Polarisation is dividing America State by State

The reversal of Roe v Wade,  was a decision which gave all state governments the freedom to decide their own abortion regimes. 

Those policy differences reflect America’s growing ideological polarisation. “State policies vary more than they ever have before,” says Chris Warshaw of George Washington University, co-author of a forthcoming book, “Dynamic Democracy”. As states go in different directions on social and economic policy, the consequences will be deeply felt by all Americans, regardless of their place on the political spectrum, with implications around the world.

To quantify the divergence among states, Mr Warshaw and Devin Caughey of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysed 190 policies from the 1930s to 2021. On the whole, states have become more liberal. 2023 Ohio amended its constitution making a ban on abortion unconstitutional. They have unwound, for example, racial restrictions, bans on women serving on juries and laws criminalising sodomy. Although the general movement has been to the left, states’ presidential voting patterns have shifted to reflect their policy preferences. 

However, states have also moved farther apart on policy, with a much larger gap between those most to the right and those most to the left. Data for 2022 are likely to show “massively more divergence”, predicts Mr Warshaw. 

The Pew Research Center  illustrate the increasingly stark disagreement between Democrats and Republicans on the economy, racial justice, climate change, law enforcement, international engagement, and a long list of other issues. The 2020 presidential election further highlighted these deep-seated divides. Supporters of Biden and Donald Trump believe the differences between them are about more than just politics and policies. A month before the election, roughly 8 in 10 registered voters in both camps said their differences with the other side were about core American values, and roughly 9 in 10—again in both camps—worried that a victory by the other would lead to “lasting harm” to the United States. 

Take California and Mississippi. They have moved to the left and to the right, respectively, since 1970, with small exceptions (when a southerner, Jimmy Carter, won over Mississippians, and Ronald Reagan wooed California). The difference in terms of state-level policy is more recent and more dramatic. Meanwhile, formerly centrist states like Vermont or Kansas have implemented policies to match the party they have moved towards in presidential elections. Liberal-Republican and conservative-Democrat states, like Alaska or Arkansas, have all but disappeared. 

Some in the other half are passing laws to codify abortion rights or protect health-care providers. Connecticut has expanded access by allowing physician assistants and nurse-midwives to perform abortions. In August Kansans defeated a proposed constitutional amendment restricting abortion. There will be measures on abortion on at least five state ballots this year, a record. In two of them, California and Vermont, voters are expected to enshrine reproductive rights in their constitutions.

But there is more than reproductive rights at stake. Guns are another battleground. So far this year ten states have imposed new restrictions on the purchase or carrying of firearms. Meanwhile, states with Republican governors and legislatures are pushing for fewer restrictions. Many have embraced “permitless carry” laws, which remove all restrictions on gun-owners being armed in public. In June Ohio became the 23rd state to allow this. The same month, its Republican governor, Mike DeWine, signed a law lowering the number of hours’ training that teachers require if they are to bring guns into classrooms from 700 to 24.

The treatment of undocumented immigrants is a third area of divergence. Enforcing immigration law has generally been taken to be the prerogative of the federal government. Increasingly, though, states are changing the experience and outcomes for their undocumented residents. Through various laws, California has “de facto legalised” undocumented immigrants, says Ken Miller, a professor at Claremont McKenna College. In June it became the first state to start offering Medicaid, the government health-insurance scheme for the poor, to all low-income adults regardless of immigration status.

Texas is pushing in the opposite direction. Its governor, Greg Abbott, has declined to expand Medicaid to any more low-income Texans, let alone non-citizens. He has ordered state police to start bringing unauthorised immigrants back to the border. Mr Abbott has also said he wants to stop paying for undocumented children to attend public schools. What the children who do go to school must be taught (such as ethnic studies in California, or African-American and Latino studies in Connecticut) and must not be taught (such as critical race theory in a number of states) is a whole other story.

Another area where state policies are starting to have national impact is that of voting and election administration as it relates to early voting access, voter ID requirements, mail-in voting and whether felons should be re-enfranchised. In 2021, 29 states expanded access to voting by mail, while 13 states restricted it. Many Republican-dominated states are taking aim at election administration, for example by shifting oversight authority away from non-partisan bureaucrats to political actors. This could complicate states’ certification of election results.

America’s national identity as a collection of states is written into the country’s very name. The 13 colonies-turned-states were wary of federal power subjugating their own. They needed to be assured of autonomy if they were to ratify the constitution. That need was most acutely felt when it came to the degree of autonomy slave states felt they needed for their own race-based subjugations, but the issue was broader than that. The founders thought a federal republic of distinct and diverse states would be protected from the spread of dangerous zealotry. As James Madison wrote, “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular states, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states.”

Why is America cleaved in this way? The polarizing pressures of partisan media, social media, and even deeply rooted cultural, historical, and regional divides are hardly unique to America. By comparison, America’s relatively rigid, two-party electoral system stands apart by collapsing a wide range of legitimate social and political debates into a singular battle line that can make  differences appear even larger than they may actually be. And when the balance of support for these political parties is close enough for either to gain near-term electoral advantage—as it has in the U.S. for more than a quarter century—the competition becomes cutthroat and politics begins to feel zero-sum, where one side’s gain is inherently the other’s loss. Finding common cause—even to fight a common enemy in the public health and economic threat posed by the coronavirus—has eluded many Americans. According to Carothers and O’Donohue, a “powerful alignment of ideology, race, and religion renders America’s divisions unusually encompassing and profound. It is hard to find another example of polarization in the world,” they write, “that fuses all three major types of identity divisions in a similar way.” 

The Republican Party outside the South also moved to the right. In the mid-to-late 1970s, evangelical Christians became active in national politics. Their grievances placed them on the far right of the political spectrum, and they entered the Republican Party in droves. In response to liberal legislative victories on issues such as environmental and consumer protection, business became more active in politics, and a number of conservative think tanks were founded or revamped. The seeming failure of Keynesian economics in 1970s with stagflation gave an opening, and then credibility, to conservative economists and economic thinkers of the Wall Street Journal editorial page type. Conservatives reevaluated the benefits of globalisation which they saw has harming American jobs as manufacturing relocated to Asia and China was seen to engage in unfair trade and intellectual theft. Cultural change in attitudes to gender identity and revisionist views of American history led to the politicisation of school curriculums. The 2008 economic crisis followed by  severe recession.