The War for Democracy in America Will Be Lost—or Won—in the States
In his concurrence with the majority decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Justice Brett Kavanaugh made a familiar argument about the states. “The Court’s decision properly leaves the question of abortion for the people and their elected representatives in the democratic process,” he wrote, by allowing “the numerous States” to decide the matter. Kavanaugh’s claim rested upon an abiding myth: that state governments are more accurate representations of the will of the people and therefore more democratic than the federal government.
But are they? This is the question at the heart of Jacob M. Grumbach’s landmark book, Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics. While many recent books, understandably, fixate on Donald Trump’s menace to democracy, Grumbach proposes that “it was the states that were the wrecking ball [of democracy], clearing a path for Trumpism throughout the American political system.” By undermining labor unions, for example, Republican states have driven down Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts, beginning with Wisconsin under Scott Walker and spreading to Michigan and beyond. Research has shown that the passage of state right-to-work laws on average reduces Democrats’ share of the presidential vote by 3.5 percent. Trump won Wisconsin and Michigan by less than one percentage point.
At the state level, the views most likely to prevail are not those of the people but of powerful corporations. Corporations use the threat of taking their operations to a different, more favorable state, in order to coerce state governments into giving them tax incentives, regulatory relief, and other benefits that can—and often do—outweigh the value of the employment they provide. The rivalry they set off among states works in their favor to lower wage and other standards, as federalism’s current advocates on the right well understand.
Well-resourced players gain even more leverage from the catastrophic decline in media coverage of state politics. The number of full-time reporters on this beat bled down by a third in just the decade from 2003 to 2014. The same period saw the rise of social media, which directs attention toward divisive national issues. Without robust local media to keep the focus on candidates for state office and their policies, state governments have become “voters’ ‘electoral blind spot.’” State legislators have the ability to operate in the dark. This, combined with their relative inexperience and lack of resources, leaves state legislators particularly in thrall to capital and wealthy donors.
Even the most unpopular state actions are rarely punished at the polls. When the state legislature of Wisconsin, long a moderate pro-choice state, enacted one the nation’s most restrictive gestation limits on legal abortion in 2015, the legislators who voted for it faced no penalty—even though public opinion was becoming more liberal on the issue. Similarly, even as public support for increased education spending grew, state governments cut education budgets. The exceptions Grumbach finds are telling: Only on LGBTQ rights and marijuana legalization has public opinion led to changes in state policies—responsiveness that cost nothing on issues that are also easy for voters to understand and monitor.
The relative inability of even the most attentive citizens to hold state legislatures accountable for serving special interests is compounded by gerrymandering, which has profoundly distorted the voters’ will. My own state, North Carolina, is a case in point: In 2018, Republicans won less than half of the vote, yet the legislative map they created awarded that minority party 10 of 13 congressional seats (77 percent) and a near supermajority in the state legislature. One expert Grumbach cites calls this “the most gerrymandered map in modern history.” Its shameless designer said he would have drawn the districts to ensure 11 seats for Republicans and only two for Democrats if he could have found a way. These are the deformed systems of representation that are deciding state policy on abortion, education, health care access, the penal system, and much, much more. They bear no resemblance to those Justice Kavanaugh imagines in his paeans to the virtues of federalism.
A quantitative political scientist, Grumbach has developed a new and sophisticated method to measure just how bad things have gotten in many places, including North Carolina and Wisconsin, which saw “precipitous drops in democratic performance after 2010.” His “State Democracy Index” compares changes in states between 2000 and 2018 across multiple measures, such as the difficulty of voter registration, the extent of gerrymandering, the criminalization of protest, incarceration rates, election turnout rates, voting wait times, and more. What it reveals is a systematic divergence between states based on which party controls government, with many Democrat-controlled states providing for more robust democracy and Republican-controlled states devising ways to constrict it.
Grumbach deploys his impressive tool kit to solve an important puzzle: Why has policy changed so dramatically in so many states, particularly “red” states, without significant shifts in public opinion? After all, there was little demand among ordinary voters for most of the stark policy changes that many legislatures enacted, from anti-union measures to radical gerrymandering to steep cuts in taxes on corporations and the wealthiest residents, let alone their rejection of Medicaid expansion, curbing of environmental protections, and adoption of Stand Your Ground laws, which in Florida notoriously enabled Trayvon Martin’s killer to escape punishment.
Grumbach offers two answers. One starts from the fact that in the majority of states today, one party has control over the state assembly, state Senate, and the governorship. Republicans currently hold 23 trifectas, and Democrats 15. Only 12 states have divided government. As a result of this development, Grumbach argues, the national parties have seen an opening to focus on the states, where they can pass agendas that would face gridlock in Congress. He describes states “dominated by national groups who [can] exploit the low-information environments of amateurish and resource-constrained state legislatures, declining local news media, and identity-focused voters.” While this case sometimes makes it seem like both parties are doing the same thing, Grumbach’s second explanation suggests otherwise. From his cumulative index, Grumbach predicts something that should alarm all of us: “Republican control of [state] government will be democracy-reducing.”
In states under Republican control, that is, Republican legislators have adopted a range of measures to hold down participation of voters from the rival party—from grabbing far more than their fair share of seats in redistricting to criminalizing the distribution of water to people waiting hours to vote in Georgia. This is a national Republican strategy that was enabled by the Supreme Court’s 2013 pro-federalist decision, Shelby County v. Holder. That 5–4 ruling swept away the key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of voter suppression to pre-clear any changes in voting systems with the Justice Department. Almost immediately those states adopted various schemes to hold down the Democratic vote share. They included purges of registration lists, ending preregistration programs for young voters and same-day registration for all voters, curtailing early voting periods and sites, and requiring a limited variety of state-issued voter IDs. (A Texas voter ID law, resurrected immediately after Shelby by then–Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, would have excluded some 600,000 registered voters had successful civil rights litigation not barred its implementation.)
Why does all this matter so much? Even though most Americans cannot name their state representatives, state legislatures decide key elements of their quality of life: the strength of their schools; the extent of health and welfare provision and public services; how at risk they and their children will be from gun violence and tobacco smoke; and whether they will have access to clean air and water and other environmental protections, let alone a legal right to abortion.
Public health researchers have found that since federal powers were devolved to the states, beginning in the Reagan era, even life expectancy has diverged sharply according to which party controls state government. In 1980, the difference in life expectancy at birth in New York and Mississippi was 1.6 years; now it is 5.5 years. As New York’s life expectancy has approached Denmark’s, Mississippi’s has slid down to Romania’s. The “excess deaths,” as the field refers to them, result from policy choices. If you live in a red state, you now can expect to die earlier than you would in a blue state.
The climax of Grumbach’s account is the chapter “Laboratories of Democratic Backsliding.” Here he demonstrates in detail how Republican elected officials have turned on its head Justice Louis Brandeis’s classic argument that states serve as “laboratories of democracy.” Today’s GOP uses the states it controls to carry out experiments in choking democracy; other red state legislatures then import those same measures. Several, for instance, copied Scott Walker’s attacks on unions and the North Carolina GOP’s attacks on one person, one equal vote. Prior to the Republican takeover of 2010, both Wisconsin and North Carolina were among the most democratic in the nation; now they rival Deep South states like Mississippi for the distinction of being the least democratic.
Readers may discern an internal tension in the case Grumbach is making. On the one hand, he argues that the “nationalization of [both] parties” is driving the growing split between states, with each party shifting resources to the state level. On the other hand, deeper in the book one finds a more hard-hitting analysis that suggests something else at work here. Republicans working at the state level are simply “more active, extreme, and nationally coordinated” than their counterparts across the aisle. Later, Grumbach notes that as special interest donor money rises, “the Republicans in the state legislature become more conservative” but that “we don’t see the same for Democrats."
Yet Laboratories Against Democracy does not look closely at the donor influence driving GOP extremism. While Grumbach mentions the outsize role of the fossil fuel industry, for example, he spends little time examining how that influence plays out. Ditto the most influential Republican “investor coalition,” to borrow a term from Thomas Ferguson’s field-defining quantitative studies of the impact of money in politics—the network of billionaire and multimillionaire donors convened by Charles Koch. Indeed, Grumbach groups the Koch network with MoveOn at one point as analogous “interest group activists” influencing state politics. To compare these two groups is beyond apples and oranges: It’s cannon ball versus tennis ball.
The Koch donor network funds literally hundreds of organizations with an integrated division of labor, whereby many of them put out toxic disinformation, especially on climate change and alleged voter fraud. The most recent calculation of its political spending on these organizations in the 2020 election cycle put it at $1.1 billion. MoveOn is a single organization, with fewer than 50 staff, which engages in online petitioning and advocacy and fundraising for candidates. It aspired to raise $20 million in 2020. Grumbach suggests a false equivalence, perpetuating old norms of evenhandedness that are preventing many in the media and academy alike from conveying forthrightly the authoritarian peril now coming from the political right alone.
Grumbach uses phrases such as “as the parties polarize,” when in fact there is no such equal motion, as other parts of this book and other books prove. One party has turned against democracy, cynically exploiting federalism to its advantage. The other party is scrambling to curb that takeover after the fact, its members and leaders having been obsessed with national and city politics and all but oblivious to the states.
What is to be done? If Democrats claim larger majorities after the 2022 midterms, then, Grumbach proposes, pro-democracy coalitions should deploy “the power they gain at the national level to shift authority upward and away from the state level, where budgets are constrained, voters have less information, business and the wealthy can quickly flood political battles with money—and where threats to democracy continue to arise.” The problems that come from the states require greater vigilance and ongoing voter mobilization in all of them, but also the kinds of national structural democracy reforms that Democrats in Congress support nearly unanimously, with the exceptions of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. With two more Democrats in the Senate, that is, and a House majority, America could have automatic voter registration (like most democracies), campaign finance reform, independent redistricting instead of partisan gerrymandering, greater election security, and better ethics rules, including for the Supreme Court.
Federalism is killing us. It is doing so quite literally, in rising morbidity and mortality in Republican-dominated states. It is doing so figuratively in the way some of its enthusiasts work to divide us by race, religion, sexuality, and immigration status to the point that some on the right are embracing not only violence but visions of secession and civil war. The right’s exploitation of state control of elections has put the United States on par with Poland, Slovenia, and Hungary as a faltering democracy.
It is past time to give up the myth that federalism is an advantage of the U.S. system of government. Its defenders must come to terms with the hard truth: Even the most equal U.S. states—the poster cases of both democratic and Democratic governance—are less equal than other major democracies that don’t have our unusually decentralized system. Not coincidentally, that system came at the insistence of most arch defenders of human enslavement at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, men who well understood that the national government might one day turn the premise of the Declaration of Independence against their extreme variant of capitalism. And now, Republican elected officials and their backers are enlisting that exceptional federalism to strangle democracy, state conquest by state conquest.
Laboratories Against Democracy reminds Americans of an essential truth: We all live in states. And they are diverging more rapidly than we can track, in a manner that exposes Justice Kavanaugh’s happy talk about how this court’s decisions will work in practice as cynical in the extreme. One conclusion is inescapable: The war for democracy in America will be lost—or won—in the states. The reality in the U.S. today is the opposite of what Kavanaugh avowed. Federalism is not the solution to our problems. Federalism is the problem.
Nancy MacLean is the William H. Chafe Distinguished Professor of History and Public Policy and author most recently of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.
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