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Unpacking Biden's argument about state-level threats to democracy

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start tonight thinking more about President Biden's speech on democracy earlier this week. During a rare primetime address, the president offered a stark warning about what he called the major threat to this nation's democratic norms and values.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And here, in my view, is what is true. MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they're working right now, as I speak, in state after state, to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.

MARTIN: Right now, we want to focus on one aspect of his speech in particular, that this threat to the country is taking shape at the state level. That's because a core function of a democracy, voting, is managed at the state level. But one professor says it's also because state governments are like laboratories where national parties are influencing distinct agendas in red and blue states, fueling partisan divisions. Jacob Grumbach is a political science professor at the University of Washington. We called him because he writes about this in his book, "Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transform State Politics." And he's with us now from Seattle. Professor Grumbach, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

JACOB GRUMBACH: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: I just want to start by acknowledging that some of the prominent national Republicans had a furious reaction to President Biden's speech, calling it demeaning. But first, let's talk about your research, which looks at democracy and the relationship between states and the federal government. As briefly as you can, for people who maybe have forgotten their, you know, high school government class, why do state governments matter, especially in politically polarized times?

GRUMBACH: Right. So as you mentioned, the U.S. is pretty unique in having a constitution that puts essentially all authority over elections, legislative districting, police powers and other important democratic institutions at the lower level of government, the state level. So that's where democracy has been battled over historically in the U.S. It's typically state legislatures that threaten democracy, often enabled by the Supreme Court, and it's Congress, at the national level, that decides whether to step in and establish new rules to protect democracy or not. But what's unique about this time period is now the political parties are highly national, so they're using these state-level governments to engage in a national battle over the direction of the country and, to some extent, threatening American democracy in the process.

MARTIN: And this is a big change because I think many people are used to thinking of it as going the other way. You know, the politics starts at the local level, moves to the state and then rises up. You're saying it's moving the other way.

GRUMBACH: That's exactly right. So historically, you know, there have been huge threats to democracy from the state level through slavery and then later Jim Crow laws, which were state-level laws. But what was different about those times, especially in Jim Crow, is that the parties were very decentralized. So a Northern Democrat in New York or Illinois was - tended to be pro-civil rights and pro-labor, and the Southern Democrats were the segregationists. So it's a very decentralized party system that went together with the decentralized federal institutional system. But now you have national ambitions coming from all levels of government because the parties are national teams. So this is how you get the threat of potential, for example, election subversion in the 2024 presidential election, where state legislatures may try to give electoral college votes to a presidential candidate who does not win their state for a national political project.

MARTIN: But how does this actually work? I mean, is it - you know, we're familiar with certain groups like the Federalist Society, which plays an outsized role in recruiting and kind of, you know, keeping an eye on - creating kind of a list of preferred candidates for federal judgeships - right? - people who have - obviously adhere to their conservative political ideology. But how does it work at these state legislative levels? I mean, are there similar sort of networks? Because, frankly, you know, we think of state legislatures as kind of like your entry level.

GRUMBACH: Right.

MARTIN: The districts are small enough. People could literally knock on every door or close to it. You know, it's - you see it as kind of low visibility, low funding. You don't need - like, generally people don't - maybe except in places like California - advertise for state legislative seats. They just - it's very retail. So how do you see this transition happening? How did it happen, and how does it work?

GRUMBACH: Right. So gone are the days of the highly regionalistic, localistic, kind of sleepy state legislatures. In the mid 20th century, the national government was passing major economic and civil rights policies that made states more similar, and state legislatures were sort of losing relevance. But over the past generation, what you've seen is major investments by political organizations. And you've mentioned the Federalist Society, but there's other groups, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which gives state legislatures model bills to pass and has spread similar laws across state legislatures. And then you also have national activist groups, whether that's, you know, liberal groups on climate change or sort of anti-abortion groups on the right. All of these groups have invested in state and local parties and made them more tied to the national party and engaged in a national battle.

And the other driving force behind the nationalization of the parties is the nationalization of political media. So a generation ago, you had many more journalists focused on state and local politics in state legislatures, on the state legislative beat monitoring and showing voters what their state legislatures were doing, whereas now you've seen the rise of major media conglomerates and the decline of classified ad revenue and the rise of the internet, which has really destroyed state and local reporting revenue. So all of that has led to much more focus on national politics, ironically, as state legislatures are doing much more important policy and making your state of residence much more important for determining your sort of socioeconomic outcomes and outcomes in your life.

MARTIN: But does it work the same way, in your view, on the political left and the political right? Because we've seen the influence of the political right on issues like - amplifying issues that a lot of people weren't even thinking about, like critical race theory, which isn't taught at the K-12 level but has become this hugely explosive issue in school board meetings and library board meetings and things like that. But does it work the same way, in your view, on the left and the right?

GRUMBACH: So this is a really important distinction. So on some issue areas like economic policy or environmental policy, you do see movement on the left and the right with coastal states that are controlled by Democrats, you know, increasing fuel efficiency standards and, you know, more conservative, often red states reducing environmental regulation. So there are some similarities on some issue areas. But when it comes to democratic institutions, there's clear asymmetry there where, statistically, in my book, "Laboratories Against Democracy," I investigate the causes of changes to democratic institutions in the states over the past couple of decades. And really, you can't get rid of the statistical finding - the greatest driver of democratic backsliding or reducing the quality of democracy that's making districts more biased in terms of gerrymandering - that's restricting the right to vote and making it more costly to vote. That's reducing sort of whether your policy follows the trends of public opinion in your state. All of those things are predicted best by Republican control of state government. So that's an area of asymmetry.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, what's the way forward here, in your view? Do you have an opinion about that?

GRUMBACH: Yeah. So I think, really crucially, to protect American democracy, we need national policy as we had in the civil rights era that sets baseline standards for election administration, the right to vote, vote counting and the fair drawing of legislative districts at the state level - so having national rules on that. And to achieve that, I do think there needs to be a new political capacity around defending democracy. And I think one of the most underemphasized parts of protecting democracy is the U.S. labor movement. So historically, we don't talk about it much, but the labor movement, labor unions helped finance the March on Washington and were deeply part of the civil rights movement for Black voting rights in the U.S. South. And currently, labor unions - I find statistically in some research with Paul Frymer - white workers who are in labor unions, becoming a labor union member makes you much less racially resentful and interested in this culture war politics. You're much more racially solidaristic. So the labor movement is not only key for, you know, establishing middle - class wages and reducing inequality and, you know, health benefits and all this. They also help protect democracy. And the destruction of the labor movement over the past couple of decades through anti-labor policy has really left American democracy extra vulnerable in the states. So I think that's one power-building way is to rejuvenate the labor movement as a way to help protect democracy in the long term.

MARTIN: And why should Republicans go along with that or think that's a good idea? Why would they if they feel like it's working for them?

GRUMBACH: Right. So if they feel like it's working for them, there's not much I can say to that. But I think now you hear Republican candidates trying to call themselves, you know, we're a workers party now. We support, you know, the white working class, for example. But really, the, you know, labor unions have expanded increased American wages for all racial groups, you know, including and, historically, especially the white working class. If they're really a workers party, they should want workers to have a strong voice at the workplace and in American politics. So I think if they really are standing by that, you know, we're for the working class, then I think they should support the labor movement. And a byproduct of having a vibrant labor movement is that democracy is stronger.

MARTIN: Jacob Grumbach is a professor of political science at the University of Washington. His latest book is "Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics." Professor Grumbach, thanks so much for talking with us today.

GRUMBACH: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.