Back in 1932, the U.S. Supreme Court settled a dispute between two ice salesmen in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma had a law requiring a license to sell ice. The Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional.
This little-remembered case would be totally forgotten if not for one line in its dissent. Justice Louis Brandeis wrote he would have let the law stand. If Oklahoma wants to meddle in ice sales, Brandeis wrote, well, go ahead, maybe they’ll figure out something useful for the rest of us.
“A single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country,” Brandeis wrote.
Ever since, Brandeis’ turn of phrase — states as the “laboratories of democracy” — has served as one of the bedrock defenses of our federalist system of government.
But in recent years, as national political parties have become more partisan and more organized, they’ve changed the way federalism operates, argues Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington.
In a new book, Grumbach writes that states are no longer looking at each other to see what works and what doesn’t to improve the lives of their residents. Rather, he says, they’re looking to the national political parties for guidance on policy, ideology and objectives.
“Today’s nationally coordinated parties have fundamentally changed the way that American federalism operates,” Grumbach writes in his book, “Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics.” “State governments do not serve as a safety valve for national politics. Instead they exacerbate national challenges.”
Rather than looking at each other and emulating what policies work, states are looking at political parties and emulating what helps them win.
And, as the book’s title points to, states, particularly Republican-controlled ones, are making changes that make government less representative, less responsive, less democratic, Grumbach says.
Anecdotal examples of this abound.
In 2020, in Kansas, a Republican state Senate leader was caught on tape promising donors they could draw congressional districts to elect more national Republicans, if only they could first get money to elect more state-level Republicans.
In 2018, in Wisconsin, Democratic candidates won 53% of the vote in races for state Assembly. They won only 36% of the seats in the state Assembly.
In 2016, in North Carolina, Republicans lost the race for governor and the Legislature immediately passed a law limiting the power of the governor, to take effect just as the newly elected Democrat took office.
In 2021, 19 states passed laws making it harder to vote. All but two of them were controlled by Republicans.
And this year, Democrats have gotten more aggressive in states like Illinois, Oregon and Nevada, in drawing their own gerrymanders to counteract Republican advantages elsewhere, an example of how national party influence in one state can fuel a cascade of anti-democratic actions in others.
There have long been various statistics to measure how democratic different countries around the world are. Grumbach offers the first measure to quantify the more subtle variations in democracy among the 50 states.
Grumbach’s “State Democracy Index” is composed of 51 variables — things like gerrymandering, voting restrictions, postelection audits and responsiveness to constituent opinion — that are aggregated to give each state a democracy score.
He calculated each state’s score, a figure generally between -2 and 2 from 2000 to 2018.
The results are stark. In 2000, states were clustered fairly closely together. Democratic-controlled, Republican-controlled and split-controlled states all averaged Democracy Indexes between 0 and 0.5.
But in the nearly two decades since, they diverged. States with split government or Democratic control averaged a very slight improvement in their Democracy Index scores. States under Republican control saw their average scores plummet, to nearly -1.
“The results are overwhelmingly clear — and concerning,” Grumbach writes. “The results of this analysis point to the Republican Party as the antidemocracy coalition in American politics and state governments as a key venue in which they are pursuing their goals. Pointing squarely at the GOP — naming names — is not common in American politics research or journalism.”
Washington, incidentally, had one of the two biggest swings toward democracy of any state since 2000, driven largely by reforms — all-mail voting, same-day voter registration, online voter registration — that have made it easier to vote.
Grumbach, 34, has been at the UW since 2019, but the research that led to the book began years before. In the early 2010s as then-President Barack Obama and a Republican-controlled Congress largely butted heads in legislative gridlock, Grumbach saw dramatic policymaking happening on the state level.
But it was happening concurrently with new and extreme gerrymanders in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, allowing, Grumbach said, state legislators to pass policy with an added level of insulation from voters. If legislators are gerrymandered into safe partisan districts, their electoral concerns can become less about passing policies that are too extreme, and more about how to appeal to the extremes of their party.
“I started noticing, oh, it’s much deeper than just policy action moves to the state level,” he said. “It’s actually like it’s a different type of politics and one that can actually be a threat to democracy.”
Local and state governments are supposed to be closer to the people, more responsive, easier venues to turn the voters’ will into action.
But, Grumbach says, for a variety of reasons — gerrymandering, decline of local news, big investments from national groups in local issues, voters’ ties to a national party — that’s largely become a myth.
He sees it playing out now, after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The nation is notoriously split on abortion, but there are only eight states where more than 50% of voters think abortion should be mostly illegal, according to a recent New York Times analysis of 10 years of surveys.
But in about half the states, abortion is now mostly illegal or soon could be. Wisconsin, widely seen as one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, now has one of the most stringent abortion bans in the country.
“Because state policies are traditionally understood to be highly responsive to public opinion, one might assume that the Wisconsin law reflected the preferences of the mass public,” Grumbach writes. “It did not.”
Polling shows 54% of Wisconsin voters think abortion should be legal.
The contesting of the 2020 presidential election, and what it could foreshadow in future presidential elections, is sort of like the apotheosis of Grumbach’s argument.
In 2020, the Donald Trump campaign had a plan to put forward fraudulent slates of electors in seven states where Joe Biden won the election. The plan fizzled.
But fears remain that a state legislature, pressured by a national political party, could present an alternate slate of presidential electors, against the express wishes of its voting citizens.
“It’s like a low-probability, highly catastrophic event,” Grumbach said. “But the fact that there is some possibility of that in the 2024 presidential election from state legislatures is a huge deal.”
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