Federalism gone wild: How Republicans seized power in state capitals — and reshaped America

Most discussion of politics still focuses on Washington, but conquering state capitals is central to GOP power

Published June 15, 2018 11:00AM (EDT)

Public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill at the Kentucky State Capitol. (Getty/Bill Pugliano)
Public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill at the Kentucky State Capitol. (Getty/Bill Pugliano)

The people have spoken, repeatedly. But in America their desires are consistently ignored by the country's elected officials, especially Republicans. There are many examples: On issues such as tax policy, gun control, health care, foreign policy, civil rights and the environment the Republican Party is out of step and against the policies which the American people actually want to see enacted. Yet Republicans maintain total legislative control in 26 states, hold 33 governorships, both chambers of the Congress and the presidency.

Because of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other anti-democratic tactics, this has allowed the Republican Party to force increasingly extreme (and unpopular) policies on to the American people. This is a reflection of a broader dynamic where the country's politics are increasingly polarized and hyper-partisan. Such a dynamic was once the province of political elites on the national level and those citizens who were highly educated and knowledgeable about politics. In the last few decades this polarization and hyper-partisanship has trickled down from the federal to the state level. The result is a gross distortion of America's federal system and separation of powers, where a given person's rights and freedoms--and thus life opportunities--can vary dramatically from one part of the United States to another.

New research by University of California, Berkeley, scholar Jacob M. Grumbach in the June 2018 edition of the journal Perspectives on Politics explores this new reality. In "From Backwaters to Major Policymakers: Policy Polarization in the States, 1970–2014" Grumbach explores this:

In a 2011 phone call with a radio host impersonating David Koch, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker explained that he was part of a national movement of conservative governors who “got elected to do something big” across their states. Democratic governors have similarly called for coordinated efforts by Democratic state governments to oppose initiatives by the Trump administration and Republican Congress. If their rhetoric is to be believed, politicians at the state level believe they are engaged in major struggles over the direction of public policy in the United States. ...

The analyses show a large increase in policy variation and a tightening relationship between party control and policy change in recent years. Across each issue area, the range of state policies has increased. For instance, the difference between the most restrictive states for abortion and the least restrictive states has expanded since Roe v. Wade (1973). This variation is increasingly related to party control of government; prior to 2000, whether a state was controlled by Democrats or Republicans said little about the policies it would adopt, but the parties have implemented highly divergent policy agendas after 2000.

Grumbach continues, "Rather than a decentralized federalist system with vertical differences across levels and horizontal differences across regions, American governmental institutions look increasingly like a single arena of partisan combat over public policy."

While political polarization between Republicans and Democrats has increasingly impacted a large range of political issues and public policies since the 1970s, there are two areas where there has been relative stability and a convergence of views:

In contrast, education and criminal justice policies are — uniquely — non-polarized. In education, Democratic state governments pass school choice and charter school laws, and spend at similar rates to Republican state governments. In criminal justice, Democratic and Republican states both instituted “tough on crime” laws that led to mass incarceration. ...

Despite the social importance and comparative punitiveness of American criminal justice policy, its politics has been mostly bipartisan as the parties compete to be perceived as “tough on crime.”

I recently spoke with Grumbach about how extreme political polarization at the state level has created a new challenge for creating and maintaining a healthy democracy, the role of right-wing interest groups and organizations such as the Koch brothers in creating and exploiting this divide, and how pundits and journalists often ignore the high stakes and broader implications of state-level politics for the lives of the average American.

From your research perspective, how was Donald Trump able to win the 2016 election? What does your research on public opinion, public policy and the actions of elected officials signal about the 2018 midterms?

There are a thousand relevant causes for his win. The recent debate has been about the importance of "economic anxiety" versus racism for his supporters. It's really clear that racial resentment predicts white people's support for Trump. When you look at non-college-educated whites, Trump's base, his supporters aren't the ones struggling most economically.

But it's important to zoom out a bit and take a longer view. The American public didn't suddenly get more racist or sexist. Republican candidates have long used racist dog-whistle politics, but Trump turned the dog whistle into a megaphone to capitalize on racism and xenophobia in the public. He was able to sell himself as a champion of the white working class, even though in office he has pushed the same old plutocratic economic agenda. He capitalized on sensationalist mainstream media that focused on things like the "Comey letter" and built support through new right-wing media like Breitbart with help from big funders like Robert Mercer. The Republican establishment and big business expressed a lot of concern about Trump, but never really invested in blocking him.

The midterms are about turning out the base. The question is whether the rising enthusiasm in the Democratic base will be enough. The Democrats face huge geographic disadvantages due to clustering of Democrats in big cities, as well as Republican successes in gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and restrictions on Democratic-aligned organizations like public sector labor unions.

What do pundits and journalists misunderstand about what is going on in state-level politics and its relationship to national politics?

State governments are dramatically underemphasized. While Congress and the national government have been gridlocked in a lot of ways, states have implemented important policies with big consequences for people's lives. Compared to a generation ago, Democratic and Republican state governments now push totally separate policy agendas in areas like abortion, health care, immigration and taxes. Because of these different policies, Democratic states are increasingly likely to improve health insurance coverage compared to Republican states.

The policies offered by the Republican Party and movement conservative more generally are quite unpopular with the American people. But, Republicans control state, local and national government, and increasingly dominate the courts. How do we explain this? 

The Republicans have big geographic and other advantages in elections. The biggest issue is that Democrats are concentrated in big cities but Republicans are more evenly spread out, so Republicans "waste" fewer votes in landslide victories. But Republicans have also succeeded in gerrymandering district boundaries to advantage themselves further. And Republican state governments have passed laws that restrict the ability of organizations like labor unions to get involved in politics. Lastly, the types of voters who tend to be Republican -- older, whiter, wealthier -- are more likely to turn out in midterms. 

What is the role of right-wing interest groups and big money ideologues such as the Koch brothers in this dynamic of state-level polarization?

Organizations in the Koch brothers' network, like Americans for Prosperity, as well as other billionaire-financed organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have been critical to the spread of major conservative policies in the states, from "stand your ground" gun laws to labor union restrictions to environmental deregulation.

My newest research points to the important role of activist groups, which have big money but also real human activists. State legislative candidates now count on much larger amounts of fundraising from individual activists who are affiliated with groups like the NRA, or, on the progressive side, environmental groups like Sierra Club and pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood. Research from Josh Kalla and David Broockman shows that donors are more likely to get a meeting with a state legislator. I show that money from these activist donors makes Democrats more liberal and Republicans more conservative.

We ostensibly have a federal system. But this state-level polarization robs people of basic rights depending on where they live -- reproductive freedom, for example. That seems to undermine the principle that basic rights and liberties are granted to all Americans under the Constitution. How did things go so wrong -- or right, depending on one's point of view?

The system of federalism in the United States has shifted over the past generation. States have become more important in shaping the policies that affect our day to day lives. This wasn't always the case.

From the 1930s through the 1970s, the national government passed important laws that restricted what states could do. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act fundamentally changed life and politics in the South. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid raised standards for retirement and health care across the states. National environmental laws like the Clean Air Act meant that coal and oil states couldn't just let fossil fuel companies do whatever they wanted.

But since the 1970s a generation of conservative politicians, judges and activists championed what they called "New Federalism," which would limit national policy and return power to the states -- and in many ways they succeeded. In 2012, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that state governments should have the choice whether to accept or reject Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). This allowed for big differences in health insurance coverage between states.

But I also find in my research that Democratic state governments have tried to pick up where the national government left off. The national government cut taxes on the rich from about 70 percent to 35 percent, but Democratic states like California raised their own taxes as a substitute: Not enough to make up for the national cuts, but some. One provision in the welfare reform law under Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress in 1996 was a restriction on covering legal immigrants with programs like welfare and Medicaid. In response, some Democratic state governments used their own budgets to continue to cover legal immigrants. (Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for pretty much everything at all levels.)

All of this is made possible by the fact that the United States has a federal system -- a system where states and the national government are both recognized and protected in the Constitution. For the first 150 years of U.S. history, the states were much more important. Most importantly, while no state was free from institutional racism, the state you lived in determined if slavery was legal and, later, whether Jim Crow and domestic lynching terrorism were legal.

Federalism -- the existence of states with their own authority -- helps powerful minorities block national laws. Federalism helped slavery persist even when the Northern free states had larger populations and more seats in Congress. Federalism also gives big business and wealthy individuals opportunities to "capture" states. Coal companies have long dominated politics in states like Kentucky and West Virginia, but they wouldn't be as able to dominate national politics as effectively if states didn't exist.

Your work highlights how "law and order" appeals -- which are often little more than dog-whistle racism -- is one area where Democrats and Republicans overlap. Can you explain that a bit more?

In the United States, almost all of criminal justice and incarceration is run at the state level. The United States has by far the largest number of people (and percentage of the population) in prison, and state governments were key to this. Today, Democratic candidates talk about criminal justice reform and reducing prison populations, but this is a big change. From the 1970s to the 1990s, both Democratic and Republican state governments passed "tough on crime" laws like "three strikes" and mandatory minimum sentencing, and empowered prosecutors.

What role does asymmetric polarization play in your story about American politics in this moment?

The evidence is clear that the Republican Party, at both the national and state levels, is uniquely extreme. It's extreme in its policy agenda -- it strongly opposes policies to tackle climate change, for instance. It's extreme in its legislative voting -- Republican legislators vote in more consistently partisan patterns than Democrats. And it's extreme in its "take no prisoners" political style of exploiting any potential advantage. Republican state governments have been wildly successful in a few areas, such as restricting abortion rights and labor unions.

Why does political polarization on the state level matter for the average American?

Whether your state is controlled by Democrats or Republicans is now extremely important for your life. It determines your ability to obtain emergency contraception or an abortion, your tax rates, your state's pollution levels, your minimum wage, your ability to get health insurance, your ability to vote without a photo ID, your ability to use marijuana and much more. One of the most important areas is immigration. Some Democratic state and local politicians are using their authority to push back against ICE incursions.

This wasn't as true a generation ago, when the national government was passing many important laws that made states more similar. The question going forward is whether the national government will return to passing big laws that override state policies. For example, the Republican Congress and the Trump administration have talked about eliminating the Affordable Care Act, attacking state protections for immigrants, and pushing back against state marijuana laws. Their ability to do this will depend on the 2018 midterms.

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By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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