Growing up in a politically competitive community turns out to have important educational advantages. Gimpel, Lay, and Schuknecht find that young people who live in communities with competitive elections are more knowledgeable about politics, more confident in their own capacity to make a difference, more trusting in government to be responsive, more tolerant, and more likely to discuss politics than their peers, holding many other factors constant.
Competition probably enhances civic learning because politicians and parties must reach out to citizens when elections are close. They reach out with messages that make people feel important and that convey interesting information. Also, regardless of how politicians behave, one can learn from growing up among roughly equal groups of Democrats and Republicans. In politically diverse communities, young people are exposed to divergent political views and understand that disagreement is inevitable. (The same advantage also arises from religious diversity.)
Political competitiveness can compensate for economic disadvantage. In fact, Gimpel and colleagues found that in poor communities with a mix of Democratic and Republican voters, young people grow up more knowledgeable than their peers who live in wealthy, single-party suburbs. Political competition boosts the level of discussion “by an amazing 17 percentage points among those with no plans to attend college,” because exposure to robust politics compensates for their relatively poor formal educations.
However, most Americans do not grow up in competitive districts. Only four incumbent Representatives were defeated in 2002, and only five in 2004. The same pattern occurs in many states. For example, in 2004, none of California’s 153 legislative seats changed parties. The 2006 elections are expected to be more competitive than usual. Yet even a loss of 15 Republican seats in 2006 would represent only 3.4 percent of the House of Representatives.
One reason for the lack of competition is that districts have been drawn with increasing sophistication to favor one party over the other. But communities have also become more politically homogeneous. No one redraws county lines to benefit politicians, yet the segregation of Democrats and Republicans at the county level increased by 47 percent during the last quarter of the 20th century. This is a bad sign for the next generation of citizens.