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Representation, competition, and institutional development in American local government


Conventional accounts of local politics downplay the importance of constituent preferences in explaining democratic outcomes. Instead, they emphasize the overweening influence of elite interest groups, constraints imposed from above by higher levels of government, and the threat of jurisdictional competition as main policy drivers. Using analytical and methodological tools commonly applied in other subfields of political science, I challenge the standard account of urban exceptionalism. In the first empirical chapter, I adopt a statistical method known as multilevel modeling and post-stratification (MRP) to, for the first time, develop comparable measures of public opinion at the local level. I validate the method by showing that it can correctly recover known population parameters by accurately predicting local election outcomes, and demonstrate that MRP improves on other existing tools for measuring policy-specific local opinion. In Chapter 3, I combine MRP with a new dataset on food stamp enrollment in American counties. Using administrative program data, I document substantial variation in the degree of participation across counties, despite the existence of universal eligibility criteria. I then show that mass preferences for redistribution at the local level can account for a substantial amount of this variation. Chapter 4 assesses the extent to which competition between government agencies influences local policy, and who stands to benefit when local governments compete with one another. The chapter analyzes variation in compensation of public employees, testing recent claims that interjurisdictional competition drives up the wages and benefits of specialized public employees. While I find that this is indeed true for certain classes of employees, I show that the effects are modest in size and vary across occupational groups. The concluding chapter examines institutional development among American counties. My analysis challenges Banfield and Wilson's (1963) good- government account of Progressive reforms at the local level. Instead, I argue that reformers were motivated neither by public-regarding values nor desire for more efficient administration but rather by self-interest. Using new data on local economic inequality at the end of the 20th century, I show that wealthy interests pursued reform to insulate government from popular control and to prevent economic redistribution

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