More than a week ago, all eyes were cast upon the state of Iowa. Citizens rushed to tables seeking positive reinforcement that this year, it’s their candidate’s time. Nominees stood, rolled up their sleeves in the true American hard-working fashion, attempting to prove they’re just like you. Some wore blue jeans, grilled chicken and drank Starbucks coffee. And while their policies differed, their narratives passed through the same archetypal ways. They explained why America’s great, why they themselves are great (Hint: it’s because they’re just like you) and why they’re great for America. In some sense, the candidates proposed to the United States of America, and Iowans anxiously waited to dole out their blessing.
These scenes of political romanticism will be repeated over the next seven months as the national election continues to heat up. But while the presidential-hopefuls-turned “everyday folks” get all the attention, most are ignoring those who more intimately govern the American public — state representatives.
Of course, I’m certainly not claiming we should pay no attention to those vying to be the leader of the free world. There’s no question that person holds a significant amount of power: meeting with leaders from around the world, setting the national agenda (which then significantly influences our political climate), signing or vetoing legislation, leading our armed forces and appointing thousands of people to federal positions, along with becoming a symbol for our nation.
However, it’s equally important to note how the president can be slowed or stopped. The numerous checks and balances, interest groups and institutional blockades speak to the difficulties one person — even the most powerful person in America — faces at every corner while on the job. And even though other federal institutions — Congress and the Supreme Court — do much to dictate our rights as citizens, a tremendous amount of real, ignored power belongs to state representatives.
That is, Bill of Rights aside, the state, not federal, government ushers in much of our rights as citizens. The consequences of this reality loom ominously over all of us. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, it means that things like “voting (rights), reproductive freedoms, economic rights, the right to carry firearms, and other individual rights — with the exception of free speech — have more and more … (relevance) to the states.” Unfortunately for us, as noted over a year ago by John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight,” some of our state legislatures are Islamophobic, racist and, simply put, incompetent.
These representatives greatly influence how state legislation affects federal legislation, oftentimes evading the topic altogether. We’ve seen many states avoid the adoption of Medicaid expansion associated with Obamacare, leaving millions without health care. We’ve watched states like Mississippi, Missouri, North and South Dakota and Wyoming lead the charge in closing almost all of their abortion clinics as anti-abortion legislation has been enacted across the nation. More recently, we’ve witnessed Texas state law allow students to carry guns in their dorm rooms at all public colleges in the state.
Unfortunately, if you don’t identify with the Republican Party, you’ll be sad to know these laws are just the tip of the iceberg — in recent years, state ballots have been painted with a predominately red brush. To attach a statistic, Republicans won 70 percent of state house and senate races in 2015. Gerrymandering is often used to solidify these winners in office for years to come. It’s been hypothesized that this phenomenon has occurred partly because business executives, such as the Koch brothers, have invested more heavily in state elections.
Regardless of your party affiliation, though, if you’re from Michigan, you should be concerned about the state of our state. Do you want to stop another Flint water crisis? How about prevent Detroit Public Schools from falling further into disrepair, becoming infested with other insects or rodents? One solution comes at the ballot box, voting for state senators and representatives who don’t underfund or ignore small, crucial necessities like publicly funded water, transportation and schools. These resources are the foundation of America’s infrastructure. If these facilities begin to break down, inequality will widen and rioting will permeate our streets. Ultimately, we’ll have to reconcile for the widespread human suffering we saw written on the walls, but neglected to prevent.
Whether you’re “feeling the Bern” or looking forward to our first female president this November, keep your state’s unsexy, often insipid election in mind. The winners control much more legislative power in our country than many people would like to think.
Sam Corey can be reached at email@example.com.