In This Review

Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics
Laboratories Against Democracy: How National Parties Transformed State Politics
By Jacob Grumbach
Princeton University Press, 2022, 288 pp.

In 1932, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis labeled the 50 U.S. states “laboratories of democracy,” where new policies could be incubated, tested, and spread to other states. Grumbach uses masses of mostly quantitative data to take a new look at this widely held belief and concludes that, if anything, the opposite is now true: state governments have become, in the author’s phrasing, “laboratories against democracy.” In today’s deeply partisan environment, state governments are often dominated by one of the two national parties. In theory, lawmakers at the state level should be closer to their constituents and therefore more responsive to their needs. In practice, this doesn’t hold. Voters pay even less attention to state elections than they do to ones at the federal level, allowing the choice of poorly prepared and extreme candidates and policy outcomes that are increasingly divorced from public opinion. (Bans on abortions passed by many states this summer are an obvious case in point.) Worse still, because states exert constitutional authority over election rules, many Republican-controlled states bent on suppressing Democratic voter turnout have become a threat to American democracy writ large. Grumbach concludes that in the interest of democracy and justice, the roles of state and local government should be reduced over the long term.