Introduction to American (Local) Politics

Image of someone voting for a plastics ban
Political Science
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Author: Emily Farris, Texas Christian University

In an introductory American Politics class, it can often be difficult to try to fit in local politics, and often times, most textbooks and classes are structured to focus more on national politics and institutions. But local politics is FASCINATING and relevant to students’ lives – on many issues from taxation to education. It deserves at least a mention (or more) in an introductory class. After all, local politics can really be our best politics sometimes.

One common way to introduce local politics into intro classes is through the topic of federalism. In a three-tiered federal system of governance, municipal governments are located at the bottom, and their powers are highly dependent on their states’ authorization. Students will likely be surprised to know that the Constitution contains no mention of local governments and their powers. This gives an opportunity to think more about the framer’s debates over the nature of government power and their general preferences for a government closest to the people.

Cities Clashing with Their States

One way to animate the discussion is through recent cases of cities clashing with their state governments over policy. You could discuss plastic bag bans, publicly funded abortion support, “bathroom” bills, gun control, or ride sharing restrictions. I showed the video for the ride sharing restrictions that pitted Austin against Texas today in my upper level Urban Politics class – it gives a great introduction to Dillon’s Rule, Home Rule, and the issue of local control that would also work nicely for an Intro class. There’s likely an example from your own state that will get students thinking about the powers of local government and the relationships between local, state, and federal politics.

Thanks to Heather Evans, Scott Huffmon, Chris Goodman, Michael Bitzer, Jack Collens, Nyron Crawford, Jason McDaniel, Mirya Holman and others for ideas about how to teach Dillon’s Rule on twitter. Without them, I would have just talked about Dillon’s great beard.