Still, differences are apparent even on the fiscal front. Although both Democratic and Republican governors have sought budget concessions from state employees, many GOP governors and legislatures have gone a long step further by also seeking to curtail the bargaining power of the public-employee unions. Thirteen states—almost all of which have Republican governors and legislatures, and most with a strong history of backing the GOP’s presidential candidates—have pursued such limits this year. No state in which Democrats control the governorship and legislature has imposed such limits on public-employee unions.
Attempts to limit public workers’ bargaining rights have generated the most heated conflicts in state policy this year. But the pulling apart across the states is even more vivid on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. Despite the GOP’s huge state-level gains in the 2010 election that netted almost 700 state legislative seats, 2011 witnessed astounding successes in the expansion of gay marriage and civil unions, with five solidly Democratic states enacting legal recognition for gay couples. On the other side of the ledger, 15 mostly Republican-leaning states have moved sharply to restrict abortion rights. Illegal immigration has exposed the same centrifugal current: 15 mostly Republican-leaning states have adopted one or more tough new enforcement measures, while five blue states have either withdrawn from federal enforcement efforts or provided in-state tuition to the children of those here illegally. Red and blue states are also going in different directions on gun control and their response to President Obama’s health care reform law.
At some level, this patchwork of divergent approaches is exactly what the nation’s Founders intended when they established a federalist system that maintains substantial authority for the states (and rejected James Madison’s hope of a congressional veto over state actions).
Particularly on divisive social issues, some liberal and conservative thinkers have long argued that providing states more flexibility to set rules that reflect local mores could drain some of the venom from intractable national debates. Wehner, now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, argues that the unending generation-long controversy over the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion shows the cost of imposing a single national solution on divisive cultural questions. On gay marriage, he maintains, the nation would be better served by allowing states to go their own way rather than attempting to either guarantee or ban equal treatment through the courts or a federal constitutional amendment. “To have same-sex marriage now decided at a state level, and different state levels, makes the culture wars less heated than they otherwise would be,” Wehner says.
In the 2008 Republican presidential primary campaign, Rudy Giuliani, attempting to temper conservatives’ skepticism about his liberal social views, argued for allowing states more leeway to pursue their own course on social issues. If Texas Gov. Rick Perry seeks the nomination in 2012, he may use comparable arguments to soften resistance among more-moderate GOP primary voters to his staunchly conservative social views. From the other side of the ideological spectrum, Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, has contended that returning control over abortion to the states by overturning Roe v. Wade would allow the nation to reach a “democratic equilibrium” on the perennial dispute.
Bruce Cain, a University of California (Berkeley) political scientist, agrees with Wehner that many Americans will probably welcome the trend toward diverging state policies. “We are a divided country, and if we were all mixed in one state, we’d be fighting to a standstill,” Cain said. “It may be a way of diffusing the tension somewhat to allow states to have different paths, and then people can choose to live in a state or not.”
As states pull apart, though, it raises questions of how far they can extend flexibility without either undermining nationally guaranteed rights or simply producing an unworkable jumble of cacophonous directives. After all, for decades, state-sponsored segregation was defended as an expression of distinctive Southern mores and preferences. Only decisive national action, first from the Supreme Court through the Brown v. Board of Education decision and then Congress through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, dismantled Jim Crow and ensured African-Americans that they would possess (if not always be able to exercise) equal rights in every state. The Roe decision did the same thing for women on abortion, overriding discordant state laws that permitted or prohibited the procedure.
The aggressive laws that states passed this year, particularly on abortion and illegal immigration, will likely keep federal courts busy for years determining whether they infringe on federal law or constitutional rights. Nathan, the scholar on state policy, believes that the deeper problem with the centrifugal movement isn’t so much legal as political: He sees the trend as reflecting a rising absolutist strain in American politics in which the majority party, no matter how narrow its advantage, pursues a winner-take-all agenda, at the national and the state level, that offers few concessions to opponents’ views. “You could argue that [this trend amounts] to reconciling diversity,” he says. “But I wouldn’t, because I think there’s a churning hardball-politics process at work within both the red and blue states. It doesn’t pretend that you’re going to have a consensus on the social issues or the role of government through deal-making or bargaining.”
It’s possible that the powerful centrifugal force evident this year in the states will prove a temporary surge driven mostly by the historic GOP gains in 2010. But other factors indicate that it could endure.
One reason is that so many states now lean reliably and durably toward one party or the other as Americans arrange themselves in their housing patterns along cultural, ideological, and partisan lines. Bill Bishop, the Texas-based coauthor of the acclaimed 2008 book The Big Sort, which chronicled the increasing tendency of like-minded Americans to flock together, says that the clustering phenomenon creates communities in which converging viewpoints encourage policies that tilt sharply left or right. Increasingly, he contends, the same dynamic is affecting states. “If you look at them, a lot of the states are tipping too,” he says. “And as these places begin to tip, their policies reflect more of the direction they are tipping toward. You saw that initially locally.… Now, as states begin to tip, you see those kinds of [dynamics] carrying over.”
Another factor is that state politics no longer are as resistant as they once were to the polarization and reflexive partisanship that characterizes Washington. Even as national politics grew more divided after the 1960s, governors often prided themselves on functioning as nonpartisan, pragmatic problem-solvers. The National Governors Association cherished its ability to produce bipartisan proposals for almost every challenge.
That has grown much more difficult to do, as governors (and state legislators) divide along party lines as reliably as their congressional counterparts do on issues such as climate change, immigration, or Obama’s health care law. The divergence evident this year among red and blue states is not so much a cause of our divisions as a reflection of the fact that no level of American politics remains immune to them. Allowing local majorities to follow increasingly inimical paths may indeed produce more “democratic equilibrium,” but at the price of institutionalizing the deepening divisions between these ostensibly United States.