What Happens in Wisconsin Doesn’t Stay in Wisconsin

American federalism is strangling democracy and fueling the far right. Is there anything the Left can do about it?

For decades, Wisconsin embodied Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis’s vision of the states as “laboratories of democracy.” It was in the vanguard of progressive government for much of the twentieth century, acting as the proving ground for policies that later spread to other states across the region and the country as a whole – namely, workers’ compensation, direct election of US senators, and progressive income taxation, among other innovations. The avatar of the Wisconsin Idea was “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the progressive Republican who dedicated his life to “winning back for the people the complete power over government—national, state, and municipal—which has been lost to them,” and who still inspires the state’s progressives and radicals to this day.

But other figures have long had very different Wisconsin Ideas of their own. America’s Dairyland has also given us Joe McCarthy, Tommy Thompson, and Scott Walker, who led an all-too-successful assault on the state’s institutions of public education, electoral administration, and labor unions. This reactionary vision of state government has gone national, revealing the ways in which the states have become, as the title of political scientist Jake Grumbach’s new book puts it, laboratories against democracy.

Socialist Forum recently invited Grumbach to discuss his book, Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics, and its analysis of contemporary US politics. In his view, many of our problems are traceable to the friction between nationalized parties and a political system that grants an outsized degree of authority to states and localities – the level of government where powerful private interests arguably hold the most sway. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Socialist Forum: If you say the word “federalism” to someone who’s not a political scientist, it’s likely that they won’t know what you’re talking about. Or maybe they’ll half remember it from a high school social studies class. But to paraphrase an old revolutionary, “You may not be interested in federalism, but federalism is interested in you.”

Jake Grumbach: Federalism is a structure of government in which there are multiple levels of government that each have separate authority. So in the US we have the national government, federal government, and state governments. Around the world, there are dozens of countries with federalism. That’s contrasted with countries that don’t have multiple levels of government, where there might be a little bit of delegation to cities or provinces, but the national government really has all the legal, constitutional authority.

The big difference in the US form of federalism is how it puts a lot of authority at the state level, at the lower level. Other federalist democracies around the world, like Germany, Canada, Mexico, India, Switzerland, and so forth, have some decentralization and delegation to the lower level, but nowhere near as much as the US. What I argue is that’s actually a really underemphasized source of problems in American politics and the political economy.

What are some of the reasons for that? How did the US become one of the few federalist countries in the world with state level governments that are this powerful?

The first thing is that institutional design, or the design of a constitution, is not purely from high minded principles. In this case, there was a battle among the founders between different proposals. One was called the Virginia Plan, which featured a strong national government that would look like governments in other wealthy democracies around the world. The other was the New Jersey Plan, which essentially put all authority at the state level, so one single state could veto a national governmental policy of any form. What they ended up doing at the Constitutional Convention was compromising between these plans, giving birth to US federalism.

There have been fluctuations over time in how much the national government intervenes in politics, compared with how much authority the states, and by extension, cities and municipalities get. Since the 1970s, we’ve been in a period of rising inequality, the growth of climate change, the growth of corporate power, and all types of other changes. But one other major change in the US that goes along with all of this is the return of expansive authority to the US states, in all sorts of policy areas.

Many of the leading founders, people like Madison and Hamilton, thought that the state and local levels of government would be more amenable to democracy and popular control – and they didn’t necessarily like that prospect. That’s one of the big reasons why they wanted a stronger national government coming out of the Articles of Confederation. But things didn’t exactly turn out that way, right?

There’s some truth to that. Madison himself started out wanting a big national government with the ability to tax and spend for the benefit of property owning white men. People like Thomas Jefferson or the anti-Federalists wanted more state level authority, and some of them were worried about a strong national government with the capacity to put down rebellions of poor farmers. They thought that small-D democracy and the popular will would be better served by state level, lower level authority.

Over time, the politics of slavery changed. A critical mass of anti-slavery sentiment and mobilization occurred in the North, for example. Later in the twentieth century, with the rise of an industrial society, state level authority became massively problematic for democracy.

So let’s make a big leap to the current period, because that’s the focus of your book. You focus on how the nationalized political parties we have today interact with American federalism, and what the effects of that interaction are. Walk us through some of the main aspects of that dynamic, as you see it.

As I mentioned before, US federalism puts authority over democratic institutions, like election administration, counting votes, drawing legislative districts for both state and Congressional elections, and police power at the state level. This is really unique stuff compared to many other countries around the world. There’s no institution in the American system that’s been consistently pro-democracy, or some sort of consistent champion of the people. But Congress has tended to be the most small-D democratic, and the state governments, especially state legislatures – enabled often by the Supreme Court – have been the main democratic backsliders.

During the end of Reconstruction, for example, the Supreme Court enabled a Congressional retreat from Reconstruction, and the states established a new system of racial authoritarianism in the US south. The Supreme Court further enabled Jim Crow through a series of rulings like Plessy v. Ferguson. Many of the states acted on this, and started disenfranchising black Americans in the South after the first real democratic revolution in the US.

State-level battles over democracy in the US, and often, democratic backsliding, hasn’t always mapped on to partisanship as much as it does now. For example, in the mid-twentieth century the decentralized Democratic Party contained the Southern Dixiecrat segregationists. But it also contained the Northern labor civil rights activists affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), proto-civil rights groups, and the rising black middle classes in Chicago, Detroit, New York, and so forth, creating what is the modern left. Those groups were in the same highly decentralized political party. So politics was more strongly based in regionalism, and the decentralized parties really matched the decentralized institutions of American federalism. Things certainly weren’t great, but there certainly was progress in terms of democratic expansion during this period.

What’s happened since the 1970s is, and especially since the 1990s, is the parties have nationalized. We know what Democrats and Republicans stand for nationally, with few state or local variations. It’s hard for politicians below the national level to step outside of their national party coalitions. There are a million reasons for why the parties nationalized, from racial realignment over the long twentieth century; the Southern strategy of the Republican Party; the nationalization of media through the rise of cable news and the Internet; the decline of state and local politics, journalism, and newspapers; major investments by interest groups like the Koch network and the American Legislative Exchange Council on the right, as well as among liberals in the form of MoveOn.org-style national liberal groups that hire staff lawyers and receive donations from across the country, often facilitated by the Internet. Politicians’ own fundraising has been nationalized. Everybody seems to get those annoying text messages and e-mails from candidates like, “I’m crying because I didn’t meet my goal today for fundraising.” Now, it may be from somebody you may like, but they may be running for office somewhere across the country.

That’s quite different from before. That nationalization of the parties matches how parties are organized in many countries around the world. The big difference is that US political and electoral institutions remain decentralized through federalism. So there’s a big collision between nationalized parties and subnational, decentralized institutions. This leads to all sorts of democratic problems, and leads to a biased politics in favor of groups that are wealthier and narrower relative to workers or social movements, or voters in general. It makes holding politicians accountable more difficult. In some states, it’s really causing democratic backsliding, where it’s harder to vote and districts are drawn in a more skewed and biased manner.

The story you lay out in your book is definitely at odds with many of the more traditional accounts of federalism and its virtues. Those don’t just come from right-wing or conservative quarters. Positive accounts of federalism in the states sometimes come out of more progressive quarters, too. Both conservatives and liberals have viewed federalism as a kind of safety valve for political conflict, instead of an incubator of it. How does your argument depart from those kinds of arguments?

There’s been a ton of serious argumentation over these questions going back to the 1780s. One major argument, going back to the eighteenth century, is that one-size-fits-all policy solutions don’t work in a big, diverse country like the US. There are so many different cultures and regions of that country, the argument goes, and they should be able to customize policy based on the wills of whoever they conceive to be worthy democratic subjects of that region. So the need for flexibility and customization is one big argument in favor of US-style federalism.

Another, going back to that time too, is that it protects against autocracy and tyranny. The idea here is that it would be much easier for an autocrat to take over the entire electoral system if it was all regulated by the national government, as opposed to 50 state governments where some of them would oppose a tyrannical national regime. James Madison called this dynamic “double security.” So those are some old school arguments that still persist to this day. While Trump was president, you heard a lot of liberal commentators say “Thank God we have this decentralized form of election administration that can’t be captured by Trump.”

Then there is a series of new arguments, mostly conservative, rooted in the idea that people vote with their feet by simply moving to a place where government policy matches their preferences – sort of like how capital seeks out the most favorable business environment. On this view, it’s a good thing that capital can pick up and move, and take away investment and potential tax revenue in the process. This forces state governments to be very efficient, balance their budgets and things like that. That’s one line of argument, a conservative one.

The liberal version is called progressive federalism. It is focused on the post-civil rights era, and it holds that with the development of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and other progressive legislation state and local government is really good for racial minorities and new immigrant groups. For example, there are majority Latino areas in the Southwest, and California is very diverse. In these conditions, you can get a coalition of people of color to really achieve descriptive representation, meaning electing people of color in office in a way that you can’t in the country more broadly. There’s some truth to that, and the research does show, for example, that black legislators do a little better for black Americans than an equivalent white legislator on the margin. But those effects are diminishing with the increased importance of partisanship.

I think all of those optimistic takes on federalism are definitely outweighed by the set of counterarguments I advance in the book. I used to be a progressive federalism type of guy. When I was growing up in the Bush administration I really cared about climate change and there was an oil magnate in the Presidency. But I thought this was OK because I lived in California, where we could still do all kinds of green stuff. There are some huge wins on fuel efficiency standards, regional cap and trade networks, and things like that. But the point here I really want to emphasize is, on balance, we would be farther along without the states. Those victories in some states are better than nothing. But we would be farther along in all the things we want to talk about, whether it’s climate policy, economic equality and social democracy, the welfare state, civil rights and liberties, reproductive rights, all of these things, if there were a unitary government that didn’t pay attention to states as coherent units with boundaries that matter. We could just count up the votes of everybody in the country, and put a national government in power. If the voters don’t like what it does, they can then change the party in national power.

Last year, Donald Trump tried to use precisely this decentralization to cement himself in power at the national level. One of the key points you make in your book is that federalism isn’t just what happens in the states, without any kind of relationship to the federal government. Federalism is really about that system of relations between the states and the federal government, right?

I don’t want to dismiss the double security argument entirely. If there’s a would-be autocratic party in national power that controls both chambers of Congress, the presidency and the court, that is not the time to centralize election administration. That is true. I’d say it’s narrowly true.

But over longer stretches of time, putting election administration, districting, police powers, and so forth at the lower level actually increases the likelihood that you’ll get that would-be autocratic coalition or autocrat in national power in the first place. What I mean by that is the fact that we have multiple levels of government distorts politics in a series of ways that makes it harder for voters to hold politicians accountable. It increases the relative influence of narrow groups, like corporations, over broader groups, like workers. And it allows an anti-democratic coalition to, when they happen to take power in a particular state, the opportunity to change the rules of elections and districting, and vote counting, and so forth. States regulate elections, from local dog catcher, up to US president. What this means is if a state passes a bunch of voter suppression policies, for example, and makes it more difficult for some groups to vote, that affects who gets in national power in the first place. So there’s a tradeoff there that I want to illustrate.

I don’t have the perfect answer here, but we have to weigh that tradeoff. Decentralization leaves the US vulnerable to anti-democratic coalitions taking national power in the first place. But once that anti-democratic coalition’s in national power, it is probably better to have decentralized democratic institutions.

What happens in Wisconsin doesn’t stay in Wisconsin, right?

Exactly, yeah. Thinking it more broadly, I’ve been talking about voter suppression or gerrymandering, which matters hugely. Those are traditional electoral democratic institutions, but the destruction of labor in the US, for example, is also important for democracy. My research with Paul Frymer on labor is also about how labor unions facilitate racial solidarity, and are really crucial for protecting multiracial democracy from this sort of resentment-based culture war politics that are, at the mass level, the main threat to democracy. The main reason that ordinary, non- elite Americans might support an anti-democratic coalition is through that sort of racial, resentment-based politics.

Changing gears a bit, your book provides very strong evidence of state level polarization in terms of policy outcomes across nearly every single policy area. States run by Democrats are tending to pursue a similar suite of policies, and the same goes for Republicans. Can you broadly summarize that process? You also highlight important exceptions to that general rule, like education and criminal justice, in particular.

From the New Deal through the 1970s, we experienced policy nationalization. National policy standardized life across the states in a lot of key ways. There were huge differences between the states, for example, during the Jim Crow period. Being in a Jim Crow state was very different from being in a Northern non-Jim Crow state. Being in a state that had some state level old age insurance and a state level minimum wage, was very different from living in a state that did not prior to the New Deal. Prior to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, it was very different to live in the South versus the North.

But those national policies in the New Deal, Social Security, later on in the Great Society of Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, the Clean Air Act in 1970, Roe v. Wade, all reduced the differences across states. There was a kind of regional convergence, including economically, where the US South, which was really, really poor, was more closely integrated with the rest of the country. We forget that many people didn’t have running water and toilets, or things like telephones, for so long in the US South. Major national investments brought the US South into convergence with the Northern states, to build a broader middle class society during that long New Deal period.

What you see now is the reversal of that trend. Since the 1970s, there’s bee divergence between states on all sorts of policy areas, like tax rates on the wealthy, how easy it is to join a labor union, abortion restrictions and reproductive rights, environmental policy, gun control and gun rights. All these policy areas are diverging. Now your state of residence is much more determinative of all sorts of outcomes, from the taxes you pay, your ability to obtain a legal abortion, and so forth. Your state of residence really matters now in a way it didn’t a generation go.

But there are two key exception areas. In education, there’s maybe a little bit of divergence in areas like higher education spending, as conservative states seem to dislike universities more. There’s some divergence, but less than you’d expect. Criminal justice is the glaring exception. Criminal justice policy, whether that’s policing or mass incarceration there’s been consistently bipartisan politics around this since the 1970s. There’s been a ton of discourse, especially in recent years, about why is US policing is so authoritarian to all racial groups, but especially black Americans. Why are incarceration rates higher than any authoritarian regime, in terms of overall population or per capita? There have been many discussions about structural racism, the profiteering of the prison industrial complex, etc. But I think an underemphasized point is decentralization and federalism. In most developed democracies, authority over policing and incarceration is mostly at the national level, whereas in the US 95% of prisoners are in state and local prisons and jails.

We see a lot of TV about the feds, but it’s actually all state and local. I think that’s a crucial reason why Democratic Party state and local officials, even when they campaign on reforming the police, for example, don’t really do it. I no longer think they secretly don’t want to reform the police.

Look at how the police treated Bill de Blasio when he was mayor of New York. He wouldn’t have been able to put them under effective civilian control, if he wanted to.

Exactly. What’s becoming much clearer is that there’s no institutional capacity for state and local governments to rein in their police forces. That police forces, and to some extent, prisons and correctional officers’ organizations and unions, have separate spheres of authority. They are more like cartels that are insulated from popular democratic control. So just in the past couple years, we saw the politics of policing and criminal justice go from the 2020 George Floyd/Black Lives Matter social movement, one of the largest protest waves in US history, to a backlash and crime-panicked politics. But you still don’t see much fluctuation in policy. You see fluctuation in political inputs, but not policy.

In many other areas of American politics, when there are big swings in public opinion, like LGBT rights, cities and states started implementing things like gay marriage. You generally see some correspondence between political inputs, whether that’s public opinion, or voters or social movements, or even just investments by wealthy organizations. Some sort of input happens, and then things change. But you don’t see that in policing.

And again, in other countries there’s usually a much more military-style hierarchy, where there is sanction if you go against the commander-in-chief. In the US case, that tends to be mayors. So De Blasio was the legal commander-in-chief of the NYPD during his tenure as mayor, but that doesn’t mean you actually can influence their behavior very much. That’s, again, a product of this decentralization.

To contrast this with the US military, there are of course all sorts of problems with the US armed forces. We know this very well. But I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that there is some difference in holding soldiers in the US military accountable, versus holding police officers accountable. There’s also a difference in the way the military responds to orders by the White House, compared to how police forces respond to reformist mayors. That’s not to say the armed forces are all rosy or something like that.

It can also lead to bad policing, even on its own terms. If you watch enough serial killer documentaries on Netflix, it seems like some of these killers were able to get away with slaughtering people for months or even years on end because they traveled around from state to state. None of the police departments involved were talking to each other or sharing resources, and they spent absurd amounts of time investigating cases.

That’s a critical point. We haven’t talked about that yet, but this lack of coordination is a crucial downside of this level of decentralization. We saw that during COVID and in other national or global crises, when there were not incentives to organize via information sharing, resource sharing, having a unified plan of attack, and things like that. This is true in terms of vote counting, or redistricting. There’s no centralized data. Commercial firms are the only ones that have aggregated all the voter rolls. Same thing with driver’s licenses. If you’re in a voter ID state, you have to go to your local DMV with your state driver’s license. There’s no national ID system like in other countries around the world, where you automatically, through your enrollment in the welfare state, get an ID from the country.

There’s just issue after issue, not to mention collective action problems like climate change, or what’s called fiscal federalism – really the race to the bottom, bidding wars between states and localities for investment that end up being worse off for all the states. A firm can put states into competition in a way they can’t put countries. Saying “Ireland, Ethiopia, India, we’re putting you all in a bidding war” doesn’t work quite as easily as pitting Nevada and Idaho against California. Firms just massively exploit that, as well as wealthy individuals.

Regular working people don’t have the luxury of threatening to vote with their feet in that way, and it’s not as much of a punishment to a state or local government for individual working people to do that. When the abortion bans start hitting, you can’t just expect people to leave family and social networks and their livelihoods, and pick up and move to blue states – especially as blue states experience an ongoing housing crisis. That is hindering the already semi-non-existent ability to vote with your feet in the US.

Shifting gears a bit, let’s talk about some of the practical or organizing questions that arise from reading your book. It seems like the Left, broadly speaking, has been late to the game when it comes to addressing and contesting this arena of state politics, and that the Right has beat us to the punch by quite a bit. Do you agree with that? If so, what do you think may account for it?

In my book I’m criticizing what’s called institutional decentralization, the idea that rules of governing are set at these lower levels. But crucially, organizing is necessarily a local or federated affair. Whether it’s the labor movement, a social movement, or DSA, membership organizations are based in local chapters but are networked more widely, and that is absolutely crucial for any mass organization or movement. It is absolutely crucial that movement organizations are federated, their members meet in person and get to know each other through these federated organizational structures.

At the same time, that shouldn’t lead us to think that localism, in terms of authority, is effective for democracy. If you’re in the labor movement, a DSA chapter, or some environmental group, it’s really important to organize locally. But then, if given the chance, we should centralize institutional authority at the national level. But it’s also true, given this decentralized federalism we have right now, the states are so crucial. Liberals and the left, but especially liberals and the Democratic Party, have certainly neglected the state level in terms of political strategy, spending resources, and just paying attention. That’s true broadly. It’s not like Republicans and conservative Americans are just more into local politics in an abstract sense. They tend to be older and tend to be homeowners, so that tends to embed them more strongly in local and state politics. They have some advantages in that way.

But it’s also true that big right-wing funders and the Republican Party really did focus on the states. The American Legislative Exchange Council, Americans for Prosperity, and other groups like that have been working for decades to organize across the local Chambers of Commerce – the business wing – and the evangelical religious right. They have found ways to coordinate and win at least some of what each part of the coalition wants, even though it’s not a perfectly organized coalition. The religious right and the gun rights people like are not always best friends.

There are all sorts of cleavages, of course, but it’s crucial to coordinate and to find ways to continue those partnerships. The Right did that. They also focused on the states, and were ready when partisan control of states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and so forth, changed to the Republican Party. They were ready with an agenda that really kneecapped their opposition, especially labor. That paid huge, huge dividends. And that kind of approach has just not been the case among liberals and Democrats, although it’s changing a bit in the Democratic Party with the renewed emphasis on labor in some quarters.

Are there any specific policy demands or campaigns that an organization like DSA, working together in coalition with other broadly small-D pro-democracy groups should pursue to move governing authority up the scale and centralize it in the federal government where possible?

Use any political venue you have access to. If you can get a local minimum wage change, subsidized health insurance policy at the state level, state level campaigns for single payer healthcare or climate policy, go for it. In red and purple states especially, battles over partisan control that really do have ramifications for all types of things, especially when it comes to things like a full nationwide abortion ban. A lot of the policies that would centralize authority in important ways, like the PRO Act for labor for example, would essentially set a higher baseline for the states so they couldn’t restrict labor organizing beyond a certain level. It would overturn a lot of the anti-labor laws in states, including these newer ones in Midwestern states.

It’s important to not get too enthralled with the idea of localism in democracy, and in radical democracy. I used to be oriented in a more localist direction. But with movements like Right to the City or Occupy Wall Street, I came to the view that the idea of a very intense and deliberative localist democracy was unfortunately misguided, in that this will consistently advantage the advantaged. Most people don’t have the personal time and capacity to do that kind of thing. We know much more about the direction of the country we want, and about who national and party representatives of those visions might be nationally.

So fight at the local and state level, but don’t get enthralled with the idea that delegating more authority downward is necessarily going to be more small-D democratic. Fight hard and organize locally, but fight to move authority nationally, where we can actually see the choices in front of us.