How can college students achieve their policy goals in the era of Trump?
An overlooked answer lies in pursuing policy preferences in state legislatures and governors' mansions.
State and local government is admittedly not sexy. Lobbying a city councilman, mayor or state representative will not typically make The New York Times or Politico headlines. Protesting at a women’s march in Washington D.C. almost certainly will. But state and local governments craft many of the policies that touch our daily lives, including important social policies like healthcare, “sin taxes,” marijuana use or — until recently — gay marriage.
Yet we do not often read about or discuss state and local government policy. It is much more interesting to talk about the most recent thing that Donald Trump said or the most recent antic that Senate Democrats pulled. Of course, the exceptions to this are controversial social policy bills like transgender bathroom laws or laws which decriminalize/legalize marijuana.
This lack of attention about the happenings in our state legislatures and governor' mansions means that activists often expend their energy in ways that could be more effective elsewhere.
This is relevant to progressive college students who, in the current political climate, find their party or their interests locked out of all levels of the federal government. This includes conservative control of the legislative, executive and — with the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and four upcoming years of conservatives named to federal district courts — the judiciary branches.
In fact, my progressive friends at Penn may soon realize what conservatives have recognized over the past eight years: When unable to achieve policy at the federal level, state legislatures and governors' mansions can be used to bring about real policy change.
Conservative efforts to make changes at the local levels have led to record control of state governments. As an article by the Washington Post shows, as of the last election, Republicans control an all-time high of 69 of 99 (or 70 percent) state legislative chambers. They also hold at least 33 governorships — a 96-year record. This means that in 2017, Republicans have “total government control” in 25 states, meaning they control both houses of the legislature and the governorship. In addition, Republicans have partial control of 20 states.
According to the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, this means that around 80 percent of the American population lives in a state which is either totally or partially run by Republicans. By comparison, Democrats have total control of just five states. It’s worth noting, also, that a recent poll shows that the top 10 most popular governors in America are Republicans, and three of the top five are in blue states.
State and local governments serve as important checks on the federal government. This may be one reason why citizens elected historic Republican majorities in the states during the Democratic control of the federal government following President Obama’s election in 2008. Perhaps the tide will change now that Republicans control The Beltway.
Progressive students might look to target their activism in Donald Trump's presidency. In the process, they may discover a newfound regard for states’ rights and federalism.
Of course, both Democrats and Republicans are known to sacrifice their purported values at the altar of political expediency.
States’ rights is one such issue on which a party’s view changes with the political winds. Republicans honor states’ rights for healthcare and education policy, but not when it comes to gun rights. Democrats like states’ rights for marijuana use (and not a lot else), while they oppose it strongly for most things, especially social issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
It is easy to be ideologically strict when you are in the minority and have no power; it is harder to stick to those ideologies when you are governing and can accomplish your goals by bulldozing the opposing minority. The power of state and local governments to craft laws will always be important — regardless of which party is currently in the minority.
Penn students should assemble and make their voices heard at the federal level in hopes of moving the levers of power. However, if they fail to do so they should not be discouraged, but rather redirect their energies to achieve policy objectives at the state and local levels. In the process, they may find a greater respect for federalism and the importance of communities diverging in important ways from each other and from the federal government.
TAYLOR BECKER is a College senior from Lebanon, Ore., studying political science. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Right Angles” usually appears every other Wednesday.
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