We’ve come to think of “blue” and “red” states as political and cultural categories. The rift, though, goes much deeper than partisan differences of opinion. The borders of the United States contain two different forms of government, based on two different visions of the social contract. In blue America, state government costs more—and it spends more to ensure that everybody can pay for basic necessities such as food, housing, and health care. It invests more heavily in the long-term welfare of its population, with better-funded public schools, subsidized day care, and support for people with disabilities. In some cases, in fact, state lawmakers have decided that the social contract provided by the federal government is not generous enough. It was a blue state that first established universal health insurance and, today, it is a handful of blue states that offer paid family and medical leave.
In the red states, government is cheaper, which means the people who live there pay lower taxes. But they also get a lot less in return. The unemployment checks run out more quickly and the schools generally aren’t as good. Assistance with health care, child care, and housing is skimpier, if it exists at all. The result of this divergence is that one half of the country looks more and more like Scandinavia, while the other increasingly resembles a social Darwinist’s paradise.
Americans have been arguing over which system is morally and economically superior since the beginning of the republic. But every now and then, the worldviews have clashed and forced a reckoning. The 2012 election is one of those moments.
One of the campaign’s most contentious issues is the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—the legislation that finally mended a gaping hole in the American safety net. Yet already this year, more than a dozen Republican governors have called upon their states to reject or resist the ACA. If they get their way, Americans living in states that implement the ACA will effectively have a right to health insurance. Americans living in the anti-ACA states would not. Now, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are vowing not only to repeal the ACA altogether, but to turn vast swaths of public policy—including Medicaid, food stamps, and housing—over to the states.
This promise gets little attention, but it is one of the most radical parts of their agenda. It would entail a massive transfer of authority away from Washington, arguably unprecedented in U.S. history, in which states would get a lot less federal money for welfare programs and a lot more power over how big those programs should be. The blue states might scrape up the money to replace existing federal funds on their own. Red states would almost surely seize the opportunity to pare back the already meager assistance they provide. Tens of millions of Americans would likely lose health insurance. Millions more would likely lose access to food stamps, the program that has become the primary safety net during the Great Recession.
Romney and Ryan like to say that giving states more autonomy would encourage innovative and efficient solutions to social problems. But what their agenda would really do is undermine modern standards of economic security, creating among the red states a region in which government doesn’t even try to guarantee that everybody can pay for basic necessities of life. It would do nothing less than change the postwar definition of what it means to be an American.