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Red State Blues

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The below DNF review was posted to Goodreads on 3/30/20:

 DNF. The premise is very interesting, but I found the writing too repetitive and stilted.
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If you are looking to read a dry analysis of the author’s opinion on why he thinks the Republicans are not able to change liberal policies, Matt Grossmann’s “Red State Blues” is for you. 

The author’s premise is that even though Republicans have kept the state offices, they have not been able to change/eliminate the social legislation that previous Democratic officials have put in place. Mr. Grossmann insists that Republicans are moving more to the right causing Democrats to move further to the left. He also points out that more liberal than conservative legislation is passed every year. It is hardly mentioned that there has been a movement to the left by both parties over the last 50 years (ponder who is leans more to the left, John F. Kennedy or George W. Bush). Rather than talk about a country-wide shift, it is easier to insist there is a radical move to the right by Republicans.

I was not happy with the method employed by the author to back up his statements. Each chapter would have a note section at the end, mostly listing only the person or persons who he referenced in his writing. Readers are left to look up those names in Notes and then travel to References in the back of the book and search for the name(s). Once there, I was dismayed to find that in many cases, only the books were listed, rather than including the referenced page numbers. This makes it a chore to find the original statement and in what context it was originally written, a task that the great majority of people will never do (me included). Thus, we don’t even learn the original passage’s frame of reference, and are forced to accept whatever the author wrote. While I am going to question the veracity of statements in books written by supporters of either political party, clean and easy-to-follow references might sway me to a different view. Because of the reference methods employed, that didn’t happen with “Red State Blues.”

As is the norm, Mr. Grossmann injects his own political slant and although it appears he tried to stay in the middle of the road, his opinions affected the outcomes. He admits the book is skeptical of Republican achievements and mentions redistricting so many times that one feels forced to agree that this is the only reason Republicans get reelected to state offices. What is assigned as liberal versus conservative legislation deserved more scrutiny, as this appeared to be a black-white decision rather than the reality, that there are countless shades of grey. 

In short, I don’t feel the author successfully defended his thesis. In the author’s own words, “…anyone can pick a metric, produce a ranking, and write a blog post.” Or a book. Two hundred pages of dry reading insisting the Republicans are failing because they aren’t shredding Democratic legislation would be more interesting in a short article rather than in book form. Two stars.

My thanks to NetGalley and Cambridge University Press for an advance electronic copy of this book.
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This is a dreadful book. Don't buy it and do not check it out of the library and read it. The author is way too full of himself and he regularly ignores facts and events which falsify his endless left-wing assertions. Most importantly, Prof. Grossman is totally blind to the worldwide shift toward nationalism and populism.
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Interesting conclusion  but you tend to get the gist of book by just reading the introduction chapter. This will be a great book for state politics classes.
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The basic premise of Matt Grossmann’s Red State Blues is to see if the continuing swing to Republican state governments has led to a transformation of, if not the nation, then at least those states. His important answer is no. In fact, the country is continuing its long-term trend towards more liberal policies overall.

Republicans are better organized and equipped to make their transformation happen. They have a “troika” of organizations to promote their agenda through state legislatures, Grossmann says. It consists of right wing think tanks under the umbrella of State Policy Network, the legislation provider ALEC, and Koch Brothers “grassroots” groups Americans For Prosperity. ALEC in particular has a library of ready-to-pass legislation promoting the right-wing agenda, that state reps simply copy and paste directly. Little or no thought required.

However. The results are not as transforming as planned. “The perennial conservative fiction [is] that government can be transformed by heroic individual action, using private sector formulas to make government run (more efficiently) like a business,” Grossmann says. Between the right-wing factions, the infighting and the simple fact that most Americans don’t share their extreme vision, the legislation gets watered down, stalled, withdrawn, or different than intended. There is often public backlash to cutbacks, and different attitudes in the House compared to the Senate. Increasingly, voters take the state to court to overturn extreme laws. In numerous studies examined or conducted by his own team, Grossmann shows remarkably little rightward movement overall. 

There are plenty of exceptions that we see daily, as Republican states try to crush unions, abolish abortion, disenfranchise voters and promote guns. But Grossmann shows clearly that they are not transforming the country the way more liberal legislation is. He points to gay marriage for one. He gives the example of pre-kindergarten programs. At the state level, they have grown by 47% in just the five years since 2012. Only six states provide none. There is a loosening of marijuana strictures. Twenty states have increased minimum wages, six Republican states are trying to end the death penalty and many more are relaxing sentencing. Some are actually closing prisons. Online voter registration is now available for 38 states. These are not usually considered Republican priorities.

His conclusion is that Republican states don’t so much move severely to the right as slow down the moves to the left. Republican states still increase regulations, but at a slower pace than Democrat states. In all of the studies Grossmann reviewed or conducted, the differences are minor, and no conclusions can be drawn. That in itself is newsworthy.

But Red State Blues is not a narrative. It is an academic study, mostly of other studies. That means it is an unfortunately dry read, with everything reinforced by data points and explanations of methodology. So while it is jam packed with facts, the exploration, impact and backstory of them is not there. There are plenty of charts to reinforce what he says, but not a lot of bold type to drive a narrative. Which is too bad, because these insights are of great use to the general — and voting — public.

David Wineberg
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