The very conservative are currently in control the national government. One of the reasons for this is that the very conservative control many state governments. The state domination did not happen overnight but came in increments. Religion and sex helped start it.
A generation ago fundamentalists were concerned with godless evolution being taught to their schoolchildren. That same group and others thought that schools should not have sex education, except perhaps for a curriculum that explained nothing useful about sex but also made it clear that teenagers should not have anything to do with it. The fundamentalists on evolution and sex sought to do something about these horrors by doing what few had done before—taking school board elections seriously. They organized and campaigned and ran for school boards to have evolution removed from the curriculum, and failing that, to have creationism taught along with evolution, and to eliminate any teaching about sex. Because only a small portion of the electorate vote in these elections, a committed group that actually voted could control the outcomes. The successes at these most local levels almost naturally expanded into elections for the state legislatures. Evangelicals may have only cared about one or two issues, but they were passionate about them. And they voted. And they learned that a committed group could often control the outcome of the elections.
At the same time, the NRA became a greater force. While more of a top-down movement than the anti-evolutionists, the NRA was similar in turning out voters who insisted that elected officials be uncompromising on certain narrow issues.
The evangelicals’ goal was to elect legislators who honored certain “values.” They have been successful, and many states have made it increasingly difficult not only to get abortions, or even reliable family planning information. (It is a story for another day how some religious groups have turned from a strict separation of church and state towards having the government adopt their views.) And, of course, the NRA-influenced voters have elected not candidates that bloc new, and rollback existing, gun control measures.
But the conservative movement in the states has been about more than sex, the Bible, and guns. As controls on election spending lessened or disappeared, business interests, often disguised within organizations not required to indicate the sources of their funds, could funnel more money into state elections.
The result has been that states increasingly passed conservative legislation on many fronts. Many of us pay less attention to what happens on the state than the national level. Thus, the conservatives often had had something of a free run in the state legislatures. Organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council drafted legislation which was adopted in many states, and ALEC is, as one of its leaders once said, very, very conservative. Few voters were aware of who truly initiated the bills.
As part of the state conservative legislation, conservatives passed laws that would further entrench conservative control. Thus, voter identification laws and other measures were passed that make voting more difficult for some. The groups most affected are, of course, not conservatives.
Conservatives passed legislation that would harm the already declining unions. This, of course, served business interests, but it simultaneously entrenched hard right power by helping to weaken forces that often opposed conservatives.
The conservative successes in the states does more than affect the states; it has also shaped our national politics. The country’s electorate has not become conservative, even though the composition of state legislatures might make it seem that way. National elections for President indicate that the country is not conservative. In only one of the last seven Presidential elections has the more conservative candidate gotten the highest percentage of the popular vote. Conservative voters do not dominate the country as a whole, but conservatives have increasingly dominated the national legislature, Congress.
Part of the explanation for this anomaly is that conservatives control more and more states, and states control the boundaries for congressional districts. This power, since the beginning of the Republic, has led to gerrymandering, but new data interpretation tools have made the skewing of districts easier and a brazenness has made it more common. With Republican control of state legislatures, gerrymandering today has overwhelmingly aided conservatives. You might think that with 435 seats in the House of Representatives, each party’s percentage of the seats in the house would be close to the percentage of votes it garnered in the country, but over the last four national elections for the House, the Republicans in each election have gotten a higher percentage of seats than votes nationwide. Thus, in 2012 Democrats got more than a million more votes for the House than Republicans did, but Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the House by 234 to 201. The “bonus” seats came from gerrymandering in the states. For example, in North Carolina the Democratic House candidates got 51% of the vote in 2012, but North Carolina was represented in the House by four Democrats and nine Republicans. In 2016, Democratic candidates got 44% of the statewide vote for the House in North Carolina, but won only three, or 23%, of the seats.
My semi-conservative friend would say that both sides gerrymander. They may, but Republicans do it more and do it better. This has given them secure control of the House.
Republican domination in the states has led to more and more safe Republican seats in Congress. In such a district, a Republican has little concern about the general election. The candidate knows that if he or she has the Republican nomination, he or she will win the general election. He does not have to attract centrist or liberal voters. The important election is not the general election, but the primary. Give the evangelicals and the gun people and other hard righters their due: They vote in the primaries. Thus, all too often, the only way for a Republican to get in or to stay in Congress is to appeal to the hard right, and consequently, the Republican Party has been pushed further and further from the center. They have been pushed away from compromise. They have been pushed away from working with any but those who share hard right views.
If you care about national politics and don’t like their present trend, you can’t just put efforts and money into a Presidential election every four years. You need also to care about state and local politics, and by that I mean more than just a concern about the elections in your state for the House and the Senate. You need to be involved in the state legislative and local elections, not only because these races often breed candidates for higher office, but also because it is the states that set the election districts and can pass laws that make it more difficult for some people to vote.
But here’s a more radical suggestion: A movement should be started to have Democrats and Independents, especially in states and districts that are safely Republican, to change their registrations to Republican. The Republican primaries are where the action is in these places. If liberals and centrists voted in these elections, more centrist Republicans candidates might emerge and win. Perhaps this could start to moderate the Republican Party.
The Republican Party will not change overnight. It has taken decades for that party to get where it is. If the conservative hold is going to be broken, it, too, has to be a long-term game. That game cannot be just to focus on Presidential elections; instead, a chief goal has to be to weaken conservative influence at the state and local level. So, if you are a Democrat or an Independent, be bold! Change your registration! Vote Republican!