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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Are States Really ‘Labs of Democracy’?

One of the treasured cliches of American politics is that the “the states are the laboratories of democracy.” It’s an appealing notion. It would be great if the 50 states were truly innovative in enacting cutting-edge legislation, which encourage other states to emulate what works and avoid what doesn’t.
It’s possible to cite recent examples of bold statewide initiatives, as do Ronald Brownstein and Stephanie Czekalinski in their National Journal article “How Washington Ruined Governors.” But there is mounting evidence that the states are now mimicking national polarization, more than experimenting with creative policies that have the potential for building consensus. As the authors explain:

…On gun control, gay marriage, immigration, taxes, and participation in President Obama’s health reform law, among other issues, states that lean red and those that lean blue are diverging to an extent that is straining the boundaries of federalism. “I can’t recall any time in American history where there was such a conscious effort to create such broad divisions, without any sense of how it is all going to turn out,” says Donald Kettl, dean of the public-policy school at the University of Maryland and an expert on public administration.
In many places, this widening gap is recasting the role of governors. Well into the 1990s, state executives considered themselves more pragmatic than members of Congress; they regularly shared ideas across party lines and often sought to emerge nationally by bridging ideological disputes. Some of that tradition endures. But now, governors are operating mostly along parallel, and partisan, tracks. On each side, they are increasingly pursuing programs that reflect their party’s national agenda–and enlisting with their party on national disputes such as health care reform. “Everything has been infected with the national political debate,” says Bruce Babbitt, who served as Arizona’s centrist Democratic governor for two terms and later as President Clinton’s Interior secretary. “And it’s really destructive.” Tommy Thompson, who launched a flotilla of innovations emulated by governors in both parties during his four terms as Wisconsin’s Republican chief executive, agrees. “Anyone who looks at this in an impartial way has to say we have become a more partisan nation,” he says. “I think we have [become] much more doctrinaire with our philosophies and much more locked into our positions.”

Progressives and Democrats applaud reforms in the blue states, as do conservatives in the red states, and Czekalinski and Brownstein provide plenty of examples of recent reforms and do an excellent job of providing historical context. What we are not seeing today, however, is much bridge-building at the state level — policies that reasonable people of different political parties should be able to support. It appears that political polarization at the national level is contagious and has infected the state houses. The authors quote former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson to dramatize the states’ diminishing role as ‘laboratories’:

During the national welfare-reform debate, Thompson and other GOP governors even publicly sided with Clinton to oppose a central component of the House Republican plan–something else Thompson doesn’t think would happen now. “We were much more willing to take on individuals in our political party when we knew it was right for our state,” he says. “Politically today that would not be a smart move. Back then it was much more of the right thing to do.”

But the calculus is different today:

…In most cases, the path to prominence for governors today is very different. In today’s highly polarized political environment, they are more likely to emerge as national figures by championing and advancing their party’s core ideas than by defying or rethinking them…This competition has inspired ambitious activity in both red and blue states. But many analysts question whether these initiatives really embody the “laboratory of democracy” ideal of state tinkering or rather reflect a centrally directed model in which states, often at the prodding of national interest groups, serially fall in line behind their party’s national agenda. Babbitt expresses a widespread concern that states have diminished their capacity to genuinely innovate because their every choice is framed through the national partisan struggle. “The divergences in the laboratory-of-democracy idea ought to grow out of grassroots experience” in the states, he says. “It’s not the case now. It’s a top-down divergence being driven by national ideological arguments. It’s not an experimental model, and it’s not a very productive exercise.” Rather than ideas rising from the states to Washington, he says, governors are being “conscripted and corrupted into the national political debate.”

Thus the authors’ concluding lament: “Not long ago, the states mostly operated as an exception to the war between the parties in Washington. Now they look more like an extension of it.” Indeed it’s hard to see a game-changing solution to the problem, other than an overwhelming, nation-wide defeat for the party most committed to legislative obstruction.

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