Going National: Immigration Enforcement and the Politicization of Local Police

Going National: Immigration Enforcement and the Politicization of Local Police

By Michael Zoorob, Harvard University

This article develops a theory of when and how political nationalization increases interest in local elections using evidence from county sheriff elections. A quintessentially local office, the sheriff has long enjoyed buffers from ideological or partisan politics. However, many sheriff elections since 2016 were waged on ideological grounds as progressive challengers—often backed by outside money—linked their campaigns to opposition to President Trump. I argue that this “redirected nationalization” becomes possible when a salient national issue impinges on a local government service, enabling challengers to expand the scope of conflict against valence-advantaged incumbents. In the highly nationalized 2018 midterm election, the question of cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the nation’s jails provided a compelling link between local sheriffs and national politics, infusing new interest and energy in these races. Although redirected nationalization can help align local policies with voter preferences, the politicization of local law enforcement also might undermine police professionalism and credibility.

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