For a nation whose governance is scattered across fifty states—what de Tocqueville called our “assemblage of confederated republics”—America has a strange way of acting as if the only political culture that matters is the one in its capital city. There has been a lurch to the right in Republican-controlled statehouses across the country that has had dire results for ordinary citizens but, until very recently, has largely escaped the lens of the national media.
Major news outlets came to this story late and with blinders on. They have tended to pay attention to manifest injustices in GOP states, such as the attack on voting rights, only to the degree that they impinge on the balance of power in Washington. They lionized Georgia’s election officials in 2020 for facing down Trump’s attempt at election fraud, then switched to vilifying the state’s GOP for its new Jim Crow–style election law, and yet throughout ignored the state’s perennial mistreatment of its most vulnerable citizens in almost every other sector of society.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves was condemned during the COVID-19 pandemic because he defied federal guidelines relating to mask mandates—a topic de jour for the national media—not because his state had spent years slashing funds for rural hospitals, education, and infrastructure to free up money for corporate tax cuts. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is pilloried by liberals and celebrated by conservatives for the thumb he places in the eye of Joe Biden, but media on both sides otherwise ignore his far-right agenda, such as his studied refusal to collect taxes owed by major corporations in his state. What affects the lives of politicos, pundits, lobbyists, and journalists inside the Beltway has blared from the cable news shows. What has really been going on in the lives of working people in Mississippi, West Virginia, or North Carolina is rarely heard above a whisper.
Only when Republican states began walking in lockstep with Trump’s authoritarianism, truly imperiling our democracy for the first time since the Civil War, did most Americans in the blue states take full notice that something dangerous was happening in the rest of the country. How they could have missed it is a question that will animate future historians. The corporate money that flooded into state elections after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 brought to power a new generation of far-right governors and legislators—Tea Party zealots far more radical than the Reagan Republicans who preceded them. The names of governors elected in the class of 2010 are synonymous with government breakdown and attacks on workers’ rights: Sam Brownback, whose “Kansas experiment” decimated his state’s public sector and ended his political career; Rick Scott, the scandal-scarred businessman whose environmental deregulation in Florida exposed the Gulf Coast to ruinous algae blooms; Rick Snyder of Michigan, architect of a forced state takeover of Democrat-controlled cities that resulted in the Flint water crisis; New Jersey’s Chris Christie, disgraced by the Bridgegate affair and the successive downgrade of the state’s bond rating; and Scott Walker, who crippled collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, a state that was once a labor stronghold.
This new generation of state Republicans and their corporate allies not only cut deeply into the public services crucial to the lives of the poor and working class in regions decimated by globalization and deindustrialization; they enacted their anti-worker agenda by filling the public sphere with political propaganda that stoked fear and anger among the white working class. They have used billboards, TV and radio ads, and social media to demonize Democrats and provoke hysteria over divisive issues such as immigration, abortion, gun rights, teachers’ unions, and the “socialism” of the moderate who became the nation’s first Black president. They have left no semblance of civility in the conduct of our public affairs. The anger and cynicism that they injected into Republican state politics shook loose an avalanche of popular disaffection that came crashing down on American democracy in the Trump years, culminating in the January 6 assault on the Capitol and widespread support within the GOP for “stop the steal” and the election sabotage movement. Republicans accelerated their efforts to disenfranchise Black voters at the very time that protesters were driven into the streets in revulsion over the killing of George Floyd, setting up a dangerous divide in American politics.
But the stampede to the far right in Republican states has trampled on the interests of working people across a far broader range of issues than just voting rights and police reform. Since Citizens United opened the floodgates of corporate political spending, the states sprawled across the Old Confederacy and the American Heartland have sought to return to a Gilded Age relationship with their citizens, slashing already meager budgets, cutting taxes for the wealthy, curtailing workers’ rights, scaling back regulation, and entrusting the people’s welfare to the free market. As a result, their working-class citizens have become poorer, sicker, less educated, and otherwise ill-equipped to compete in the postindustrial economy when compared with their counterparts in the blue states. This long neglect of public investment has helped create a bifurcated society in which the blue states enjoy a socioeconomic status comparable to the rest of theevelopped world while the red states slip into the ranks of developing nations like those in Latin America or Eastern Europe.
Progressives were lulled into complacency by Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 and his embrace of big-government solutions to the nation’s mounting inequality. The election results even set off speculation among political commentators that America was poised for a realignment as momentous as the New Deal or the Reagan Revolution. The media spent less time dwelling on an ominous portent for Democrats—the Republican Party had actually tightened its grip on state governments. How much of a realignment was it when Republicans were left with governing trifectas or control of legislatures in twenty-eight states and attorney general offices in twenty-six states? To put it another way, 55 percent of the nation’s population and two-thirds of its contiguous square mileage were in states whose legislative leaders were implacably opposed to the goals of the national government and openly disdainful of democracy. Heading into the 2022 elections, with partisan gerrymandering at a fevered pace across the country and inflation depressing Biden’s approval ratings, it appeared the balance would shift even more toward the Republicans’ favor.
The left tends to be reassured when progressive regimes are in control of the federal government, with its awesome powers to intervene in the social welfare of Americans. But in previous eras of federal activism, most notably in the Roosevelt and Johnson administrations, Washington was not contending with unified and even militant opposition to its goals in more than half the states. It is easy to forget how much of the country’s governmental apparatus is controlled by the states and how much federal policy depends on state cooperation. The actions of state leaders can make the difference between an enlightened society and a political backwater. State and local governments are not only responsible for the nation’s entire system of elections; they also control the police and most civil and criminal courts, virtually all of public education, and the lion’s share of public health. They collect billions in taxes, handle most health and safety regulations, and control a huge share of the federal money that flows to their states for everything from flood control and highway construction to high-speed rail and unemployment insurance. All that federal funding has little meaning if states refuse to accept it, as grandstanding Republican governors and legislatures have begun to do with some regularity.
In 2010, New Jersey Governor Christie turned away $3 billion in federal funding for a commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River—a move that the state’s senior U.S. senator, Frank Lautenberg, called “one of the biggest policy blunders in New Jersey history.” But he was hardly the first Republican governor to cheat his or her citizens in the name of short-term political gain or service to corporate contributors. Former Texas governor Rick Perry and other Republicans rejected billions in unemployment benefits contained in the Obama administration’s stimulus package in 2009. Three other Republican governors, Rick Scott of Florida, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and John Kasich of Ohio, turned down federal money for high-speed rail projects in their states in 2011, despite their obvious economic and environmental benefits. A more recent example was the decision by twenty-five Republican governors in the spring of 2021 to order an early termination of unemployment benefits for more than four million of their citizens, claiming the money—part of the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic—was keeping people from going back to work. In fact, numerous studies found that states that stopped the benefits early saw no greater job growth than those that continued the checks until the expiration of the federal program in September 2021. Meanwhile, the congressional Joint Economic Committee found in June 2021 that the early cutoff would cost red-state economies more than $12 billion. As of this writing, twelve states have frustrated one of the key elements of Obamacare by refusing to expand Medicaid, even though that decision has cost thousands of lives and meant rejecting billions in federal funds.
Turning away money is not the only way red states have successfully thwarted the federal government. They also have done so by defying the mandates of federal agencies and simply not participating in enforcement.
Missouri Governor Mike Parson signed a law in June 2021 that barred state and local authorities from cooperating with any federal investigation that impinges on Second Amendment rights, which, according to a legal brief by the Justice Department, essentially nullified federal firearms laws in the state and impeded joint federal-state cases against gun and drug traffickers. Missouri’s was the most of extreme of nine laws adopted in Republican states that had in some form prohibited local cooperation in federal gun cases. They were part of a trend toward a relaxation of state gun laws aimed at countering Biden’s plan to strengthen such laws at the federal level. Montana Governor Greg Gianforte even signed legislation to allow citizens to carry guns into the state Capitol and on university campuses.
The Environmental Protection Agency is another agency whose mission can be undermined by state resistance. The EPA was designed to set national policy, establish legal mandates for pollution control, and disburse funding, but it relies on the states for most enforcement and has no easy remedy if state officials, such as those in Texas, refuse to do the job.
In the Obama years, Texas Governor Perry defied EPA permitting requirements for polluting industries and called on the president to “rein in this rogue agency.” His successor, Greg Abbott, likewise announced during an appearance in the West Texas oilfields in January 2021 that his administration was launching a broad legal assault on President Biden’s clean air initiatives. Abbott said he wanted to “make clear that Texas is going to protect the oil and gas industry from any type of hostile attack from Washington, D.C.” This was from the same public official who, while serving as his state’s attorney general, had sued the Obama administration forty-four times, once summing up his job this way: “I go into the office in the morning, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.”
Indeed, Republican state attorneys general have used lawsuits to delay or defeat federal initiatives on a wide range of issues, including the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform, criminal justice oversight, same-sex marriage, abortion, and gun control. It’s the reality under our system of federalism: Washington set aside money for your unemployment benefits, but can’t prevent your Republican governor from turning away the funds. It can enact criminal justice reform, but can’t stop state authorities from kicking in your door.
The defiance of our national government became truly dangerous in the post-Trump era as Republican state leaders took aim at democracy itself. In the last months of 2021, there was a storm of activity in virtually all the Republican states that appeared designed to counter any Democratic victories by engineering the kind of electoral coup that Trump failed to carry out in the 2020 elections. It is ironic that in drafting the Constitution, the Founders worried about overweening power in the states for the threat it might pose to owners of property and businesses. More than a few members of the Continental Congress feared that the state legislatures, if they came under the sway of the unwashed masses, would take actions to jeopardize the interests of the wealthy. “The mutability of the laws of the States is found to be a serious evil,” Madison wrote to Jefferson in October 1787. “The injustice of them has been so frequent and so flagrant as to alarm the most steadfast friends of Republicanism. . . . A reform, therefore, which does not make provision for private rights must be materially defective.” But the electoral despotism at the state level that concerned the Founders has not come in the form of a threat against the propertied interests, but rather as an attempted coup by the propertied interests.
For years the Republican assault on democracy was limited to voter suppression and gerrymandering—corrosive enough in themselves—but blossomed after the 2020 election into an attack on the election machinery at the very heart of our system of government. Trump’s false claim that there was widespread voting fraud in the election hit home with the rank and file of his party, despite the failure of his campaign to present compelling evidence in dozens of unsuccessful state and federal lawsuits that any such thing had happened. An ABC News / Ipsos poll found in January 2022 that more than 70 percent of Republicans believed the election was stolen. Between January 1 and December 7, 2021, nineteen Republican-led states had passed thirty-four laws that made it harder to vote, either by curtailing mail-in or early voting, imposing harsher voter ID laws, or enabling purges of voting rolls.
More worrisome, Republican lawmakers filed ten bills in seven states that would have directly empowered partisan officials to overturn election results. None of those bills passed, but the mere fact that they were proposed and taken seriously—and were expected to be reintroduced in 2022—was enough to keep defenders of democracy awake at night. As the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice put it: “While none of these bills have become law, they expose the antidemocratic motivation behind the larger election sabotage movement and provide a worrying marker of how far voting rights opponents want to go. Their widespread introduction is an urgent warning sign for the health of our democracy.”
The enemies of free and fair elections have moved against democratic Institutions on a dizzying number of fronts. Republican legislatures in three battleground states, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Texas, have followed Arizona in launching groundless audits of their 2020 election results, without any chance that they could convince federal courts to overturn the election. Michael Gableman, a former state supreme court justice overseeing the Republican audit in Wisconsin, even threatened to jail the mayors of Madison and Green Bay if they refused to sit for depositions. In what the Associated Press termed a “slow-motion insurrection,” Republican states across the country were seeking to remove oversight of elections from nonpartisan agencies and put it in the hands of state legislators, the most publicized example being in Georgia, where Governor Brian Kemp signed a bill that removed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as chair of the State Elections Board and gave authority to the legislature to hire and fire members of county elections boards. Armed with this new power, legislators have deputized local GOP officials to purge the boards of Black Democrats.
In state after state, including the battleground of Michigan, Republicans were replacing county elections board members with “stop the steal” zealots, an effort made easier by the resignations of election officials harried by Trump supporters. As of December 2021, Michigan’s GOP had replaced members of the county boards in eight of the state’s eleven most populous counties. How successful these efforts in Republican states would be in overturning election results in 2022 or 2024 remained to be seen, but they appeared certain to reduce vote counting to chaos and further undermine Americans’ faith in democracy.
Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan watchdog group made up of former government officials, corporate executives, and academicians, predicted that the new state laws would “make elections more difficult to administer and even unworkable; make it more difficult to finalize election results; allow for election interference and manipulation by hyper-partisan actors; and, in the worst cases, allow state legislatures to overturn the will of the voters and precipitate and democracy crisis.”
Much of the ferment in state election law boils down quite simply to an effort to keep racial and ethnic minorities from voting, an issue that was thought to have been settled decades ago but which the far right has resurrected in the last decade. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had thwarted Jim Crow–era suppression tactics in the South, which Earl Warren, chief justice of the Supreme Court, had described as “an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution.” But in 2013, a narrow conservative majority of the Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, threw out the act’s requirement that states with a history of voter suppression obtain pre-clearance from the federal government before making changes to their voting laws. Violations of the act were still illegal, but states wouldn’t have the federal government breathing down their necks. The ruling opened a new era of voter suppression not only in the South but in other Republican-controlled states around the county. Within two hours of the court’s decision, Greg Abbott, then Texas attorney general, tweeted that the state would immediately reinstate a strict voter ID law that had previously been thrown out as a violation of the Voting Rights Act. The next day, the North Carolina General Assembly set the wheels in motion to do the same thing, ultimately adopting restrictions so severe that a federal appellate court found they had targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision.” Across the country, polling places in minority districts were moved or shuttered entirely. Within five years, twenty-three states had implemented newly restrictive voter ID laws, all of them Republican-controlled. The “insidious and pervasive evil” was back in business.
In addition to Texas and North Carolina, Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Indiana, Virginia, and Wisconsin issued particularly strict voter ID laws. But no state moved with greater alacrity to reverse gains in minority voting than Georgia. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan federal agency, found in a 2018 report that Georgia was the only state that had deficiencies in every category of voter suppression in the commission’s purview— restrictive voter ID laws, proof of citizenship requirement, purges of registration rolls, curtailment of early voting, and closed or relocated polling places.
The 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, in which Kemp faced Stacey Abrams, a Democratic state representative, was an ugly showcase for the tactics of voter suppression. The fix was in from the beginning, since Kemp, then Georgia secretary of state, was overseeing the election in which he was a contender, as clear a conflict of interest as there ever was. Abrams’s campaign was aggressive in its efforts to register Black voters, and polls ahead of the election showed the race was competitive, so Kemp did everything he could to keep Blacks from voting. The Associated Press reported less than a month before the election that his office had frozen 53,000 voter registrations—predominantly those of African Americans—because their registration form was not an exact match to records the state had on file. The way the rules were written, a registration could be thrown out for as little as a missing hyphen in the last name or because the state had entered the information incorrectly. Kemp also pursued a controversial policy of purging the rolls of citizens who had not been active in recent voting. His office had pared 1.4 million voters from the rolls in the previous six years, including 670,000 in 2017 alone. Kemp, who Abrams called “a remarkable architect of voter suppression,” won the election by about 55,000 votes.
The pattern continued in the 2020 election, when so many polling places were closed in Black neighborhoods that voters in Atlanta had to wait hours to cast their ballots. One would think that the national adulation showered upon Georgia’s Republican officials for facing down Donald Trump might have made the state GOP warm up to the idea of holding honest elections in the future. That was decidedly not the case.
Instead, Kemp in March 2021 put his pen to the first major election law to emerge from the “stop the steal” movement, which ironically had made him one of its villains. Besides giving the GOP-dominated state legislature control of the State Election Board, the new law reduced the amount of time voters have to request an absentee ballot, set new ID requirements for absentee ballots, barred officials from mailing out absentee-ballot applications to all voters, banned mobile voting centers, and reduced the number of ballot drop boxes by nearly 75 percent and required they be placed inside government buildings.
Kemp and his allies had wanted to get rid of voting by mail almost entirely, but local business leaders who met with them for days over the drafting of the bill, including representatives from Delta Air Lines, prevailed upon them to keep it. The law was enacted to solve a problem that didn’t exist, since there were no significant issues of fraud in the election. In reality, the measure was aimed at the same citizens of color that Georgia had sought to disenfranchise since Reconstruction. Kemp signed the law surrounded by six white males in front of a painting of a slave plantation, while a Black female state lawmaker, Representative Park Cannon, who had knocked on his office door seeking to witness the ceremony, was forcibly removed by state troopers and arrested. The symbolism could not have been more powerful. As Aunna Dennis, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, told Mother Jones, “This bill is Jim Crow with a suit and tie.” The Justice Department filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Georgia election law, but the inferno, the battle for American democracy, was already raging out of control.
It was so out of control that the corporate leaders who had spent years bankrolling the very politicians pushing the election sabotage movement were alarmed at how far toward sedition they were willing to go. Even Charles Koch, the oil billionaire who had been at the forefront of injecting “dark money” into state politics, was startled by the divisiveness he did so much to create. “Boy, did we screw up,” he wrote in a memoir. “What a mess!” After Georgia passed its election law, leaders of major corporations in the state, including Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, spoke out in opposition, and hundreds across the country joined in a statement condemning the passage of legislation anywhere that made it harder for people to vote. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Manufacturers were among the business groups pushing Congress to certify the Electoral College tally that gave Biden victory. This corporate statesmanship, absent so long from this country, did not sit well with the far right. Senator Marco Rubio called Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola “woke corporate hypocrites” for criticizing the Georgia election law. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell advised corporations to “stay out of politics.” But the corporations continued to stick their necks out for fair elections. Overturning democracy, they suddenly realized, would be bad for business. There could be consumer boycotts, shareholder revolts, and a tarnishing of their brands. As it turned out, this moment of corporate of enlightenment was all for naught. Election-sabotage laws were still passed, and plans for throwing out election results were still hatched, in state after state. The “malefactors of great wealth,” as Teddy Roosevelt called the business elite, were unable to control the wildfire they had done so much to ignite.
Many of the same corporations and business groups suddenly rallying to the cause of democracy had helped propel the swing to the far right in the red states. Their ability to fund political campaigns and guarantee the passage of pro-business legislation had been severely hampered by the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as McCain-Feingold, which made it illegal for corporations and other organizations to contribute money for the benefit political candidates. The legislation was in response to corporate “soft money” that had come to dominate U.S. politics in the post-Reagan era. But in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, the Supreme Court threw out those restrictions, ruling that the First Amendment guaranteed the rights of corporations to give unlimited sums to candidates as long as they were “independent expenditures,” not made in concert with any candidate’s campaign. The decision wiped out virtually all of the limits on corporate political spending that had been put in place after the Watergate era, and fueled the rise of super PACs, whose donors need not even be disclosed.
Citizens United had a profound impact on state governments. In the fall elections following the court’s 2010 decision, eleven states flipped from Democratic or divided government to full Republican control of both the governorships and legislatures, and more dominos would fall in succeeding years. What followed over the next decade was a deluge of legislation in Republican-controlled states geared toward increasing corporate profits and weakening protections for working people—tax cuts, deregulation, and reductions in funding for health care, education, and other public services.
“This includes not only restrictions on public and private-sector unions,” writes Gordon Lafer, a University of Oregon professor who studies labor issues, “but also legislation regarding the minimum wage, child labor, wage theft, tipped employees, construction wages, occupational safety, job discrimination, employee misclassification, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, budgetary retrenchment, and privatization of public services.”
Within five years of Citizens United, fifteen states had passed legislation impinging on public employees’ collective bargaining rights, including a law signed by Wisconsin Governor Walker that made one of the nation’s traditional labor strongholds a right-to-work state. Michigan, an even bigger citadel of organized labor, became a right-to-work state in 2013 under a law signed by Governor Snyder within a week of its introduction, with no committee debate or public hearing.
The corporate assault on America’s public sector has unfolded over decades with great stealth, only coming fully into view with the 2016 publication of Dark Money, a book by New Yorker writer Jane Mayer. She described the enormous influence on U.S. public policy that has been exerted by misanthropic billionaires and corporately funded foundations whose libertarian pretenses masked their bald quest for bigger profits, a group that included the brothers Charles and David Koch, oil magnates who set up a sprawling political operation, Americans for Prosperity; Richard Mellon Scaife, heir to a Pittsburgh fortune rising from banking, aluminum, and oil; and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, whose seed money came from the Michigan-based Amway empire. Their success at the national level has tended to swing with the political pendulum, but their penetration of state government in the South and large parts of the Sun Belt, the Midwest, and the Great Plains has been breathtaking.
No one has been more responsible for this than Charles Koch, who for decades has used a vast stream of oil money from his Wichita-based Koch Industries to pursue an ultra-conservative vision for America. Americans for Prosperity, the nonprofit that Koch and his late brother David set up to advance their political causes, has held annual meetings at posh resorts where business leaders strategize on how to deflate the public sector and promote corporate interests in states across the country. From these meetings flow millions of dollars to candidates, activists, and disinformation campaigns aimed at achieving the goals of the corporate lobby.
Koch has claimed to be an earnest libertarian who views excessive government as a threat to human freedom and productivity. But his political advocacy has appeared less concerned with the fate of humanity than with influencing government to increase the profits of Koch Industries. One example was the campaign by Americans for Prosperity beginning in 2015 to block the creation of public transit systems in Nashville, Little Rock, Phoenix, and more than a dozen other communities around the country. The group paid foot soldiers to knock on thousands of doors and distribute materials warning that public transit systems produce tax increases and a tide of gentrification that prices longtime residents out of their neighborhoods.
Never mind that public transit is proven to reduce traffic congestion and pollution and promote neighborhood development. The Koch brothers (David was still alive then) were looking after their own interests. Their colossal corporate empire has made billions selling gasoline, asphalt, seat belts, tires, and automotive parts. So while wrapping themselves in the mantle of libertarianism, they were crassly using their wealth to move public policy toward their own ends. In Nashville, a $5.4 billion ballot measure to fund the mass transit plan began in 2018 with wide popular support. But after the Koch brothers were done, it went down in defeat.
In similar fashion, Americans for Prosperity successfully derailed Tennessee’s plan for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act to bring coverage to two hundred thousand low-income residents. The state’s popular Republican governor, Bill Haslam, unveiled an expansion plan in 2015 with the backing of legislative leaders and polls showing the public approved of the plan. But the Koch bothers dispatched an army of field operatives to the state and paid for advertising and phony demonstrations depicting the plan as “a vote for Obamacare.” As with public transit in Nashville, the proposal was defeated.
In yet another example, the Koch brothers bore a large degree of responsibility for the disaster that Governor Sam Brownback brought to their home state of Kansas. The two brothers had been supporting the deeply conservative Brownback as far back as 1994, when he first ran for Congress, and they were his biggest backers when he was elected Kansas governor with plans to use the state as a laboratory of libertarian government. The state’s senate minority leader at the time of Brownback’s election, Democrat Anthony Hensley, went so far as to say the Kochs had been “handed the keys to the governor’s office.”
Brownback’s “Kansas experiment,” one of the biggest tax reductions in the state’s history, included a 30 percent cut in the personal income taxes of the highest earners and the elimination of business income taxes for more than three hundred thousand small business owners. By 2018, six years after the legislation was approved, it had cost the state budget $4.5 billion. In the meantime, Kansas had three credit downgrades and nine votes for budget cuts, including reductions in education, pensions, housing, law enforcement, and fire protection—leaving the state with lagging economic growth and what studies showed were woefully inadequate public services. Between 2012 and 2017, Kansas’s 4.2 percent job growth was weaker than all of its neighboring states except Oklahoma, and less than half of the 9.4 percent national average. In 2017, the state’s Republican-led legislature defied Brownback and voted to repeal the tax cut. Elected by nearly two-thirds of the vote in 2010, Brownback became so unpopular he never finished his second term. Trump appointed him as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
Brownback may be out of mainstream politics, but Charles Koch and his network are still very much in the business of eroding democracy. Koch told the Wall Street Journal in November 2020 that he regretted the role he played in polarizing the American electorate and pledged to henceforth proceed in the spirit of bipartisanship. But just months after he made that statement, his network was lobbying to defeat the For the People Act, an election reform bill that, among other things, would curtail corporate influence on elections and require that the identities of political donors be disclosed to the public. According to an article Jane Mayer wrote for the New Yorker, Kyle McKenzie, research director of Stand Together, the mother organization of the Koch network, joined members of other conservative groups in a January 8, 2021, conference call with an adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McKenzie told the group the bill would have to be killed by filibuster, rather than through appeals to public opinion, because research had shown that not only liberals were in support. He described a “large, very large, chunk of conservatives who are supportive of these kinds of efforts.”
That was hardly the first time that lobbyists kept voters in the dark about how corporations are influencing public policy. The corporate lobby’s behind-the-scenes efforts at the state level have largely been engineered by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a corporate-funded advocacy group that has quietly worked with Republican lawmakers to enact prepackaged legislation in states across the country. According to Lafer, more than a hundred ALEC-drafted pieces of legislation— literally written by corporate lobbyists—became law every year in the first decade of this century. As of 2017, ALEC had on its membership rolls some two thousand state legislators—a quarter of the nation’s total—and could count as past or present members scores of well-known corporations, including Coca-Cola, Verizon, Walmart, Bank of America, Google, Facebook, Visa, Home Depot, Anheuser-Busch, Ford Motor Company, FedEx, ExxonMobil, McDonald’s, United Air Lines, UPS, Geico, and General Motors.
Many of those companies have cut ties with ALEC, especially after it became known that the group had drafted model legislation to restrict voting. But they were members in good standing long enough to share blame for the destructive effect of ALEC’s work. Douglas Clopp, then deputy program director at Common Cause, told The Atlantic: “If it’s voter ID, it’s ALEC. If it’s anti-immigration bills written hand-in-glove with private prison corporations, it’s ALEC. If it’s working with the NRA on (Stand Your Ground) laws, it’s ALEC.” ALEC swung into high gear with the election of Barack Obama and the Citizens United decision, helping to energize the voter-suppression movement. More than half of the sixty-two voter ID laws proposed in the 2011–12 state legislative elections were sponsored by lawmakers affiliated with ALEC, according to Columbia University researcher Alexander Hertel-Fernandez. ALEC’s work at the state level has had a hugely negative impact on American life in the last two decades— on wages, collective bargaining rights, workplace safety, health care, education, and the environment—and yet few members of the public are even aware the group exists. Both the Kansas experiment and the right-to-work legislation in Michigan were based on model legislation from ALEC.
Corporate lobbyists have no bigger priority than tax relief. It is a mantra for the likes of ALEC and Charles Koch, borrowed from Arthur Laffer, the supply-side guru of the Reagan Revolution, that lessening the tax burden on corporations and wealthy individuals promotes economic growth and ends up benefiting everyone. It is a useful way of justifying tax laws that are baldly designed to benefit the highest earners, but it flies in the face of the evidence. The failure of the Kansas experiment to spur job growth may have been the most famous repudiation of supply-side doctrine at the state level, but is hardly the only one. A 2017 study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that states with the highest personal income tax rates have greater economic growth, higher wages, and better employment opportunities than the states with no personal income tax.
It is no secret how states pay for those tax cuts—through cuts in government programs that benefit their most vulnerable citizens. Across America, Republican states are freeing up money for tax cuts by cutting funds for infrastructure, public schools, and higher education, despite years of economic expansion that preceded the COVID-19 pandemic. The dismal funding for school buildings and salaries provoked recent teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona, where one school reported using broken laptops, books held together with duct tape, and a biology text book that was twenty-five years old. A recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington found that nine states—Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina—had cut funding for public colleges by more than 30 percent from 2008 to 2018.
In Republican-led states, it is not the people’s interests being served. In West Virginia, important elected officials maintain eye-popping conflicts of interest: the speaker of the House of Delegates is a paid lobbyist for natural gas companies who openly advocates for legislation benefiting that industry. The man who until recently served as state senate president was a cable company executive who pushed state broadband contracts for the two firms that have employed him. And Governor Jim Justice is a coal magnate who never divested from his company and makes no secret of fighting for its interests.
In many cases, the leadership of Republican states have passed measures that by no stretch of the imagination could reflect the popular will. After heavy lobbying from telecommunications giants like Comcast and AT&T, twenty states by 2015 had enacted laws banning or restricting municipalities from setting up their own broadband networks, which would give consumers a greater choice of cable companies instead of one company having a local monopoly. Eight red states have passed laws that enable highly profitable subprime consumer lenders, like OneMain Financial, formerly a division of Citigroup, to increase interest rates they charge low-income borrowers. In North Carolina, the law was passed despite complaints from military commanders that it would gouge active service members. “There was simply no need to change the law,” Rick Glazier, a Democratic lawmaker who voted against the measure, told the New York Times. “It was one of the most brazen efforts by a special interest group to increase its own profits that I have ever seen.”
This mad scramble for corporate profits, little seen by the public at large, is undermining one of the world’s great democracies. We now have a country where tens of millions of people live under state regimes that are gutting budgets for education and health care, empowering polluters, and starving badly needed public infrastructure. The results jump out from any objective assessment of their citizens’ well-being. Studies show that on average red states, compared with blue states, have lower per capita economic growth, higher poverty, inferior school performance, higher rates of suicide, greater prevalence of diabetes, higher rates of infant mortality and teen pregnancy, less effective health care systems, and lower health care spending. The blue states have most of the country’s top universities, wider broadband coverage, more spending on schools, and cleaner air and water. Studies by the Rockefeller Institute and others show that Republican-led states are more dependent on federal funds than states led by Democrats, despite their leaders’ supposed fealty to limited government.