'Red State Blues' reveals how political parties haven't changed politices

September 30, 2019 - Caroline Brooks

The political divide between Democrats and Republicans seems to be the most contentious in recent years but in his latest book, “Red State Blues,” Michigan State University political scientist Matthew Grossmann presents findings that might put some liberals at ease.

As Republicans gained more power and control in Congress over the last 25 years, democratic lawmakers and constituents alike thought that the right-wing policies would be enacted and have an adverse effect on the nation’s economy, environment, social issues and foreign policy.

In “Red State Blues,” Grossmann discusses what he found after closely tracking how the Republican resurgence influenced policy and socioeconomic outcomes across all 50 states. What he found was that while Republicans have successfully maintained power, they have not substantially altered the nature or reach of government.

What made you want to take a closer look at how (or if) Republicans and Democrats really moved the needle across the country at a state-level?

When I became director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, or IPPSR, at MSU, Republicans had full control of Michigan state government. IPPSR does a lot of outreach to state policymakers so I got to see the successes and failures of one state up close. I wanted to see how well the local trends matched those at the national level.

My three prior books cover federal policymaking and all three make the point that Democrats tend to legislate more often in more areas than Republicans, meaning that they like to pass bills. I was regularly asked whether that applies to the states, where high-profile Republican governors – like Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Sam Brownback from Kansas – seemed to be taking more initiative. I wanted to investigate whether they were the norm.

What specific factors/data did you look at state-to-state?

I investigated what laws pass in each state in each year and how state budgets evolve over time in response to partisan control of government. I also assessed the potential influence of policy choices on socioeconomic outcomes, like economic growth and inequality.

I added a qualitative approach: reading state legislative histories and talking to state capital reporters to find out about the most important policy battles in their states.

I also begin with the electoral data. Republicans have been on quite a run – moving from full control of only three states to 26 states last year and have elected increasingly conservative politicians. The question is what they have to show for their electoral gains.

Which states have been more influenced by Republican leaders – and what kinds of policies changed at a state-level?

Republicans had the most impact when they came to power in states where policy had been relatively liberal relative to their state’s public opinion, such as Wisconsin. They had less influence in states like Alabama, where they replaced already-conservative Democrats and inherited relatively small state budgets.

They were most successful in passing policies that advanced both their ideological and electoral goals, such as defunding labor unions and trial lawyers (which often spend money on behalf of Democrats). They also passed gun and abortion laws in every state, but so did Democrats. One area where most states moved rightward was on education charters and vouchers, though mostly through bipartisan coalitions.
What has changed nationally?

There are also important national trends that had less to do with partisan control.

All states moved toward more punitive criminal justice policies over decades, but have recently taken a turn toward reforms to reduce mass incarceration.

Most states moved toward restricting gay unions, but then switched toward enabling gay marriage and protecting other rights. States are increasingly spending money on early childhood education, with a lower share for higher education. And 36 states are doubling eligibility for Medicaid, their largest program, under the Affordable Care Act.

What hasn’t changed because of the “Republican revolution?”

States still spend a bit more money each year, with the median state doubling its budget since 1994. They also tend to have the same departmental structures and regulatory missions, with similar expansions over time. They still spend the most money on education and health care, with criminal justice, social services, and transportation being the other major budget categories. Republicans have had surprisingly little impact on the size and scope of government.

What are the greatest challenges Republican leaders have faced throughout the last 25 years when it comes to pushing their political agendas?

Cuts to government services are not popular. When tax cuts forced school closures or cutting off those in need, as in Kansas, voters often rebelled. Teachers, other government employees, and beneficiaries are quick to protest and make their voices heard.

Republicans also tend to face bureaucrats and courts that are to their ideological left and often restrain cuts to services. It’s also hard to win at the state and federal levels at the same time in the US. Republicans’ biggest gains came under Democratic presidents, meaning federal policy was often moving state incentives leftward.

What policy trends did you see state-to-state that showed Republican-proposed legislation overturned?

Cuts to social workers or prisons are sometimes overturned by courts, and education spending can be redistributed. Gay marriage bans were overturned by the Supreme Court. Some redistricting plans faced court scrutiny. But sometimes Republicans backtracked on their own policies, as in taxes in Kansas or education spending in the states that saw teacher walkouts.

What surprised you most in your research for the book?

I was most surprised by the lack of policy impact. There were not enough policy differences between Democratic and Republican states to produce real changes in outcomes like the abortion rate or economic inequality. There were some impactful policies, such as right-to-work laws, that passed in several states, but they still did not have the kinds of wider outcomes anticipated, such as generating employment growth or income losses.

I expected some trade-offs between Democratic and Republican policy choices, such as higher growth with higher inequality in Republican states or higher crime but lower incarceration in Democratic states. But the influence of the policies that did pass due to partisan control in the states was minimal across the board. The states that did well in one area often did well in others, but due to factors largely outside of policymakers’ control (such as population gains).

If Democrats’ past fears were overblown, what would be a time/sign that they should be worried in the future?

Democrats had their best year in decades in 2018, but still did not manage to win back the states they lost in 2010. Their electoral fears are not overblown, as they have little hope of winning back states like Oklahoma and South Dakota.

The trouble for Democrats would start if a new Democratic president brought a backlash on par with the last two (in the 1994 and 2010 midterm elections). Republicans would then be in a position to try again, with some increased experience and cross-state organizing networks with some shared agendas.

At the end of the day, what should the public take from “Red State Blues” about the contentious opposing political parties?

The visions you hear about in political campaigns are not necessarily implementable in government. Given the distance between Democrats’ and Republicans’ ideal policies, the average effect of an electoral victory is to move policy about one percent of the way from Democrats’ ideals to Republicans’ ideals or vice versa. We should not expect the party in power to completely shift the role of government easily.

The size and scope of government also tend to grow slightly over time, regardless of who is in power. That means policy shifts to the left. It’s not fast enough for liberals to solve the problems they want government action to address. But it’s the reason why conservatives are frustrated that they can never seem to scale back government or reverse liberalizing social trends to return to traditional norms.