Opinion How the GOP is making national policy one state at a time

(Washington Post illustration)

The political divisions in the United States increasingly aren’t coming from Washington. America has divided starkly into states dominated by Republicans with a shared agenda and states dominated by Democrats with an alternative one. Much of America’s uncivil war, as President Biden has described it, stems from states adopting these divergent policies.

About 45 percent of Americans live in the 25 GOP-dominated states, and about 40 percent in the 16 Democratic ones. In effect, we have two Americas of policy — and only a small fraction of Americans live in a place where one vision or the other isn’t on the march.

But these two Americas are not parallel. Republicans have been more effective at implementing a unified, national agenda through state legislatures and governors. They are also using state power in a more extreme way than Democrats — for instance, changing election laws and limiting abortion rights so aggressively that these state-level policies have become the center of national political fights.

These two shifts — more states being dominated by one party and the parties pursuing a unified agenda across those states — aren’t new. I wrote in 2019 about how blue states were adopting policies such as marijuana legislation while red states were limiting abortion rights and expanding gun rights.

But this state divide is deepening over time. In 1992, according to Ballotpedia, one party controlled both the state legislature and the governor’s office in 19 states. Today, that number has nearly doubled, to 37. In four other states, one party has such a large majority in the legislature that it can override the veto of a governor from the opposing party. And the effects of so many one-party states are becoming clearer. The presidential and electoral divide we’ve seen every four years since 2000 — graphically illustrated with maps showing states in the South and the country’s vast center mostly colored red, while those on the coasts are blue — has trickled down to the state level and into policy.

In states where Republicans dominate government, they are passing policies that include limits on the teaching of some ideas about race and identity, as well as restrictions on people who identify as transgender. Meanwhile, Democrats are protecting existing abortion rights or even extending them.

Republicans dominate

government in 25 states ...

... and have passed these laws

since January 2021:

Limits on how race and identity are taught in schools

18 states

Election provisions that make it harder to vote

17 states

Creation or expansion of school voucher programs

17 states

Abortion limits

17 states

Anti-trans

provisions

17 states

Income tax cuts for wealthy individuals/

corporations

13 states

Permitless carry of concealed weapons

10 states

Republicans dominate government

in 25 states ...

... and have passed these laws

since January 2021:

Limits on how race and identity are taught in schools

Creation or expansion of school voucher programs

17 states

18 states

Abortion

limits

Election provisions that make it harder to vote

17 states

17 states

Anti-trans

provisions

Income tax cuts for wealthy individuals/corporations

17 states

13 states

Permitless carry of concealed weapons

10 states

Republicans dominate government in 25 states ...

MT

ND

NH

SD

ID

WY

IA

NE

OH

IN

UT

WV

KS

MO

KY

TN

OK

AZ

SC

AR

GA

AL

MS

TX

FL

... and have passed these laws

since January 2021:

Limits on how race and identity are taught in schools

Creation or expansion of school voucher programs

Election provisions that make it harder to vote

18 states

17 states

17 states

Abortion

limits

Anti-trans

provisions

17 states

17 states

Income tax cuts for wealthy individuals/corporations

Permitless carry of concealed weapons

13 states

10 states

Republicans dominate government in 25 states ...

MT

ND

NH

ID

SD

WY

IA

NE

OH

IN

UT

WV

KS

MO

KY

TN

OK

AZ

SC

AR

GA

AL

MS

TX

FL

... and have passed these laws since January 2021:

Limits on how race and identity are taught in schools

Election provisions that make it harder to vote

Creation or expansion of school voucher programs

Abortion

limits

18 states

17 states

17 states

17 states

Anti-trans

provisions

Income tax cuts for wealthy individuals/corporations

Permitless carry of concealed weapons

17 states

13 states

10 states

Democrats dominate

government in 16 states ...

... and have passed these laws

since January 2021:

Measures that make it easier to vote

14 states

Expanding or protecting abortion access

10 states

Creation or expansion of earned income tax credits

10 states + D.C.

Note: In the highlighted states, one party controls the state legislature and the governor’s office, or it has a sufficient legislative majority to override a veto by the opposing governor. The list of laws, which might not be exhaustive, has been simplified and grouped for clarity.

Sources: American Federation for Children, Ballotpedia, Brennan Center for Justice, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Education Week, Giffords Law Center, Guttmacher Institute, Movement Advancement Project, National Conference of State Legislatures, news reports.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Democrats dominate

government in 16 states ...

... and have passed these laws

since January 2021:

Expanding or protecting abortion access

Measures that make it easier to vote

10 states

14 states

Creation or expansion of earned income tax credits

10 states + D.C.

Note: In the highlighted states, one party controls the state legislature and the governor’s office, or it has a sufficient legislative majority to override a veto by the opposing governor. The list of laws, which might not be exhaustive, has been simplified and grouped for clarity.

Sources: American Federation for Children, Ballotpedia, Brennan Center for Justice, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Education Week, Giffords Law Center, Guttmacher Institute, Movement Advancement Project, National Conference of State Legislatures, news reports.

THE WASHINGTON POST

Democrats dominate government in 16 states ...

WA

ME

OR

CT

DE

MA

MD

NJ

RI

NY

NV

IL

CO

CA

NM

HI

... and have passed these laws

since January 2021:

Expanding or protecting abortion access

Creation or expansion of earned income tax credits

Measures that make it easier to vote

14 states

10 states

10 states + D.C.

Note: In the highlighted states, one party controls the state legislature and the governor’s office, or it has a sufficient legislative majority to override a veto by the opposing governor. The list of laws, which might not be exhaustive, has been simplified and grouped for clarity.

Sources: American Federation for Children, Ballotpedia, Brennan Center for Justice, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Education Week, Giffords Law Center, Guttmacher Institute, Movement Advancement Project, National Conference of State Legislatures, news reports.

THE WASHINGTON POST

It’s important to note that these charts and data are only a snapshot of policymaking at the state level. There is no formal, comprehensive tracking of state-level policies, and legislatures enact or revise laws all the time. But even granting those caveats, the pattern is clear: Republicans are more effective than Democrats at getting a coherent, coordinated agenda enacted on a broad scale, with almost identical legislation passed in state after state.

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How has the GOP achieved this advantage?

First, as political scientist Alexander Hertel-Fernandez explains in his book “State Capture,” conservative activists and donors over decades developed a powerful infrastructure and set of organizations to advance a coordinated agenda in a way that progressives did not. The conservative-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council, for example, has for years written sample legislation on major issues that GOP state legislators across the country often adopt. Another national conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, has individual state chapters but pushes highly similar policy goals in many of them.

In contrast, liberal activists and donors have invested more in national politics and on groups that work on individual policy issues, instead of a state-based strategy. Liberals are trying to catch up now, with groups such as the State Innovation Exchange working with Democratic legislators.

But state policy groups on the left still aren’t as robust as they are on the right. That’s in part related to fundraising. Wealthy people and corporations have a strong direct incentive to pump money into conservative groups and focus on GOP-run state governments because red states are more likely than blue ones to cut taxes and reduce regulations, thereby saving the rich money.

Furthermore, the Republican agenda often plays better at the state level than it does in Washington. Polls show that GOP policies such as abortion bans, tax cuts for the wealthy and opposition to gun control are unpopular with a majority of the national electorate. So the party pushes those issues in red states where the GOP has little chance of losing control, instead of trying to push them through Congress and putting some vulnerable House or Senate seats at risk.

Second, Democrats are limited at the state level because much of the party’s agenda requires funding that states often don’t have. States generally can’t afford on their own to dramatically expand prekindergarten programs, make community college free for all students who want to attend and take other steps that Democrats are pushing on a national level (albeit unsuccessfully).

Third, there is less division among Republicans than among Democrats. About a year ago, conservative activist Christopher Rufo announced his goal of getting critical race theory and other ideas about race and identity banned or limited for 100 million Americans. He appears to have succeeded: Such provisions have been adopted in at least 18 states, whose combined population is about 114 million. The wing of the Republican Party aligned with former president Donald Trump dominates politics in red states — there was no real resistance to Rufo’s proposals.

In contrast, blue states, much like Democrats in Washington, D.C., face major divides between a more conservative, older cohort and a younger, more progressive one. Neither wing of the party is dominant, meaning that legislation in blue states often stalls, just as it has under Democratic control of Capitol Hill for the past year and a half.

Finally, on some key issues such as campaign finance regulation, Democratic-controlled states aren’t pushing much, fully aware that the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court is likely to strike down such legislation.

All that said, I expect Democrats to get more aggressive and coordinated at the state level, because they can’t pass much in Washington now and will likely have even less power there after the November elections. And if Democrats do make that shift, policies that affect citizens’ lives and America’s future will vary even more depending on what state you live in.

We don’t have two Americas — millions of Democratic-leaning people such as me live in red states, and many Republicans in blue states. But we do have two Americas of policy.

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