The Dangerously Unified States of America

The U.S. Capitol dome and autumn leaves after the mid-term election, in Washington, D.C., November 7, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS)
A federal government presiding over perilously divided regions should be cautious.

After any major election cycle there are multiple legitimate storylines. This time, there’s the red expansion in the Senate. There are the continued counts in Arizona and (especially) Florida that may slice into the GOP Senate majority. There’s also the blue surge in the House, the governor’s mansions, and the state houses — proof that the Democratic party is bouncing back from its 100-year electoral low point.

But there’s something else happening. American states are cleaving along partisan and regional lines, creating culturally distinct zones of total partisan control.

In a nation less sharply divided by party and region, one would expect an election like 2018’s to yield a number of states moving from red to divided. Instead, even in a blue surge, there was enough cushion in Republican legislatures that only one flipped from united to divided. In the blue regions of the country (notably New York, Connecticut, and Maine), divided legislatures united under Democratic control. In other words, by the end of Election Day, state party alignments ultimately better reflected their regional political cultures.

Consequently, there is now exactly one state with divided legislative control — Minnesota. The legislatures of the other 49 states are controlled by a single party. Republicans control 31 state legislatures, and Democrats control 18.

But what about the “trifectas,” those states where the same party controls both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion? Before the 2018 election, the trifecta states were at near-record highs. A total of 34 states were under trifecta control, 26 Republican and 8 Democrat.

After Tuesday? The number of trifecta states grew. Now 37 states are under trifecta control (I’m including Georgia in this count even though Stacey Abrams hasn’t yet conceded), 23 Republican and 14 Democrat.

But that’s not all. If you look closely at these maps (courtesy of Ballotpedia), you’ll note that the cleavages aren’t just partisan, they’re regional — with three big partisan power clusters.

Here are the pre-election trifectas. Red represents GOP control, blue represents Democratic control, and white is divided government:

And here’s the post-election reality — note the Democratic surge in Nevada and the Northeast:

The Democrats have lockdown control of the Pacific Coast. The states of Washington, Oregon, and California are undoubtedly progressive strongholds. They also have extensive control of greater New England — an area they’d almost completely dominate but for the success of moderate Republican governors in Massachusetts and Maryland, states that nonetheless remain thoroughly Democratic and progressive.

The Republicans persistently dominate the states of the Southeastern Conference (yes, the center of American football power is also the center of Republican political and cultural dominance). Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida (along with Oklahoma and Nebraska) are states under enduring Republican control. And just as Massachussetts and Maryland are undeniably blue despite their divided governments, no one would allege that, say, Louisiana and Kansas are anything but culturally and politically red.

It is absolutely clear from recent American history that the public likes a divided federal government. One party is able to enjoy dominance only for brief periods of time. But it’s also clear that the public is choosing unified state government, and that those unified states are not scattered willy-nilly across the nation. Instead, they tend to be geographically contiguous with like-minded states and culturally distinct from competing regions.

It’s true that there’s no place like Texas. But there are lots of places similar to Texas, and they’re clustered in the same American region. California has its own culture, but places like Portland and Seattle are hardly alien ground for a visitor from San Francisco.

American regions have always had their own distinct cultures, but it is not always the case that culture and politics are so closely intertwined — and when they have been, trouble has often followed. Think, for example, of the unified southern political response to the end of Jim Crow, not to mention the unified southern response to the election of Abraham Lincoln.

I raise this point not to say that America is poised for that level of unrest, but to merely highlight a trend that, combined with other trends (such as negative polarization and the so-called “big sort” in which Americans are voluntarily clustering with like-minded neighbors), means that we are moving to a new reality for modern America. Geographically contiguous, culturally similar, and economically potent American regions are now also increasingly politically uniform.

It is imperative that the national government adapt to this reality. One party or the other will of course control the White House and may (briefly) control both houses of the legislature, but if either party overreaches in its short period of total control, it will trigger a furious response. And the greater the attempted power grab (say, ending the legislative filibuster, followed by court-packing or single-payer), the greater the response.

Politically unified states can be bold. A federal government presiding over perilously divided American regions should be cautious. Any other approach will only increase the bitterness and rancor of American political life, and we cannot presume our nation will always survive its widespread rage.


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