“Unpacking Biden’s argument about state-level threats to democracy”


President Biden warns that there are threats to American democracy taking shape at the state level. NPR’s Michel Martin discusses how and why with political scientist Jacob Grumbach…

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…..

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