Political Animal


November 20, 2012 10:59 AM Polarization and Federalism

By Ed Kilgore

Without the phenomenon receiving a whole lot of national attention, the partisan polarization that has made national politics so fractious and closely contended has had a very different impact on the states, where varying demographics and a general decline in ticket-splitting is producing one-party government to a degree not seen since the 19th century. And because Democratic voters tend to be concentrated disproportionately into a smaller number of larger-population states, Republicans are more likely than ever to have a natural advantage in the number of governorships and state legislative chambers they control.

An AP story by David Lieb covers some of the basic facts:

If you thought the presidential election revealed the nation’s political rifts, consider the outcomes in state legislatures. The vote also created a broader tier of powerful one-party governments that can act with no need for compromise. Half of state legislatures now have veto-proof majorities, up from 13 only four years ago, according to figures compiled for the Associated Press by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
All but three states — Iowa, Kentucky and New Hampshire — have one-party control of their legislatures, the highest mark since 1928.

I’d add that only six states have divided partisan control of executive and legislative branches, a very low level historically (for quite some time, there were about that many just in the South).

Lieb notes that the combination of united partisan control and legislative supermajorities may produce very different policies and even living conditions in the near future. To the extent that gridlock in Washington and/or deliberate devolution leaves key decisions to the states, that’s undoubtedly true, as Republican-dominated states pursue the Mississippi Model of low business costs uber alles, and Democratic-dominated states pursue a very different idea of a “good business climate” and a desirable quality of life.

Thanks to the election just completed, states will not soon be in a position to outlaw abortion generally or cut millions of people from Medicaid eligibility (after many millions lose the coverage they would have received under Obamacare), but we’ll still see some pretty significant variations. And even as we continue to hear tales of states being “laboratories for democracy” because real-world governing responsibilities and balanced-budget requirements force the parties to work together to “get things done,” the more likely pattern will become states showing what good and bad things one-party government might produce if applied nationally. If current patterns persist, we could even see a notable upturn in the already significant phenomenon of people relocating to be not only with people like themselves, but to live under the kind of government they prefer. This will represent yet another challenge to the United States of America.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • boatboy_srq on November 20, 2012 12:02 PM:

    Count me among the already relocated. I may have moved for employment, but NoVA is a whole lot healthier for my mindset than Gulf Coast FL. If I learned anything in my time in FL, it's that you can't cure wingnutsery.

  • c u n d gulag on November 20, 2012 12:15 PM:


    Does one stay in a state where low business costs rule uber alles?
    Where wages are low, educatation is private and not public, and is declining, like the quality of life, and you have decaying environmental standards, and medical costs potentially higher than the national average - and that's if you can find medical facilities, doctors, nurses, and technicians, because who wants to live in a state like that if they they can afford not to?

    Or, does one move to states with fair labor practices, better education, better opportunities, higher standards of living, and where people live longer and healthier lives?

    This time, the migration may not be caused by people moving from "The Dust Bowl" because of the environmental reasons, but economic ones.

    Welcome, Liberal Okies, Alabamians, Mississippians, etc!
    But please don't drag any of your Conservative brethren along, thank you. Let them stew in their own juices where they are now.

  • Ron Byers on November 20, 2012 12:18 PM:

    In 2008 Obama lost Missouri by a very narrow vote. How did the National Democratic Party respond? Instead of redoubling their efforts here they packed up their tent and abandoned the state.

    How much of this would stand if the Democratic party actually contested red states.

    It seems to me that at the national level the two parties have divided the country and neither party (especially the Democratic party) is willing to actively poach the other party's turf.

  • Josef K on November 20, 2012 1:06 PM:

    This will represent yet another challenge to the United States of America.

    Um, a challenge in what sense? People in this country have always 'gravitated' to like-minded regions and like-minded communities. We've always had room for such migrations, and our 'national identity' has in some ways encouraged it.

    Keep in mind we also have a grand total of just 250-odd years of 'national' history to draw upon; compared to Europe, China, Japan, India, and most of the rest of the world, that makes us barely out of diapers.

    Do I think this newest development (or is it simply a repeat of old patterns?) is an automatically negative development? For some regions, it likely will be. What the spillover from this will/won't be is yet to be seen.

    Just my own thought here. Take it for what it is.

  • PTate in Mn on November 20, 2012 1:59 PM:

    "the Republican-dominated states pursue the Mississippi Model of low business costs uber alles, and Democratic-dominated states pursue a very different idea of a “good business climate” and a desirable quality of life."

    Right. And as the Republican-dominated states sink further and further into dystopia, they will be buffered by the federal taxes on the citizens of the Democratic-dominated states who have a better business climate, better educated workers and a better quality of life.

    Please, can we stop subsidizing the South? It just enables them to make bad decisions.

    Ron Byers: an excellent point about neither party wanting to poach the other's turf.

  • boatboy_srq on November 20, 2012 2:56 PM:

    Please, can we stop subsidizing the South?

    You mean, as in building cheaper/lower levees in NOLA, or skimping the Gulf Coast cleanup post-Deepwater-Horizon? Or pulling the EPA out of Everglades monitoring?

    Step ONE has to be what "subsidies" could be reallocated/stopped without colossal consequences. Maybe relocating a chunk of the DoD presence to blue states would be enough. After that, though, the damage could well outweigh the benefits.

    I'm all for not spending blue-state dollars on red-state a##hats. But simply turning off the taps is not a solution either.

  • Michael Masinter on November 20, 2012 3:21 PM:

    Watch for republican ruled states that vote democratic in national elections (Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania) to consider moving from awarding electoral college votes on a winner take all basis to a congressional district basis.