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Why State Political Parties Have Been Taking On More National Issues

Published: Thursday, February 11, 2021 - 1:23pm
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MARK BRODIE: Arizona's Republican Party censured its highest-ranking elected official at its annual meeting last month, saying Gov. Doug Ducey's actions to try and slow the spread of COVID-19 amounted to enacting, "dictatorial powers." For his part, Gov. Ducey told us he pays very little attention to the censure. But that move, along with the censures of former Sen. Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain, have sparked controversy among some Arizona Republicans. And it's not just happening here. Republican parties in Hawaii and Oregon have also recently come under criticism. It's in this context that new research finds state parties have been taking on more national issues over the past few decades. Looking at nearly 1,800 state party platforms between 1918 and 2017, researchers found state-level issues are often taking a backseat to those being discussed nationally. Eric Schickler is one of those researchers. He's a professor of political science at Cal Berkeley and co-director of the Institute of Governmental Studies there. He says the party started becoming more divided in the mid-90s when both Democrats and Republicans began talking about different issues using different language. Before that, he says, the parties talked about a lot of the same issues using the same kind of language. Schickler joins me to talk more about this. And, Eric, what do you think changed?

ERIC SCHICKLER: I think that this coincides really with, for example, the rise of Newt Gingrich in the Republican Party in the mid-1990s, growth in national interest groups that were much more ideological on both the Democratic and Republican side. And so I think what's happened is that activists within each party really turned to the state level and gradually took over state parties and turned them kind of into instruments for these battles that we usually think of as national battles, but it turns out are also being waged at the state level.

BRODIE: So this was coming in from folks at the national level trying to basically take over state operations?

SCHICKLER: Well, yes and no, I think that it's not so much national leaders of, say, people like Gingrich or top Democratic leaders going into the states as much as it is the groups that these leaders are involved in and mobilizing. So on the right, think about the NRA, think about right to life groups. On the left, think about environmentalists, feminists, gay rights groups, civil rights groups — that those groups increasingly turn to the state level. And as the national government got gridlocked, really, we're, we're turning to the states as an instrument for their kind of political combat.

BRODIE: What's in it for the state parties, though? If the national parties are so gridlocked, as they clearly were in the '90s and in large part remain now, wouldn't the state parties maybe see themselves as a way to overcome that or get around it?

SCHICKLER: Well, one thing that's different about the state level is that in many of the states, one party or the other does have a decisive advantage, and so they actually are able to put some of these policies into effect. So, for example, you know, if you think about after 2010, Republicans gained unified control in a number of states like Wisconsin and implemented a very conservative agenda that they couldn't implement at the national level. By contrast, in a state like California, Democrats have firm control and have been able to implement a much more liberal policy agenda that, again, they're not able to do at the national level.

BRODIE: It almost sounds like this is the politics version of what so many folks have complained about in terms of downtowns, neighborhoods going from having locally owned, independent shops and restaurants and things like that to there being national chains on every corner.

SCHICKLER: Yeah, I do think there's an aspect of that. One of the things we we noticed is that state platforms used to spend a lot of time talking about local issues, regional economic issues and things like that. And we see much less of that in recent decades. And instead, they're talking much more about these more national issues that really affect everybody across the country in the same way. And so I do think there's something lost in this process.

BRODIE: So does that mean then that issues that might be important to a particular state but maybe not the whole country kind of just get overlooked? Like, for example, in Arizona, something like water issues or forest management, things like that? Like, if the state party isn't talking about that, is there anybody in politics really who's going to be talking about that?

SCHICKLER: Yeah, I think that's a real concern that, if you think about the individuals running many of these state parties, they're much more concerned, for example, on your stance toward Donald Trump than they are about these locally rooted issues. And so I do think that that is a real problem with what we would call this nationalization of politics.

BRODIE: Well, is this reflective of what members of state parties are wanting to talk about, or is it more reflective of what the leaders of state parties are wanting to talk about?

SCHICKLER: I guess I would put a lot of the attention on the kind of on-the-ground activists who are the kind of shock troops of the parties, right? So it's not necessarily as much what the top leader of the state party wants. As much — if you think, though, about who are the folks that are giving money to the party? Who are the people who are volunteering for the party, who are most engaged, who show up for meetings? These tend to be ideological activists who are focused on these national issues. That's what gets them excited. That's what turns them out. And that's great in terms of creating a lot of energy but maybe bad in terms of getting the party to focus on these more localized concerns.

BRODIE: And we've been talking mostly, at least in Arizona, about the Republican Party. But is it safe to say this is happening on both sides of the aisle, with both state Democratic and Republican parties?

SCHICKLER: You do see broadly similar patterns in both parties. One difference between the Democrats and Republicans is in general, if you look at Republican platforms, they tend to have more abstract language, more kind of "ideological language," whereas Democrats do tend to talk more about specific policies. But even among Democrats, the specific policies they're talking about now tend to be more national policies than they used to be, as opposed to policies that are really going to differ quite a bit across different states with different kinds of economies.

BRODIE: Do you think this is the way that it's just going to be going forward?

SCHICKLER: Well, so far this has been a pretty clear trend, and it's hard to see what's going to upset it or disrupt this trend. One hope or one possibility would be if there were issues that arose that really divided each party internally and along a kind of geographical dimension. That might be the kind of thing that disrupts this and leads to, for example, state parties in one region taking a very different approach from the same party, state parties, in a different region. But right now, it's just hard to see that happening because the groups behind the parties are nationally organized, nationally focused, rather than more locally rooted.

BRODIE: And do you think that this is contributing to the polarization we're seeing in national politics, when state parties are basically talking about the same kinds of issues as what's going on in D.C.?

SCHICKLER: Yeah, I definitely think it is reinforcing what we see in Washington. Again, because when state parties were largely separate from the national parties, they would send to Washington members who were really focused on the particular interests of their state. And when those interests contrasted with what the national party wanted, they would take a dissenting view from the national party and represent their states much more clearly. That happens a lot less now. And instead, the states are sending to Washington basically partisan warriors who are eager to play their part in this kind of national story rather than representing what might be the distinctive interests of an Arizona or a Michigan or a Florida, let's say.

BRODIE: Eric Schickler is a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at Berkeley. 

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