The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Blue states can show us a way out of red state culture-war madness

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her inauguration on Jan. 1 outside the Capitol. (Al Goldis/AP)

Of all the recent developments in our politics, few are as unsettling as the virulent reactionary turn in red states. This has involved the rank weaponizing of state governments against “woke” corporations, teachers who violate orthodoxy on race and sex, and migrants who are regularly rounded up and shipped to liberal strongholds like herds of culture-war chattel.

So, now that Democrats won back a good deal of ground on the state level in 2022, can they counterprogram this hard-right turn by redoubling their own use of state governments — judiciously — to advance a blue-state cultural agenda?

To answer this, keep an eye on Michigan. After flipping the state legislature and reelecting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year, Democrats opened their legislative session with a barrage of culturally liberal legislation, including new LGBTQ protections and repeal of an onerous antiabortion statute, which Republicans had blocked in the majority.

Suddenly, Democrats have many such openings. After seizing full command in Michigan, Maryland, Minnesota and Massachusetts, Democrats control governorships and state legislatures in 17 states. While Republicans control 22 state governments, those mostly represent less populous states. More Americans now live in states fully controlled by Democrats. That’s a big comeback from years in the state-level wilderness.

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But Michigan is particularly notable. After Donald Trump shocked Democrats everywhere by winning it in 2016, the Democratic comeback has been decisive. Liberal cultural values have gained ground in former Trump country, culminating in a 2022 referendum that codified state constitutional abortion rights passing by a wide margin.

Now, Michigan Democrats can legislate a clear alternative to the reactionary lurch by red states.

“I hope that we do become the model,” state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, who represents a district in the Detroit area, told me. She said Michigan should become a “microcosm for reinvigorating the American Dream” around the principles that “everybody is welcome” and “we talk about our past in honest terms.”

“For this to come from a state from the Midwest” and not a “coastal Democratic state,” McMorrow said, will illustrate a “different way forward.”

When McMorrow dressed down a Republican last year who smeared her as a pedophile over LGBTQ issues, her speech went viral. That exposed a deep hunger among liberals for Democrats to forcefully defend their values.

Along with culturally liberal legislation, Michigan Democrats are pushing bills to reverse an anti-union “right to work” law and require union wages for construction workers. Democrats hope to move the state in a socially liberal direction while boosting working-class-economic prospects.

That’s in keeping with Whitmer’s approach, as HuffPost’s Jonathan Cohn reported, which involved learning from Trump’s win by fusing an attack on right-wing culture-warring with a focus on economic fairness. This could undercut GOP efforts to cast social liberalism as contrary to “working-class values.”

Even Republicans admit their culture-mongering has become a loser. After Whitmer defeated challenger Tudor Dixon’s culture-war-obsessed campaign, a Michigan GOP memo ripped Dixon for alienating independents by sinking excessive resources into “ads on transgender sports.”

“Republicans really leaned into anti-trans, anti-LGBT issues,” Heather Williams, acting head of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, told me. Democrats hope governing inclusively on those issues can cement a long-term shift. “You will see people’s lives changed,” Williams said, and in 2024, Democrats will “talk to voters about what they did with the power that they had.”

Blue states, of course, have long used legislative power to protect abortion and LGBTQ rights and other liberal priorities. Now, the question is whether Democrats can pass more measures — in blue and swing states alike — that function as direct responses to red-state attempts to deploy state power toward reactionary ends.

Those red-state innovations are intensifying. Anti-trans restrictions have reached ugly levels of intrusiveness. The movement to ban books from schools is growing. Prohibitions on straying from orthodoxy on race and LGBTQ issues are prompting teachers to muzzle themselves and are being deployed to censor books that merely contain LGBTQ themes and characters.

The result, as the Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein details, has been a “great divergence” between red and blue states, with the former walling off a socially separate America that’s rolling back swaths of the civil rights revolution. This places new obligations on Democrats.

Acadia University political scientist Jeffrey Sachs, who tracks red-state laws, suggests Democrats should experiment more with state bills that affirmatively protect those laws’ targets. Those could include prohibiting libraries from banning books for political reasons and requiring transparent processes in response to right-wing demands for book removal.

“A liberal cultural agenda for schools and libraries should empower local schools and communities while ensuring that a small clique of ideologues cannot capture public institutions,” Sachs told me.

Some Democrats are showcasing examples of this in red territory. One bill in Missouri would expressly allow teachers to discuss LGBTQ history to promote tolerance. A proposal in Texas would repeal restrictions on critical race theory. Meanwhile, a Virginia bill would bar removal of instruction materials solely on grounds that their subject matter includes classes protected from discrimination.

With recouped state-level power, Democrats can do more of that. It would illustrate to the country contrasting cultural values shaped around the idea, as The Post’s E.J. Dionne notes, that “the efforts to close minds” by a “willful ideological minority” will not make our nation “stronger” or “more moral.”

The future of this type of politics begins with success in places such as Michigan.