A reader recently sent me a copy of a column from his local paper. (Congratulations on still having one of those…)
The column (behind a paywall) looked at the ever-widening gulf between legislatures controlled by Republicans and those in majority-democratic states. Those differences, the column suggested, can offer a lens on where the country is heading.
Given the rest of the column, I’d guess that we are heading for further polarization, if not a cold civil war…
The author identified three “big themes” playing out across state capitols this year. The first such theme is no surprise– the “continuing rise of hyper-polarized policies. Red and blue states will push further apart on everything from voting laws, abortion, gay rights, education and taxation. States under single-party dominance–the “trifecta states”– will feel free to pursue their very divergent approaches to America’s culture wars.
This year there are 39 “trifecta” states, in which a single party controls all three branches of government (both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office). This allows states to “make decisions and make them relatively quickly,” says Peverill Squire of the University of Missouri, an expert on legislatures. “The contrast with Washington will be stark.”
The column gave examples, including Red Wyoming, where a bill that (mercifully) died in committee would have banned the sale of all new electric vehicles starting in 2035, in order to protect the state’s oil and gas industry.
Blue California is considering several new gun control proposals; while Florida and other Red states, are likely to legalize permitless carry.” (Red Indiana already passed this, over the dire and entirely accurate predications of law enforcement personnel.)
A second theme will be Red state governments taking aim at private companies that have the nerve to defy lawmakers’ partisan political agendas. Proposals currently pending in Republican states, including (of course!) Texas, would revoke firms’ tax incentives if they help employees get abortions.
What ever happened to the Republican Party that–according to Barry Goldwater–wanted to keep government out of both your boardroom and your bedroom? Ah–for the good old days…
Blue California is considering a cap on oil firms’ profits, while legislators in Arkansas, Missouri and South Carolina (and Indiana) want to prohibit state governments from doing business with firms that take environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles into account.
And of course,”some governors will use these legislative sessions as résumé-building for higher office.” Ron DeSantis is way out in front on that “theme”–staking out a coveted MAGA position as head of the White Nationalist movement. The column noted “DeSantis’s signature policies”–restricting what students can be taught about sex and sexuality, punishing Disney for inclusiveness, waging war on anything he can label “woke” and of course, gerrymandering and suppressing the votes of Black Floridians…
Constitution? What Constitution?
As the article pointed out, it isn’t just the big states that are political weather vanes.
smaller states that became Democratic trifectas in 2022, Michigan and Minnesota, will generate headlines too. If rumblings that Michigan is going to repeal its anti-union “right-to-work” law prove correct, it would be the first state to do so since 1965, says Chris Warshaw of George Washington University.
The column says that one way to think of these 2023 state legislative sessions is as a long-running television drama, featuring many of the “same characters and issues from last time: abortion, rights for LGBTQ people, and culture-war debates on curricula in public schools. Already, 202 LGBTQ-related bills have been introduced; a record, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. (Missouri, with 31, has the most, followed by Oklahoma’s 27.)”
Proposals include banning trans children from having surgery or anyone born male from taking part in girls’ sports. There is talk of banning and even criminalizing drag shows.
The author noted that more prosaic concerns–the actual work of government–are getting short shrift. But even there, the division between Red and Blue is stark:
in numerous states that are still enjoying large surpluses, thanks to high tax receipts and federal money, Red state governors want to use the funds to cut taxes, not to improve decaying infrastructure or (heaven forbid!) pay teachers a living wage.
As the column concluded,
Most legislatures would be wise to squirrel away some of their surpluses for times of economic duress, says Justin Theal of Pew Charitable Trusts, which monitors states’ fiscal health.
But for politicians, saving has never generated as many headlines as raving.
And headlines are the name of the game when politics becomes performative….