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8 Reasons It Isn't Just a Blizzard

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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We all know blizzards are said to be make-or-break events for mayors. But the politics of snowstorms isn’t just about how well cities deal with the aftermath and how much it costs. Politics defines how people experience blizzards -- and even how many of them do. Here are eight ways in which politics and blizzards interact:

1. Political decisions, from immigration laws to business subsidies and so on,  have a huge effect on how general regions of the U.S. are populated. This storm is going to be a big deal for the 50 million or so people in the Boston to Washington area. But given different politics over time, more people might have been in the Sun Belt and fewer in the Northeast (imagine, for example, if immigration from Asia had been encouraged throughout U.S. history). Or, consider another what-if: Without the government assistance of the New Deal, which helped spark many of those Sun Belt economies, it’s quite possible that a lot more people would be packed into an even more urbanized Northeast. 

2. Population density, which matters to blizzard responses, is a consequence of political decisions, too. There’s no natural or purely economic reason why New York City and Washington are so different on this measure. (Other measures -- such as DC freakouts over every single flake of snow -- are different stories altogether.)   

3. It isn't just where people live, either; it's also about how they live. Does your neighborhood mostly have wide streets or narrow ones and how is your city laid out? Do cars park on the street? In attached garages? In parking lots? What public transit is there (and how vulnerable is it to snow, rain, wind and other disruptions)? Zoning and other political decisions are behind all of that, and we feel the effects when there’s a blizzard.

4. Political decisions put satellites in orbit and created modern weather forecasting, just as politics determined how the information those satellites gather will be used.

5. Federalism is another factor in snow removal. Federalism involves multiple governments sharing responsibility for the same piece of land (not just states, cities and counties, but various independent-acting authorities and boards). All that complexity can be good (government close to the people might be more responsive), but the need for coordination can cause problems, too -- and democratic responsibility may not work well when it isn't clear to most people who is in charge.

6. Overall government performance is rarely universal. Governments choose which neighborhoods get priority, and political influence can matter for those decisions. The larger picture? The vast differences in the wealth and influence of neighborhoods and larger jurisdictions are often a consequence of political decisions.

7. Politics determines what will be used to melt the snow (no, road salt isn’t the only option).

8. And, yes, research shows that climate change may be making large storms more likely overall.  Choosing the right policies to respond to this possibility is political, too.

Of course, no one was thinking about 21st-century snowstorms when they were debating New York City consolidation in the 1890s or immigration reform in the 1960s, for example. This reminds us that political decisions have effects in the most mundane, yet unforeseen ways decades, even centuries, into the future. Something to think about the next time people say politics is just something that happens in Washington and doesn't really affect our day-to-day lives. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net