The amount of attention paid to local government in political ideology differs considerably from one political culture to the next. In general, those nations that depend heavily on the British tradition place the greatest emphasis on the idea of local government, particularly local self-government. In the United States during frontier times, vast distances, relatively sparse population, and slow means of transportation and communication made relatively autonomous local governments almost a necessity. Necessities tend to become virtues in political ideologies, and the idea of autonomy for local units has long been emphasized in American ideology.
In France local government, particularly the commune, was seen as an instrument for bringing democratic equality to the people during the French Revolution. This has remained the case, even though Napoleon and his successors reestablished a tradition of central decision making that had been characteristic of France under the monarchy. Even Communist ideology allows for local government.
Thus the relative importance of local government depends heavily on tradition, which in turn influences the prevailing ideology. Because many Americans consider local government particularly important, strong efforts are made to keep it involved in the process of decision making, even in cases where this makes for inefficiency. The national government rarely chooses to use its authority to supersede local governments with regard to a particular function. Hence, local government remains particularly important, not so much out of necessity but because the national government voluntarily restricts its activities in deference to the prevailing ideology.
In France and in nations that have copied French systems, local government tends to be viewed as a series of administrative units. Fundamental policy is determined centrally and distributed throughout the system by the prefects of the departments. Rather than emphasizing local decision-making autonomy, the French system has developed feedback devices that enable local views to be heard in Paris. For example, the mayors of large French cities commonly are also members of Parliament.
In Japan regional and local governments were important during the long period of feudalism, but centralization was emphasized in the modern government established after the Meiji restoration of 1867. The extremely rapid changes that took place in the following decades probably helped to weaken commitments to earlier practice, and local governments were given little autonomy or popular loyalty in the first half of the 20th century. The constitution adopted after World War II sought to reestablish an emphasis on local governments, and efforts were made to strengthen these institutions. However, the tradition of centralization reasserted itself. Although political leaders for local government were elected, popular interest in and loyalty to local governments remain relatively low.
In the West German Federal Republic, local government is probably of greater importance than it is in any of the other nations of continental Europe. Germany has a long tradition of autonomy in local government. The primitive German tribes had a form of democratic local government, and the free cities of the Hanseatic League represented a late medieval example of the city-state. The German states were not brought together into a single nation until 1871.
Considerable autonomy for local government was often possible in essentially rural nations with slow rates of social change and high levels of consensus on public policy. Urbanization, however, has tended to discourage such autonomy. In France, Italy, and Japan, for example, moderate or conservative governments, which dominate at the national level, often are dependent on political support from rural areas and small cities. They are reluctant, therefore, to extend greater amounts of autonomy to local governments in large cities dominated by the political left. In the United States since the 1860s a similar pattern has prevailed in many states where the Democratic party has been dominant in the largest cities while the state government has been in the hands of the Republican party.