Vol. 33 No.1 (January 2023) pp. 7-11

LABORATORIES AGAINST DEMOCRACY: HOW NATIONAL PARTIES TRANSFORMED STATE POLITICS, by Jacob Grumbach. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 288 pp. Cloth $29.95. ISBN: 9780691218458.

Reviewed by Mark Rush, Department of Politics, Washington and Lee University. Email:

This is an important and potentially controversial book. Grumbach offers a sweeping analysis of American political parties, federalism, and political polarization to argue that the nationalization of the Democratic and Republican parties in particular and American politics in general has resulted in “a resurgence of state governments at the center of American policymaking, reduced policy learning between states controlled by opposing parties, and democratic backsliding in states controlled by the Republican party” (pp. 4 -5). As a result, he argues, states have become laboratories not of democratic innovation but, instead, democratic backsliding in which they “innovate” “new ways to restrict the franchise, gerrymander districts, exploit campaign finance loopholes, and circumvent civil rights in the criminal justice system” (p. 5).

What Grumbach observes and describes is a confluence of numerous changes in and pathologies of U.S. politics, not federalism itself. A system that once fostered state-by-state innovation and political diversity has been homogenized by national parties. Despite gridlock at the national level, the parties have assembled pervasive networks of activist, incumbents, and groups (p. 8) penetrate even the most local aspects of politics and, thereby, homogenize what was once a politically and geographically diverse American universe. Thanks to the empowerment of groups such as the National Rifle Association and and the impact of social media, these two partisan networks have polarized all aspects of the political system despite the expectations of the Framers who clearly anticipated a dynamic, diverse federal polity.

He notes that individual rights now vary radically between Republican and Democratic states (p.10). Such partisan divides militate against collaboration and mimicking of successful policies while national organizations plow funds and influence into the states to promote model legislation that fits with either of the national parties’ agendas. He holds the Republicans particularly accountable for eroding democracy across states in which they have gerrymandered, restricted access to the franchise, and restricted civil liberties (p.13).

Grumbach reaches what some may regard as a startling conclusion. Despite the negative impact of the nationalization of politics, he calls for decreasing the power of the states further.
Groups that care about democracy and justice should take advantage of the moments when they control the national government. They should, of course, use executive actions and congressional legislation to further their goals. But, critically, they should pursue institutional changes that reduce the role of lower levels of government over the long term (p. 203. Italics in original).
He concludes that Brandeis’s hopes that states would serve as laboratories of democratic innovation have not materialized. To the extent that states are now the center of American policymaking Brandeis’ vision holds true (p. 32). The states are not promoting democracy; they are hindering it. Brandeis himself might agree with Grumbach’s analysis. To the extent that Grumbach demonstrates that exogenous factors have undermined the positive potential of federalism, his analysis echoes observations made by Brandeis, e.g., in OLMSTEAD v. UNITED STATES or OTHER PEOPLES’ MONEY AND HOW BANKERS USE IT. In the former, Brandies called upon the Supreme Court to take the impact of tech advances into account when reviewing the warrant requirement and wiretapping. Similarly, he called for the national government to play a greater role in controlling private power in response to the vast influence of corporations in US politics. Yet, Brandeis was conflicted. On the one hand, he called for constrains on the federal government in OLMSTEAD while placing great hope on its capacity to do the right thing when using its power to control—or at least manage—the powerful. Grumbach’s analysis is no less characterized by internal tensions if not inconsistencies.

Grumbach analyzes the performance of state government using a “State Democracy Index.” This is an impressive analysis that draws upon numerous variable which can be grouped broadly under the cost of voting, fairness of districting, and basic civil liberties (p.163). He demonstrates convincingly that Brandeis’ hopes for a nation of democratic laboratories is no longer apt. States tend to emulate successful policies in wealthier states under the same partisan control (p. 146). There has been a clear pattern of racially motivated restrictions on access to the polls (pp.151-59). This preceded the election of Donald Trump and was precipitated by the Supreme Court’s decision in SHELBY COUNTY v. HOLDER (2013) to strike down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act and, thereby, strike down the preclearance provisions in section 5 (see, e.g., “Democracy Diverted”).

His conclusion that groups that care about democracy “should pursue institutional changes that reduce the lower levels of government over the long term” (p.203) resonates profoundly with stories such as those of franchise restrictions in the wake of HOLDER. He maintains that federalism has failed because “there is a pattern in American history: when state governments have wide policy leeway and there is wide policy variation across states, American democracy tends to suffer” (p. 197). However, the lack of any congressional response to HOLDER (or, for that matter, CITIZENS UNITED) belies his suggestion that hopes for better democracy lie in the centralization of political power or its allocation in stronger national political groups.

Grumbach demonstrates that American politics is torn between an absence of action at the national level and an excess of action at the state and local levels. Unfortunately, the latter is as apt to generate policy outcomes that Grumbach favors as it is to generate those that he dislikes. As he notes, “it is easy to overly focus on policy progress in some states while neglecting the question of whether, on average, the country would be freer, fairer, or more just if states had less authority” (p.198). No doubt, recalibrating the federal balance of power could, perhaps energize Congress to re-assume the leadership role it undertook in the 1960s when it passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Nonetheless, such leadership requires bipartisan cooperation that is absent under polarized political conditions such as those in 2022.

A wiser, more progressive national government is perhaps as threatening as it is necessary in the 21st century. Nations face unprecedented challenges that are truly global in scope. As a result, Ross Mittiga argues that nations generally may need to take a step or two in the direction of “authoritarianism” (what he describes as a centralization of power in the executive, less reliance on democratic processes, and some restriction of 19th and 20th century visions of civil liberties) to combat climate change. Ran Hirschl thoughtfully challenges scholars to rethink the nature of global, national, and local government as he demonstrates the impact of increased urbanization across the globe. Whereas Mittiga suggests that centralization may be necessary, Hirschl suggests that a decentralization towards a world of city governments may be more practical—and likely.

In calling for stronger national oversight of matters such as electoral policy, Grumbach raises the specter that centralizing power in the national government could enhance the possibility of an “autocrat’s” coming to power (p. 25). Curiously, he overlooks that his prescriptions are indeed somewhat authoritarian in nature (echoing Mittiga’s analysis) to the extent that they would nationalize and centralize governmental power and, thereby, attenuate the relationship between the governed and the government.

Certainly, one can argue, as Grumbach does, that the threat of centralization (here I avoid his frequent references to “autocrats” and “authoritarians”) pales in comparison to the status quo “long-standing…cooptation of a substantial proportion of electoral institutions in the states” (p. 25). No doubt, there is something fundamentally bizarre in a situation where Americans have the right to travel from state to state, but still must recalibrate the scope and definition of their rights to everything from voting rights to access to abortions to their capacity to work as cosmetologists (Klein 2016) when they cross state borders. A federalism for the 21st century clearly needs to be updated, rearticulated, and freed from the absurd and retrograde consequences of theories whose proponents pretend that some vision of “originalism” will address policy challenges that were inconceivable in the 18th century.

Nonetheless, one wonders whether Grumbach’s nationalization of power—complete with reliance on powerful, national groups—would be appealing, liberal, or democratic despite its preferability to the status quo he describes. One also wonders whether that status quo might not be inevitable. This is by no means gratuitous criticism or dismissal of Grumbach’s concerns and analysis. He identifies real political challenges that require action.

Even if it were possible somehow to amend the U.S. Constitution, reinvigorate the national government, and pursue a 21st century vision of the general welfare (in accordance with Article I of the Constitution), one wonders if this would lead to the homogenization, expansion, and progressive rearticulation of rights and liberties that Grumbach desires. Certainly, a powerful national government could put teeth back into the civil rights acts, establish common, best practices for elections, and maybe even establish modern articulations of the privileges and immunities of all Americans so that they would not, for all intents and purposes, need to check their passports or review a new constitution every time they crossed state lines.

To unify and homogenize liberties and rights in this manner would require a tremendous expansion in the power and pervasiveness of the national government. Is this possible or desirable? From personal experience, I know that bible busses still run. But, I’m not sure Americans are prepared to foot the tax bill to put marshals on every school bus. This homogenization will require force at best and perhaps lead to violence at worst. (See, e.g., the depiction of environmental black operations in Kim Stanley Robinson’s MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE). “FORCE” could range from legislative incentives attached to national legislation to 21st century versions of sending the troops into Little Rock to desegregate the schools. (Call it what you will but rendering fossil-fuel powered vehicles worthless or forcing plant owners to change their means of generating power will fit someone’s definition of force or violence.)

Thus, based on Grumbach’s analysis, it is clear that a nationalization or centralization of government power is necessary to re-establish and rearticulate the basic rights of Americans. The status quo won’t do if you are seeking an abortion or looking to cast a vote. Nonetheless, even if the national government could strengthen the foundations of individual rights and liberties (assuming, for the sake of argument that rearticulated rights to abortion, voting, gun possession, etc. would be sure to irritate at least some citizens), one wonders what Grumbach’s government would look like to those who would disagree with its policies. We can’t have it both ways. I agree with Grumbach that the current status quo is unacceptable. One wonders whether his or any other vision of an elite-driven centralized “democracy” will resemble a benevolent dictatorship or the HUNGER GAMES.

In conclusion, this is an important, provocative work. Readers will leave LABORATORIES AGAINST DEMONCRACY marked up, dog-eared, underlined, etc. They will use the extensive bibliography to refresh their knowledge of the literature on federalism. If I have any substantive criticism, it is, simply, that the book needs a broader comparative perspective. Perhaps Grumbach will tackle that in his next work—one to which fellow scholars can look forward to reading.


CITIZENS UNITED V. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

OLMSTEAD V. UNITED STATES, 277 U.S. 438 (1928).

SHELBY COUNTY V. HOLDER, 520 U.S. 529 (2013).


Bawn, Kathleen, Martin Cohen, David Karol, Seth Masket, Hans Noel, and John Zaller. 2012. “A Theory of Political Parties: Groups, Policy Demands, and Nominations in American Politics.” PERSPECTIVES ON POLITICS 10: 571-97.


Collins, Suzanne. THE HUNGER GAMES. Wilkinsburg: Scholastic Press.

Hirschl, Ran. 2020. CITY, STATE: CONSTITUTIONALIMS AND THE MEGACITY. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Klein, Alexandra. 2016. “Freedom to Pursue a Common Calling: Applying Intermediate Scrutiny to Occupational Licensing Statutes.” WASHINGTON AND LEE LAW REVIEW 73 (1): 411-466.

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. 2019. “Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote.” Available:,of%20highest%20closure%20rates%20between%202012%20to%202018. Accessed November 28, 2022.

Mittiga, Ross. 2021. “Political Legitimacy, Authoritarianism and Climate Change.” AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW 116 (3): 998-1011. Accessed February 9, 2023.

Robinson, Kim S. 2020. THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE. New York: Hachette Book Group.

© Copyright 2023 by author, Mark Rush.