The politics of big

The challenge facing any sizable political community is to figure out how to enjoy the efficiency that comes from delegating political responsibility to elected officials without abrogating citizens’ responsibility to remain at least minimally involved in public affairs. When fewer people are involved in decision-making, government can act more quickly. But without a certain level of citizen input, politics and government become the province of a few. This problem is likely to become increasingly central to Asheville’s politics over the next 20 years.

As history illustrates, United States politics tend to be reactive. Economic development and social change frame the context in which politics are conducted and define the pressures to which government must respond. And because growth is the cornerstone of Asheville’s overall policy, expansion will dictate how city politics evolve during the next two decades.

Although modifiers such as “limited” and “controlled” are often attached to the word “growth,” Asheville will probably be substantially larger 20 years from now. Whether this is due to population movement, expansion of the city limits or both, Asheville will almost inevitably incorporate more interests and face increased pressure to deliver a greater array of services. Together, these factors seem likely to change both the city’s governing institutions and its dominant political factions.

There is every reason to think that Asheville’s government will be bigger too. Growth increases the demand for basic services, which necessarily leads to larger bureaucracies. Controlling growth also requires more regulations, which produce more disputes—and thus more demands on government to enforce the rules and manage the controversies. Increasingly complex regulations also require more professionally trained experts to run the various arms of local government. The result is likely to be a larger, more complex government that’s less accessible to ordinary citizens who lack the skills needed to debate the “experts.”

The logical culmination of this expansion of responsibilities is the integration of city and county government. As sprawl and annexation drive Asheville and Buncombe County to converge, the pressure to consolidate services will grow. Although the current water dispute makes such increased cooperation seem unlikely to occur within the next two decades, the underlying economic and social dynamics suggest that consolidation will be more seriously discussed in 20 years than it is now.

Growth pressures are also likely to alter the structure of City Council. As an expanded government agenda increases the demand for quick decisions, Council will have to become more efficient—either by reducing the amount of time allotted for direct public input and open debate or by enduring even longer sessions. Meanwhile, as the city’s population expands, each Council member will represent more people. Over time, this will make it increasingly difficult for these elected representatives to remain responsive to individual constituents.

One way to alleviate this situation would be to expand City Council. But a larger Council would inevitably be less efficient, because it would have to accommodate more individual preferences. This, too, would tend to lengthen Council meetings, creating yet another incentive to curtail the time allotted for public input—and further reducing city residents’ direct role in formal policy debates.

An alternative that would enable Council members to be more responsive to voters would be switching to district elections. This would reduce the number of city residents to whom each Council member would be answerable, increasing the importance of each person’s vote. It would also be likely to make Council meetings more contentious, however, as each representative would have to give voice to their constituents’ parochial interests.

The economic and social nature of Asheville’s future growth will also affect the factions and alliances that define city politics. The desire to construct a high-tech service economy, for example, will probably lure better-educated workers who can command higher salaries. In general, such people tend to be more liberal on social issues but more conservative on economic questions.

Their preferences are often markedly different from those of many people working in the tourism, retail and health-care sectors, however. Less educated and with lower incomes, these people—many of them Western North Carolina natives—tend to be more liberal on economic issues but conservative on social ones. But since better-educated people with higher incomes are significantly more likely to follow politics and participate in public affairs, that faction is likely to increasingly dominate city politics.

Homeowners are also more likely to be active in their community than renters. So if efforts to create more affordable housing focus on rental properties rather than homes people can buy, it could further increase the participation divide, making Asheville’s politics even more the realm of a subclass of city residents.

In short, Asheville’s future politics are probably being shaped by decisions made today that affect the distribution of economic benefits and prioritization of values. These decisions will help define the types of conflicts that confront Asheville, the ways the city is likely to respond, and the degree to which residents have the opportunity and incentive to get involved.

[William A. Sabo is a professor of political science at UNCA.]

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