If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

Photographer: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Democrats Can Take a Hint From GOP's Winning Ways

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
Read More.
a | A

Let's suppose the polls are right: Running against Donald Trump, the Democrats win the White House in a walk, perhaps retake the Senate, and maybe even come within a hair's breadth of picking up a majority in the House. Will the 2016 elections thus usher in a sea change in the nation’s politics?

Probably not. The Democrats might wind up in charge of Washington, but the Republican Party will likely continue its stranglehold on local politics. Currently, 31 states have GOP governors. There are 18 Democratic governors and one independent; in November, Republicans stand a fair chance of flipping Missouri and West Virginia.  Meanwhile, the GOP overwhelmingly controls state legislatures. One election, or even a series of elections, isn’t likely to wash all of that away.

Why do Democrats fare so well on the national stage and so poorly in local politics? In a recent essay in the journal Democracy, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Theda Skocpol of Harvard University suggest a few reasons for the Republican Party's dominance at the state level. They tell us a story that many will find familiar, but they add an interesting twist.

Forty years ago, the authors remind us, Democrats controlled more state legislatures than Republicans did. In response, movement conservatives began developing organizations that were designed to advance policy issues at the state level. At the same time, in partnership with donors from the business community, they began concentrating their attention on local legislative and gubernatorial elections. The idea was to accomplish a variety of conservative reforms at the state level -- right-to-work laws, for example -- to counter more liberal policy trends at the federal level. These conservative organizations were well funded and were willing to play the long game. Democrats, despite repeated efforts, have never been able to catch up.

What’s been the problem? Hertel-Fernandez and Skocpol have hit upon what seems to me the proper diagnosis: Liberals were focused on Washington in the 1970s and ’80s. True, as they point out, “some on the left did understand the need for more state-level capacity.” But liberal state-level initiatives aimed at countering conservative gains, although launched to much fanfare, ultimately faded away.

The big problem, we are told, is funding. Evidently, wealthy liberals are skeptical about the need for state-level intervention. The left, the authors argue, has not learned the lesson that the right learned -- to wit, that donors must be able to see concrete gains for themselves. The essay concludes with a grab bag of suggestions for how liberals might gain more success at the state level, almost all of which propose mimicking the strategy that has led to conservative victories. None of the suggestions are bad ones, but it seems to me that in two different and important ways, Hertel-Fernandez and Skocpol are missing the forest for the trees.

First, the portion of the electorate that cares deeply about what the states do may not be identical to the portion of the electorate that cares deeply about what the federal government does. Owners of small and medium-sized businesses tend to be a reliable Republican constituency. Ask them why, and they’ll complain about the cost of regulations that emerge from the distant land they call Washington. Local business owners play a big part in local elections. They tend to be less interested in the social issues that often drive Democratic constituency groups and more interested in their bottom lines. Rather than asking how to move national issues at the local level (the Republican technique noted by the authors), perhaps the Democratic Party might find a way to instead move local issues at the local level. In other words, rather than hoping that state legislators will do what national Democratic constituent groups want, perhaps they might trouble to find out what local residents want from local government.

This leads to the second and, I think, more fundamental challenge.  The Democrats must find a way to stop being, in the words of Hertel-Fernandez and Skocpol, the party that is “mostly focused on Washington.” Not every question has to be settled at the national level. The more policy that is decreed by a distant and seemingly untouchable federal government, the more alienated millions of Americans will become. People raised to the idea of (small-d) democracy are funny that way: They like to feel that they possess a degree of influence on the laws by which they are bound.  The more policy is made locally, the less the degree of alienation.

When critics deride localism, they hear terrifying echoes of the “states’ rights” language once used to justify local Jim Crow laws. Do dangerous people sometimes get their hands on the reins of state government? Sure they do, just as they sometimes get their hands on the reins of local government. The solution to the problem isn’t to make more policy from Washington. It’s to do a better job of listening to people who don’t work or lobby there. If the Democrats can pull that off while devolving power toward local government, they’ll give state-level Republicans a run for their money.

  1. Both possibilities carry heavy caveats. The most recent Missouri polling data I have seen is from September. In the case of West Virginia, the Republicans look to have a good shot if there are only two gubernatorial candidates on the ballot, but at the moment they are losing a hypothetical race when there are, as may happen, three.

  2. The otherwise thoughtful essay is weakened a bit by the casual employment of “right-wing” as a pejorative for -- to take one example -- seemingly anyone willing to associate with the American Legislative Exchange Council, popularly known as ALEC.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net