Synecdoche, WI

How to make state politics invisible

Wisconsin State Blue Book, 1967

here political conflict is obscure, crises make celebrities. And in the American states — where politics is invariably (and tragically) obscure — crises make governors (in)famous. But for the Little Rock Nine, who would still recall the name of Orval Faubus? Without Katrina, the name of Kathleen Blanco might well be lost to history. During the Covid-19 pandemic, governors have been inescapable. More than inescapable, they have become a synecdoche for state politics. “Evers” and “Cuomo” now stand in for “Wisconsin” and “New York”.

There are admittedly some good reasons for this substitution. Governors possess broad emergency-management authorities, which constitute a unique vantage point for governance. Routine news briefings, crisis communications, legislative package deals, and a ruddy sheen of (relative) competence have helped to depolarize public opinion on how “the governor” is managing each state’s unique crisis. Each one of my newspapers bears some variant of a column praising governors around the country for their leadership and offering some contrast with the incoherence, division, or general malaise of Washington. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin compares the “lying liars” in the Trump administration to the “competent governors” in Virginia and Ohio. At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, David Shribman highlights how “four governors have stepped up to provide essential leadership.” Governors’ performance evaluations vary, but the relation holds: one looks at governors to understand the states.

There is so much wrong with this reduction that it is hard to summarize quickly. And there, of course, is the point. Making the politics of the fifty states intelligible in brief compass, as I have argued elsewhere, requires every writer and analyst to make choices. At some point, certain institutions are determined to have a high relative importance and are thus singled out for scrutiny. In an emergency, we look to the office that appears to have emergency authority. And indeed, governors can be said to “speak” for the state during crises in a way that they cannot during normal circumstances.

Yet this judgment assumes a level of stability to gubernatorial power, and a conceptual oneness of the governor with the “states” that simply does not exist in practice. As they have done on virtually every other issue, Republican legislative leaders in Wisconsin are now attempting to cabin the governor’s emergency authorities. As revenue forecasts are updated across the fifty states, the most important institutional feature of subnational governments— their inability to perform countercyclical spending —will come into fuller view. How will the image of gubernatorial authority and competence fare when governors are forced to make draconian budget cuts?

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the state-to-governor linguistic reduction is the concealment of already-obscure processes of political representation. Beyond broad stories of confusion and despair, we know little about how constituents are communicating with their state legislators. This may explain why the far-right protests of recent days, however unrepresentative of state public opinion, have become more than a blip on the radar screen. Who else is gathering in public?

What we do know is that lobbying on issues surrounding the pandemic has churned up in reaction to major decisions affecting the state economy. Here’s some data I compiled on the cumulative lobbying registrations since March 1. The dates of important gubernatorial and legislative decisions are listed on the timeline.

Lobbying reports mentioning COVID-19 in Wisconsin, March 1-April 19, 2020 (cumulative)
Lobbying reports mentioning COVID-19 in Wisconsin, March 1-April 19, 2020 (cumulative)

Just how is this already-obscure activity affecting state decisions about bailouts, relief, and essential businesses? How has the migration of the legislature into virtual session and out of the capitol complex altered the politics of representation? If we continue to allow governors to stand in for the states, we’ll never know.

Associate Professor of Political Science // Marquette University // Coauthor, Obamacare Wars (2016) // Coeditor, APD and the Trump Presidency (2020)