Republicans have gained a lot of electoral ground in the states, while building an impressive infrastructure of conservative organizations to push policy rightward. But have they succeeded? Alex Hertel-Fernandez finds that organizations of conservative legislators, advocacy groups, and think tanks jointly shifted state policy and neutered their political opponents. But Matt Grossmann finds that despite major gains in the states, Republicans did not transform the size or scope of state government or counteract liberal social trends. Where they did have influence, the results on the ground were limited. These studies pinpoint both the strengths and limits of the conservative ascendency in the states.
Studies: “Red State Blues: How the Conservative Revolution Stalled in the States”; “State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States — and the Nation”
Interview: Alex Hertel-Fernandez, Columbia University
Matt Grossmann: This week on The Science of Politics, what have conservatives achieved in U.S. state governments? From the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Republicans have gained a lot of electoral ground in the States while building an impressive infrastructure of conservative organizations to push policy rightward, but have they succeeded? On this special conversational edition of the podcast, I talk to Alex Hertel-Fernandez of Columbia University about his recent Oxford book, State Capture. He finds that organizations have conservative legislators, advocacy groups, and think tanks jointly shifted state policy and neuter their political opponents. We also talk about my new Cambridge book, Red State Blues.
Matt Grossmann: I find that despite major gains in the States, Republicans did not transform the size or scope of state government or counteract liberal social trends. Where they did have influence, the results on the ground were limited. Those takes are quite different, but together the books pinpoint both the strengths and the limits of the conservative ascendancy in the States.
Matt Grossmann: Alex, let’s start with your book, State Capture. How would you summarize the findings and what are the biggest takeaways?
Alex Hertel-F.: Well, thanks so much for having me on, Matt. It’s a real pleasure and not just because I have enjoyed listening to this podcast, but also because I’ve learned a lot from the work that you’ve done and really enjoyed reading and digging into Red State Blues and thinking about the ways in which it both compliments and also takes a slightly different perspective from State Capture. I’m really looking forward to this conversation.
Alex Hertel-F.: State Capture really tries to nail down three different types of arguments, answering three different questions. One of them is how conservatives have managed to construct organizations that build power within and across the states. That’s a question about building coalitions and organizations. I focus in particular on three organizations that I call the conservative Troika, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the State Policy Network, and Americans for Prosperity.
Alex Hertel-F.: I look over the course of the past several decades at how these organizations were created and the different ways that they evolved to help conservatives build power at the state level. The second strand of the argument in State Capture asks what effect these organizations have had. It moves from the inside of these organizations outwards and asks what are the concrete policy victories that they’ve enjoyed and why have they been more successful in some states relative to others?
Alex Hertel-F.: Then the final part of the book asks why Progressives and liberals have had a more difficult time constructing cross state networks of their own that could build left leading power to pass liberal legislation and move policy and politics in a more leftward direction?
Matt Grossmann: Let’s talk a little about that middle part. What have been the big areas of successes and the notable failures?
Alex Hertel-F.: It’s changed over time the areas where conservatives have been most successful. We can get into the reasons why it’s changed over time. Part of that has to do with the ebbs and flows of electoral trends in the states as well as the changing nature of the two parties and the ways in which the Republican party has become much more unified in its conservative stances.
Alex Hertel-F.: But in general, looking over the course of the past several decades, I would point to the ways that these organizations have helped block or undermine important progressive initiatives. Starting most recently, I think these conservative networks have played a very important role in blocking the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the landmark health reform legislation passed under the Obama administration. This is involved both stymieing implementation of the state by state exchanges, but also even more importantly, blocking states from expanding Medicaid to cover previously uninsured poor adults, which was a major way in which the Affordable Care Act was intended to expand health insurance coverage.
Alex Hertel-F.: While a growing number of states have accepted this Medicaid expansion, there still remains over a dozen states that have refused to do so. We’ve seen these conservative networks push states to reject expansion even when citizens have voted sometimes by very large margins to expand Medicaid through ballot initiatives and similar processes.
Matt Grossmann: Let’s start with that one. How should we think about that? We have 14 states that didn’t expand Medicaid. We have quite a few that tried to put on some sort of additional provisions to make it less likely that more people would sign up for it. But on the other hand, we have 36 states that doubled the size of their largest state program in response to a democratic federal initiative. So, is that success or failure?
Alex Hertel-F.: To some extent, it depends on whether you interpret it as being a glass half full or half empty for conservatives. I would come down on the side that we need to judge conservative successes by the original benchmarks that Democrats created to judge the Affordable Care Act. Under the original framework envisioned by congressional Democrats and the Obama administration, the Affordable Care Act was supposed to implement Medicaid expansion across all the states. They created a system of carrots and sticks that they assumed would lead states to choose to expand Medicaid even in very conservative places.
Alex Hertel-F.: The fact that you have over a dozen states mostly concentrated in the South that have refused expansion, you have a pretty important setback to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Just to be clear in concrete terms, this encompasses several million definitionally poor Americans and disproportionately people of color who don’t have access to health insurance plans that were envisioned by the framers of the Affordable Care Act.
Matt Grossmann: Of course made possible by the Supreme Court ruling that they kind of eliminated the opportunity to take away all Medicaid funds or to tie all Medicaid funds to that expansion. This is a place where you and I both find consequences on the ground that are attributable to that decision to expand or not. But this seems to be part of a pattern that you and I have interpreted somewhat differently, that conservatives seem to be better able to block liberal initiatives than to succeed in creating their own. Is that a fair assessment?
Alex Hertel-F.: I think that’s a fair assessment that this holds both at the state level, and at the national level, and in cross national comparison too that we’ve seen the biggest successes, especially when we think about the welfare state on the conservative side, coming from encouraging governments to fail to take action, to address new social risks or to adapt social programs in ways that would expand their coverage to keep up with changing social and economic contexts.
Alex Hertel-F.: I think you see this play out over the states as well. The Affordable Care Act is one great example of this. Another one is of course the minimum wage because of conservative opposition at the federal level. The federal government Congress has declined to increase the minimum wage to reflect changes in the economy both in terms of the composition of the workforce for whom the minimum wage fines. Then also when it comes to making sure that the minimum wage keeps up with inflation.
Alex Hertel-F.: As a result, states and localities have really become the main policy makers when it comes to the minimum wage. There you’ve seen the conservative networks like the ones that I described in the book being very successful in pushing state lawmakers to stymie minimum wage increases. They’ve done that both by preventing minimum wage legislation from coming up for a vote and voting on that legislation and also by using a tool called preemption. That’s where state governments can set limits on the policies that are passed by cities and localities within particular states.
Alex Hertel-F.: The conservative networks that I described in State Capture have been quite aggressive in using preemption to stop minimum wage increases by blue cities in Red States. As I show in the book, Alec in particular helps spread the use of this preemption to well over half of the population. Over half of the population lives in a state that has passed a state law saying that cities and localities can’t pass minimum wage increases that go beyond what the state has said that effectively prevents say a city like Milwaukee or Madison and Wisconsin from passing higher minimum wages.
Matt Grossmann: This is another good example of interpretive difference of the same trends. On the one hand we have nationwide activism toward expanding the minimum wage, including to $15. In some cities we also have states like Michigan where they succeeded in raising the minimum wage, but only because the Republican state legislators decided they were too scared for it to go to a ballot initiative where a higher minimum wage would have been secured. They passed another minimum wage hike that wasn’t as big as the one that voters were likely to support.
Matt Grossmann: On the one hand, you have Republicans succeeding and blocking what is a clearly popular liberal initiative. On the other hand, the trend is for states to move beyond what the federal government sets in terms of the minimum wage.
Alex Hertel-F.: Well, I guess I would clarify that by saying the trend among states that are fully democratically controlled or where it’s possible for voters to directly decide on the minimum wage, the trend is one towards higher minimum wages. But in states that are fully Republican controlled and where these conservative networks are strong, you’re seeing movement to prevent increases in the minimum wage even from cities where there is energy, momentum mobilization like the fight for 15 movement pushing in that direction.
Alex Hertel-F.: But I think more generally, this gets at a theoretical question about interpretation, which is to say, what’s the right benchmark against which we should be judging actions by the states? Just like on the Affordable Care Act, when it comes to the minimum wage, the background is not one of neutrality. The background is one where the federal government has stepped back and said, “We’re not going to update this policy, putting the onus on the States to take action.” Therefore, you can view the action by blue states like California and New York to increase their minimum wages as a sign of the progressive policy innovation in the States. Or you can look to it as those states trying to maintain the gains that have already been made previously as a result of drift or a failure to update policies at the federal level.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah. I think this is constant across a lot of different issues. We also saw it in climate change where liberals would need pretty aggressive success at the state level to actually move the needle on that policy issue. There have certainly been efforts by Republicans, successful efforts, to block those initiatives. On the other hand, if you just count up what kinds of policies are passing in the states, you do see a lot of changes toward more renewable energy. You might consider the trends liberal but not enough to actually do anything to solve the problem.
Alex Hertel-F.: That’s right. I think that’s a fair characterization that the benchmark against which we should be judging activity by the states is, does this meet the scale of the problem thinking about the nation as a whole, while the actions that states are taking in particular blue states are taking in adopting requirements that utilities use renewable energies for instance, or making it more cost effective for households and businesses to install solar panels on their houses. Those are important steps to be sure.
Alex Hertel-F.: But when we think about the scale of the policy response that’s needed to move the needle on climate change, it’s ultimately going to take federal action, not action by blue states or states where liberals have built up a strong political presence.
Matt Grossmann: Another point that I took from you is that the Republicans have had the most success or some of the most success where they have these aligned policy goals and political incentives. That seems to be where it’s easiest to kind of get a coalition together. It was things like restricting voting or sticking with the redistricting that benefits Republicans. What’s your take on that and why is it that those are the areas where it’s easiest to get the coalition together?
Alex Hertel-F.: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think it gets a key argument I make in the book, which is that the conservative organizations that I study, groups like Alec or Americans for Prosperity or the State Policy Network. These are coalitions of conservative interests. On some issues, these conservatives are all aligned, but on others they’re pulling in opposite directions.
Alex Hertel-F.: As I document in the book, it took a lot of energy, and effort, and planning in order to construct coalitions of these interests that were durable over time that didn’t fall apart when these interests began to have disagreements. Let me just give you some concrete examples. In Alec’s early years for instance, they were trying to knit together social conservatives who were fired up about the equal rights amendment that would have given women greater civil rights, access to abortion, gay marriage.
Alex Hertel-F.: But on the other hand, there were also companies participating in Alec that really just cared about their tax burden or regulatory burden or making it harder for their competitors to enter their marketplace, for instance. How do you get those different sorts of interests on the same page and willing to come back to the negotiating table to maintain their involvement in this organization over time?
Alex Hertel-F.: Well, as I show in the book, a key step was for Alec’s leaders to point out the policies that would benefit the narrow material interests of some of their constituents like business for instance, but also build conservative power over the long run, that would be good for everyone who was participating in the organization or the coalition. What does that look like? You mentioned changes to voting rights, voting rules or election administration that would make it harder for progressive constituencies to vote, for instance. That would be an example of a sort of public good for the conservative movement that helps build power over the long run.
Alex Hertel-F.: ALEC, among other organizations was able to convince its members that these were the sort of policies that they should be prioritizing. In the book, I talk about it as policy as political weapon. The idea that you can use policy not just to solve social and economic problems, but to really fundamentally change the distribution of power within states. I also give the example of tort reform. On its face, it might seem like tort reform, just narrowly changes the ways in which people can sue businesses for harms that they might’ve experienced as a customer or a worker.
Alex Hertel-F.: But when we think about it, tort reform actually weakens the trial lawyer bench in States. Those are the litigators that bring these cases against companies and they turn out to be a really important progressive power base in the states. They donate to democratic campaigns, they lobby for progressive policies. If you can pass tort reform that weakens the trial lawyer bench, you can make it easier for conservatives to win future elections and pass conservative policies in a whole range of areas. Things like gun rights or social conservative issues that those businesses that only care about, for instance, how easy or difficult it is to sue them, that they can all benefit from these sorts of policies.
Matt Grossmann: Of course, we see very similar trends in anti union policies with some of the same potential implications. On the other hand, you also see some liberalizing trends in state policy, so things like same day voter registration, earlier voter registration, early voting, all advancing in this period in which Republicans had more full control of the states. I guess, how much are they able to overcome what they would see as kind of inherent liberalizing features of government to actually realign the states toward their agenda over the long term?
Alex Hertel-F.: Yeah, it’s a great question, but I do think that there is an asymmetry in the willingness and ability of conservatives to think about policy in this way as power building as opposed to say liberals. I say that for two reasons. One is the changing federal baseline on a lot of these different policies. Again, I would point out the ways in which movements at the federal level have benefited conservatives and disadvantaged progressive.
Alex Hertel-F.: For instance, when it comes to voting rights and election administration, we’ve seen a deterioration of voting rights that would benefit progressive constituencies perhaps most notably Supreme Court decisions that have made it harder to check the ability of states to pass things like voter ID laws or shut down polling locations or make it harder for people to register to vote. That places an onus on liberal states to pass policies just to keep up with the old baseline, let alone liberalize access to the ballot box.
Alex Hertel-F.: I think one, the federal baseline is changing in important ways that benefit conservatives. You could say the same thing, for instance, for union policy. The federal government and the Supreme Court among others have taken steps to make it harder for people to join, form unions, and for unions to organize their members to participate in politics. It requires the states to do more simply to have the old baseline of union power.
Alex Hertel-F.: The second reason why I think there’s an asymmetry in the willingness of conservatives to use power building sorts of policies is that there’s a real reluctance amongst progressive activists to think about policy as being anything but what you should be doing to improve the social and economic lives of Americans. In the interviews that I talk about in the book, there’s a reluctance on the part of the counterweights to organizations like Alec or the State Policy Network on the left, to think about using policy to build up organizations or to change political participation.
Alex Hertel-F.: They’ll tell you, “Our goal is to pass policies that reduce poverty or that increase health insurance coverage. We don’t want to be focused on these broader power building issues.” I think one example of this that’s quite clear that I discussed in the book is Democrats reluctance really to pass policies that would benefit unions at the state level. Whereas conservatives have been much more likely as soon as they get into power to pass policies that disadvantage unions. You just don’t see that same willingness, at least until recently, amongst Democrats to make union reform a key issue as soon as they gain power.
Matt Grossmann: I agree it even when they do focus on these kind of electoral benefiting policies, they often pursue reforms. That obvious example at the moment states that might be moving towards full democratic control are passing these redistricting reforms to make it a more fair process so that when Democrats get control, they may have by their own strategy not been able to realign the districts to benefit those parties, their own party. I think that does show a difference in the goals of the party.
Alex Hertel-F.: That’s right. There’s a tendency to think about good government reform in a way that brackets power and doesn’t think about the power implications of those reforms.
Matt Grossmann: Let’s talk about education. We held a panel on your book at the American Political Science Association Conference and this issue came up a lot. It’s also the one issue where Jacob Grumbach finds that both Republican and democratic states over the last 20 year were moving rightward and that’s primarily in their instigation of more charter schools and to some extent more vouchers. On the other hand, we’ve seen a big backlash from the teacher protests, where states have increased education spending and Republicans have had sort of trouble actually reducing the role of government rather than just moving it towards charters and vouchers.
Matt Grossmann: We’re now at a point of about six to 7% of students in the US attend either charter schools or some type of voucher programs. So, how should we evaluate that as the most successful conservative move across all states, but still also showing that the potential limits of the conservative ascendancy?
Alex Hertel-F.: Yeah. I mean, I think the place I would start is the ways in which the structure of the democratic coalition has been more favorable, at least until recently, to these sorts of education reform initiatives, thinking about charter schools or vouchers or changes to teacher evaluation that prioritize test scores for instance, or the contribution of teachers to student learning. Here I think the story is that there has been a number of philanthropic foundations and wealthy donors.
Alex Hertel-F.: I think about the Gates Foundation or the Broad Foundation that have prioritized a bipartisan approach or even working exclusively within the Democratic party to get democratic politicians to really focus on these issues. There’s been some great scholarship bought from political scientists, like Sarah Reckhow and Megan Tompkins-Stange showing the role that these donors, both individual wealthy donors, but also philanthropic foundations in setting an agenda within the democratic party coalition that’s favorable to these proposals.
Alex Hertel-F.: But I think you’re right that in very recent years, you’ve seen a backlash from teachers in particular to both cuts in education and these moves towards charter schools or vouchers. It’s notable that in these red state teacher strikes, the protests weren’t just against low levels of teacher compensation, low education spending, but it was also about the expansion of charter schools. That was a big issue in Arizona in particular because Arizona has been one state where conservative networks, especially in state conservative think tanks and lawmakers working through the state policy network in Alec have been quite successful in pushing the charter movement forward. But it remains to be seen how enduring those changes are going to be.
Matt Grossmann: This may be an issue or we see it a little differently. I think that the history your review is absolutely true, but it kind of points to some problems for the conservative coalition that their kind of biggest success area across the states required help from the Obama Administration, and the Clinton Administration, and Liberal Foundations. You see the same things when it comes to criminal justice reform, which kind of targeted Republican states, but maybe did not achieve initial conservative objectives or went toward less tough on crime style policies.
Matt Grossmann: They need a lot of help from Democrats and liberals to move policy a rightward in this area of education. Where they didn’t succeed, I see as I guess a more fundamental conservative problem, which is that the size and scope of government tend to grow over time. The Republicans went from controlling three states to controlling 26 states last year. Over that time period, spending in the median state doubled. Spending is still concentrated in health and education, these kind of democratic priority areas. Unlike at the federal level where they can pass a tax cut and put it on the credit card, at the state level, the consequences on the ground are often quite apparent and quite immediate as we saw in states like Kansas where some of the tax cuts were reversed and we saw on all the other states where the teachers came to protest.
Matt Grossmann: I guess to me, there’s a more fundamental block on conservatives. They can pass some of these social reforms, they can try to redistribute benefits across constituencies. They can try to directly hurt their political opponents. But when it comes to this project of actually scaling back or even softening the growth of government, they have more of a challenge.
Alex Hertel-F.: I agree with you if we consider the evidence that you’ve quite compellingly presented in your book about the overall size of state governments, looking at the amount of revenue that they spend or taxes that they raise, that it’s been relatively steady and unchecked by the changes in state government over time, including the Republican takeover of a number of states since 2010. But I guess I come back to this question of what the right baseline for that is. Because if you assume that over the past 10, 20, 30 years, there have been new social risks, new economic needs that the states need to be addressing, shouldn’t we be expecting states to expand beyond what they’ve been doing before to new areas of government or to compensate for the areas in which the federal government has scaled back its efforts? In which case, the failure of conservatives to retrench the size of government isn’t a conservative loss. It’s rather a conservative win and that they’re preventing states from acting even more aggressively to address these new social needs and risks.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah. I think you see that in an area like early childhood education where on the one hand the inequality is increasing and is increasingly pinpointed on early childhood success. The research is broadly supportive of more early childhood education. There’s been a nationwide trend toward more spending on early childhood education. On the other hand, it’s nowhere near enough to remedy those inequalities to give children equal chances by the time that they arrive in the elementary school.
Matt Grossmann: I think liberals still potentially see it as a failure. I guess what I would just add is that’s also a way of seeing why conservatives might see their project as less successful than you do if they’re kind of running up against this policy turn towards more investment overall.
Alex Hertel-F.: Fair enough. Yeah. I mean, I would also point to changing workplace relationships to the fact that so many employees are now either independent contractors or working for franchised or sub contracted arrangements where they’re not subject to the old laws that used to protect them from excessive employer control, things like the minimum wage or workplace safety conditions or overtime. That leaves a lot of scope for the federal government and the states to take new steps in order to even just maintain the same level of protection in the workplace that workers enjoyed say 30 or 40 years ago.
Matt Grossmann: Let’s go back to a little bit of your evidence since we didn’t talk as much about that. The sort of easiest evidence for people to track in your book is these Alec model bills that are enacted in quite a few states and account for up to one or 2% of policies enacted in some of the period that you look at. On the other hand, that evidence shouldn’t mean that there’s less impact from things like think tanks where it might be harder to find their influence and that there are downsides to cookie cutter bills that can be passed in every state. How do you see that evidence in the bigger picture that you present?
Alex Hertel-F.: I think that’s a helpful way of framing it that it’s one piece of evidence for one type of influence by what I’m calling the Troika, these three organizations, Alec, the State Policy Network, and Americans for Prosperity. But I don’t think it’s the only way in which these organizations are trying to shape policy and politics and not even the only way that Alec is trying to shape policy and politics. But I do think it’s a useful one. I think it’s a useful one because in American politics and politics more generally, we have a very hard time pinning down whether or not an interest group actually change the behavior of lawmakers because that’s a really hard process to observe.
Alex Hertel-F.: How do we know that that lawmaker wouldn’t have taken that particular action independent of that interest group for instance? In the book, I engaged in what I describe as trying to detect policy plagiarism cases where lawmakers took Alec’s model bills and copied and pasted them wholesale or relatively wholesale into legislation that they introduced under their own name.
Alex Hertel-F.: The advantage to this is that it’s sort of a smoking gun test for influence. We know that that lawmaker had to turn to Alec in order to introduce that particular legislation. It’s a nice way of directly connecting public officials to a particular interest group. I find that lawmakers tend to be more likely to copy these bills in states where they have fewer resources to make policy on their own.
Alex Hertel-F.: Within particular states, it’s often more junior lawmakers that have less experience, fewer staffers that they can rely on that are more likely to plagiarize from Alec model bills. That’s consistent with the group’s own archival records. I document how Alec specifically targeted states that didn’t have these resources. They saw this as a comparative advantage that they could offer to states, that they could sell themselves as being a resource for the lawmakers who were overworked, under resourced, understaffed to come up with policy ideas and to provide them not just with those ideas but also all the research and analysis that they would need in order to pass that bill into law.
Alex Hertel-F.: But that’s not the only way that Alec is successful. I also talk about in the book how Alec manages to meet together its activist members, its corporate members, and its lawmaker members through regular meetings that happen every year that build enduring social ties. People might join initially because they think it’s cool that they can get all expenses paid trip to a sunny location somewhere and hobnob with corporate lobbyists and other think tank representatives and advocacy groups would over time. They developed ties to those organizations that lead them to rely on them over time. That’s harder to detect in a quantitative, systematic fashion. But I think it’s just as important.
Alex Hertel-F.: I’d also say that Alec also enjoys strong ties to legislative leaders who aren’t relying on Alec for bill ideas necessarily but are relying on Alec for the broader agenda that they should be setting. They may have more legislative resources in those junior lawmakers, more experienced than those junior lawmakers, but they have those long standing ties to Alec and our attorney to Alec for the broader set of priorities that they should be focused on.
Alex Hertel-F.: As I show in a couple of case studies in the book focused on these battles over Medicaid expansion and cutbacks to union rights, Alec is most effective when it’s working hand in hand with Americans for Prosperity and the State Policy Network. With the State Policy Network, think tanks coming out with research reports and testimony on behalf of those Alec bills. Then Americans for Prosperity, marshaling grassroots activists who head to that, lawmakers open hours in the state capitol, call up that lawmaker stage protests and rallies in order to push them into promoting the bills that Alec comes up with.
Matt Grossmann: This is related to a trend that you brought up with me via email, the overall kind of nationalization of our politics. Of course, we do have evidence that elections are nationalized, that even in state legislative elections, people’s votes are increasingly determined by whether they like the president or not rather than what they like coming out of the state legislature. You’ve documented some nationalization of Republican priorities and legislating across states.
Matt Grossmann: But on the other hand, I guess conservatives would see themselves up against a large state bureaucracy and state interest group community that likes things as they are. Just one point of comparison that we’ve talked about is that Mary Kroger has tracked where you can the bills introduced by state agencies and she finds that overwhelmingly they would expand the power of state agencies that they pass and account for up to 10% of the bills passed in some of those legislatures.
Matt Grossmann: From a conservative point of view, they would say it’s not just that they have organizations that are nationalized and they’re up against these nationalized liberal organizations, but that sort of in the normal course of governance without nationalizing, disputes, they face a lot of just incentives for state government to expand in size and scope over time. To what extent have they succeeded in nationalizing the debate and to what extent is still a lot of state policy specific to states and therefore governed more by the local interest groups than the national competition between liberals and conservatives?
Alex Hertel-F.: I actually think that the organizations that I study in State Capture, the Troika, are both contributing to nationalization and benefiting from nationalization. Let me start by talking about how they benefit from nationalization. You mentioned the great research by Dan Hopkins and others who point out the ways that political behavior is increasingly nationalized. My vote for a state lawmaker or a governor is increasingly driven by my vote for the president, for members of Congress. I’m thinking about those national issues as I’m casting a ballot for state elections.
Alex Hertel-F.: Why does that matter for the Troika? Well, it turns out that much of what Alec Americans for Prosperity and the State Policy Network are promoting are very unpopular with the general public. In the book, I go through several areas where these organizations have been most active. Things like stymieing Medicaid expansion, stymieing increases in the minimum wage passing charters or at school or voucher provisions and rolling back environmental protections for instance. All of these tend to be opposed by majorities in some cases, even majorities of Republican voters.
Alex Hertel-F.: The nationalization of state politics means that these organizations can push policy makers at the state level to pass these unpopular policies without receiving backlash from voters. Even Republican voters were paying attention to these more national issues. The second way I think that the Troika intersects with nationalization is that they themselves are contributing to trends and nationalization by standardizing the package of policies that conservative lawmakers pursue at the state level.
Alex Hertel-F.: Now, more than in previous years, if you get a conservative state government, they’re going to try and do a relatively similar set of things, cutting back union rights, cutting taxes, especially on wealthy individuals. Although we can talk… and we have talked about how they’re more or less successful with that rolling back efforts to address climate change and the environment and making it harder to implement labor market standards. Those are ideas that are coming from groups like Alec, the State Policy Network, and Americans for Prosperity.
Matt Grossmann: I guess I have a somewhat different view of their… I certainly agree that they are trying to… and benefiting from nationalization and the conservatives in general have benefited from nationalization compared to liberals. But I guess I don’t agree that that state policymaking has nationalized that as quite as much as you do. A big part of Red State Blues is that I reviewed these kind of long term state specific policy history books. Then I interviewed state legislative reporters about major conflicts in their areas. The big thing that jumped out is just that a lot of state legislative time is spent on the budget and budget related matters and they have all kinds of state specific components. They often require a lot of individual state expertise, yet they keep going back to these debates over and over often having the same kind of budgetary conflict over 10 or 15 years related to the education budget, the roads budget, taxes, et cetera.
Matt Grossmann: In those conversations, I think conservatives would argue that they usually in the end lose those kinds of big disputes. But I think for our purposes, I guess the question is, to what extent have they succeeded in nationalizing the debate or are you just looking at the policies that are most easy to track across states? I’m also looking at those. We’re missing that a lot of state policy conflict is still about what to regulate, what to spend money on, and the size of the pie. In those disputes, conservatives aren’t winning.
Alex Hertel-F.: Yeah, it’s a great question and I really appreciate the way that you draw on these sort of qualitative policy histories in order to suss out from people who are close to the ground talking to these actors day in and day out. What are the sources of policy change? I think it’s a tactic that more political scientists should use. That said, I do think there is compelling and a growing quantitative base of evidence that states are increasingly becoming nationalized in this way.
Alex Hertel-F.: I mean, you mentioned the work of Jake Grumbach and he has a nice new paper looking at who states learn from. That is to say, when one state passes a policy that seems to work, who learns from that policy? If we were in a pure laboratories of democracy world, we might expect that all states would look at the success of one state’s policy and decide to enact that going forward. But what he shows nicely is that increasingly over time is Republican States that are learning from Republican States and diffusing only across some more Republican States and some more on the left.
Alex Hertel-F.: I think that shows in a more systematic way that what we’re seeing is a polarization in policy diffusion that is consistent with a story of nationalization through these organizations like Alec on the right for instance. You mentioned or questioned whether it’s valuable to be thinking about a subset of policies like we both do in our books, but I think to some extent it makes sense to focus on the policies that have the most substantive economic and social impact on citizens in these particular states.
Alex Hertel-F.: I think there’s some merit to taking a broader look, but you want to be careful not to put excessive weight on policies that have a relatively smaller impact on the population than say expanding Medicaid that has big implications for say, low income citizens in the state.
Matt Grossmann: I agree we should focus about. But I think I’m more worried that what we focus on is this things that are easy to count across states rather than those things that have the most impact. I was just struck by this difference where you mentioned this long running policy diffusion literature that we have that looks at these things we can easily count and where they show up. You’re right that the trends there are that we were passing mostly liberal things but on a bipartisan basis for a long time.
Matt Grossmann: Now, we’re passing conservative things, and conservative states, and liberal things in liberal states. That is a nationalization. But I was struck by the difference between that and these kind of individual state histories where you occasionally hear about a policy that was passed in other states, but the overwhelming focus seems to be these state specific challenges about the budget and the sort of overall structure of government. Maybe they just focus on that just because that’s where the legislatures get hung up the most. But I don’t think it’s because it lacks policy impact. I think that the spending patterns have acquired quite a bit of policy impact is they’re just sort of easier or less easy to compare across states.
Alex Hertel-F.: That’s true. But when I think about what are the major spending initiative when it comes to say social policy in the states in recent years, and I think Medicaid would certainly be one of them and state Earned Income Tax Credits would be another. Both of those are areas where cross state networks on the left in particular played a really important role in convincing states to take action. The story of state Earned Income Tax Credits is one that I visit in State Capture, and I talk about the role of a network of left leaning think tanks across the states that are affiliated to DC think tanks, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They’ve played a really important role in coordinating efforts to pass these state Earned Income Tax Credits and increase their generosity over time.
Alex Hertel-F.: Now, often to your point, they would use very state specific strategies for trying to get those policies passed. For instance, trying to build business allies where it was possible based on the state’s economy or making appeals that were idiosyncratic based on the relationships that they had with Republican lawmakers in some states. But the agenda, and the ideas, and the evidence base were coming from a national source through a national network.
Matt Grossmann: What do you make of this sort of nationwide trends that aren’t attributable to partisanship? Across all states, we sort of pursued a tough on crime mass incarceration policy for decades and across almost all states were at least starting to reverse those trends across the states. Nationally, we had anti gay rights policy trend and then we reversed in response to public opinion, same with marijuana legislation. Then the opposite with tobacco where we were open and then we were closed nationwide.
Matt Grossmann: I guess to what… How should we weigh those kinds of trends? If you took a longer term perspective, you’d say, “The biggest changes in the states were in mental health where we used to use state hospitals and they were huge parts of state budgets. And then we went toward a more local and distributed model across states.” I guess… How should we consider those kinds of national trends where we all thought the same thing or at least acted the same way against these partisan trends that were both uncovering.
Alex Hertel-F.: Steve Tellis and Dave Baggin have a great book on the sort of about face in the conservative movement on criminal justice reform, showing how many ideological conservative activists and donors came to see criminal justice reform and deescalation of this mass incarceration, ISIS, as a key priority. There, again, cross state networks played a really important role, including Alec but also the Pew network on the state. They describe how criminal justice reform has worked through both of those organizations to sort of seed ideas and build ties to lawmakers in a variety of states.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah. I see both of those as examples of the continuing necessity of bipartisan and cross ideological coalitions despite some of these trends that we look at the partisan priorities. But if we look at actual policy trends and policy passage, we often see still a quite a few that had initial support from both parties or both ideological factions. We haven’t yet talked as much about the institutional features of the states. You mentioned that Republicans are conservative. The conservative movement had the most success in these places that didn’t have professionalized legislatures, that had term limits and where there were sort of less resources on the ground. So, why is that? What are the policy lessons for that? I guess I’ll add in my take, which is that, that’s true, but the overtime change is toward more professionalization of state legislatures. By the time Republicans got there, there were fewer legislatures of that type.
Alex Hertel-F.: I am 100 percent in agreement that the trend over time has been towards more professionalization although there have been a number of proposals, sometimes successful to de professionalize legislature. Obviously, there were two big moves towards term limits, which I think de professionalized legislatures in the ’90s and 2000s and then you’ve also seen proposals to shift from more professionalized legislatures to part-time legislators including of course in Michigan most recently. But I would add to that that even in the current climate, it’s still really hard to be a lawmaker in many of these states, including in states that are considered to be semi professionalized legislatures.
Alex Hertel-F.: In the interviews that I conducted for the book, I was just struck time and time again how even in states that gave lawmakers say one staffer or even two staffers, it’s just hard to have the bandwidth you need in order to do all that is expected of you to engage in constituent service, to be reaching out to key groups and actors in your home district to be communicating with the other folks in your caucus or conference, to be coming up with bill ideas, to be prepared for oversight of government agencies, and to be fundraising and preparing for the next election campaign.
Alex Hertel-F.: I think that there’s still a huge need for greater policy resources in the majority of states. I think if we were to build up that sort of internal policy capacity by giving states more resources to hire full time staffers by paying lawmakers more so that they wouldn’t have to have second and third jobs in order to serve in the legislature and increasing the length of legislative sessions. We would see a reduced reliance on outside groups that sort of fill in that gap like Alec, but also other organizations.
Matt Grossmann: We’ve talked about nationalization, but we also have a nationalization of backlash. The big Republican gains in the states came in 1994 and 2010 and to some extent, 2014. The biggest opportunity for Democrats, of course, came under Trump in 2018. I guess… Address the broader issue that it’s hard to win at the federal government and that the states at the same time. Then maybe the more pressing concern what are Democrats likely to achieve with their increasing power? It seems to me the six, if you count New York States that move toward full Democratic control, are doing quite a bit, but I want to hear your view.
Alex Hertel-F.: Yeah. I mean, I think this gets at a key argument I make in the book, which is that immediate election success matters obviously in creating political opportunities to pass legislation. But it really matters if you’ve invested in the decades of organization building so that you have the groups, and ideas, and agendas, and activists ready to go when you gain power. It obviously mattered that Republicans made outsize gains in state control in 2010 and 2014 in particular, but they were armed with an agenda that had been developed over many years.
Alex Hertel-F.: Prior to that, there were activists on the ground in many of these states ready to push that agenda. They had the intellectual case built up for many of those policies. While I think Democrats have made some important gains at the state level and maybe poised to make further gains, it’s an open question whether they’ll have that organizational capacity to help them move a coherent agenda that can build longterm power across the states. In particular, I think about the ways in which Democrats have struggled to prioritize the sort of things that they should be doing when they gain power.
Alex Hertel-F.: What’s so notable about the conservative organizations that I study in State Capture is that they have a very clear process of agenda setting. You lead with policies that build longterm power, like cutting back union rights for instance. Whereas I don’t think there’s as much agreement on the democratic side about what you should do first. Part of this I think is due to the fragmentation of interest groups on the left around very distinct policy community, something that you’ve written about compellingly in your previous work.
Alex Hertel-F.: When a democratic governor and legislature come to power, they’re facing demands from environmental groups to address climate change, LGBT groups to address LGBT discrimination, and access to healthcare unions were pushing for increases in the minimum wage and greater union rights, and of course, reproductive rights activists were pushing for greater access to contraception and protections against reproductive rights. What should they prioritize? It’s not really clear and oftentimes politicians feel as though it’s impossible to satisfy all of these different constituencies.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah, I certainly agree with that. But it also often leads to just a bigger agenda and more items passed. I think sometimes we don’t notice as many because there may be not these kind of nationwide issues, but in these states that Democrats just gain control, Mexico is seeing more than a 10% rise in the state budget. There are taxes passed, there are social issue changes. I guess, do you think there’s sort of a limit to the potential democratic successes or do you think they’ll just continue to tick down the list and try to satisfy each constituency with more incremental policies?
Alex Hertel-F.: Looking over the longer term, I do think that there is a lack of counterweight to both Alec and Americans for Prosperity on the left that may limit the sort of gains that they can make at the state level, and the sort of policy wins that they can end up pursuing because they don’t have the same sort of grassroots pressure from outside groups nor the sort of legislative coordination that groups like Alec on the right provide. I think it’s an open question whether or not Democrats and Progressives in particular will be able to build their countervailing organizations.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah, I would just add that liberals have some advantages in state policymaking as well. One that we’ve talked about a lot is that their ideas are usually more popular than the conservative ones, and so they face at least less sort of public backlash. They also tend to have the support of local interest groups and kind of advancing their incremental reforms. When those things aren’t true, they have just as much trouble as Republicans. When it comes to broad scale changes like having statewide healthcare, they have not succeeded in any state or green new deal style, huge public investments or changes to the environmental regulation of their states. They also have not necessarily succeeded in achieving, but I guess I would argue that’s in large part because they face some of the same constraints that Republicans do and they try to make these large scale changes. The local interest groups are against them and their ideas become less popular as they’re discussed.
Alex Hertel-F.: I would agree with that and I would definitely underscore the importance of building local interest group allies as Progressives are trying to move this policy. By highlighting the role of these cross state networks, I don’t want to underplay the role of these in state actors and interest groups by any means. Even in the very contentious nationalized debates that I talk about in State Capture, like for instance, battles over Medicaid expansion, I show in the book that pro expansion forces were most successful when they could marshal support from in state healthcare providers and other business constituencies. For instance, in some states the State Chambers of Commerce came out in favor of expansion and that pushed in state Republicans in many cases into endorsing and supporting an expansion.
Matt Grossmann: Maybe to end, maybe you could make the case for focusing on the states as opposed to the national level overall and then maybe focusing on the organizational and policy infrastructure as opposed to just election results.
Alex Hertel-F.: Absolutely. I think the states are important to study in their own right, given that they are places where important social, and economic, and political changes happen that can affect people all over the country. It’s oftentimes the states and also the localities that are passing policies that are felt most immediately in people’s day to day lives. But they’re also important if you want to understand national politics as well. I would say even if you’re just interested in national politics, national politics are shaped by the states, where the states have considerable authority to push back on the federal government as we’re seeing in these democratically controlled states.
Alex Hertel-F.: What happens inside of states has implications for national politics. When states change rules about who can vote, who can participate, how powerful interest groups are within particular states, those all have sort of trickle up effects on the federal government and on national politics. Obviously, the states can play an important role in either supporting initiatives that are passed at the federal level or undermining them as has come out in this discussion around the Affordable Care Act and Environmental Policy. States have been going in both of these directions over time.
Alex Hertel-F.: Thinking about the organizational side of American politics, I hope State Capture can spur greater interest and attention to political organizations. Just as much as we focus on individual level political behavior and political science, I think it’s important to focus on organizations because they can marshal resources, set agendas, and adopt a longer term perspective that can structure politics in really meaningful ways. It’s notable, I would say that the organizations that I study in State Capture, two out of three of them don’t focus on elections. They focus on policy and they are dealing with politicians after elections happen. I think this tells us that we need more attention ourselves as scholars to political organizations and also to the policy making process rather than just elections.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah. I think a point of similarity in our books is that you can’t just expect an election result to speak for itself and be translated into policy, where the Republicans did have success. It was where they had this big organizational infrastructure and where they were less up against an existing kind of state legislative bureaucracy that was able to keep things as they were.
Matt Grossmann: Anything we didn’t get to that you wanted to mention or any new project do you want to plug before we go?
Alex Hertel-F.: I think we’ve covered most everything. I would just say that perhaps touching on this idea of the limits of the conservative takeover at the states, my next set of projects are focused on counter mobilization to conservatives from the labor movement and trying to understand what’s been happening with unions and other labor organizations that are not just traditional unions, both how they’re organizing and how they hope to reshape policy in order to revive the labor movement in the United States.
Matt Grossmann: Well, we’ll look forward to that. Thanks, Alex Hertel-Fernandez for joining me and remember that The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Please check out State Capture and Red State Blues and then listen in next time.
Photo Credit: Brett Sayles.