In 2004, the journalist and historian Thomas Frank wrote an insightful and prescient book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”, in which he tried to puzzle out why voters in his native state backed Republicans whose policies undermined their own economic interests.
Watching the apocalyptic response to Donald Trump victory in the liberal precincts I inhabit, I’m struck by a similar quandary: Why are voters in states that pay a disproportionately large share of federal taxes, and benefit from a disproportionately small share of federal spending, so upset about the prospect of a cut in taxes and federal spending?
Data compiled by the Pew Charitable Trust found that 10 states receive less than a dollar back for every dollar they send to Washington: Delaware, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island. And here are the states that get more than $2 back for every $1 in taxes paid: Mississippi, New Mexico, West Virginia, Hawaii, South Carolina, Alabama, Maine, Montana, Alaska, Virginia, Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky and Vermont. You don’t have to be a political scientist to see the blue state/red state pattern here. Red state voters may talk a good game about small government and low taxes, but in reality they are socialist moochers.
Rather than wallowing in the hypocrisy of all this, however, Democrats should see the opportunity here—an opportunity to turn the Republican program to their selfish advantage and create the kind of society where people look out for each other and business interests are not allowed to run roughshod over workers and consumers.
After all, if Republicans cut taxes—in particular, taxes on investment income—then the biggest winners are going to be the residents of Democratic states where incomes, and thus income taxes, are significantly higher. Governors and legislatures in those states—home to roughly half of all Americans—will now have the financial and headroom to raise state income and business taxes by as much as the federal government cuts them—and use the additional revenue to replace all the federal services and benefits that Republicans have vowed to cut.
If these states want to maintain the Obamacare insurance exchanges, the low-income subsidies and the expansion of the Medicaid program, they can do that, just as Massachusetts did under Mitt Romney even before passage of the federal law. Their state insurance commissioners can also keep in place many of the Obamacare insurance regulations.
The additional state revenue could also be used to replace cuts in federal funding for public schools, or food stamps, or public transit subsidies. Given the existing imbalance between taxes paid and benefits received by most of these states, there should even be money left over to invest in public college and university systems that in recent years have suffered badly from a reduction in state support.
For years, of course, it is the Republicans who have preached the wisdom of returning more power and responsibility to the states, under the assumption that states would do less, not more, than Washington. Now Democrats could demonstrate that their cherished 10th Amendment can be a sword that cuts both ways.
If the Trump administration makes good on its promise to pull back on environmental regulation, states can step up their own regulation of power plant emissions and oil and gas drilling. To combat climate change, they could impose a refundable carbon tax or, as California has done, create a cap and trade system for carbon emissions.
If Republicans repeal the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, many of those same regulations could be written into state law, either by legislatures or by state banking, securities and insurance regulators and consumer protection agencies. Taking a page from Louis Brandeis and the Progressive era, states could also provide incentives for the creation of state-chartered mutual banks, insurance and investment companies, financial institutions that are owned by their customers. The few mutuals that still exist offer competitive products and superior service at lower cost, all of it with less risk that the Wall Street megafirms have turned finance into a head-I-win, tails-you-lose casino.
Nobody expects a Republican Congress and White House will move to increase the federal minimum wage, but there is nothing to prevent states from raising theirs. Nor is there anything preventing states from restoring within their borders many of the workers rights that the Republican Congress and President-elect Donald Trump are poised to eliminate.
And if the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission give the all-clear signal for corporate megamergers, as you can expect they will, attorneys general from blue states can ban together to file federal and state antitrust suits to block them. The attorneys general could also take a page from the playbook of the Chamber of Commerce and other conservative activists and use the federal courts to try to endlessly delay or block regulatory actions or repeals proposed by the Trump administration.
For blue state Democrats, this is obviously a second-best, half-a-loaf solution that still leaves half the country—alas, along with the federally dependent blue states of Maryland and Virginia and the District—to experience the full impact of the Trump Revolution. Care would also have to be taken to assure that the higher tax rates in blue states don’t prompt too many companies and wealthy taxpayers to flee.
In time, however, blue state Democrats could look forward to the satisfaction of watching Trump’s voters stew in their own political juices as Red State America finally frees itself from the evil grip of global elites and big government and turns itself into a low-tax, low-wage, low-health paradise where it’s every man for himself.
As H.L. Mencken once put it, “Democracy is a theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it, good and hard.”
Sydney Duncombe, a professor at the University of Idaho, spent an extremely influential quarter-century teaching young Idahoans about government and politics, not just the theory but also the practice. That mattered to Idaho because so many of his students, like former governor and senator Dirk Kempthorne and former Sen. Larry Craig, went on to leadership positions in Idaho.
Over the years he wrote a few newspaper columns and a kind of practical guide to Idaho government, but his larger-scale view of Idaho – where it was going, what concerns he had – were a little obscure. What did he take away from so many decades of intensive study about the state?
Some of his ideas now are on display in three little-seen and little-known novels he wrote near the end of his life, between 1999 and 2002, which now are being republished. (Disclosure: I’m the publisher.)
These are fictional stories, cast as thrillers – you could safely call them entertaining page-turners – but they are set in Idaho and clearly draw on Duncombe’s understanding of the state.
In the first, “The Unlikely Candidate,” the hero is a retired state budget director. (Duncombe himself held that position in 1971.) It’s a murder mystery and a thriller about a massive scandal in Idaho government, but it moves through a wide range of people and interests around the state. As a professor, Duncombe’s trademark tactic was to impersonate (while wearing any of a number of hats) people from a range of interest groups, and point up how they interact, cooperate or conflict with each other. Much of this forms the narrative bed of The Unlikely Candidate. Idaho, in other words, is complex, and more complex than it seems on the surface. A more subtle point is a reminder that bureaucrats too can be heroes; he would not have disagreed with such a sentiment.
The second, “Blizzard in August,” is the story is about several groups of people hiking in the White Clouds (a place Duncombe also frequented); all stranded by a sudden and early snowstorm. Duncombe knew the area and the circumstances well enough to describe them carefully; he was once caught by a freak early blizzard in that region himself. But the story centers more on questions of personal responsibility, and the responsibilities we have to other people, including to people we do not know. It lightly touched on politics, but the greater implications were directed more toward all of us, not just governmental officials.
Last of the three was “Freedom County,” also a thriller but one that approaches dystopian fiction. In it, a central Idaho county (presumably Custer from the description, though no real name is given) is taken over by extremist and racist militia, and then its leaders launch a plot to reshape Idaho government along their preferred lines. A cautionary tale, then, and while Duncombe’s telling rolls right along as a good thriller should, his meaning and message is clear: This is bad news, there are worrisome signs pointing in this direction, and don’t let it happen here.
I felt a slight chill when reading it.
Duncombe died in 2004, and maybe if he’d lived longer he would have written more novels on Idaho. These three, in any event, are the three messages he most basically leaves behind.
All three could not be more pertinent a decade and a half later.