National partisanship infects state legislatures with proposals that are bizarre, foolish and deeply damaging
Anyone following American state politics this spring has witnessed, time and again, bizarre legislative proposals. Most notably and seriously, dozens of state legislatures have put forward an avalanche of initiatives that target trans athletes and impose limitations on voting.
Beyond those, however, lawmakers have pursued a host of off-the-wall actions. Among many others, these include:
• A Texas bill to allow any adult, regardless of background or mental health, to carry a gun without a permit.
• Idaho legislation to create a “greater Idaho,” annexing much of eastern Oregon.
• Iowa proposals to ban the discussion of diversity in schools and to prohibit schools from embarking on diversity planning.
• Florida legislation that grants immunity from civil legal action for people who drive through protesters blocking a road.
• Here in Kansas, an unwillingness to force the resignation of state Sen. Gene Suellentrop, after his wrong-way speeding, eluding police and driving-while-intoxicated incident that could have ended in tragedy.
Still, state legislatures are notorious for pushing nutty ideas, so we should not be surprised. But why so many such proposals now, and why so much assertiveness by state legislature at present on issues like trans athletes and voting?
Much of this trend flows from the nationalization of state politics, with Kansas being no exception. Numerous studies have pegged the start of increased partisanship to around 1980, with a sharp acceleration since the mid-1990s.
Over the past 25-plus years, as partisan polarization in national politics has grown, the resulting divisions have filtered down to states and even localities.
Almost all congressional districts now elect members who share a partisan identification with the presidential candidate who prevailed there; ticket-splitting has declined precipitously as most voters view politics through partisan lenses.
Save for Minnesota, all states have one-party control of both legislative chambers. In Kansas, specifically, over the past few years, moderate Republicans have gone the way of the dodo bird.
At the national level, severe polarization has often led to policy gridlock, as multiple veto points, most notably in the Senate, block the passage of many proposals that enjoy strong public support, such as immigration reform. When we turn to the states, however, gridlock often vanishes, and legislation gushes through one-party chambers like water through a fire hose.
Although California highlights this issue on the left, far more common are highly partisan, overwhelmingly Republican legislatures in perhaps 20 states where party leaders completely dominate agenda-setting and bill passage.
In the end, while intense partisanship makes national politics closely divided and contentious, in many states it produces solid red legislative majorities that open the door to: (a) foolish proposals, like a Florida survey of academics’ political beliefs; (b) deeply damaging legislation, as with highly permissive gun laws; and (c) some that are both foolish and deeply damaging, per the wave of anti-trans bills and unwarranted restrictions on voting.
With less countervailing power across parties, factions, or branches of government, the most extreme, and even nutty, elements of an already extreme party often go unchecked.
In Kansas, this means that the sharp decline in moderate Republicans has eliminated most restraint and compromise as far-right Republicans dominate the process.
The traditional moderate-conservative nature of Kansas politics hangs in the balance, and the future doesn't look good.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.