs, but it is also an elite that mostly understands the privileged places that helped them come to power in the first place — and, even worse, that has been blinded to the significance of place as a political issue altogether.

There is an entire infrastructure that reflects — and then reinforces — the sense that place matters much less than it really does. Polling firms that produce results dominating our political system ask questions that matter enormously everywhere rather than those that only matter somewhere. They ask how people compare Joe Biden to Donald Trump, or what they want done about immigration, rather than what should be done about a locally significant employer that is departing.

Political elites campaigning for office internalize this lesson over their careers and speak the language of a post-place politics. They talk about red or blue and Trump or Biden. For their part, political editors at major outlets send reporters from far away to cover wide swaths of the country because they do not have reporters living there — and those reporters are more likely to cover these places through a national lens.

The closer the ties between politicians and those they represent, the better the odds of rebuilding the baseline trust that is the glue of democracy.

The disconnect of political elites from the places they represent is particularly concerning for America’s most politically powerless groups. These groups have a hard time being understood even from across the room. Being understood from across town — or across the country — can be an impossible task. Political elites deciding what these groups want or need may be more likely to stereotype them in even more problematic ways than other distant groups.

Consider the recent mayoral primaries in New York City. The Zip code that contributed the most is 77 percent White and, adjusted for population, gave about $80 to candidates for every dollar contributed by the Zip code that is most heavily African American (which is 93 percent African American). All voters in the city might have had their ballots counted the same, but it is hard to argue that all places in the city will be equally represented.

Another consequence of a post-place politics is an extreme deficit of trust. In 1958, the American National Election Study found that three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. Now a similar question finds that only one-quarter of Americans trust the federal government that way.

And yet, in an America plagued by pervasive distrust, it is notable how much people still trust those who are not geographically removed from them — people who share the good things and the bad things in life but, most important, the same things. My study with Charles Hunt found that about two times as many students agreed in some way rather than disagreed in some way with the statement that “the people who live closer to me understand me better than the people who live farther away from me.” We also found that five times as many students thought that parts of the government closer to them understand them better than parts of the government farther from them.

More than 70 percent of Americans, according to Pew, believe that local media report the news accurately — and they think this because local journalists are more connected to their communities. This at the same time as many Americans are physically threatening national media at political rallies.

It is much more difficult to mistrust or detest your congressional representative — even if you disagree with them on matters of substance — if you regularly see them at your child’s soccer games. In other words, the closer the ties between politicians and those they represent, the better the odds of rebuilding the baseline trust that is the glue of democracy.

To take just one example: Rep. Donald Payne Jr. — born and raised in Newark, which he now represents — was once asked why industrial pollution in his neighborhood upset him so much. In response, he talked about how it “is personal to me” because he was a lifelong resident of Newark and a parent of children living these experiences. He was saying something that too few politicians can truly say: that he was part of his community, not just that he knew about it.

It can be hard to understand how these personal connections work unless you have seen them in action. My mother has always proudly been on the political left. She has voted for a Republican only once: Janet Duprey, who was running for office in Clinton County in the North Country. My mom told me she knew the larger Duprey family well enough that she could trust Janet to do the right thing — and that she had talked to Janet about this. That kind of trust simply cannot be built through a politics divorced from place.

My family has traveled every summer for the past five years to the North Country. The beauty of the outdoors is what brought us back at first, but something else makes us return: It’s knowing that every year we can talk to many of the same people doing many of the same things; it’s wanting to travel somewhere that was once my home and that maintains a real sense of place.

Of course, Washington is our home now, and so we also love returning to our D.C. neighborhood and being reminded of the possibilities it provides. I always feel torn between where I was and what that place meant, and where I am and what that place offers.

The difference between places where people are stuck too long and places where people leave too soon is one of the central political cleavages of our time. Our governing elite should aspire to understand both. We should want more of them to be part-Washington and part-somewhere-else. We should want them to travel the world and meet the best people so they can learn. But we should also want them to settle somewhere in order to truly be among the people they govern. They can start off as movers and end up as stayers.

There are policy changes that can encourage this outcome. Alaska, for instance, has tried to limit how much money individuals from out of state can contribute to candidates running for office. And New York City, among other locales, gives residents a distinctive role in elections by matching their individual contributions to candidates with public contributions.

Money is only part of the problem, though, and rules are only part of the solution. The biggest change must involve not just altering the rules of politics but the rhetoric surrounding it. Place privilege in politics needs to be discussed and debated just like other forms of privilege. We should know the Zip codes that make our leaders who they are. And we should work toward a future when those Zip codes might include all the places that make up this large republic.

David Fontana is the Samuel Tyler Research Professor at George Washington University Law School.

Design by Christian Font.

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