The Nationalization of American Politics Is a Tragedy

The nationalization of American politics is a troubling bipartisan trend. As the political scientist Daniel Hopkins shows in “The Increasingly United States,” the signs have been there for decades: State party platforms have become more alike, Americans are less likely to know their governors, and money for congressional races increasingly comes from outside donors. Like our commercial strips, which are crowded with the same restaurant chains and box stores, our local parties look increasingly alike, offering the same product from San Francisco to Jacksonville, Fla.

Republicans should be the natural enemies of this creeping conformity — and for years they were. Not long ago, they stressed the virtues of federalism. But today MAGA party activists and candidates are pressing the similar agendas in every corner of the Republic. Guided by national media personalities and causes, they believe that conservative politics should look the same everywhere. To them, all politics is national.

This is a tragedy. It desensitizes the Republican Party to a whole realm of public need. That weakens our democracy, and it invites even more populist anger down the road when neglected problems get worse and become harder to solve.

For a long time, Republicans welcomed and even encouraged differences at the local level. The Republican Revolution, despite having nationalized congressional campaigns in 1994, ultimately sought to return power to states. It succeeded, for example, in passing the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act, which limited the federal government’s ability to impose costly regulations on state and local governments. And welfare reform gave states more power over their own administration. Such measures — whatever their policy limitations — created spaces for localities to go their own way. Maintaining these spaces, Republicans once agreed, was a critical way for a pluralistic nation like America to respect and manage its diversity.

As recently as the late 2000s, you could still see many local varieties of conservative politics on display. The 2008 Republican presidential primary featured a pro-choice mayor from socially liberal New York City (Rudy Giuliani) and an antiwar congressman from libertarian Texas (Ron Paul), both of whom were broadly accepted as real Republicans despite their sharp departures from the national brand. Today, such traitorous RINO-ism is less often tolerated. In recent years, county parties have censured Republican office holders for not toeing the national party line on Medicaid expansion, pandemic restrictions and Donald Trump. These conformist pressures are only intensifying.

There is resistance, though. We have spent the past couple of years studying the Republican Party in Wyoming, where we have observed this clash between the nationalizers and the traditional Republicans up close. The party’s “old heads” have made it a priority to defend what they call “the Wyoming way,” which includes keeping national issues of little relevance to Wyomingites out of state politics, however important they might be elsewhere.

Take immigration, for example. For several years, MAGA-aligned legislators have tried to pass a bill that would ban sanctuary cities and towns. Among them is Chuck Gray, a former state legislator who has since been elected Wyoming’s secretary of state. Mr. Gray and his allies know there is no real appetite for such immigrant sanctuaries in their state, but they insist on these bills anyway. “It is important that we get ahead of this issue,” Mr. Gray said. The bill kept going down, though, because the old heads know there is nothing to get ahead of. “It’s only significant in that the national political environment made it significant,” Tim Stubson, a former state legislator, told us. “On the ground, it’s not significant.”

Critical race theory is another national issue the new types are constantly banging on about. In the past two years, they have pushed bills aimed at stopping its instruction, an obsession that bewilders members of the old guard who see it as a national problem that has barely touched their state.

Gail Symons, a longtime party activist, told us that she blames the national media for this newfound obsession with national issues. The new Republican guard takes “all the talking points that show up on Fox News,” Ms. Symons lamented. “They think the folks on Fox News, most of whom have never been to Wyoming,” know best about “what’s going on in their own state and their own community.”

Conservative intellectuals should take this sort of Republican plea seriously, but they haven’t. In recent years, many of them have been seduced by national conservatism, a movement that claims to be working to preserve America’s best traditions. Organizers of an annual “National Conservatism” conference, for example, call for the “revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.” But the national conservatives forget that one of our nation’s proudest and longest political traditions is its history of decentralized parties and governance. Those institutions and practices bound Americans together in a world below our more divisive national politics. They allowed everyday Americans to define their values and interests at the community level, where genuine populist power and democracy were often strongest.

Already, you can see how a fully nationalized politics might backfire on Republicans. It creates a false sense of what the state governments can actually achieve. Even if there is a border crisis, for example, the state of Wyoming can’t do much about it. As Landon Brown, an establishment Republican in the state legislature told us, “We have spent more time debating a nonissue than fixing our state budget issue.” And as Cathy Connolly, the former House minority leader, noted, “there is no solution to a non-problem.” Whipping up people’s passions may be galvanizing for now, but at some point, people will realize that their government hasn’t done anything to improve their day-to-day lives.

Republican establishments in other states have been quietly resisting the nationalization of their party. In some — including Texas, Ohio and Alaska — old guard conservatives have even joined their fellow Democrats on certain issues, much as they have in Wyoming. And in Florida, there is still a divide between the MAGA crowd and the “Tallahassee” people, despite Ron DeSantis’s popularity there.

But the Wyoming case is itself important for a simple reason: It’s the most pro-Trump state in the union. Despite that obstacle, the old guard is having some success defending its own way of doing politics. It has defeated many bills that reflect national obsessions and fought to preserve some semblance of the old decorum. In fact, just last year it stripped its Trumpiest state senator of his committee assignments for a pattern of intimidating, intemperate speech. Of course, on their own, such rear-guard tactics won’t be enough to save the Wyoming way. Champions of the old way must also do the hard work of aggressively recruiting local candidates and precinct committee chairs.

Fortunately, such efforts are already paying off in Wyoming. In 2023, thanks to strong candidate recruitment, the establishment reclaimed county party organizations in four of the state’s solid-red counties. And while the establishment fared less well in legislative races, it prevailed against some of the most ultra-MAGA candidates and won enough critical races to maintain control of the state legislature.

That success gives us reason to hope. After all, if the new nationalized politics can be held at bay in Trump-loving Wyoming, then perhaps it can be resisted anywhere.

Stephanie Muravchik (@stephaniemurav1) and Jon A. Shields are professors of government at Claremont McKenna College. They are finishing a book on the Wyoming G.O.P., “The Republican Civil War.”

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