Right In Our Backyard
Just how strong are America’s subnational democracies?
There is American democracy and then there are America’s democracies—the array of subnational modes of democratic participation present across the country. We are a nation of 50 states, and those states are made up of smaller, overlapping units of governance and political participation. Though the media is perhaps understandably focused on the workings of the national government, and although discussions about democracy in the discourse tend to take a macro view of the concept, much more attention ought to be paid to what’s happening in state capitols and school boards across America.
Currently, a large bulk of the focus on state and local offices is still about their effect on American democracy as a whole. It’s true that a wave of election-denying candidates sweeping into state and local office would pose a serious threat to American democracy in future national elections—not least of which being a possible Trump re-run in 2024. And the explosive potential of the Moore v. Harper case to supercharge conservative state legislatures’ ability to affect presidential elections is profoundly worrying. But much of the current debate has ignored or understated the ways in which American democracy has already begun to give way.
Wisconsin is one of the best examples of state-level democratic backsliding in the country. Despite being a famously competitive state, Republicans have enjoyed a deeply entrenched majority in the state assembly ever since passing their first heavily gerrymandered maps in 2011. In the 2022 map, 63 of the 99 assembly seats have a Republican lean, as do 23 of the 33 state senate seats. This means the GOP is likely to hold huge majorities, even a senate-level supermajority, in a state that Joe Biden carried in 2020 by just over 20,000 votes.
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Yes, Wisconsin managed to elect Tony Evers governor in 2018, but the results serve to highlight the problem with the legislature. That fall, Evers clawed his way to victory with 49.5 percent of the vote, while incumbent Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin secured her re-election with a little over 55 percent. Democrats secured 54 percent of the state-wide popular vote for the assembly, but Republicans returned to power with 63 of 99 seats. Following that election, the Republican-controlled assembly met in a lame-duck session and voted to limit the governor’s appointment and executive action powers. Speaker Robin Vos has made good use of this power grab. Politico notes that Vos moved to strip Evers of public health powers during the pandemic, adjourned special sessions called to address issues like gun violence and school funding, and has even wrangled with the governor over the distribution of funds over which he had no authority to spend. Attacks on the very idea of checks and balances are the kind of thing we have in mind when we talk about authoritarian assaults on democracy in the wider world.
But why stop at gerrymandering to secure legislative power? The Texas Republican Party has officially adopted the idea of a state-level electoral college, meant to elevate Texas’s ruby red rural counties over the growing cities and suburbs of Houston, Austin, and the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. We can debate the merits of our national electoral college in modern American politics, and we should acknowledge the founders’ conflicted views on that institution, but the Texas proposal is a startingly devious argument for destroying ‘one-person, one-vote’ at the state level in order to secure power for decades to come. At the core of this and the challenges in states like Wisconsin is a disdain for democratic accountability and the actual preferences of people living in a given place.
Take the issue of abortion. The argument behind the Dobbs decision to overturn Roe has been that it returns this deeply contentious question to the states. Republicans seeking to downplay the radicalism of the decision have emphasized this, suggesting that it’s really an opportunity for Americans to make their preferences on abortion felt at the state level. But the facts simply don’t support this view. Actions taken by Republican state legislatures and governors have consistently proven to be well outside the mainstream of public opinion, even in red states. In Texas, a University of Texas poll showed nearly 80 percent support for rape and incest exceptions for abortion. Yet Texas abortion law does not provide them and is now one of the strictest in the nation—actually, in the democratic world.
This sort of gap makes the extreme nature of some of the anti-abortion laws being proposed all the more glaring. The recent Kansas referendum results have stood out as an example of just how out of step GOP hardliners are on abortion and where the public opinion actually sits, even in a mostly conservative state. But they also show just how endangered the relationship has become between public opinion and legislative outputs. Public opinion can’t be the be-all, end-all of how we govern—such an approach could never account fully for minority rights. But government should be accountable and, just as importantly, act as if it’s accountable to a public.
Consider the heartbeat of local democracy: school boards. The fights over critical race theory and trans rights within local school boards reveals similar problems, especially at the county and municipal levels. This spring in North Texas, a slate of candidates backed by money from Patriot Mobile, a cell-phone provider that describes itself as promoting Christian values, swept into office on four different school boards. Through its PAC, the company injected $420,000 into the races, more than enough to help tip the balance in what would otherwise be modest, unassuming contests. Grapevine-Colleyville, one of those districts targeted by the Patriot Mobile candidates, has since taken steps to make it easier to restrict and remove books based on racial and gender content. The district also passed a resolution permitting teachers to reject students’ preferred pronouns, even if their parents approve of their usage. Last year, the district suspended its first-ever black principal over allegations that he was encouraging the use of critical race theory before eventually voting not to renew his contract. Neighboring Keller ISD, which also has Patriot Mobile-backed members on its school board, recently removed 41 books from the library shelves. These included the Bible and a graphic novel adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, though both of these were returned after public outrage and a statements from both the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum.
In Tennessee, the state legislature has empowered school boards and parents to take action against racial and other controversial content in the classroom and on library shelves. Governor Bill Lee also spent months nurturing a deal that would allocate public education funds to establish a group of charter schools to be operated by a group connected to Hillsdale College, a private Christian school in Michigan. The charter group pulled out of the deal at the end of September, in part due to public anger, but the whole episode highlights how fraught the question of what’s being taught in public schools has become.
Nationally, Americans oppose steps that restrict curriculum concerning diversity and racial history, with one poll finding that 80 percent disagree with banning books for this purpose and 60 percent believe teaching about America’s racial past is important. Once again, even in red states, voters’ preferences do not match such extreme policymaking. In Texas, 50 percent said they either somewhat or strongly opposed “limiting the use of teaching materials that emphasize racism in the history of the U.S. by teachers in Texas public schools.” On transgender issues, things are more muddled. According to Pew, pluralities support prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors (46 percent) and barring teachers from discussing gender and sexual identity in school (41 percent). But on both, we have to consider not just raw public opinion but the spirit of liberal democracy. Healthy, free societies make room for the discussion of inequality and past atrocities. They also approach the concerns of minority groups—and trans youth, standing at only 1.3 percent of Americans aged 13 to 17, are indeed a minority—with care and caution. The aggressive, propaganda-driven actions being taken by some of these school boards run counter to the attitudes and values that make for a flourishing, free society.
What emerges, after all this, is a portrait of American democracy that is much more ailing than it might appear, even compared to the already grim assessments being offered by those fighting the Big Lie. What can we say about the daily life of a person living in a state where the party that secures well over 50 percent of the vote does not control the state assembly and when the ruling party is willing to use its majority to pass extremist laws and attack checks on their power? What of those sending their children to schools in districts where the school board has been overrun with paranoiacs bent on conforming the public education system to the sensitivities of the hardline and the overzealous, and doing so in states that have emboldened them to take action?
They are still citizens of a free country. They are Americans, after all, and that still counts for a lot. Federal judges have time and again intervened to stop some of the most egregious measures put forward in red states, from Texas’s repeated attempts to investigate the parents of trans children for child abuse to Arkansas’s ban on gender-affirming care for minors. State courts have also intervened, including in the North Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling against the Republican gerrymander in that state, which is the fight at the heart of Moore v. Harper. The Supreme Court might yet strip away that protection.
How would we label such polities if we divorced them from that wider national context? Think of Wisconsin’s gerrymandered assembly, using a lame-duck session to kneecap the Democratic governor. Think of the many states enacting abortion bans so extreme they almost guarantee that some women will die, despite widespread public support in those states for clear exceptions. Think of school boards ham-handedly micromanaging curricula, library catalogs, and the free expression of their students, mostly due to the fanaticism of an angry minority. If we were to, without naming the place, describe the antidemocratic challenges and illiberal policymaking ongoing in so many states across the country right now, would we not think at times that it sounds more like Poland, Hungary, or one of the other backsliding democracies of the world? We should wonder how well such places would score under the various rubrics used to measure democracy in nation-states.
An attack on the actual functioning of elections like the one being led now by Big Lie candidates would not only endanger American democracy writ large, but would further erode the already precarious position of liberal democratic society at the state and local level. In some places, the results would potentially be ruinous to any system that could conservatively be called free or fair. After all, we can already see how state and local chapters of the GOP have been willing to push unpopular and extreme measures in pursuit of culture war victories. What happens when a roster of ultra-MAGA election officials come to power in states already plagued by gerrymandering, lopsided state assemblies, and radicalized school boards and other local governmental authorities?
The historical truth is that American democracy has always been messy when one peeks beneath the hood and looks at life in the states. Life in the pre-Civil War slave states couldn’t be said to be one of full freedom and democracy. And the Jim Crow era Southern states in particular reinstated a racial caste system so thorough and cruel that it inspired Hitler’s Nuremberg laws. Yes, Louis Brandeis may have called the states “laboratories of democracy.” But contemporary scholars, like political scientist Jake Grumbach, have warned they’re just as useful as petri dishes for anti-democratic politics.
American democracy is not just under assault. In many places, the walls have already been breached. We run the risk of being a nation of states with wildly varying qualities of democracy—an ostensibly free and fair nation, fragmented at the subnational level by local governments setting little fires of illiberalism across the country.