Election Night wasn’t a total disaster for Republicans. They did poorly in statewide races (in other words, for votes in the Electoral College, for the Senate, and on ballot initiatives). On the other hand, they retained a majority in the House of Representatives and extended their control in legislatures in the South and West.
Some of these victories were attributable to gerrymandering. But that’s not the only reason for Republicans’ success in smaller constituencies. Among other factors, the flipside of Democrats’ strength in cities is that their voters tend be concentrated in fewer electoral districts.
Republican gains were also part of a broader trend toward one-party control of state legislatures. Via The Atlantic, this graphic from the Associated Press tells the story: The consequences of this trend could be significant. The AP analysis continues:
If the parties make full use of their enlarged majorities, residents of similar-sized cities in different parts of the country could soon experience a virtual continental divide in their way of life. In one state, businesses could pay little to no taxes, the result of policies intended to spur hiring. Public schools might function at a basics-only level, with parents free to use public money to send their children to private schools. Only the poorest of the poor adults could expect medical care from the government.
In another state, residents would pay higher taxes, and the government would inject billions of dollars into public education with the goal of creating a highly skilled workforce to attract businesses. A social safety net would exist for the poor, including working adults not even considered to be in poverty.
Progressives tend to see the pursuit of such divergent strategies at the state level as a moral disaster. It’s more plausibly understood as an opportunity to return to meaningful federalism.
To progressives’ displeasure, the Constitution does not guarantee citizens extensive public education or free healthcare. It does guarantee “republican form of government” in every state, which may provide these services if constituents want them.
In a piece published before the election, Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic asserted that “[t]his country has room for different approaches to policy. It doesn’t have room for different standards of human decency.” But that’s precisely the problem: Americans simply don’t agree on what that standard should be.
So if Republicans in Oklahoma, say, want to pursue a more minimal model of government, I wish them luck. I wish the same to Democrats in California, where a tax hike to fund the state education system was recently approved at referendum. Time will tell which policies are more successful.
Citizens who oppose the direction their state takes are free to support measures or candidates likely to change it. Failing that, they can vote with their feet by moving to congenial surroundings. In fact, this kind of geographical sorting is already under way: it’s one reason for the increasingly monotone political complexions of some states.
This is not a primarily legal argument about the Constitutional division of powers between the states and the national government. Rather, it’s a pragmatic argument for accommodating the reality of an increasingly populous and diverse country. Under these conditions, national consensus will be elusive. We have a better chance of finding policies acceptable to most of the citizens they affect at the state level.
Of course, some problems aren’t susceptible of division along federalist lines. But many do, including important aspects of social policy, education, and business regulation. Republicans and Democrats both claim that enactment of their programs will lead to prosperity, fiscal stability, and the other good things politicians promise. They, and we, should welcome the chance to show what they can do.