Um…About Those “Laboratories of Democracy”….

Federalism is one of the most important elements of America’s constitutional architecture (although my students’ lack of acquaintance with that term might suggest otherwise).

Federalism refers to the division of authority between federal, state and local levels of government; it rests on the premise (sometimes called subsidiarity) that problems are best addressed by the smallest unit of government able to deal with them. Americans have long had a strong bias toward “local control.”

In a phrase that has resonated, former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis referred to the states as “laboratories of democracy.” The idea is that states would initiate experiments with new programs, new ways of doing things, and if those new ideas were successful, other states would replicate those “pilot programs.”

It’s a nice theory, and it works in some contexts. But it assumes the ability of other states to learn from the successes and especially from the failures of others. And that hasn’t been happening.

I’ve written before about the very different policies being applied in Wisconsin and Minnesota–but more states are following Wisconsin, which is in a world of hurt, than are following Minnesota, which is thriving. Kansas and Louisiana are economic disasters, yet Republican governors (including, of course, Indiana’s Mike Pence) are blindly following the policies that led them down that road.

Speaking of Mike Pence, his photograph recently “graced” a blistering article detailing the growth of right-wing radicalism at the state level. The article asserts that while Americans are transfixed by a federal presidential campaign that sometimes seems to have been copied from a grade B movie, state-level lawmakers are busily rolling back hard-won advances in equality and freedom of choice.

While the nation’s eyes are riveted to the national stage, Republicans continue the multi-decade project of turning our nation into a right-wing wasteland by focusing their efforts where they can have the most impact with the least attention: state legislatures.

The article lists–among other travesties–bills in Indiana and Florida intended to cut off access to abortion and even birth control; Oklahoma’s efforts to strip any doctor who performs an abortion of his license to practice medicine, and an Iowa state senator’s proposal to make abortion a hate crime.

A whole raft of GOP-led states–including “moderate” John Kasich’s Ohio– is busily defunding Planned Parenthood.

But it isn’t just the war on women. Wisconsin (!) is proposing to fine so-called “sanctuary cities.” Iowa wants to authorize handgun possession and use for children under 14, while Arizona is moving a bill that would forbid state and local officials from enforcing federal firearms laws. Arizona is also loosening the already-weak regulation of “dark money” in politics.

Several states are prohibiting the use of “sharia law.” (It’s a safe bet that none of the wackos pushing this particular bit of nonsense have the faintest idea what sharia law is. They just don’t like Muslims.)

And of course, the frantic effort to push LGBT citizens back into the closet–and thus mollify the homophobes and theocrats who form such a prominent part of their base–is going full-steam ahead.

Thanks to gerrymandering, voting out these state-level legislative embarrassments ranges from difficult to virtually impossible. But you can’t gerrymandering a statewide office, and here in Indiana, getting rid of Mike Pence would be a very good place to start.


  1. Stridency is a symptom of a failing political ideology. Good bye, Mike Pence, Sam Brownback, Rick Scott, Rick Snyder, Scott Walker. Unless you learn the lessons of 2016, your political lives are over.

  2. My former professor, employer, mentor and friend, Lyn Ostrom, hated consolidated schools. She contended that the real laboratories of federalism were the schools, where students could get their first taste of participatory democracy. She feared that large high schools deprived young adults of important opportunities to practice democracy. I miss her insights.

  3. Amen Sheila,


    This election is a test, the last time the governor’s race had a third party candidate that got more votes than Pence won by. How did that work out?

    Remember in the United States one always votes for the lesser of two evils or don’t complain about the results.

  4. It is impossible to have independent “laboratories of democracy” when you have groups such as ALEC pushing a nation wide agenda.

  5. Since the ’50s the Koch machine has been pushing these ideas in the states and also bankrolling them. They have always known that it is easier to obtain their power by gaining control of the individual states.

    Their well-oiled machine continues to brainwash legislators into creating laws that protect their profits while they continue to destroy our environment, wildlife and the health of the human population. They are evil people.

    And recently they bought a place at the Ball State table of education in order to infiltrate and control the minds of unsuspecting students. They have been doing this at places of higher education all over the country since the ’60s. I am thoroughly disusted that the Ball State trustees allowed this to happen and personally feel Ball State should lose their state tax support. IU also receives a large annual donation from the Kochs and, in my opinion, should have an equal amount of money deducted from their support by the taxpayers. The Kochs are highly skilled at sneaking in the back door to get everyone else to pay for what they want, while investing just a pittance of their own money.

  6. It is still possible to view state and local governments as “Laboratories of democracy,” as long as you remember that Dr. Frankenstein also had a laboratory.

    Duane, you are absolutely right about ALEC. While pretending to offer assistance and education to state legislators, they pervert government by providing sample right-winged legislation packages to their members. The bills get passed without much thought or discussion.

  7. The Koch brothers are major funders of ALEC and use it to exert their influence on state legislators to sponsor bills that favor their businesses. They are behind pushing to save and deregulate the coal industry in Indiana. They have Pence and many state legislators on their side. Indiana has quite a few ALEC members that are completely devoted to their ideas.

    OMG – if you google the Koch brothers and their influence on politics you will uncover more than you might be able to read. Here is a link to an article about their influence on higher education.

    Since that article they have continued to buy influence at universities. Their contributions come with conditions. They want to choose and control the professors that must teach what they want them to teach and they want complete control of how everything is managed. The Koch brothers never give money to any causes without strings attached. I have no doubt that they will choose the professors and provide the curriculum that must be used at Ball State for their ‘entrepreneurial school’.

  8. What that group has done to our public schools, and the harm done by RFRA. the right to work laws, etc., etc., etc. is a clear demonstration of their aim to foster state level attacks on all public services. They continue to push for privatizing all those services and allow the wealthy to continue amassing more and more power to themselves, while they rape the populace and the environment with impunity. Their underlying goal is to insure that the racial and religious power remains separate and well-guarded in the hands of the wealthy, white power brokers.

    Indianapolis will be hosting the 2016 Annual Meeting of ALEC at the end of July. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an organized citizen response to their “meeting”? I would certainly consider participating. It would be of interest to have a list of current legislators who are active members.

  9. That’s what Federalism is! Thanks Sheila.

    It’s an extension of Nationalism. The idea that local control is your country because God knows those people in other places are wierd as hell and we wouldn’t want them in control. They’re different. Why some of them don’t even know God’s real name. In fact there are some who don’t even speak English!

    No, neighbors are like me. You can trust them.

    I imagine those concepts were great in tribal society (as long as the tribes were sufficiently distant from one another and didn’t meet up while hunting gathering).

    Let’s see, are these times any different than those times?

  10. JD, your mention of the Koch Brothers and the vast education reform movement prompts me to post the below 11/5/2015 article, rather long, and very comprehensive. School or education reform is a bipartisan movement and there’s plenty of blame to share on both sides of the political aisle. It’s not pretty, especially as it’s ripping apart our urban school districts.

  11. We may have to hire Ghost Hunters or some other para-normal investigators to find John Gregg, the Democratic Establishments choice for Governor.

  12. To me what makes democratic politics effective is the simple concept of empathy.

    How do each of us react to other lives? If we can actually put ourselves into the lives of others with all of the good and bad that their story tells we are empathetic.

    Another word for empathetic is moral. We each have moral fiber from the culture that we’ve been immersed in since birth. Some comes from our religion, some from family, some from personal experiences but wherever we are at any point in time we can feel empathy to some degree and act morally on those feelings.

    Here’s a very informative interview from Yahoo News by Katie Curic with a persons that very few of will recognize but he has a very strong perspective on the moral choices of our times and place.

  13. Trump is really Ross Perot II.

    The real fear of Trump from establishments in both parties is that he is openly challenging the trade treaties and currency manipulations that are hollowing out opportunity for working class Americans and causing exploitation (workers in China e.g.) of outsourced labor.

    (BTW- At least twice Trump has made it clear he will aggressively seek to win the African American vote. He may win every demographic if he makes his case re trade.)

    Elites in many markets (look at the Fox trotters in Mexico who have exploited the native peoples there for over 400 years and now send their opressed to the US) are afraid of the truths Trump is going to address re trade. He will make trade and currency manipulation the centerpiece of his campaign.

    The Davos style elites will not like that. (Ever notice at global economic forums they talk of their globalization of trade but never talk of the need to globalize trade unions. They want to move resources, people and manufacturing across borders from the Amazon to America at will.

    When all this Hitler nonsense no longer works the establishment (both parties) will go bonkers and warn of “trade wars” etc. The secret service had better be on their toes in protecting Trump. There are a lot of useful morons who have no idea of what the real issue is with Trump as they shout absurdities about “another Hitler.”

    We are long overdue (the whole world) for a discussion in a presidential campaign re free-trade and currency manipulation. Trump has made it clear he believes in free trade but will reevaluate many of our trade agreements and that he will demand an end to currency manipulation by the elites in places such as China, Mexico etc.

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