In a 2011 phone call with a radio host impersonating David Koch, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker explained that he was part of a national movement of conservative governors who "got elected to do something big" across their states. Democratic governors have similarly called for coordinated efforts by Democratic state governments to oppose initiatives by the Trump administration and Republican Congress. Politicians at the state level are increasingly engaged in major struggles over the direction of public policy in the United States.
My book project, Polarized Federalism, investigates the causes and consequences of policy variation and policy polarization in the U.S. states. A well-established research tradition has cast state governments as peripheral policymakers that are constrained by fiscal federalism and pressure from constituents. Recent empirical work suggests that partisan control of government continues to have only a modest effect on policy outcomes, and that state policy is highly responsive to public opinion. I draw on a variety of empirical evidence to show that in recent years 1) interstate variation in policy outcomes has increased, 2) this variation is increasingly driven by partisan control of state government institutions, and 3) it is largely the result of political investments by organizational actors rather than shifts in public opinion. The project’s theoretical development and empirical findings contribute broadly to our understanding of public policy, federalism, American political development, interest groups, and policy responsiveness.
The project proposes a theory of polarized federalism. Whereas prior research has studied the states as 50 separate polities, my theory describes an interaction of polarization and federal institutions—multiple levels of governance—that generates increased policy variation at the lower level along party lines. Polarization in the U.S. Congress and an increased likelihood of a divided federal government widen the policy gridlock interval and increase the cost of federal policy change. Policy demanding groups face greater incentives to venue shift to the state level and have new technological means by which to coordinate their policy activism. The political terrain at the state level may carry additional advantages for intense or extreme policy demanders over the median voter, as the costs of informational lobbying remain low in amateur legislatures, and off-cycle elections and the decline of state political news media obstruct the electoral connection. I find evidence that increased coordination and political investments by interest groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has contributed to legislative and policy polarization.