A depressing report from the Times

Dinosaurs and aliens vie for control of Earth.

Dinosaurs and aliens vie for control of Earth.

Adam Nagourney gets big points for including the clause “tucked away on a stretch of gun stores and pornography shops” in his report on midterm elections at the state level, but otherwise he has depressed the fudge out of me. The overall thrust of the article is that this year’s elections will provide parties with opportunities to control both statehouses and the governor’s mansion in several states—opportunities they will use to stymie each other. By “parties,” we mean the Republican Party. And they’re not just stymying each other; they’re also passing legislation that conflicts with federal law. Welcome to a world of black despair: the Times series on single-party control of state governments.

Right now, 36 states are governed by a single party—more than at any time in the last 50 years. That 36 does not include states where one party controls both legislative houses but not the governor’s mansion. Montana is one such state, and its legislature has produced some exciting proposals over the last few years, including one requiring federal agents to get permission from local sheriffs before enforcing federal law in the state, and another to pay legislators in gold coins.

Such laws are pretty much unworkable. They are not so much plans for government as gestures of commitment, which is ironic, because the attraction of state government for donors and activists is that it’s supposed to be an easier place to get things done.

The consensus among analysts seems to be that Washington is a toxic brand. President Obama’s approval rating hit an all-time low of 40%, and Congress enjoys a surreal 14%. The Congressional re-election rate still hovers around 90%, but that’s a subject for another blog. The point here is that both voters and strategists regard federal government as deadlocked, so state governments are a better place to get this done.

But single-party control does not seem to yield the kind of things people think of when they think what might be done. In Iowa, for example, Republicans hope to enact a ban on “telemedicine abortions,” a procedure in which doctors teleconference with women in rural areas and then prescribe the abortofacient pills.

Maybe I’m just out of the game, but I don’t think a wave of telemedical abortions is sweeping Iowa. It seems more likely that this issue is important to a portion of the Republican base, and when a single party controls an entire state government, its base becomes much more important. So does attacking the other party’s base. If Republicans win both statehouses in Iowa, they are expected to pass laws making union organization more difficult, as they did in Wisconsin.

From a certain standpoint, abortion pills and unions are a huge problem. I call that standpoint “Republican activism.” The average resident of Iowa is probably not as concerned about those issues, because they relate to politics more closely than to daily life. That’s the problem with single-party control: it encourages lawmakers to collapse the distinction between politics and government.

Ironically, that’s the complain that ruined Washington’s brand in the first place. Congress can’t do much of anything because party rivalry keeps half the legislative branch focused on blocking the other half. States under single-party control shouldn’t have that problem. But they wind up with petty legislatures anyway, because play-to-the-base activism encourages so many stunt bills and gestures of defiance toward the feds.

It’s almost as if single-party rule were not a good system of government. There’s no surfeit of Americans who love their legislatures, but I think if you asked them to choose their rulers, I think they would prefer governments to parties. Having to compromise with other views is good. Governing for broad support rather than total victory is good. Winner-take-all politics is bad, but we can’t really do anything about it. My advice is to curse god and die.


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