So they’re fighting back by using their last redoubt of power to perform their own version of authoritarianism. If they feel unable to assert cultural power or federal power, then they’ll lash out with the power of state governments — the one place they have undeniable control.
Few things feel worse than having power and then losing it, which is where Republicans are right now. They lost the House in 2018, then lost the White House in 2020, then lost the Senate in January. America’s endless culture war feels to them like little more than an endless string of defeats.
Their responses have ranged from the comical to the terrifying, but they’re focused at the state level, where legislative guns are being turned on matters practical and cultural alike:
- Republican legislators in multiple states have passed bans on the teaching of “critical race theory,” which I promise you almost none of them could define if their lives depended on it.
- They have passed harsh laws targeting protesters, including measures offering civil immunity to those who mow down protesters with their cars.
- They have passed laws barring trans girls from playing school sports.
- They have passed a wave of laws making it harder to vote and specifically taking power over elections from local officials and giving it to the legislature.
Again and again, these laws either set policy previously made at the local level — like on school curriculums — or utilize “preemption,” where the legislature not only sets a law for the state as a whole but also expressly forbids cities and counties from passing their own rules to contradict it.
It’s not a new phenomenon — in the past, Republican legislatures have forbidden localities from raising their own minimum wage, restricting guns, or (at the behest of telecom lobbyists) establishing municipal broadband — but it has taken on a particular intensity.
That’s because at the moment, state-level Republicans look up and see a federal government run by Democrats, and look down and see local governments that are often also run by Democrats. Even the most conservative states contain liberal cities — often the most vibrant, diverse, and economically dynamic places in their state — where Democrats run things, whether it’s Austin or Boise or Missoula.
They can’t do much about what happens in Washington. So they find their targets below.
Reaching down to tie the hands of local officials has both practical and symbolic impact. When Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida not only removed the state’s coronavirus restrictions but also forbade any city from maintaining its own, he was denounced by mayors and other local officials across the state, which was surely just fine with him. He’s going to show those liberals who’s boss, and he wants everyone to know he’s doing it.
There’s both a political and cultural context in which this occurs, as conservatives tell themselves over and over how oppressed they are, making them even more desperate to demonstrate that they still hold some degree of power.
So when institutions previously understood as conservative begin nodding even in small ways to progressive cultural change, conservatives feel the wound particularly acutely. For instance, when the CIA released a recruitment video featuring a young Latina woman as part of an obvious attempt to diversify its ranks beyond the usual collection of white guys in short-sleeve dress shirts, conservatives just about lost their minds with rage (though some liberals mocked it, too).
What matters about episodes like that one is that they reinforce the perception on the right that their power is being eroded. They always knew Hollywood was a place where they held little sway, but now liberal values seem to be infecting corporations and even the CIA.
So the state laws function as a kind of culture war Viagra, telling their constituents, “You spend hours every night being lectured by Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham about how everything you believe in is crumbling, so here’s something to make you feel strong again.”
Much as conservatives would like to create a widespread backlash against “wokeness,” there’s little reason to think the leftward march of American culture will reverse. But Republican power at the state level will endure.
As of now, Republicans have trifectas — controlling the state house, Senate, and governorship — in 23 states, compared with 15 for Democrats. Overall they control 59 legislative chambers, while Democrats control 39. In some places it’s because they win clear majorities of votes, while in others it’s because they have gerrymandered state legislative districts so ruthlessly that they keep control even when they lose.
As a group of political scientists recently wrote in The Post:
We found that, after 2011, 45 state legislative maps had been drawn with extreme partisan gerrymandering. Of these, 43 favor Republicans, while only two help Democrats.
Since the conservative majority on the Supreme Court has ruled that partisan gerrymandering does not violate the Constitution no matter how severely it undermines the will of the voters, that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Which means that even if conservatives continue to be caught in that pincer between liberals at the federal and local levels, they’ll have the power of states to hold on to. And they’ll throw it around as much as they can.