Red States Are a Nation Unto Themselves, Not Just on Social Policy But On Economics, Too

James Surowiecki
4 min readAug 1, 2022

CNN’s Ron Brownstein wrote an interesting piece this week arguing that when it comes to social policy, red states are building “a nation within a nation.” These states, Brownstein wrote, are “moving social policy sharply to the right within their borders on issues from abortion to LGBTQ rights and classroom censorship, while simultaneously working to hobble the ability of either the federal government or their own largest metro areas to set a different course.” The result is a country more divided in terms of social policy than it’s been at any time since the days of segregation, a country in which where you live now has a profound effect on what rights you have.

That red states are more socially conservative than blue states may be obvious. But there’s another aspect of policy in red states that’s also worth paying attention to, which is that they’re also much more economically conservative than blue states are. These are states that typically have right-to-work laws that make it harder for workers to unionize. They generally have low minimum wages or no minimum wage at all (which means the minimum wage is set by the federal government). Unemployment benefits in these states tend to be skimpy.

Most of these states do not require businesses to offer workers benefits like paid sick leave. And many of these states also refused to expand Medicaid coverage to people with incomes just above the poverty line when the Affordable Care Act made that possible, even though the federal government would have picked up the tab. That means Republican politicians in these states chose to deny hundreds of thousands of working-class people affordable health insurance. And just as when it comes to social policy, red states limit the power of cities to enact their own policies, they do the same when it comes to economic policy, actively quashing efforts by cities to enact their own minimum-wage laws.

Indeed, about the only way anything good happens in economic terms for working people in these states is via ballot initiatives or constitutional amendments. That’s why Florida, for instance, is going to have a $15-an-hour minimum wage by 2026: a ballot initiative to that effect passed overwhelmingly. But even when these initiatives enjoy…

James Surowiecki

I’m the author of The Wisdom of Crowds. I’ve been a business columnist for Slate and The New Yorker and written for a wide range of other publications.