(Editor’s note: NIMBY Wars – The Politics of Land Use will be published on October 28. In this excerpt, experience shows that politicians defer to those who pose the greatest threat to their reelection, not necessarily the majority of voters)
By P. Michael Saint, Robert J. Flavell and Patrick F. Fox
In the populist view, public officials do what is best for the community and keep the best interests of the community in mind when they weigh the pros and cons of a project proposal. In the cynical view, politicians do what best ensures their reelection or reappointment to office. These viewpoints might seem inconsistent, but they are not; the best interests of the community coincide politically with the best interests of the people who live (and vote) there.
A “visionary” planner or social engineer might contend that public officials should look beyond the short-term wishes of their community’s residents and think about the long-term needs of future generations. But future generations don’t vote in the next election. Those who do vote are the residents currently living and paying taxes in that community. Thus, they have the right to determine what is in the public interest; they are the public, and their interest is the public interest. The public official knows what those citizens want (and have a right to want); that same official cannot know what future generations will want.
Perception as reality goes both ways: a public official who doesn’t respect the neighbors’ perceived fears of a development should not expect them to perceive him as responsive to their needs. Based on All Politics Is Local, All Land Use Is Political, their conclusion that he is nonresponsive, they’ll vote for someone else in the next election and urge others to do likewise. The fact that the public official may feel he is doing what’s best for the community is irrelevant, and even objectionable, because he elevates his own presumed wisdom above and against that of the voters.
Public officials usually have a good instinct for survival. They are acutely aware that a public official who annoys enough people will be voted out of office, and one who really infuriates a smaller number will have made devoted enemies. This latter point is especially true at the local land use level because an infuriated constituent has a long memory. Public officials voted to allow the sewage treatment plant, and now it stands upwind from the constituent’s front porch. She can’t sit outside in the warm weather, can’t leave her windows open in the summer, has to tolerate the plant, and her property value is destroyed. She and her family are permanent enemies of the officials responsible.
Politicians who survive know this instinctively, which is why they are sensitive and deferential to neighborhood concerns. An out-of-town developer has no political clout in a confrontation with voters, even if he has given money to the politicians. Contributions don’t win elections; votes do, and neighbors vote. Besides, a developer, even if he is local, is unlikely to mount a revenge campaign against an official who votes against his project; it’s a risk of doing business, and there’s always another project. But a group of residents adversely affected by a project will remember who approved it. They will hold a grudge, tormented by the sight of the monstrosity — and the traffic and noise it generates — each time they open the front door.
Some commentators rely on the model of the median voter to determine how politicians will act. (The median voter is the person in the exact middle of a ranking of voters along some issue dimension, such as from the most left wing to the most right wing.) The theory is that government officials will act as if there were a referendum on every question presented and will vote according to the presumptive winner of the referendum, the median voter. There are many flaws in this theory, not the least of which is that it assumes that the referendum result can always be predicted, that minds cannot be changed, and that each issue is sufficiently important to cause people to vote against the politician. But experience shows that politicians defer to those who pose the greatest threat to their reelection, not necessarily the majority of voters.
The median voter feels strongly about only a few issues, most of which never arise at the local level. Most people simply vote for the incumbent, regardless of the incumbent’s voting record, unless given good reasons not to do so. Those reasons come from the politician’s enemies, who have an agenda they seek to realize and who seek to turn the median voter against the politician at reelection time. The enemies pose a greater threat to the public official than does the disconnected median voter, which is why most politicians will not stand up to a group of intransigent constituents at a hearing. The group does not represent the majority of voters; indeed, its members likely are neighbors of the project promoting their own interests. But they do represent the core of an opposition group that might coalesce against the incumbent if she fails to vote the way they demand. Discretion being the better part of valor, the politician defers to their wishes. This explains why it takes so few neighbors at a hearing to kill a project.