Saturday, August 17, 2019

Book Review: 'Red State Blues: How the Conservative Revolution Stalled in the States' by Matt Grossmann

The basic premise of Matt Grossmann’s Red State Blues is to see if the continuing swing to Republican state governments has led to a transformation of, if not the nation, then at least those states. His important answer is no. In fact, the country is continuing its long-term trend towards more liberal policies overall.

Republicans are better organized and equipped to make their transformation happen. They have a “troika” of organizations to promote their agenda through state legislatures, Grossmann says. It consists of right wing think tanks under the umbrella of State Policy Network, the legislation provider ALEC, and Koch Brothers “grassroots” groups Americans For Prosperity. ALEC in particular has a library of ready-to-pass legislation promoting the right-wing agenda, that state reps simply copy and paste directly. Little or no thought required.

However. The results are not as transforming as planned. “The perennial conservative fiction [is] that government can be transformed by heroic individual action, using private sector formulas to make government run (more efficiently) like a business,” Grossmann says. Between the right-wing factions, the infighting and the simple fact that most Americans don’t share their extreme vision, the legislation gets watered down, stalled, withdrawn, or different than intended. There is often public backlash to cutbacks, and different attitudes in the House compared to the Senate. Increasingly, voters take the state to court to overturn extreme laws. In numerous studies examined or conducted by his own team, Grossmann shows remarkably little rightward movement overall.

There are plenty of exceptions that we see daily, as Republican states try to crush unions, abolish abortion, disenfranchise voters and promote guns. But Grossmann shows clearly that they are not transforming the country the way more liberal legislation is. He points to gay marriage for one. He gives the example of pre-kindergarten programs. At the state level, they have grown by 47% in just the five years since 2012. Only six states provide none. There is a loosening of marijuana strictures. Twenty states have increased minimum wages, six Republican states are trying to end the death penalty and many more are relaxing sentencing. Some are actually closing prisons. Online voter registration is now available for 38 states. These are not usually considered Republican priorities.

His conclusion is that Republican states don’t so much move severely to the right as slow down the moves to the left. Republican states still increase regulations, but at a slower pace than Democrat states. In all of the studies Grossmann reviewed or conducted, the differences are minor, and no conclusions can be drawn. That in itself is newsworthy.

But Red State Blues is not a narrative. It is an academic study, mostly of other studies. That means it is an unfortunately dry read, with everything reinforced by data points and explanations of methodology. So while it is jam packed with facts, the exploration, impact and backstory of them is not there. There are plenty of charts to reinforce what he says, but not a lot of bold type to drive a narrative. Which is too bad, because these insights are of great use to the general — and voting — public.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

Order it on Amazon today.
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