Monday, April 15, 2013

The GOP's Push to Change the World at the State Level

There's been a recent, clear push by the GOP to aggressively focus on social conservative issues at the state level. Sam Brownback's call to do so in Kansas could not have been missed, and quickly we had a restrictive abortion law passed in North Dakota, an abortive tax plan in Louisiana (along with further rumbling about damage to science education), and an attempt to legislate Christianity in North Carolina. Focusing on change at the state level is a smart maneuver for the cast-out GOP, and it's not unprecedented in American political thought. The states (and smaller municipalities) are the laboratories of democracy we have to thank for things like gay marriage, marijuana decriminalization and euthanasia. If we wait for these political footballs to gain traction at the Federal level, they'll never get anywhere.

There are a few incongruities here, not least of which is that so far, the state-level social issues have been those dearest to progressives (and real libertarians); this focus of social cons on social issues is new. At least since 1861. A glance from the map of seceding states to the GOP-voting states in the 2012 election shows an uncanny resemblance, and American libertarians' discussions of "states' rights" are oddly bound up in this history - and serve as a dog whistle to both ends of the political spectrum. And it remains a total mystery to most people (including many libertarians) why it's acceptable for any non-state organization, or even for certain levels of government to take your rights, but not the Federal government. One piece in Reason several years ago, cited here, calls this "inverse state worship". That is: if the U.S. government picks a religion we all have to follow, that's oppression. But if your state does it - well, that's states' rights! Freedom!

Where many of the social experiments that states do have no impact either way on growth, some of those being pushed by social conservatives (particularly regarding science education) promise to have a negative one. Do we think that Brownback, Jindal et al will strengthen, or harm science education and research in their states? And that's one of the main problems with social conservatism - its goals, even when they're expressly declared, are rarely more than just a focus on justifying and extending itself. Ideally these states-as-laboratories experiments, across all parts of the political spectrum, should make measurable predictions about what impact they expect to have in the real world. But as with pundits, politicians aren't in the business of accountability, at least when they can avoid it (which is when we let them). Even if Brownback et al believe that they're doing something more than just manipulating how demographic inputs are read, there will be no feedback loop for their experiment, and in the minds of local electorates the further ruin of the heartland (the cycle of poor investment in education and technology, the crony capitalism instead of real growth, and the focus on social issues that don't matter) will again be seen as the central government's fault - and Kansas can move closer to being America's own Kazakhstan. Fortunately California and New York are here to support them with state-to-state welfare.

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