Federalism is supposed to allow policy to vary with local opinion and circumstances. But American politics has nationalized, with many seeing states as arenas for national political debates among partisan networks rather than opportunities for state-specific solutions. And states are even fighting about the basic ground rules of democracy. Jacob Grumbach finds that nationalization made state policy respond more to party control, with legislators responding to activist donors over public opinion, states copying electorally successful policies only from states controlled by the same party.
Guest: Jacob Grumbach, University of Washington
Matt Grossmann: Is democracy declining in the American states? This week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Federalism is supposed to allow policy to vary with local opinion and circumstances, but American politics has nationalized with many seeing states as arenas for national political debates among partisan networks, rather than opportunities for states specific solutions, and states are even fighting about the basic ground rules for democracy.
This week, I talk with Jacob Grumbach of the University of Washington about his new Princeton book, Laboratories Against Democracy. He finds that nationalization made state policy respond more to party control with legislators following activist donors over public opinion, parties copying electorally successful policies only from states controlled by the same party and Republican states causing democratic backsliding. I think you’ll learn a lot from our conversation.
Matt Grossmann: Let’s start with the summary. What were the big findings and takeaways?
Jacob Grumbach: That sounds great. Thanks for having me, Matt. So the big point of this book, the main argument is that there is a new kind of collision between the decentralized institutions of American federalism that put great amount of authority at the lower level, the state level in the US, even relative to other Federalist democracies around the world. That coalition with those decentralized institutions and newly nationalized, nationally coordinated and polarized political parties, the Democratic and Republican parties, and that when those institutions and party coalitions collide, you see big changes at both the national and state level in terms of American public policy and political outcomes.
Matt Grossmann: So federalism is supposed to be something that can help governance be closer to the people and can help it better reflect differences across geographic areas. How well does it live up to that? What’s the best case we can make for that? And what’s holding it back?
Jacob Grumbach: Yeah. So that sort of decentralization and customization and tailoring of policy to the wishes of constituents in a large, heterogeneous, diverse country, like the US is a potential real advantage of institutional decentralization and federalism. People can live under the particular policy regimes they may want. And this sort of argument goes back to all the way to the Federalist Papers and James Madison, that it would produce national harmony in a large diverse country. And to some extent there is real virtue in that theory. At the same time, the nationalization of American politics and the parties means that that function has really diminished. So now partisan control of state government really drives policy outcomes, and you see big swings in public policy when party control changes, even when constituent opinion doesn’t change all that much.
And that’s because the state level parties are now integrated into the sort of national party networks in ways that they weren’t through long periods of American history where you had a much more decentralized set of parties, where, for example, in the mid 20th century, Northern and Southern democratic parties in the states were highly distinct and decentralized on key issues.
Matt Grossmann: So these arguments over federalism also take place within politics. So what is kind of the political role of this argument in favor of federalism, and is it kind of consistently a conservative argument or is it just an argument that people out of power in the national government make?
Jacob Grumbach: Absolutely. So I’d say, in the late 18th century when Madison and John Jay and other founders are trying to argue in favor of a US constitution beyond the Articles of Confederation, the Articles of Confederation, of course, highly decentralized, essentially gave no power to a national government to do any sort of taxation or military coordination and so forth. That proved to be problematic for funding the just finished revolutionary war and so forth. So the early arguments were the virtues of this sort of multi-tiered governmental system that would have some authority for the states and some for the national government. It was to some extent, an instrumental argument to try to get the colonies to go along with this new system. But into the future, you see federalism and support for decentralization, institutionally playing a role in a lot of political movements.
So importantly, there’s one long term states rights based movement that was essentially supportive of slavery. And then later segregation and Jim Crow, the idea that states should be left alone and the national government shouldn’t ban slavery or later on, enforced desegregation. But then you have a series of other arguments, and there’s some debate about whether they’re affiliated with these sort of support for Jim Crow-based arguments, but there are other moments of arguments for decentralization in the post-war period in the US by political economists, legal elites, and a sort of legal conservative movement that was supportive of devolving, especially the welfare state to the state level. And we saw some bipartisan consensus on that through for example, the Clinton welfare reform.
And that was, again, about, main arguments there were that the states were closer to constituents and that there were better incentives for lower level governmental actors to engage in sort of efficient and responsive policy making then sort of distant Washington DC, as well as the idea that people can move to different jurisdictions that they may want to live. So that overall in a sort of game theory sense produces more efficient governance if people are allowed to vote with their feet and move to places where government is more efficient or responsive to their needs.
So those tended to be conservative, but over the past 20 years, we’ve also seen a progressive federalism argument. For example, by Heather Gerken at Yale Law School. And that argument has really focused on in the post-civil rights period. They say with enough national level enforcement of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965, decentralization is really advantageous for racial minorities and for new immigrant groups that are not large enough national populations to achieve sort of national forms of representation, especially descriptive representation, but in state and local governments, majority minority states like California or majority minority cities may achieve a different level of representation for racial minorities and new immigrant groups. So that’s a progressive federalism argument.
You also hear that in some sort of climate change movements. So a great book by Leah Stokes, Short Circuiting Policy, has a, I’d say, a more optimistic take on institutional decentralization. The idea that climate activists and sort of green energy firms can establish beachheads in some progressive states and build up capacity to advocate for national climate reform. You also see finally, another sort of progressive argument for decentralization is based on movements that have supported, especially the franchise for women and women’s suffrage in the early 20th century, that that evolved in a state by state capacity until it bubbled up to the national level. And absent decentralization, some might argue that those movements would’ve had a tougher time. Those are a tremendous number of sort of long term theories of the advantages of decentralization in historical context, but my book is really arguing that most of those, it’s hard to know empirically like how real those mechanisms were in the past.
We don’t have amazing data or well identified studies, but I think it’s plausible that many of those mechanisms really worked. But I’m arguing that the nationalization of the parties really does throw a wrench in most of those advantageous mechanisms. And you see, one small example would be in the progressive federalism and representation of racial minorities and immigrant groups is that racial inequality is larger now than in the period before this heavy decentralization that began in the 1970s through the present.
Matt Grossmann: So you’ve been working on related projects since graduate school when I know you were trying to collect as much data going as far back as you can on policy differences across the states, but you were doing it in this time period in which you saw more significant threats to democracy coming from the state level. So tell us about kind of the evolution of this project from where you started to where the book ended up.
Jacob Grumbach: Yeah, absolutely. So I hope to be part of a, there’s a great network of people studying state policy, including yourself, Matt, with Red State Blues and so forth. So there’s sort of debate about policy polarization in the states and the importance of state level policy changes over the past generation, or to some extent, for example, with Devin Caughey and Chris Warshaw’s great forthcoming book, Dynamic Democracy, they go back much further to the 1930s. But in this more recent period, we have clearly seen divergence in policy between red and blue states with states with divided governments, where the governor and state legislative chamber don’t share party being somewhere in the middle. But you see across issue areas, gun control and gun rights, climate policy and climate regulation, environmental policy, taxation, labor relations now on steroids. You’re seeing reproductive rights do the same sort of divergence and facilitated by the Supreme Court ruling in the Dobbs decision. Really, across issue areas with a couple of key exceptions, we’ve seen strong divergence in policy outcomes across red and blue states and just in general between states.
So the variation between states is not at the level of pre 1964, 1965 differences between, for example, Jim Crow and non-Jim Crow states, or states that enfranchised women or not, states prior to the New Deal that had some old age insurance and others where senior citizens were essentially all in poverty. These divergence are not as big as those, but they’re very meaningful. The most meaningful we’ve seen since the sort of long civil rights and New Deal period and the breakdown of the New Deal coalition in the seventies. So now your state of residence is much more tied to your sort of relationship to government in a way that was not true as national policy makers were setting floors in the states in terms of policy in the mid-20th century. But also not only that, so I mentioned the Jim Crow period where there’s huge variation across states and policy, but during that time, it was not really predicted by party.
So Southern Jim Crow states were also democratically controlled. And then north, sort of Midwestern, you had democratic parties in Illinois, Michigan, and New York and so forth that were these sort of labor, civil rights coalitions. And then in the south, you had segregationist, much more conservative Democrats, and really the democratic party controlled deep south state legislatures in many cases through the two thousands, I think we don’t recognize. But what that means is now, by contrast to that Jim Crow period, this variation in policy across states is now extremely well predicted by the party that controls the state government. So that’s policy variation and policy polarization in the states. But your question was great, Matt, where I started this project in the early mid 2010s noticing that the Midwestern states that were becoming Republican were changing policies without much change in public opinion.
And in the similar period you were seeing coastal states really ramp up their climate policies and things like that and explaining that divergence. But then I also, over the 2010s, began to notice as others did that at the state level, one of the most important set of policy changes was around democratic institutions like election administration and districting, that that was actually a key to this policy divergence. It wasn’t just for example, taxation or reproductive rights or marijuana legalization. It was actually the sort of institutional levers of American democracy itself that were diverging.
Matt Grossmann: So you do look at a lot of different issue, specific trends, and you’re able to compare over time. So what can we learn from those, including the exceptions where, for example, criminal justice policy seems to have grown much more punitive and then maybe in the most recent period, a little bit less punitive across states. Some of those that you found trending liberal across states might may be in response to public opinion, what can we learn from those issue differences?
Jacob Grumbach: Absolutely. So in terms of just partisan polarization of policy with red states diverging from blue states, you do see this across a vast array of issue areas like I mentioned before. But some key exceptions are, one, education policy is a partial exception. You’ve studied this, Matt, and I think you would have great answers of why the puzzle of non-polarization on education policy with respect to the interest group environment potentially surrounding teachers unions reformists or charter school networks, parents, the political parties. That’s not my deepest area of expertise, but I would say probably the interest group environment explains some lack of partisan polarization on education policy in the states. There’s some divergence on higher education spending and things like that, but not as much as you’d expect given the other issue areas.
Jacob Grumbach: But then the big exception that I focus on is criminal justice policy, which like you mentioned, since of 1970s, you’ve seen massive buildup of the incarcerated population in the US outpacing all other democratic and authoritarian regimes across the world in per capita in absolute numbers. And crucially, criminal justice policy during this tough on crime buildup in terms of policing policy on the front end, how policing is done, as well as how incarceration and enforcement and sentencing are done trended more authoritarian across the board and was not that difference in red and blue states.
You can tell a lot more about a state’s sort of cercarial population and it’s policing based on things like its demographics, its poverty, its racial demographics and its crime rates than you can about partisanship. And I think that’s a really crucial puzzle for, so if there’s any PhD students about to advance to candidacy or working on prospectus or something listening, I think one of the biggest puzzles and a huge opening for an amazing dissertation is to understand this puzzle a little bit deeper.
I engage in some theorizing and explaining that sort of institutional insulation of police departments and of sort of correctional officers and prison systems. They are institutionally insulated from democratic inputs in ways that you don’t quite see in other democracies around the world that have more centralized policing and cercarial systems. In the criminal justice and politics literature, there’s a series of theories of why the tough on crime buildup. One is public opinion, a punitive public sort of backlash to, whether backlash to civil rights or rising crime rates in the seventies. Another would be the sort of institutional buildup of DAs and prosecutors that becomes a sort of self-fulfilling cycle of trying to compete to rise in the ranks of the prosecutorial and eventually political system breeds sort of entrepreneurship among DAs. Innovation, sort of semi technologically in terms of plea deals and things like that, as well as there’s a sort of, I guess it would be maybe more Marxian sort of argument from like Marie Gottschalk and others that it’s about profiteering, whether it’s in terms of prison, labor in public prisons or in the private prison system.
Jacob Grumbach: So all of those I think would help contribute to an explanation of why it’s not partisan control and it’s these other forces driving criminal justice policy. But I think there’s a huge opening, but what I really am observing when I look at state governments where governors and then mayors are the commanders in chief of police forces, the way the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces and that these commanders in chief do not appear to have the capacity to sort of change the behavior, especially, of their police department. So I was earlier considering, democratic candidates at the state and local level, especially in recent years have been campaigning on criminal justice-based changes and Black Lives Matter for a long time. If you listen to, Pete Buttigieg was mayor of South Bend and in recent years, he sounds like a real activist on this front, but then as mayor of South Bend, or you look at Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York who campaigned on a policing reform ticket, when the rubber meets the road, it doesn’t happen. And one explanation is that this is all messaging and those politicians, candidates don’t actually want to reform the institutions. But I think now a clearer more predictive theory is that they don’t have the institutional capacity to reform sort of institutionally insulated bureaucracies in this way, compared to other bureaucracies in American government.
Matt Grossmann: So you look at a broad array of policies, 130 some policies, but it seems to leave out kind of the size and structure of state governments in a way that I think might suggest more convergence, just that state government budgets are being much more determined by federal pass-through money and are thus kind of spending money in similar areas over time and building some similar agencies and institutions over time. So I guess to what extent do you think your policy measure is capturing that or is masking some convergence at the same time as these sort of policy matters in the legislature are diverging?
Jacob Grumbach: I think that’s fair. So in some work, although I would push back a little bit, in some work with Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in the Edited Volume American Political Economy, we do look at regional transfers compared to other developed democracies, including federal systems. And the US does have less sort of interstate transfers through national governance than other federal systems do, Germany, Canada, Mexico, India, and so forth, especially the wealthier democracies like Germany. But that’s true that on other sorts of areas like policing, again, and incarceration is like a really good example of what you’re saying here, Matt, is that huge amounts of federal transfers to state and local police forces and cercarial systems where there was a little bit in American public politics. You see a little bit over emphasis on the 1994 crime bill, for example, that passed Congress and signed by Bill Clinton that contributed huge sums of money to state and local policing and incarceration and established some standards on criminal sentencing.
So it’s true that the national government really has produced some convergence in these ways, but I think the overall share, there’s also in my book and in the appendix of a paper of mine, I look at overall spending as a share of GDP and taxation as a share of GDP and employment as a share of GDP at the state level compared relative to national. And it’s not exactly clear, in some ways the state level has become more important for, as a percentage of your tax burden of the average American, the state level has grown a larger share over recent decades. I think you’re right though, that there’s some really clear sort of hard to capture in like ideological unidimensional space, like you’re talking about, but yeah, there’s absolutely some crucial federal transfers that are producing some level of convergence.
Last thing is in crises, like COVID and things, I think there’s great work by Phil Rocco on automatic stabilizers, which policies nationally produce automatic stabilizers and which don’t in terms of unemployment insurance administered at the state level and in downturns, which policies provide countercyclical fiscal policy to the states from the national government. That’s a really crucial understudied area of public administration and policy.
Matt Grossmann: So you track the relationship between public opinion and these policy changes and have a somewhat different story than others. But I think it might mostly be in interpretation, that is, you find that the polarization is not due to changes in state opinion, but there has been a sort of sorting where the most conservative states now have the most conservative policies. So how should we interpret that evidence in light of this question of about representation and responsiveness?
Jacob Grumbach: Really nicely putting, Matt. So one, first is that take a snapshot at two different periods of time once let’s say, I don’t know, in the eighties or nineties or something like that, and one today, a state level opinion and policy. There’s that sort of cross sectional responsiveness to the most conservative places have the most conservative policy and liberal most liberal policy. And that relationship is stronger now. So that could be evidence of long term sorting and Devin Caughey and Chris Warshaw’s book, Dynamic Democracy. I think one under emphasized, I’m really excited for that book, not as much on what I just said, that sort of cross sectional response on this point, they actually do a great analysis of what’s called policy congruence, which is, are majorities living under the policy that they want, does public opinion majorities match the policy regime? That’s a harder statistical thing to do because you have to look at specific policies. You can’t just arrange them in a left right ideological space.
So I think that’s great. And they do show that there’s some increased convergence in part due to they actually show, I think from my reading, it looks like the liberal states are becoming much more congruent by sort of ratcheting up liberal policies in liberal states, for the most part. I buy that argument. I think the cross sectional responsiveness thing I think is a tougher thing to interpret there, but could be evidence of that sort of sorting, but what I’m really focused on. And I think this is all, like we’re saying, is all pretty consistent. And Caughey and Warshaw would emphasize that the positive aspect of over long stretches of time, sort of most of the time majorities, the policy comes in line with majorities. So when I worked with Chris Warshaw on some abortion opinion and policy in the state’s writing recently, a couple of pieces in the Washington Post, Monkey Cage, and then everyone in Politico, Chris has really emphasized to me that he really anticipates that abortion policy in these states that are poised to ban abortion, but have publics that support legal abortion, but have Republican state legislatures poised to ban it, that they will come in line with public opinion very likely and not end up banning abortion or remove an abortion ban that is in their constitution or something.
So I think that’s true. That remains to be seen. I’m not quite as, I guess, optimistic on that front. But the big thing I’m emphasizing in that we all find, but I think it’s important to emphasize, is that these policy changes within states across time, whether you set it up in a sort of any statistically as any within state estimator, or you can think about it, do changes in opinion result in changes in policy. And you don’t see that as much on most areas, again, there’s a couple key exceptions, but I think that really emphasizes the role of groups and parties in a nationalized political context where now again, Wisconsin, or some other states had or in the deep south states aligning to the Republican party and things like that, you would expect on some of these areas that there would be some movement.
I think now abortion policy is a nice example where abortion support in most of these purple states is at the national average, like 60% support for legal abortion. And it’s just very stable. And then we’re seeing dramatic changes in public policy on abortion. That’s predicted very well by the party that controls state government enabled by the Supreme Court. But I think that dynamic in thinking there’s no real public opinion story to be told about abortion policy, it’s about the real marshaling of political resources by a really successful sort of activist group network over and with a judicial politics strategy over a long stretch of time, and that is clear. The same thing with like restrictions on labor organizing in Midwestern states and Pennsylvania over the past 20 years or so. Those aren’t predicted by … Wisconsin restricting public sector labor was not preceded by people saying, oh, I’m now not as supportive of public sector labor or things like that.
This is facilitated by, to some extent, national groups like Alex Hertel-Fernandez studies and the American Legislative Exchange Council, American for Prosperity and others that provide legislative subsidies to these sort of less professional legislatures, as well as just the forces of nationalized policy. And all of this in context, I think, Steve Rogers is going to have a good forthcoming book as well on sort of lack of accountability in state legislatures to public opinion. But in national policy context, also, Dan Hopkins’ book, The Increasingly United States, shows this behaviorally, but voters don’t have much capacity to hold state level politicians accountable in part because of the nationalized political context, the nationalization of media, decline of state and local journalism and so forth. It makes it much more group dominated and partisan dominated and not as sort of accountable and responsive to dynamics and opinion.
But the exceptions that you’d sort of alluded to are really important, so I do find really strong responsiveness within states on marijuana policy and especially on LGBT, or really just LGB in this case, in the policy measure of rights. So prior to the Supreme Court legalizing same sex marriage, for example, same sex marriage policy and related sort of non-discrimination in employment based on sexuality, types of civil rights policies, those really appear to be driven by changes in public opinion. And those are two policy areas that we’ve seen big swings in American public opinion over the past generation that’s different than abortion, which has remained very stable since Roe V Wade. But in those two areas, you see massive cultural change in American politics, they’re somewhat simple, easily understood areas, in some cases are ballot referenda on those policies. All of that created a quite responsive sort of set of policy areas and those two exception areas.
Matt Grossmann: So in part because you don’t find as much public opinion, responsiveness, you move to other culprits, especially interest groups and use campaign finance data. But I think when I say that people will have in mind, a model of interest groups donating directly to legislators to win their votes. But instead, you have this theory and evidence based on networks of joint donors between interest groups and candidates accounting for polarization. So talk us through that evidence and then how we should interpret it versus kind of the usual stories that are given about interest group influence.
Jacob Grumbach: Yeah. And I’m adding to a big body of evidence and literature on campaign finance and money in politics and the role of individual and group donors in affecting public policy. And especially at the state level, I think you really can observe this at lower levels where your money, the more bang for your book, if you’re a donor at lower levels. There’s less media attention and monitoring by constituents. They’re less professionalized so the money and lobbying serves as a legislative subsidy to be more productive in passing policy. So you see things like great work by Anna Harvey and Taylor Mattia on Citizens United and how that affected state legislative ideology making the Republican party more successful and moving it rightward. And I knew Marty Gilens and some co-authors had a short article [inaudible 00:31:29] on pro-corporate policy as a result of Citizens United. But in the longer term in Poli-Sci, there’s been the debate, does money in politics matter really at all.
Then there’s another debate about that I’m fitting in is distinguishing between different types of donors and the effects they may have on state level politics. So typically you hear, okay, individual donors are individuals out atomized in the country, like me or my friend Jake, I’m looking at some co-partisan politician and I’m inspired by them or whatever. And maybe they’re across the country in this nationalized political context and they’re a millennial like me, I think they’re cool and I donate 20 bucks. That can be polarizing in a national political context or at least nationalizing in creating more partisan consistency and stuff like that. And by contrast, there’s this corporate and labor and interest group donors that have been found to essentially donate more to moderate politicians of both parties, especially trade associations and large corporate firms.
And that’s, I would argue, probably because they’re off the dimension. They are able to exert influence without having to be in, they can really play with both parties to achieve, for example, affect the fine print of let’s say some sort of obscure chemical regulation or financial regulation or something like that. I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily forces of great moderation, but rather they have a different dimension of interest there. But regardless, groups, organized groups and individuals are not necessarily so separate. So there’s a set of groups, especially activist groups that are clearly comprised of individual activists. So individual donors and these group donors are, it’s much more of a blurry line between them if you’re talking about the religious right, focus on the family or among liberals sort of moveon.org in the 2000s. Groups like this, they help to coordinate and aggregate and increase the voice of their activist members.
So these are, I call them interest group activists, they’re individuals that are affiliated with nationally oriented political groups, like the National Rifle Association or whatnot, as well as donating themselves to state level politicians. And I argue that those contributions from those interest group activists are going to be much more influential than just a one off individual who’s not affiliated with these types of groups. That is because these individual activists from the coordinating national group have much greater information in politics. So if you go to the NRA website, for example, you can see they have scripts for how to lobby state legislators about gun control policies and gun rights policies. They give you information on how to vote and contribute in state legislative primaries, extremely low information environments.
I’m a apply poli-sci professor, I don’t really know how to vote in state legislative primaries. I rely on endorsements and things like that, those really matter. And that means that those interest group activists have really helped play a role, especially on these less economic policies, more social cultural policies have helped, I think, explain policy polarization. I only have data sort of the campaign finance data back to the early 2000s, but I think that helps explain some divergence here. And again, I’m trying to fit this mechanism, these interest group activists in campaign finance within the broader set of campaign finance mechanisms of other ordinary individual donors, group donors, as well as really, you can’t observe them as much, especially in the dark money Citizens United period, but the sort of Alex Hertel-Fernandez, [inaudible 00:35:31] post style, Koch network and large, extremely large donors that have sort of interest group networks themselves that have been really influential over the states.
Matt Grossmann: But walk us through the mechanism a little bit, because it doesn’t seem to be just that their dollars are worth more than others dollars. You have some evidence that they really are the people who contact their state legislators and know them and so forth. So what kind of influence are we looking at?
Jacob Grumbach: Yeah. Thanks for reading. So yeah, one, you see that in terms of self-described ideology and policy positions, these interest group donors are more polarized and more consistently partisan. So in terms of preferences, they may be different than other donors. But then I think even more importantly is, I do observe that they’re all else equal more likely to contact legislators. So money in politics, it’s hard to observe like causal processes of money in politics having effects, but I think it’s clear one reason for this is that money in politics is part of a broader set of political strategies where it could be like, I forget, maybe Lee Dreman or somebody coined the phrase of like, hard money contributions, like I’m observing are like bringing wine to a party where it operates in facilitating and greasing the wheels for all sorts of other forms of political influence, especially lobbying.
And lobbying gets bad rap, like there’s some, of course, highly unequal lobbying and dominance by super elite, well-resourced groups and individuals, that’s very clear. But also, lobbying is just regular activists and citizens going to talk to legislators and bureaucrats and councils and things like that. And there, if you’re a donor, as we saw with Josh Kalla and David Brockman’s amazing field experiment of individual donors, you’re more likely to get a meeting, all else equal, with a legislator if you’re a donor than just an ordinary constituent. So again, this money facilitates access to politicians. It also facilitates the individuals being able to say, I’m part of an organized group. It’s not just me. I’m sending a signal for a broader group. I’m not just a regular fan of guns and collector, I’m part of the NRA. And you have more information.
So the Kalla Brockman experiment is so cool. And I think it’s under-emphasized that they, in their field experiment there, they were having the meeting that these donors or constituents are trying to get is about an obscure piece of chemical regulation of like golf course based chemical pesticide using golf courses that, without this organization, I somewhat doubt that these individuals would really know how to lobby on that obscure policy. So that information really matters in these low information environments where that organization really pays dividends. And I think that’s one thing that’s, again, hard for political, quant-political science, especially I’m implicated here too, doing our best to observe these really multifaceted and interactive ways that money and politics can influence outcomes, especially at lower levels of government.
Matt Grossmann: So you also track copying of policies from state to state and find consistent with others’ evidence that Republican Democratic states are increasingly copying one another, but you do find some responsiveness within those party networks based on the success of policies or signals of the success of policies. So is that, a sign that you might see Republican states learning from the success of Indiana and Democratic states might learn from the success of Minnesota and is that different than the kind of processes that people have talked about about Alec passing model bills, for example?
Jacob Grumbach: Yeah, no. Louis Brandeis Laboratories of Democracy Theory, super longstanding hopeful theory that policy experimentation in the 50 states, or there 48 or fewer when Brandeis said this, but that they would converge on sort of best practices, reject failed policy experiments. And different multiple mechanisms we could observe that would be consistent or sort of patterns we could observe that would be consistent with this sort of policy learning. It’s hard to disentangle learning and sort of just homophily, but consistent with learning would be if policies that are more successful in an economic sense in something like reducing unemployment or increasing economic productivity or gross state product in states are more likely to be emulated by other states or politically that policies that are associated with better electoral outcomes for the incumbents that pass that policy would be more likely to be emulated.
So what I observe is this really minimal to no economic sort of based emulation. I think in a multi-tiered federal system, it’s hard to know how much we would find given the fact that the national government and national economic crises and things affect the economy. But I think that’s suggestive that there’s not a ton. It doesn’t look like very consistent with economic learning, but I do find, like you said, within states controlled by the same party, electorally successful policies are more likely to be emulated. So like when blue Minnesota passes a series of policies and then its state legislative incumbents and gubernatorial incumbents do a little bit better, those policies are more likely to be emulated by other blue states, but not by states that are not also blue. But like you said, that really diminishes the overall capacity of policy learning.
We’re not going to achieve complete convergence on best practices in a theoretical sense, but it produces at least within party convergence and learning, and that it potentially could be more efficient than having one national system potentially, that convergence on two sort of sets of best practices in two different sort of epistemological scientific sort of policy making communities is potential. But I would say, it really does undercut the overall mechanism of policy learning and convergence on best practices to not have states learn from each other. And I think the reasons behind this, in addition to the overall nationalization of policy, like two mechanisms are one, is that in a nationally polarized context, you don’t want to give evidence that the other party’s policies work. So you don’t want to contribute to the body of evidence by passing a cross party policy and having it work in your state and then them going like, oh, that was a great idea about the other part.
And then more importantly, I would say, are the networks of expert groups and interest groups that help develop policy have become two different networks. So Kate Krimmel has nice American political development work on national policy that sort of divergent networks separate to partisan networks of interest groups, but I think in terms of like expert communities as well, that help give testimony at state legislatures about what good or bad policy and more “objective senses” are. Those have really polarized as well.
Matt Grossmann: So one important set of policies that you find diverging between the states is on democracy itself and voting rules and other kinds of institutional processes that give advantage to each of the parties, or especially that Republicans are seeing an advantage in trying to restrict electoral rules and voting, so talk about that evidence. And is this an example of the same processes that are going on in the rest of the book? Or is this something distinct?
Jacob Grumbach: Yeah, so that’s right. So we’ve seen big divergence, especially in the 2010s on these democratic institutions, legislative districting, election administration, responsiveness to public opinion. We could also, this is in thinking about electoral democracy, democracy is, of course, much broader. There’s sort of elements of civil liberties and liberal democracy. There’s elements of, some theorists of social democracy would say egalitarianism [inaudible 00:44:18] and deliberation. There’s whole body of democratic theory out there. But focusing on being an Americanist here [inaudible 00:44:26] will focus on electoral democracy and there you do see divergence and it’s similar to the divergence you see in other policy areas. But I would say it’s distinct because they are the levers of democracy often can confer partisan advantages that can build on themselves and also contribute to democratic backsliding at all levels. So it’s really significant that the US is really unique across the world where other federal systems don’t put really all of the administration of elections at the state, and to some extent, county levels.
It’s very unique around the world to have all these separate election administrations. And what I’m arguing is, again, going back to the Federalist Papers, there’s a theory of double security that decentralization in a time of, really protects against a would be autocrat nationally. They can’t capture 50 different sort of election administrations. And you saw, in the Trump administration, you saw a bunch of democratic governors, we stand against this threat. And when a would be autocrat’s in national power, that’s like a really great thing to have that decentralization.
But what I’m arguing here is that also institutional decentralization can affect the probability that a would be autocrat can take national power in the first place. So while we don’t really know the perfect balance of, okay, maybe decentralization by allowing sort of less democratic coalitions to backslide democracy within states, which affects our representation at all levels, we don’t know how balancing that between the protection of when you do have a national potential autocrat, this decentralization, those are two sides of the coin, but I think we heard over the past six years or so really, really strong arguments for why this decentralization was really good to have in this time. But I don’t think we emphasize the idea that over long stretches of time through changes to election administration and legislative district, and you can of change who achieves a legislative majority in a state, as well as who even achieves the US House majority.
And now with the potential for the independent state legislature’s doctrine to be ruled upon in the Supreme Court, you could really have state legislatures determining electoral college votes for presidential candidates, meaning that a single swing state legislature could really subvert an election. That really means that democratic backsliding in the states is going to be extremely important for national democracy and democratic performance in a way we haven’t appreciated. So I think it’s distinct in those substantive ways, but the pattern is remarkably consistent with these other areas of policy divergence.
Matt Grossmann: And are the mechanisms too, like, it just happens that Republicans happen to be on the side of all of this, but what they’re doing is they’re observing, they’re implementing rules that help their side win in other states and Democrats might be observing that same day voter registration or things that expand early voting or other voting opportunities are also likely to help their states or is there a distinct pattern here?
Jacob Grumbach: Yeah, it’s interesting to contrast this with the Jim Crow period. So the Jim Crow period, the fight over democracy was very much not as partisan nationally. Again, the democratic party, highly decentralized with respect to voting rights for Black Americans. Now it is really sorted by partisanship, which is really interesting. I think that’s about the nationalization of the parties. And you’re right, to some extent, I would never say any politicians, they’re not virtuous. This is all some prisoners’ dilemma where they’re trying to seek advantages. That’s fine. But it’s really important to notice that there is asymmetry with respect to these democratic institutions. And then it’s not because of some … I think actually, to be honest, on the democratic party elite side, you see this nationally, there’s actually, it’s not a good thing, but there is an ideological commitment to norms that we have to accept that they have. And that seems like a lame answer, but it seems also quite clear that they do not seem to want to erode norms, even when it would advantage the democratic party. And we see this with respect to, filibuster, statehood, court packing type of things.
But on the Republican side, there’s debates about why democratic backsliding. In the Jim Crow period, it’s really localized, regional, racial conflict over public goods, desegregation of public goods, land redistribution, economic redistribution, so forth. Now I’m not finding that there are local, regional political dynamics driving democratic changes in the US states, rather it’s driven by party and especially the national Republican party. So democratically controlled states are much more similar to divided governmental states than they are to Republican controlled states. And those Republican controlled states, we have to then, if it’s not local racial conflict or influxes of new Latino immigrants or any of these things that some, the behavioral race and ethnic politics scholarship has really found with respect to new immigrant groups produces a backlash or something like that in local areas.
I think that’s not incorrect, but it’s not really explaining this overall changes in democratic outcomes in the US states. Rather, it’s about national party coalitions. And then we have to ask, why is the Republican party and the Democratic party, why are they different with respect to these democratic institutions? And why do they see them as more or less advantageous, different sort of regimes of democratic institutions. And I think in the Republican party, on the one hand, my finding about race suggests it’s not about race in some narrow sense, but I think it’s clear that mass politics is highly racialized in sociocultural right now in the US, this seems very clear. So I would say it’s about, at the mass level, there is this nationalized racial conflict that does seem to be associated at the more voter-based level.
The Republican base has seemed to in part rejected democratic institutions to some extent due to racial threat nationally rather than at the state level. But I think also the Dan Ziblatt style of argument about conservative parties and how they treat democracy is really crucial. And that’s based on a sort of economic redistribution. He has a series of papers, co-authors a great set of research on this historically, that conservative parties have this dilemma where the masses want to redistribute the economic resources of the party of business and so forth. So it’s advantageous for them, it’s important for them to introduce other areas of conflict where they can win because, cut taxes for billionaires is not an especially popular policy agenda. The Republican policy agenda, economically, during the Trump administration set records for unpopularity of their main agenda items of repeal the Affordable Care Act and high-end tax cuts. The sociocultural aspects were very much more popular with voters, including to some extent, all the discussion about white voters in the Midwest and things like that.
So I think that combination, the Republican party is somewhat unique. We have a, through Duverger’s law and so forth, we have two parties in the US, but the fact that one is a coalition of, unlike European far right parties, it’s a coalition of the real, some elite, highly wealthy interests on the economic policy front, as well as an electoral base that’s sort of right wing populist, anti-immigration and sort of racial threat-based sociocultural threat politics. I think that’s a unique combination that produces a unique opposition to democracy, even compared to European anti-immigration parties that are don’t have that sort of business coalition or the Tories, the business, but slightly more cosmopolitan conservative parties in the developed world, the Republican party seems a little bit unique.
Matt Grossmann: So as you say, your findings are sort of reconcilable with this broader argument that American racial history is kind of central to our democratic backsliding. But on the face of it, you do have a couple of findings that seem inconsistent with that centrality. One is that these institutions are not really changing in places with either high Black populations or growing Hispanic populations. And another is that the most direct policies that have been implicated in racial hierarchy in the criminal justice sphere are not going along these same lines. So how does that make you revise the role of America’s racial history in its current democratic backsliding? Oh, a third finding is just obviously that this was occurring before the Trump administration, that the state stuff is not a reaction to that.
Jacob Grumbach: Yeah, no really important. It’s clear that the Tea Party moment of the early 2010s, I think some great work, Matt Barreto and Chris Parker, others have really showed the importance of anti-immigration and sort of racialized anti-Obama politics. We saw Michael Tesla with racial spillover in the Obama presidency. But the point here, the reason I would say analogies to Jim Crow, the new Jim Crow-style voting restrictions, there’s some importance of that analogy of saying race is a part of this, very clearly it’s central to political conflict over democracy right now in the US. There are restrictions on voting. But I think gerrymandering is different in that it’s much more partisan now rather than racial, although there is still racial gerrymandering, but the partisan gerrymandering is really setting records in the 2010s. But the real breakdown of the analogy is that now it’s entirely nationalized.
This is about, you can hear this in focus group about with the Republican voting base. You can hear this everywhere, but it’s about the country slipping away. It’s not about our local racial hierarchy being upended by sort of a combination of, as Rob Mickey would say, indigenous civil rights activists in these Southern localities and states and sort of Northern carpet bagger, civil rights activists. It’s not this dynamic of destabilizing, a local hierarchy. It’s about national conflict, much more about, I’m voting for the person who’s talking trash about the right people in national life on TV. And what people think about Colin Kaepernick and the NFL protests and Lil Naz X on the country music awards and all of these things, it’s a different moment of racial conflict in American politics than the regional one. And that’s something that’s, of course, different than the Civil War period when that became nationalized over the threat to end slavery. But now we have to grapple with this new, highly national form of racial conflict and how that plays out with respect to democratic institutions. So the Jim Crow analogies, I think, it’s not about race being central or not, but it’s about we’re in a very different context.
Matt Grossmann: I’ll just ask, how do you see things proceeding from here? Obviously in the 2020 election aftermath, we had all of these problems with intervention and basic election administration and reporting. On the other hand, there’s at least some prospect of reforms of gerrymandering at the national level, some of those reporting electoral college procedures. So where do you see things going from here?
Jacob Grumbach: So there’s a huge potential for national standards to be set, constitutional anti hardball through, for example, national gerrymandering bans. That would constrain both parties and create new rules to enforce norms. One scary thing is that so much of American democratic institutions have turned out to be norms that elites held to rather than actual formal rules that bound their hands. So the establishment of new rules around gerrymandering, around election administration and registration, the electoral college and the Electoral Count Act with electoral subversion, all those, some potential, but does not look quite likely in this administration. And especially if in the 2022 midterms, partisan control of either the House or Senate changes, then we will not see those things.
But without those, I think there’s the potential, a small chance, a non-zero chance of electoral subversion in the 2024 presidential election, as I mentioned. That’s I think the most proximate big explosive threat, but I think it’s a small, but non-zero possibility we should be clear that their big deal, bad things with small probabilities are still really scary and bad. I wouldn’t say it’s like a huge percent chance, but I think it’s enough to really concern us. But I think the other possibilities that we see the trend sort of continue of divergence muddling through not bright line changes in sort of American regime change and so forth, but rather the trend of, again, continued long term, slow moving democratic backsliding in some states and stability or somewhat expansion in other states trudging through.
Matt Grossmann: And anything we didn’t get to that you wanted to include or any take home message from Laboratories Against Democracy?
I think some other little things like if we’re thinking about how to revitalize American democracy, I think one disconnect here is that organizing and political organizations, they have to be federated, localized social connections, real people, not just sending a check to your DC group or the text to Nancy Pelosi or whatever. New bright spots in the labor movement are kind of showing that, I think, with young workers and my work with Paul Frymer shows how important that is for multiracial democracy. But then the institutions and policy, it’s important to be national, to set national baseline. So keeping that both in mind, national policy making, especially crucial, state and local federated organizing also crucial.
Jacob Grumbach: Thanks so much for having me, Matt.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossman. If you like this discussion, I can recommend these episodes. Are Red and Blue States Making Red and Blue Policies? Does Nationalized Media Mean the Death of Local Politics? Have Conservatives Transformed the States? Why Do Americans Accept Democratic Backsliding? And US Democratic Decline in Comparative Perspective. Please check out Laboratories Against Democracy and then listen in next time.