Single parties dominate state legislatures; that’s bad for our health

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In an age of partisan polarization and historic challenges to the legitimacy of elections, more and more citizens are worried about the health of American democracy. Little-noticed in this environment are the growing risks to the health and welfare of Americans themselves. The partisan breakdown of American democracy may be making Americans less educated, poorer, sicker, and living shorter lives.

We recently looked at 130 years of data from the American states and found a clear trend: Across time and across the country, two-party competition drove investments in areas like education, health, sanitation, transportation, and other key infrastructure.

When parties were forced to compete, they spent more on these programs. As a consequence, infant mortality rates dropped, literacy rates rose, more people graduated from high school, incomes increased, and people lived longer. 

However, when single parties controlled state legislatures, they spent less on social programs. In those states, fewer children survived infancy, fewer students graduated high school, and people died younger. 

But there is an interesting — and potentially scary — caveat to our research. Because we are tracking lifetime outcomes, there is a significant time lag between elections and their effects on people. It takes about 30 years, for example, for investments in health and sanitation to have an impact on overall life expectancy. Our last electoral datapoint therefore comes from elections in 1980, which we now know was roughly the moment when the two parties began their divergence into a liberal party and a conservative one. Since 1980, cooperation between the two parties, first in Congress, then at the state level, began to erode, and, increasingly, politicians began challenging long-settled rules and norms to secure partisan advantage.

Divided state governments — which really means states where both parties were active and competitive — were common between 1880 and 1980. As we look to 2022 only two states, Minnesota and Virginia, will have divided legislatures. In every other state in the union, the state legislature is controlled by a single party.

This situation has no precedent in the previous century — and that matters.

We can point to several landmark pieces of social welfare legislation across U.S. history passed by Congress. But many changes to things like the minimum wage, education policy, worker safety standards, health infrastructure, sewer and water systems, and, most recently, responses to the pandemic have come at the state and local level.

As we saw in school board elections across the country this fall, national talking points have replaced local concerns in even the smallest of races. If once “all politics was local,” now, it seems, all politics is national. 

American democracy — above all, the vigor with which two parties competed to increase investments in citizen-being — is now on the ropes. The nature of party competition in recent years is profoundly different from what characterized this country from the late 19th century and into the 1980s.

While it is too early to know with any certainty, it is possible that some future observers will find that the longstanding link between political competition and individual-well being snapped sometime between 1980 and 2020. Perhaps it is Democratic control, more than two-party competition, that now predicts state-level spending in health care, education, and infrastructure.

But that is speculative. What we do know: If our political divisions continue to grow and American democracy falters, the prognosis for the well-being of the American people — on an array of measures — could become quite grim.

The United States, whose population once ranked at or near the top of the world on measures of surviving infancy, educational attainment, and life expectancy, has fallen dramatically in world rankings over the last three decades.

And a root cause may be the breakdown of American political institutions.

Gerald Gamm is a professor of political science at the University of Rochester.

Thad Kousser is a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

Tags Democracy Educational attainment in the United States Health infant mortality rate longevity one-party control political polarization Politics of the United States quality of life State legislatures toxic democracy Two-party system wealth

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