Republican States Go to War Against Democratic Local Governments

Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, who is urging Republican legislators to crack down on “Democrat cities.” Photo: Sergio Flores/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The near-nationwide Republican state-government fight to restrict voting rights has focused to a considerable extent on preempting more generous local policies, making a mockery of the idea that conservatives favor decentralized decision-making at all times and places. This has been especially apparent in Georgia, where GOP lawmakers gave their appointees the power to take over local election boards at any phase of the vote-counting process, and in Texas, where much of the recent “election integrity” legislation has been aimed at forever prohibiting the voting flexibility provided during the COVID-19 pandemic by urban Democratic jurisdictions like Harris County (Houston).

But as Ron Brownstein points out in a chronicle of reckless state legislative behavior: “It’s not just voting rights.”

GOP-controlled states — including Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, and Montana — have advanced their most conservative agenda in years, and one that reflects Donald Trump’s present stamp on the Republican Party.

Across these states and others, Republican legislators and governors have operated as if they were programming a primetime lineup at Fox News. They have focused far less on the small-government, limited-spending, and anti-tax policies that once defined the GOP than on an array of hot-button social issues, such as abortion, guns, and limits on public protest, that reflect the cultural and racial priorities of Trump’s base.

And one common theme in this state-based culture war has been crackdowns on local autonomy when it offends MAGA sensibilities in any respect. That has included sanctions on local school boards allowing the teaching of “critical race theory”; bans on participation in school sports activities by transgender students; prohibitions and fines aimed at jurisdictions that try to cut police funding; and a host of after-the-fact restrictions on the power of local governments to impose COVID-19-related lockdowns, mask mandates, or other public-health requirements.

You can add these assaults on devolved political power to earlier Trump-engendered federal and state attacks on “sanctuary cities” that didn’t cooperate fully with federal immigration enforcement, and even earlier Republican efforts to oppose tough environmental laws or regulations opposed by businesses enacted at any level.

Without question, this anti-federalist hostility to local autonomy is closely related to Republican anti-urbanism; the GOP’s increasing reliance on rural, small-town, and exurban voters means the party has less and less sympathy for urban and suburban local governments. Notable MAGA warrior and Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick said it best in 2017, as the Texas Tribune reported:

“People are happy with their governments at their state level, they’re not with the city,” said Patrick, a Republican, in an interview with Fox Business Network. He was responding to a question about gubernatorial races. 

“Our cities are still controlled by Democrats,” he added. “And where do we have all our problems in America? Not at the state level run by Republicans, but in our cities that are mostly controlled by Democrat mayors and Democrat city council men and women. That’s where you see liberal policies. That’s where you see high taxes. That’s where you see street crime.”

So sorting out the levels of government most suited to perform this or that function, or to address this or that problem, is a matter of party and ideology, not constitutional principle. No wonder Patrick is at the forefront of today’s Texas Republican drive to override local prerogatives. As Brownstein notes, he’s telling GOP state legislators that pushing hard-core right-wing policies is now a matter of both constituent service and political survival:

GOP legislators appear to be operating more out of fear that Trump’s base of non-college-educated, rural, and Evangelical white voters will punish them in primaries if they fail to pursue maximum confrontation against Democrats and liberal constituencies, particularly on issues revolving around culture and race …

Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic operative in Texas, notes that the state’s militantly conservative Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has pushed legislators toward his priorities this year in part by persuading them that any moderation risks infuriating “an aggrieved Trump base who feels that the election was stolen from them, are fired up, and love the red meat on every issue.”

Yes, conservatives still pay lip service to the Jeffersonian adage that “the government closest to the people serves the people best.” In reality, today’s GOP assigns power to the government closest to Trump’s people. And aside from the rationalization of state attacks on local government powers, it’s a sign that if Trump’s party regains control of the federal government by 2024, Republicans may become truly avid for running the whole country from Washington. Any “socialist” governors, state legislators, mayors, or county executives — not to mention any “woke” corporate CEOs or higher education officials — best be on notice that in MAGA-land the ends justify the means.

Republican States Go to War Against Democratic Cities