Polarization and Federalism

Without the phenomenon receiving a whole lot of national attention, the partisan polarization that has made national politics so fractious and closely contended has had a very different impact on the states, where varying demographics and a general decline in ticket-splitting is producing one-party government to a degree not seen since the 19th century. And because Democratic voters tend to be concentrated disproportionately into a smaller number of larger-population states, Republicans are more likely than ever to have a natural advantage in the number of governorships and state legislative chambers they control.

An AP story by David Lieb covers some of the basic facts:

If you thought the presidential election revealed the nation’s political rifts, consider the outcomes in state legislatures. The vote also created a broader tier of powerful one-party governments that can act with no need for compromise. Half of state legislatures now have veto-proof majorities, up from 13 only four years ago, according to figures compiled for the Associated Press by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

All but three states — Iowa, Kentucky and New Hampshire — have one-party control of their legislatures, the highest mark since 1928.

I’d add that only six states have divided partisan control of executive and legislative branches, a very low level historically (for quite some time, there were about that many just in the South).

Lieb notes that the combination of united partisan control and legislative supermajorities may produce very different policies and even living conditions in the near future. To the extent that gridlock in Washington and/or deliberate devolution leaves key decisions to the states, that’s undoubtedly true, as Republican-dominated states pursue the Mississippi Model of low business costs uber alles, and Democratic-dominated states pursue a very different idea of a “good business climate” and a desirable quality of life.

Thanks to the election just completed, states will not soon be in a position to outlaw abortion generally or cut millions of people from Medicaid eligibility (after many millions lose the coverage they would have received under Obamacare), but we’ll still see some pretty significant variations. And even as we continue to hear tales of states being “laboratories for democracy” because real-world governing responsibilities and balanced-budget requirements force the parties to work together to “get things done,” the more likely pattern will become states showing what good and bad things one-party government might produce if applied nationally. If current patterns persist, we could even see a notable upturn in the already significant phenomenon of people relocating to be not only with people like themselves, but to live under the kind of government they prefer. This will represent yet another challenge to the United States of America.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.