Activist state

Reviews | GOP crafts national policy one state at a time

(Illustration from the Washington Post)

Political divisions in the United States are increasingly coming from Washington. America has become sharply divided into Republican-dominated states with a common agenda and Democratic-dominated states with an alternate agenda. Much of America’s uncivil war, as President Biden has described it, stems from states adopting these divergent policies.

About 45% of Americans live in the 25 GOP-dominated states and about 40% in the 16 Democratic states. Indeed, we have two Americas of politics – and only a small fraction of Americans live in a place where one vision or the other is not in motion.

But these two Americas are not parallel. Republicans have been more successful in implementing a unified national agenda through state legislatures and governors. They also use state power in more extreme ways than Democrats – for example, changing election laws and limiting abortion rights so aggressively that these state-level policies are become the center of national political struggles.

These two changes – more party-dominated states and parties pursuing a unified agenda in those states – are not new. I written in 2019 about how blue states passed policies such as marijuana legislation while red states limited abortion rights and expanded gun rights.

But this state divide is widening over time. In 1992, according to Ballotpedia, one party controlled both the state legislature and the governor’s office in 19 states. Today, that number has nearly doubled to 37. In four other states, a party has such a large majority in the legislature that it can override an opposition governor’s veto. to party. And the effects of so many one-party states become clearer. The presidential and electoral divide we’ve seen every four years since 2000 — illustrated graphically by maps showing the southern states and the vast center of the country mostly colored red, while those on the coasts are blue — has rippled through at the state level and in politics.


Republicans dominate

government in 25 states…

…and passed these laws

since January 2021:

Limits on how race and identity are taught in schools

Electoral provisions that make voting more difficult

Creating or expanding school voucher programs

Income tax cuts for high net worth individuals/

companies

Carrying concealed weapons without authorization

Republicans dominate the government

in 25 states…

…and passed these laws

since January 2021:

Limits on how race and identity are taught in schools

Creating or expanding school voucher programs

Electoral provisions that make voting more difficult

Income tax reductions for high net worth individuals/corporations

Carrying concealed weapons without authorization

Republicans dominate government in 25 states…

…and passed these laws

since January 2021:

Limits on how race and identity are taught in schools

Creating or expanding school voucher programs

Electoral provisions that make voting more difficult

Income tax reductions for high net worth individuals/corporations

Carrying concealed weapons without authorization

Republicans dominate government in 25 states…

… and have adopted these laws since January 2021:

Limits on how race and identity are taught in schools

Electoral provisions that make voting more difficult

Creating or expanding school voucher programs

Income tax reductions for high net worth individuals/corporations

Carrying concealed weapons without authorization


Democrats dominate

government in 16 states…

…and passed these laws

since January 2021:

Measures that make it easier to vote

Expand or protect access to abortion

Creation or extension of earned income tax credits

Note: In highlighted states, one party controls the state legislature and governor’s office, or it has enough legislative majority to override an opposing governor’s veto. The list of laws, which may not be exhaustive, has been simplified and consolidated for clarity.

Sources: American Federation for Children, Ballotpedia, Brennan Center for Justice, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Education Week, Giffords Law Center, Guttmacher Institute, Movement Advancement Project, National Conference of State Legislatures, reports.

Democrats dominate

government in 16 states…

…and passed these laws

since January 2021:

Expand or protect access to abortion

Measures that make it easier to vote

Creation or extension of earned income tax credits

Note: In highlighted states, one party controls the state legislature and governor’s office, or it has enough legislative majority to override an opposing governor’s veto. The list of laws, which may not be exhaustive, has been simplified and consolidated for clarity.

Sources: American Federation for Children, Ballotpedia, Brennan Center for Justice, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Education Week, Giffords Law Center, Guttmacher Institute, Movement Advancement Project, National Conference of State Legislatures, reports.

Democrats dominate government in 16 states…

…and passed these laws

since January 2021:

Expand or protect access to abortion

Creation or extension of earned income tax credits

Measures that make it easier to vote

Note: In highlighted states, one party controls the state legislature and governor’s office, or it has enough legislative majority to override an opposing governor’s veto. The list of laws, which may not be exhaustive, has been simplified and consolidated for clarity.

Sources: American Federation for Children, Ballotpedia, Brennan Center for Justice, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Education Week, Giffords Law Center, Guttmacher Institute, Movement Advancement Project, National Conference of State Legislatures, reports.

It is important to note that these graphs and data are only a snapshot of state-level policymaking. There is no formal and comprehensive monitoring of policies at the state level, and legislatures enact or revise laws continuously. But even granting those caveats, the pattern is clear: Republicans are more effective than Democrats at pushing through a cohesive and coordinated agenda at scale, with nearly identical legislation passed from state to state.

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How did the GOP get this advantage?

First, as political scientist Alexander Hertel-Fernandez explains in his book “State Capture”, conservative activists and donors have developed over the decades a powerful infrastructure and set of organizations to advance a coordinated agenda of a way that the progressives did not. The conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, for example, has for years example of written legislation on major issues that GOP state legislators across the country often adopt. Another national conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, has individual state chapters, but couldits political objectives are very similar in many of them.

In contrast, liberal activists and donors have invested more in national politics and in groups that work on individual political issues, instead of state-based strategy. Liberals are trying to catch up now, with groups such as the State Innovation Exchange working with Democratic lawmakers.

But left-wing state political groups are still not as strong as they are on the right. Part of it has to do with fundraising. Wealthy people and businesses have a strong direct incentive to pump money into conservative groups and focus on GOP-led state governments because red states are more likely than blue states to cut taxes and regulations, thus saving the money of the wealthy.

Moreover, the Republican agenda often works better at the state level than in Washington. Polls show that GOP policies such as ban on abortion, tax cuts for the rich and opposition to gun control are unpopular with the majority of the national electorate. So the party pushes these issues into red states where the GOP is unlikely to lose control, instead of trying to push them through Congress and endanger some vulnerable seats in the House or Senate.

Second, Democrats are limited at the state level because much of the party agenda requires funding that states often don’t have. States generally cannot afford alone to dramatically expand pre-K programs, make community college free to all students who wish to attend, and take other measures that Democrats are pushing nationally (though in vain).

Third, there is less division among Republicans than among Democrats. About a year ago, conservative activist Christopher Rufo announced his goal to get critical race theory and other ideas about race and identity banned or limited for 100 million Americans. It appears to have succeeded: such provisions have been adopted in at least 18 states, whose combined population is around 114 million. The wing of the Republican Party aligned with former President Donald Trump dominates politics in the red states – there has been no real resistance to Rufo’s proposals.

By contrast, blue states, much like Democrats in Washington, DC, face major divides between a more conservative, older cohort and a younger, more progressive cohort. Neither party wing is dominant, meaning legislation in blue states often stagnates, much as it has under Democratic control on Capitol Hill for the past year and a half.

Finally, on some key issues such as campaign finance regulation, Democratic-controlled states are not pushing much, fully aware that the conservative-dominated US Supreme Court is likely to strike down such legislation.

That said, I expect the Democrats to become more aggressive and coordinated at the state level, because they can’t get much through Washington now and will likely have even less power there after the November election. And if the Democrats make this change, the policies that affect the lives of citizens and the future of America will vary even more depending on the state in which you live.

We don’t have two Americas – millions of Democrat-leaning people like me live in red states and many Republicans in blue states. But we have two political Americas.