Research in Local Politics and Representation

My research examines how forms of local government affect representation of residents. My dissertation, entitled “The Paradox of Town Meeting: The Influence of Forms of Local Government on Citizen Representation,” focuses on New England communities that have the option to operate under a representative town meeting form of government or use the more conventional combination of a mayor and city council. In this project, I empirically test Alexis De Tocqueville’s claim that the involvement of large numbers of individuals in local government will ensure the most democratic government possible. As a foundational principle to the recent populist movements, this assumption holds continued relevance—both in the academy as well as to the lives of my students.

Using a rich variety of evidence, varying from quantitative big data analysis using the comprehensive Catalist database—which contains rich information about voters and elected representatives—to qualitative analyses of survey data, campaign activity, and policy outputs, I challenge De Tocqueville’s assumptions about representational democracy. Based on my findings, I argue that while maintaining a form of government that relies on the participation of a large number of individuals to ensure a vibrant local democracy is attractive and makes intuitive sense, it in fact yields a government that is prone to holding a bias in favor of a small group of—often privileged—individuals, leaving vulnerable populations without a meaningful voice in government.

The use of the form of government as an independent variable and its effects on turnout and representation in the broader narrative of representation is a novel and critical contribution to understanding local political dynamics, as well as the consideration of proposals for institutional reforms. Additionally, at a broader level, my research agenda contributes to our understanding and explanation of the many ways in which subnational institutions shape participatory activity by citizens, and the extent to which features of governmental institutions—beyond the merely electoral—create an environment in which citizens may feel empowered to participate.

As recent events in our political system have illustrated, a vibrant democracy requires that citizens feel encouraged to participate in the process, and deserve a democratically elected government that not only has their best interests at heart, but is one they can identify with. I believe that at least part of the answer to this challenge lies in the oft-overlooked trenches of state and local politics, and how these environments can serve as inclusive training grounds for democratic participation and representation.

Research in the Classroom

My research serves an additional purpose in the classroom, where I use it to demonstrate to students that challenging accepted wisdom is a worthwhile exercise, and that the use of contemporary methods and data to answer classic questions can yield surprising results. I consider exposing students to research an essential component of a comprehensive liberal arts education. My research agenda is conducive to doing so, as it revolves around fundamental issues of representation, inequality, institutional reforms, and urban and local politics.