States Are Pivotal to Reviving the Conservative Cause

Texas State Capitol in Austin. (CrackerClips/Getty Images)
Don’t wait for the midterm pendulum to swing. Press for ambitious changes at the local level now.

Behind his talk of unity, President Biden is pursuing a radical progressive agenda.

His administration does not just have the sort of high ambitions that all administrations start with. It seems intent on imposing its priorities across the country, even if that means bypassing clear constitutional constraints.

Many Democrats want to abolish the filibuster in the Senate. There is talk of conferring statehood on the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, thereby shoring up Democratic majorities in Congress. Should the Supreme Court have the temerity to rule against the new administration, it is hinted, the Court could be packed with liberal judges.

These are not the actions of an administration merely setting out to govern America. They are the actions of those determined to change the way America is governed, entrenching the power of the administrative state permanently.

What can conservatives do about it? If they want to create a winning coalition for the future, they should look to the states.

Over the past 30 years, almost always irrespective of who happened to be in the White House, the states have delivered many of the great public policy innovations in America.

In the late 1980s, Wisconsin led the way with welfare reform. Instead of trapping recipients in an interminable cycle of dependency, welfare programs began to improve recipients’ standing by incentivizing work. Where Wisconsin led, others followed. So successful was this approach that in 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, effectively endorsing the idea as his own.

While charter schools began in Minnesota and California in the early 1990s, other states quickly began to copy the idea, after witnessing their startling success. Indeed, they proved so popular that Barack Obama — despite opposition from teachers’ unions — embraced them.

Good ideas implemented at the state level end up being endorsed by those in D.C. — even if we can often count on many of those same D.C. politicians opposing such ideas at the outset. The same still applies today.

Rather than wait for the midterm elections in the hope that the political pendulum swings back automatically, conservatives ought to leverage the countless, practical policies that are burgeoning at the state level.

Utah, for example, has done something very smart regarding tech regulation, thanks to an idea from the Libertas Institute. Recognizing that technology can advance faster than policy-makers’ ability to understand its implications, Utah state law now allows residents to temporarily test an innovative product or service on a limited basis without otherwise needing an official license or authorization.

This gives Utah a competitive advantage and explains why the state is seeing a surge of interest from investors in innovation. Other states — including my own adopted state of Mississippi — need to follow.

Take another example in Texas. The Lone Star State boasts a competitive energy market that puts the customer, not the producer, first. The effect has been to significantly push down energy prices — just one of the reasons why businesses are moving there. If Texas can offer businesses and customers an energy advantage, why don’t conservatives give it a go in other states?

Over the past decade both Florida and Louisiana have transformed their systems of state education. Partly as an expediency measure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana quit trying to run every public school, allowing, in effect, the schools to run themselves and moms and dads to decide where to send their kids. The effect has been a dramatic improvement in educational standards. Every state should aim for the same.

There are plenty of states that could do what Tennessee has done — abolishing income tax to make it a more attractive place to do business.

With Biden determined to put more power into the hands of remote officials, conservatives need a policy program that passes power outward and downward.

“But the federal government won’t allow it,” some might say. Well, unless someone changed the 10th Amendment without us noticing, states are free to do all of the above — and much more besides.

Even if parts of this type of policy program were to be thwarted by federal dictate, conservatives could surely add new offenders to the list of federal agencies they aim to abolish and laws they pledge to repeal. The more the federal administration frustrates such a program, the more conservatives would find themselves at the head of a coalition of millions of Americans ill at ease with federal overreach.

After years of partisan rancor, many Americans are weary of division. Why not appeal to them with a program that explicitly accepts that folks in Massachusetts may have very different priorities to those in Mississippi? Instead of forcing the agenda of one upon the other, give everyone more local control.

Incidentally, if we look to the states, we might also start to notice that this is where some of America’s brightest leadership is to be found. Ron DeSantis in Florida, Kristi Noem in South Dakota, Chris Sununu in New Hampshire, and even Jared Polis in Colorado are all examples of what real leadership looks like. There’s a bright future for the conservative movement if we shift our focus away from the Washington Beltway and direct it toward the states.

Douglas Carswell is the president & CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. He was previously a member of the British Parliament for twelve years, and he cofounded Vote Leave, the official campaign that won the Brexit referendum.


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