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University Relations

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April 29, 2005
Contact: Roger Martin, KU Center for Research, (785) 864-7239.

Roger Martin: 'Morality politics' affect cities' policies on controversial issues

If you're not exhausted yet by debates about religion, morality and politics, I've got a book for you.

It's called "Morality Politics in American Cities." Published by the University Press of Kansas, it focuses on the impact of the culture wars on local government in 10 cities with populations of at least 300,000.

Elaine Sharp, a University of Kansas professor of political science, hides the identities of the cities. Concealment helped officials speak more openly.

Sharp examined the treatment by officials of five issues -- abortion, gay rights, gambling, the sex industry and drug-control programs.

She hypothesized that three factors would come into play during the leaders' deliberations on these issues.

One factor was the city's "subculture," to use Sharp's word. A subculture can be "conventional" or "unconventional," she writes, depending on the nature of the city's residents.

A second factor was the city's economic condition.

A third was its form of government -- whether, for example, it was guided by a city manager or led by a strong mayor.

Sharp's study showed that the first two factors -- city subculture and economic health -- have the most direct effect on how local governments respond to issues with a distinctly moral edge.

In terms of subculture, Sharp says that residents of unconventional cities, compared with conventional ones, are less likely to go to church, more likely to have graduate degrees and more likely to work in "creative-class occupations" -- that is, jobs where people are paid to create, not just perform routine duties.

Sharp found that whether a city subculture is unconventional or conventional affects how its government handles three of the issues: drugs, gays and abortion.

Unconventional cities are more likely to be abortion-permissive and gay-friendly. They're also more likely to sanction needle exchanges and related drug policies.

But subculture doesn't help you predict anything about whether sexually explicit businesses or casinos get city approval, Sharp says.

If you expected unconventional cities to be more open to those, you'd be mistaken. Sharp quotes one writer as saying, "No one is willing to stand up for sin."

The second big influence on official decision-making, a city's economic condition, also can produce mild surprises.

For example, economic distress may make the sex industry and gambling less abominable to a conventional city.

To a lesser extent, gay rights may get a friendlier reception in cities that are struggling for economic viability, Sharp says.

On the other hand, Sharp found that a city's economic condition doesn't color how city officials handle abortion conflicts or drug issues.

Sharp concludes that city governments are a "surprisingly important venue for moral issues."

What's surprising about that?

She says, "Many books on city government have associated local government with routine service delivery, not passionate debate. This book debunks that."

Personally, when it comes to passionate political debate, I'm pro-moratorium.

I'd settle for decent trash pickup, bacteria-free water, roads in good repair, schools that teach, affordable health care for my sister-in-law if her diabetes gets worse, a Social Security system that won't go broke and reduced national debt.

When it comes to morality issues and government, I'm all debated out.


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