Revitalizing People-Based Government
Revived civic infrastructure at the state level is necessary to realize the promise of democracy.
Closer in proximity to citizens than the federal government, states are thought to embody the virtues of decentralization and self-government. Americans, so the argument goes, are better positioned to check the activities of their local and state politicians than those elected to the more distant US Congress. Therefore, state and local policy should be more responsive to public preferences than federal policy. Beyond political representation, having 50 state governors and legislatures competing for public support ought to spur more innovation and experimentation; they should be what Louis Brandeis has memorably dubbed America’s “laboratories of democracy.” But do these rosy assessments of the states hold up under closer scrutiny?
Still Democracy’s Laboratories?
Recent political events suggest that American federalism is playing exactly the democracy-bolstering role envisioned by the Constitution’s framers. States, for instance, are checking the power of the federal government, challenging the Trump administration on its decisions related to immigration restrictions and implementation of the decennial census. States are also innovating in areas where the federal government has failed to act: on the minimum wage, climate change, and protections for the LGBTQ community.
But at the same time many states are curbing their democratic processes, like taking steps to restrict political participation—either by making it harder for individuals to vote or weakening grassroots associations that organize citizens. Furthermore, in a growing number of states the geographic distribution of voters, combined with partisan redistricting, means that even large majorities of the popular vote do not necessarily translate into legislative majorities, entrenching minority legislative control. And even when large majorities of voters bypass legislatures to approve ballot measures—like expanded health insurance for poor adults, campaign finance reforms, and broadened voting rights—some state governments have rolled back such measures or even ignored them altogether.
For example, after Floridians voted overwhelmingly to re-enfranchise over a million former felons, the Republican-controlled legislature voted to create punitive barriers to ex-felon voting. In recognizing the success of progressive strategies to bypass the conservative legislature and make appeals directly to voters, conservatives in control of the Florida state legislature subsequently approved a bill with onerous new requirements for future ballot initiatives.
Another anti-democratic strategy involves state preemption. Once a tool used to curb conflicts between local government and states by bringing local governments in line with state policy, it is now aggressively used by conservatives to strip local authority from city governments and force an anti-regulatory, corporate agenda that disproportionately harms marginalized communities. Examples in Florida from the 2019 legislative session include enactment of legislation that preempts local laws concerning sanctuary cities, wireless internet siting, and inclusionary housing. And an even more egregious use of punitive preemption is an older Florida law that puts local officials at risk of removal from office or fines of up to $5,000 for adopting local laws to prevent gun violence.
In light of these abuses of state legislative power, it should come as no surprise that recent research documents only a weak electoral connection between state legislators and their voters: state legislators who cast roll call votes out of step with their constituents are unlikely to be punished in subsequent elections. In fact, this kind of legislative accountability is lower in the states than in Congress.
Three interrelated features of the states currently undermine their potential as sites for robust democracy. Some are longstanding characteristics of the states, while others are more recent developments. Together, they form a toxic brew that is increasingly exploited by concentrated economic interests—wealthy individuals and private-sector businesses—in the pursuit of policies opposed by majorities of Americans that ultimately exacerbate political and economic inequalities. These features include:
Low visibility of state politics. In the Federalist Papers, Constitutional framers Alexander Hamilton and James Madison assumed that state governments would loom larger in the minds of Americans than would the more distant federal government. In practice, the reverse has been true: Americans know much more about the federal government than their own states. According to statistics from the American National Election Study and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, about 4 of 10 Americans say that they cannot name the political party that controls their state senate or house—twice as many as for the party in control of the US Senate or House. Without this basic civic knowledge, it seems unlikely that citizens can adequately hold their state politicians accountable. While scholars have bemoaned the lack of media coverage of state politics compared to national politics for decades, the problem has worsened in recent decades with the demise of statehouse reporting. The Pew Research Center, for instance, found that the number of full-time reporters covering state capitols fell by 35 percent from 2003 to 2014.
Nationalization of state politics. At the core of the “laboratories of democracy” vision of the states is that governors and legislatures will compete with one another to develop new and effective policies that appeal their constituents. This assumes, however, that voters will recognize and reward innovative policies. But voters often struggle to even recognize the party in control of government, let alone have knowledge about their legislative records. There is also strong evidence that state politics has nationalized in ways that undermine state government accountability as voters increasingly cast ballots for state races that reflect their national political views, rather than state issues. Nationalization thus dampens electoral accountability for state politicians. It also means that policy innovation and emulation is likely to happen only among states on the same side of the partisan divide—Democrats copy only from fellow Democrats; Republicans from fellow Republicans.
Understaffed and under-resourced legislatures. For state governments to adequately respond to the needs of their constituents and generate new policy, elected officials must have baseline legislative resources. Yet in many states, legislating remains a part-time job with minimal staff help. In more than a dozen states, for instance, legislative salaries average less than $20,000. Low salaries necessitate legislators hold another job to make ends meet; the consequence is that elected officials often report only spending about half their time legislating. Faced with these constraints, many state legislators rely heavily on outside interest groups for bill ideas, research, and political advice. Unfortunately, these groups are often a front for wealthy or corporate interests. The ironic consequence is that part-time, sparsely staffed citizen legislatures wind up relying most heavily on disconnected, outside groups for legislation.
In states where these three factors are combined, legislative agendas tend to be most closely aligned with the goals of the wealthy few and out of touch with the interests of the general public.
Together, these three features have been increasingly exploited by well-resourced political actors representing narrow interests: wealthy donors, private-sector businesses, and conservative advocacy groups seeking to shift state policy and politics. As recently documented in (article coauthor) Alex Hertel-Fernandez’s State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States—and the Nation, organizations like Americans for Prosperity (AFP; a grassroots federated advocacy group at the heart of the Koch brothers’ political network), State Policy Network (SPN; a coalition of state-level conservative think tanks), and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC; provides model legislation and support to conservative state legislators) have since the 1970s successfully constructed an infrastructure capable of electing friendly lawmakers, flipping legislative chambers, and promoting a coordinated legislative agenda across the states.
These groups succeed by providing state legislators with the exact resources—including model bills, research support, political strategy, and lobbying power—that legislators often lack. Regardless of partisanship and ideology, legislators in states with fewer staff, shorter sessions, and lower salaries are more likely to copy and paste bill ideas from corporate-backed conservative networks. The right-leaning networks have also taken advantage of, and contributed to, the nationalization of state politics by promoting a common legislative agenda in states under full conservative control. And these networks have taken advantage of the weak electoral accountability faced by state legislators to promote policies that are otherwise quite unpopular with voters.
Despite opposition by most Americans, these right-wing networks have rolled back environmental standards and efforts to address climate change, restricted access to the ballot box, cut labor standards and union rights, slashed tax revenue and public spending, curbed reproductive rights, and stymied efforts to regulate access to firearms. The net effect of these policies has been to exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities, with especially pernicious consequences for already-disadvantaged segments of the population, especially people of color.
Beyond their direct social and economic consequences, many of these conservative networks’ policies are intended not only to materially benefit particular economic constituencies—wealthy individuals and large businesses—but more generally to tilt the political playing field to disempower ordinary citizens from expressing their political preferences. Conservative networks do not shy away from thinking about policy as a means of power-building.
Reclaiming State Democracy
There are three takeaways from federalism’s failings for the creation of a people-centered government:
Build civil society organizations. A strategy for reclaiming state government for the people will require investments in organizations that connect citizens with their elected officials to provide ordinary Americans with the information and resources they need to hold politicians accountable in all states. Reversing these trends will likely involve creative and diverse solutions in each state. One example is Capitol News, a project in Illinois that helps local outlets cover state legislative debates and which focuses especially closely on “news deserts.” Capitol News does this by creating content that other local editors and publishers can use in online and offline publications.
Focus civil society organizations on the right institutions and levers of government. To say that civic organizations are important is not to imply that we simply need more organizations. Instead, advocates for people-focused democracy need to ensure that they can count on organizations that complement one another at the right scales and levels of government. Conservative activists recognize the power, for instance, of having networks that can mobilize legislators (like ALEC) or engage citizens (like AFP) across the typical issue silos in the conservative movement to help coordinate longer-term governing agendas. These right-wing organizations also identified and targeted key leverage points in political institutions, like mobilizing citizens to contact state officials or providing model bill ideas to understaffed legislators.
It would also be a mistake for progressives to simply blindly copy the organizations that have worked on the right. Instead, they would be wise to think about figuring out the needs of interested legislators and their constituents. That is what the State Innovation Exchange (SiX) is doing for state legislators across the country. SiX is a progressive resource center that supports legislators with policy research and a cross-state network, spreads awareness of state policies and legislators, and connects elected officials directly with their constituents.
Use policy to build and retain grassroots political power. Reviving grassroots democracy in the states will require approaching policymaking not just to solve economic and social problems, but also to build political power. As conservative activists discovered, policy can be a tool for cementing alliances between otherwise diverse interests, building grassroots constituencies, bolstering organizations that can help politicians win elected office, and undermining opponents by cutting off resources or making it harder for them to participate in politics. Advocates of people-centered democracy would be wise to think in similar terms about opportunities to use policy to boost the resources that ordinary citizens have to participate in politics, to reduce the political clout of concentrated wealth, and to construct durable coalitions of allies.
Some of these power-building proposals are relatively straightforward, like broadening access to the ballot box or making it easier for workers to organize on the job in labor organizations, including unions. But political officials should also think about whether they can create stronger incentives for political participation throughout the policymaking process—like giving community groups resources to organize members and to create inclusive internal processes around decision making. Similarly, a power-building lens would prioritize efforts to divide opponents—for instance, peeling off supportive businesses—early on in the policymaking process.
As political observer Grant McConnell noted decades ago, the “advantages of disorganized politics” in the states—above all, weak mediating organizations like parties and civic associations—“accrue quite impartially to whatever groups, interests, or individuals are [already] powerful in any way.” To break this cycle and restore political power to ordinary citizens over entrenched minorities is a tall order—but necessary if American federalism is to live up to its democratic ideals.