What Is This Blog? Are States and Local Governments Democracies? Those and Other Animating Questions

Given the great people involved, I would be excited and proud to be a part of this new venture no matter when it started. But I am particularly excited about it now because we are launching at a moment in American history when deep questions about the nature of state and local governance are very much in the news.

Law school classes frequently focus on federalism, but do so with lots of talk about the Federalist Papers or Supreme Court opinions that reason from theory about how a multi-level democracy should work. Other classes focus on state law, particularly common law areas like torts and contracts. But law school classes much more rarely focus on how states and cities function as governing entities. It turns out that, perhaps unsurprisingly, theories of how multi-level democracy might work rarely match the actual practice of state and local governance, particularly where those theories leave out the role of mediating institutions (like political parties or the press). And the content of state law turns very heavily on the structure of state governing institutions – state administrative law, the powers of local or state executives, legislative districting, and so forth.

At its best, I think this blog will start in a very different place from most efforts that discuss federalism, starting with facts of state and local governance – regulations, decisions, elections, processes – and only then turning to what they explain about broader ideas about multi-level democracy

What I suspect our talented group of contributors will find is that state and local governance is in a really bad place. The U.S. Constitution guarantees to its citizens that states maintain a “republican form of government.” While courts rarely enforce this clause, I think there are now real questions about whether state and local governments are provide republican government, or rather whether they are sufficiently thick democracies that they deserve the term.

Elections: Some of our authors will write about the huge fights were are seeing across the country about election law. But beyond debates over methods of election administration, state and local elections face a deeper problem. The fundamental truth of state elections – as Daniel Hopkins, Steve Rogers, Chris Elmendorf and I among others have written about– is that voter opinion about what state and local governments actually do has less and less to do with what happens in state elections. Voters – particularly outside of gubernatorial and some big city mayoral races – react to what’s happening nationally. The correlation between Presidential vote and state legislative vote is almost perfect. The issue space of federal and state elections is very distinct; states don’t decide questions of war and peace, foreign policy, monetary policy, Social Security or Keynesian deficit spending. But voters simply translate their opinions about Joe Biden or Donald Trump when voting in state and local partisan elections. If they like Biden, they vote Democrats; if not, not. There is sometimes competition in primary elections, but turnout is vanishingly small, biased towards privileged groups and ideologues, and without much evidence of voter knowledge.

This is surely driven by the fact that almost no one knows anything about what’s happening in state politics. You dear reader, are in the 1% of the 1% most informed about state politics. Can you name more U.S. Senators or state senators in your state? What the politics of officials on your county commission are? And our mediating institutions do not help us. National political parties are almost entirely defined by national issue stances. And as Daniel Hopkins has shown in his brilliant book, The Increasingly United States, the decline of local papers has meant increasing levels of straight-ticket voting, among other maladies, as voters just don’t have enough information about local politicians to assess them.

This doesn’t mean state policy is not at all responsive to voter opinion – there’s an important debate about how responsive it is – but it does mean that state politics is not even close to as responsive to local conditions as you’d think if you listened to the Supreme Court or read political theory. Further, and probably more importantly, state elections do not create strong incentives to get good results. Politicians from the “right” party get reelected even if they do terribly, removing much incentive to do better.

Institutions: State institutions are also struggling in the face of party polarization. I’m sure my co-blogger Miriam Seifter will talk about this more, but state legislatures are increasingly unrepresentative – the urban concentration of Democrats and aggressive gerrymandering have led to state legislatures that are extremely uncompetitive and biased in favor of Republicans. State constitutional and institutional reform has become a political football. In North Carolina and Wisconsin, state legislatures have tried to reform the powers of different government officials to disempower their partisan opponents. And as Jake Grumbach notes, states have been laboratories of democratic backsliding, again largely for partisan reasons.

The Death of Democratizing Reforms: One of the dominant theories of state and local responsiveness was that they had developed mass democratic institutions, many from the Jacksonian or Progressive Era, but also more recent ones. These include initiatives and referenda; having lots of elected, rather than appointed officials; recall elections; mass participation; small donor matching.

But the evidence is weak that these reforms lead to greater democratic performance, and opinion has turned against many of them. There’s a long debate about whether voters can learn enough to participate meaningfully in referenda, and whether they were substantially manipulable by elites. State legislatures and courts around the country have moved against allowing them, particularly when they offend the politics of the political party in power in the state legislature or the state court.

Holding many elections seems to lead to a lack of knowledge about most officials, and strict party line voting when possible. Ask yourself – do you have strong opinions about the performance in office of your state controller, railroad commissioner or county assessor? These are hugely important jobs, but it is hard for all but the most insidery of insiders to track. Also as Joahnna Shepherd and Michael Kang show about state courts, the practice leads to donations having a huge amount of influence.

Recall elections seem to empower highly engaged political minorities, rather than keeping officials in check, as the recall of California Governor is revealing. Participation in local governance is hugely biased against racial minorities, renters and the less wealthy. Small donor matching can create greater polarization.

State political reform just doesn’t seem to be improving state democracy.

Exclusion: By passing land use and other laws that limit housing growth and make entry into local labor markets difficult, local governments are increasingly refusing to accommodate newcomers and growth. Robert Dahl famously argued that you can’t make arguments about boundaries with arguments about democracy. But the failure of local governments to allow newcomers to enter creates more people who would rather be a part of city or region but are excluded. A failure to include them is not a lack of democracy, but it is an exclusion from the participation of a large group of people who would like to be parts of local polities. It also creates huge harms for the economy.

There are green shoots as well as bad trends in all of these areas, as well. But as we focus on specific issues, this will be one of the underlying themes. Are states and cities genuinely democratic?

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