Rocco: They’re about rights. Governments in the United States define individual rights and freedoms from government intervention—classic liberal rights. For many years now, particularly since the mid-20th century, a constellation of individual rights and freedoms has been developing in American life through the federal court system—civil rights, women’s rights, rights for gay people, and so on.
These new laws call that constellation of rights and freedoms into question. Legislatures are enacting the laws, in many cases, along with efforts to restrict political rights, such as with new restrictions on voting in states like Texas—as well as social rights, the benefits a government determines a citizen is entitled to, such as Medicaid or state-financed medical treatments. Across all of these areas, there’s a contest over what kinds of rights and benefits being a citizen entitles you to.
Bluhm: What are the main factors driving this contest?
Rocco: The structure of political parties is a big part of it. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, you never had parties based on mass membership in the United States, as you did in Europe; you had parties that were more locally organized and hierarchical.
Now you have parties still without mass bases but less hierarchical locally and connected through a set of networks nationally. That creates a new structure for how ideas get turned into policy. At the state level, the organizations driving policy aren’t traditional Republican organizations—economic interests, chambers of commerce, Rotary clubs—but sophisticated ideological actors who aren’t after the economic benefits the traditional organizations looked to gain from public policy.
They’re not purely after electoral success, either. For these newer organizations, the value of winning or losing an election can sometimes be less than the value of responding to the interests of their key stakeholders—ideological allies and donors.