Do States Really Matter?
But are states really so important, and so ripe with possibility for progressive invention? Yes, almost self-evidently so, if we just open our eyes. Our national constitutional design enumerates limited powers for national government and assumes plenary powers of states. That means states--consistent with respect for individual rights, and respecting the supremacy of any contrary federal law--can pretty much do whatever they please. Around this design two centuries of accumulated political custom have grown up, giving states a privileged role in implementing and enforcing much federal law.
The result is that states do by far the largest share of governing in America. They write most law and give content to even more through interpretation and administration. Most government that affects us in our everyday social roles--as workers, consumers, taxpayers, owners and citizens--tends first or finally to run through states. Economic development, healthcare and abortion access, privacy rights, marriage and the family, wage standards, public safety, criminal justice, prisons, air and water quality, education and training, consumer protection, transportation, libraries and other community public goods--these are just a few examples. In many of these critical areas, in fact, states shoulder primary responsibility.
Devolution has given states additional powers and responsibilities. Over the past two decades, successive waves of "new federalism" have "block-granted" money for states with few if any federal restrictions on its use. New national programs in education and training, housing, transportation and economic development have been federalized from the start. And older ones, as in the environment, have become increasingly state-led. All this has increased their standing relative to national government.
Government spending numbers tell this story. In the 1950s the federal and state/local government shares of GDP were roughly equivalent. Now states are far bigger in most ordinary government operations. Entering the new millennium, the federal government was basically a gigantic military operation, a couple of large insurance programs for old people, and a privileged manager of money, credit and debt. By 2000--outside military spending, transfer payments and debt service--its operation claimed only 2 percent of GDP. States, in contrast, claimed 10 percent. And this was before Bush & Co. took a further wrecking ball to what was left of the nonmilitary nation-state, and Grover Norquist declared his dream of shrinking it to bathtub size.
States are also arbiters of the most fundamental transaction in democratic politics: the electoral transfer of power. States control elections, all elections, more or less from top to bottom. It is state legislatures, not the Constitution, that give us our "winner takes all" election system and its resulting two-party duopoly. It is states that determine the boundaries of all election districts, including Congressional ones, which largely determine which party's representative will occupy them. It is states that, through their regulation of poll access, voter eligibility, election schedules, voting times, methods of vote counting and much else, make the final determination of the active and counted electorate. And it is state electorates, never some elusive national one, that decide all US elections. This of course includes the election of the President, who is (usually) chosen by an Electoral College, composed of delegations of state electors. But even here state legislatures have a further role, since they determine whether or not those delegations will be proportional to the popular vote. Control of state government thus allows control of the size and shape of the electorate, the parties competing for its vote and the accuracy of that vote's representation in both national government and at home.
So far as democratic fundamentals go, it's hard to get more basic than this. And even for those who care only about national politics, this gives a clear reason to care about state ones, for these decisions matter in the construction of national government. As Texas's Tom DeLay has recently shown us (joined by less publicized Republican colleagues in Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania), legislative redistricting gives states effective power over the Congress. As we learned in Florida in 2000, and may learn again in a few weeks' time, state-controlled voting procedures can even choose the President.