When ‘Party Differences Are Not Fuzzy,’ Every State Is a Battleground

What is democracy? It depends on where you stand.

In late August, a Quinnipiac University poll found that the exact same percentage — a stunning 69 percent — of Republicans and Democrats think the nation’s democracy is in danger of collapse. But, as my Times colleagues Peter Baker and Blake Hounshell pointed out, they do so for entirely different reasons: “One side blames former President Donald J. Trump and his ‘MAGA Republicans’ while the other fingers President Biden and the ‘socialist Democrats.’ ”

Let’s take a deeper look at this issue.

In 2020, Suthan Krishnarajan, a political scientist at Aarhus University in Denmark, contracted with YouGov to conduct a survey in October and November of 3300 adults in the United States. The survey “confronted respondents with fictional behaviors by politicians that randomly vary on both democratic behavior (regular versus undemocratic) and policy issues surrounding the behavior (e.g., pro-immigration or anti-immigration). Respondents then expressed, in various ways, how democratic they perceive the behavior to be.”

Krishnarajan writes about the survey findings in a 2022 paper, “Rationalizing Democracy: The Perceptual Bias and (Un)Democratic Behavior”:

“Most astonishingly,” Krishnarajan continues,

Citing examples, or vignettes as he calls them, of politicians collecting campaign contributions from beneficiaries of specific policies or lying about the consequences of legislative proposals, Krishnarajan reports that

Unsurprisingly, this ideological bias has significant consequences:

How, then, do voters justify this double standard?

Krishnarajan contends that

In conclusion, Krishnarajan writes:

It’s not just partisanship that leads to different perceptions of political practice. People with ideologically similar mind sets looking at the same basic facts can come to very different conclusions.

Take two new books on state government, both written by liberal-minded authors. The first is “Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics” by the political scientist Jacob Grumbach. The second, which will be published in November, is “Dynamic Democracy: Public Opinion, Elections, and Policy Making in the American States” by Devin Caughey and Christopher Warshaw, who are also political scientists.

“Laboratories Against Democracy” paints a bleak picture; “Dynamic Democracy” is fundamentally optimistic.

Grumbach, who teaches at the University of Washington, is unsparing in his critique of developments in state politics, arguing, for example, that state governments under Republican control were the breeding ground for the rise of the Tea Party — the right-wing movement crucial to the 2010 Republican takeover of the House that helped elect Donald Trump president six years later:

Trump, Grumbach continues, “has been characterized as aberrant, a wrecking ball that disrupted American politics. But it was the states that were the wrecking ball, clearing a path for Trumpism throughout the American political system.”

Grumbach has developed a State Democracy Index to illustrate the erosion of democratic institutions in the states from 2000 to 2018. The index is based on measures like the ease of registering to vote and of voting, the level of gerrymandering, laws governing protests, incarceration rates and voter ID requirements:

“States like North Carolina and Wisconsin were among the most democratic states in the year 2000 but by 2018 they were close to the bottom,” Grumbach writes, describing in detail how a Republican takeover of state government radically altered the character of North Carolina politics.

In the 1970s, “North Carolina became a leader in expanding access to voting,” Grumbach points out. The state opened up “opportunities for early voting and implemented policies to expand voter registration.” But “a major shift occurred after the Republican Party won control of both legislative chambers in 2010. Beginning in 2011, North Carolina made a series of changes to its election laws and procedures.” The state renewed congressional district lines so that in 2018, “Republicans won about 49.3 percent of the two-party vote, but this minority of votes translated to fully 77 percent (10 of 13) of North Carolina’s seats in Congress.”

After the state elected a Republican governor in 2012, Grumbach goes on to say, “the unified Republican government implemented a strict voter ID law and curtailed early voting laws in areas with heavier concentration of Black voters.”

Grumbach uses the 2000-2018 State Democracy Index to compare trends in Democratic and Republican states. While in 2000, there was hardly any difference between the states, by 2018 Republican-controlled states had fallen sharply on the index, while both Democratic and divided states moved in a modestly progressive direction.

Compare Grumbach’s outlook to that of Caughey and Warshaw, who contend that “even in this polarized age, state policymaking is responsive to public opinion.” In the introduction to “Dynamic Democracy,” Caughey and Warshaw observe that the accommodation to changing public opinion “tends to be incremental, especially when a state’s policies are viewed collectively.”

They cite Vermont as a case study:

Along similar lines, Caughey and Warshaw point to the steady growth in states approving Medicaid expansion through Obamacare, including deep red states like Louisiana, North Dakota, Idaho, Oklahoma, Utah and Missouri. As a result, the authors report, “state Medicaid expansion policies’ congruence with majority opinion increased from 52 percent in 2014 to 76 percent in 2021.”

Caughey and Warshaw explicitly challenge the more pessimistic views of political scientists like Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen, who, they write, argue that “contemporary American democracy — plagued as it is by new political ailments, such as partisan polarization — is unresponsive and dysfunctional.”

Caughey and Warshaw make their own point:

I asked Grumbach and Warshaw about their different perspectives.

Warshaw wrote in an email that he thinks “our book and Jake’s book are mostly complementary, just perhaps some differences in emphasis.”

Warshaw stresses that he and Caughey “agree with Jake that polarization in state policies is increasing, and the policy consequences of partisan control of state governments are growing” and that “it’s concerning that state governments, especially states with unified Republican control, are increasingly trying to make it harder to vote.”

But, Warshaw continued,

Grumbach’s email reply to my inquiry similarly argued that Caughey and Warshaw have “a slightly more optimistic take, but we’re mostly in agreement.”

Grumbach argued that their divergent perspectives grew out of different approaches to assessing “policy responsiveness to public opinion.”

One measure, Grumbach wrote, is what he calls “cross-sectional responsiveness”:

Another measure is “dynamic responsiveness”:

A third measure, according to Grumbach, is “congruence.”

Grumbach emphasized his own approach:

I asked several other scholars what they thought about the somewhat different emphases of the Grumbach and Caughey-Warshaw books. Robert Erikson, a political scientist at Columbia, wrote back by email that the two books are “quite compatible. Both are awesome projects.”

At the moment, Erikson argued,

Implicit in Grumbach’s narrative, Erikson continued, “is that there is an increasingly conservative bias to state politics.”

Erikson described a continuing ideological tension at the level of state government:

Don Haider-Markel, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, wrote by email:

Many of these regressive steps, Haider-Markel continued,

In their paper “Citizens’ Perceptions of the Quality of Democracy in the American States — to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in September — Gregory Shufeldt and Patrick Flavin contend that the single most important factor in voters’ perception of the level of democracy in their state is whether or not their own party is in control.

“Attitudes about the quality of democracy in one’s state are largely driven by the familiar political forces of whether ‘your team’ controls government or not,” Shufeldt and Flavin write. “Simply stated, citizens’ perceptions of democratic performance in their state do not seem to be linked to an objective measure of performance in any discernible way.”

Perhaps most significant, they continue,

In another paper set to be presented at the annual meeting, “The Culture War and Partisan Polarization: State Political Parties, 1960-2018,” the political scientists Gerald Gamm, Justin Phillips, Matthew Carr and Michael Auslen analyzed the evolving platform positions of state Democratic and Republican parties. They use two issues, abortion and gay rights, to determine how greater or lesser partisan competition affects the level of cultural liberalism and conservatism among Democrats and Republicans. The authors find that heightened partisan competition drives up the level of polarization:

Developments over the past 30 years have combined to produce a partisan realignment of state governments from majority Democratic to majority Republican.

In 1990, both the house and senate in 29 state legislatures were controlled by Democrats, 6 by Republicans, and the remaining 14 were under split control (Nebraska is unicameral), according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

This year, according to the N.C.S.L., Republicans control both branches of the legislature in 30 states to the Democrats’ 17. Republicans control the legislature and the governor’s mansion in 23 states to the Democrats’ 14.

There are many reasons for this conservative tilt: the Republican advantage in rural and exurban regions, which in many states translates into majorities; effective Republican gerrymandering of districts; the excessive concentration of Democratic voters in urban areas.

Another factor, however, is that Republican political committees, corporations and conservative nonprofits recognized the crucial importance of state politics early on, not only in setting policies but in serving as political farm teams to cultivate statewide and national candidates. In contrast, Democratic and liberal groups have only realized of late that they have been outgunned and outmanned on this front.

The Democratic shortfall is perhaps best exemplified by a comparison of spending over the past 10 election cycles, from 2004 to 2022, by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the Republican State Leadership Committee. Data compiled by OpenSecrets shows that the Republican committee outspent its Democratic counterpart by nearly two to one, $390.8 million to $206.4 million.

At the same time, remember that on a national level, according to Open Secrets, Democrats are virtually neck and neck with Republicans: the three major Democratic committees have raised $661.1 million in the current election cycle, compared to $665.7 million by their Republican counterparts.

Complaints that Republicans have created unfair structural barriers — partisan redistricting, voter restrictions — to protect their state legislative majorities, overlook the fact that such structural barriers required the investment of money and troops, investments that Democrats failed to make back when it counted, especially just before the 2010 census and the subsequent redrawing of State Senate and House district lines across the country.

That Republicans control a majority of state governments does not represent a failure of democracy. Presidential elections in the United States suggest the parties are, in fact, fairly evenly matched — 17 Democrats and 19 Republicans (the rest unaffiliated or Whigs), according to Statista, have been elected president over the life of the Republic. It’s a dogfight.

We have become a closely divided nation largely through democratic procedures. The American political dilemma in its current form is rooted in an evenly balanced two-party system in which each side sees the other as a mortal enemy. With the federal government often tied in knots, gaining complete control of as many states as possible has, consequently, become a crucial political battleground.

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