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Are Local Politics Extinct?

Are Local Politics Extinct?

Well-funded interest groups are flooding state-level elections with money—and turning local elections into national partisan battles, according to a new book by Jacob Grumbach.

Thomas Koenig
Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics
By Jacob M. Grumbach (Princeton University Press, 288 pp., $29.95)

University of Washington political science professor Jacob M. Grumbach’s new book, Laboratories Against Democracy, is fascinating yet frustrating.

Grumbach puts his finger on one of the most significant, though little noticed, realities of American politics. American federalism has been around for centuries, but in recent years our federal system has “collided” with a nationalized polity.

Even in the 21st century—after the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and the nationalizing effects of mass media—the formal institutions of American government are still quite decentralized. Our political identities, however, are nationalized and partisan: We conceptualize our political selves as Americans and as Republicans or as Americans and as Democrats—not as Pennsylvanians or Virginians like the Founding generation once did. The political parties have followed suit. Especially in recent decades, they have transformed from decentralized collections of interests into two polarized blocs. As Jonathan Rauch has pointed out, each tribe is not entirely ideologically homogeneous. But the glue that binds them is deep distaste for the other side. Animosities define the shape of our partisan playing field more than interests. Grumbach sums up the tension well: “The old phrase ‘all politics is local’ no longer applies to the political parties—but it does apply to American political institutions.”___STEADY_PAYWALL___

In this mismatched environment, Grumbach argues that well-resourced and well-organized groups are best able “to strategically locate and shift resources toward the most favorable political venues, both vertically from the national to the state level and horizontally across states.” Such groups have increasingly focused on influencing state-level policy in the face of a gridlocked Congress in Washington. This shift has transformed states into key policymaking “battlegrounds” where the two national political parties duke it out. Indeed, Grumbach charts how there has been increasing partisan policy polarization across the states since the 2000 presidential election. On the whole, Republican and Democratic states’ policy regimes are growing more and more distinct. Even as public opinion in a given state remains rather stable, if one party is able to slightly tip the balance of the legislature in its favor, “rapid policy changes” ensue. Thus, contrary to classical democratic theory—under which elected officials pay close attention to the unique and nuanced preferences of their electorate and respond accordingly—public opinion is now “an inconsistent predictor of policy in the states.” What is more consistent? Partisan control of the state government.

Grumbach pushes back against the received wisdom that states are laboratories of policy innovation, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously argued. He marshals data indicating that states are not interested in learning from one another to reach optimal public policy outcomes. Rather, states are “partisan learners”: Democratic states are willing to follow the lead of their fellow Democratic states that have had success with a particular policy, but they are loathe to follow the lead of a successful Republican state policy—and vice-versa: “[A]s the parties and party-aligned organizations polarize into two national networks, we see reduced policy learning and emulation across states controlled by different parties.” Partisanship shapes policy diffusion across states.

In Laboratories Against Democracy, then, states emerge as cogs that are part of a nationalized and partisan political ecosystem. Indeed, state actors are quite responsive to nationally-focused and partisan interests. Grumbach details how “interest group activists,” organized in groups like and the National Rifle Association, enjoy outsized access to state legislators. These activists are more ideologically extreme than average donors (who themselves are more ideologically committed than average citizens), and their contributions are “mostly concentrated in primary elections.” The orders of distortion are dizzying, and the result is predictable enough: The greater the share that interest group activists have of campaign donations to a state’s elected officials, the more liberal Democrats in that state will be and the more conservative Republicans will be. Thus, Grumbach concludes that “more coordinated, active, and well-resourced groups, not public opinion,” are driving “the transformation of state politics.”

Armed with these empirical findings, Grumbach strikes a critical posture towards contemporary American federalism. He even pushes back on the more pro-federalism takes from the likes of Yale Law’s Heather Gerken, who, like Grumbach, sit on the progressive side of the ideological spectrum. When coupled with what he labels as democratic backsliding in the states, these dynamics lead Grumbach to conclude that America would be better off if its citizens were to “shift authority upward and away from the state level, where budgets are constrained, voters have less information, business and the wealthy can quickly flood political battles with money—and where threats to democracy continue to arise.”

Reading Grumbach’s conclusion can be a bit frustrating. It does not necessarily follow from his own analysis, especially if one does not share his overtly progressive politics (this is not a critique of Grumbach’s making his political preferences clear; in fact, his doing so helped me better understand his arguments and from where they were coming).

More centralization may not be the solution to our less than optimal federalist status quo. In a country of well over 300 million people of so many different races, religions, and worldviews, some meaningful decentralization is necessary. And as I’ve argued before, enhanced localism—particularly with respect to cultural and social issues—would better align our governmental institutions with our contemporary political identities.

But putting major structural innovations like that to one side, states could reassert themselves as separate and distinct entities through mere legislation. They would thus better serve their constituents and push back against the unhelpful trend of nationalized polarization.

I would tentatively propose state-level campaign finance reforms that require an overwhelming percentage of a candidate’s donations to come from donors that actually live within their district (or, in the case of a governor, within their state). Such a reform is doable, though it faces an uphill battle. It would have to overcome the headwinds of polarization and nationalization that Grumbach has identified. It would also run into constitutional difficulties by seemingly infringing on First Amendment-protected political speech. Still, those constitutional concerns might be averted if the law merely imposed additional qualifications that candidates must satisfy to run for office, rather than restrictions on citizens’ abilities to donate money. In other words, out-of-state and out-of-district citizens would still be free to donate to candidates (keeping their First Amendment rights fully intact), but in order for a candidate to qualify to be on the ballot in the first place, some proportion (or absolute dollar amount) of their campaign donations would have to come from within the district (for state legislative races) and from within the state (for gubernatorial races) by a certain date.

The logic of this proposal—that contracting the geographic sphere from which a candidate can collect meaningful financial support—is akin to James Madison’s arguments in The Federalist No. 10, but in reverse. Under the Madisonian vision, an “extended sphere” of governance takes into account the concerns of more factions, thereby forcing moderation and compromise to accommodate all the competing interests. But this logic does not hold true when the only additional factions entering the fold as the sphere expands are extremists (due to the simple fact that the extremists are the only ones paying attention). That is to say, allowing state-level politicians to draw support from national, out-of-district and out-of-state actors does not lead to a more compromise-prone politics. Why? Because those outsiders are outliers.

Instead of giving up on decentralized governance, then, we ought to think of more creative ways to push back against the tide of nationalization, polarization, and partisanship. The best way to do that is to create incentives that compel elected officials to decipher whatever nuanced views still remain within their constituencies, and then legislate with those nuances at top of mind.

This all amounts to an effort to enlist the structures of federalism in the fight against oversimplified, nationalized, polarized, and tribal politics. It would be pragmatic. And as Grumbach himself notes when critiquing the “mythological story” of American federalism, the emergence of Founding-era federalism was not the product of grand ideological commitments on the part of the framers, but rather a pragmatic response to the political realities of their time. We should follow suit, as we tinker with our federalist institutions to better serve the needs—and push back against the worrisome trends—of today.

Thomas Koenig, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a student at Harvard Law School and author of “Tom’s Takes” newsletter. Twitter: @thomaskoenig98

Image: A street poster with red, white, and blue dinosaurs. (Unsplash: Jon Tyson)

DemocracyUnited StatesPolitical Philosophy