The adage goes that “states are the laboratories of democracy.” However, left unchecked, rising far-right activity at the state level combined with nascent networks of legislators that have joined these far-right groups and the unending fuel of online misinformation threaten to turn states into crucibles of the corrosion of our democracy.
Harkening to egregious periods in our history, it is also important to remember that “states’ rights” have too frequently been a call to defend white supremacy and deny fundamental human and civil rights to broad segments of our society.
The current numbers are staggering. Nearly twelve percent of all state legislators in the country (almost twenty-two percent of all Republican legislators) have joined far-right Facebook groups. Collectively, those legislators have been responsible for sponsoring close to one thousand pieces of anti-human rights legislation. Early data suggests that things could be getting even worse.
The findings of this report suggest that this problem is not about the former president. It’s not about #MAGA. Across the country, far-right groups have quietly breached the mainstream without the cacophonous fury of an insurrection.
No longer confined to backwoods musters or clattering away in some dank corner of the internet, far-right ideas are increasingly normalized and mainstreamed by elected officials like those documented in this report.
What happens in Springfield, Olympia, or Tallahassee, doesn’t stay in the halls of state capitols. Thanks to these networks, far-right bills and the conspiracies that propel them spread far and wide. And like farm clubs in sports, state legislatures often act as a stepping stone to higher office. Today’s state representative could become tomorrow’s U.S. Senator.
Much attention has focused on the Supreme Court’s rulings that erode voting rights and women’s reproductive rights. However, concern about what the Supreme Court has done, or will do, should not inure us of what is happening in the halls of state legislatures around the country.
The impact of the Supreme Court’s imminent assault on women’s reproductive rights, voting rights, the rights of the LGBTQIA community, public health, and much more could be devastating in myriad ways. Yet, at the same time, it is crucial not to lose sight of what is happening in the states and their legislatures. Like the Mississippi anti-abortion law upon which the forthcoming Supreme Court decision rests, state-level far-right laws play a central role in corroding democracy and human rights. Emboldened by changes in the national legal context, the states and their legislatures are poised to pounce.
The problem is not merely partisan squabble. Instead, the future of American democracy depends on the outcome of this fight. Sustained, long-term efforts to defend democracy and reclaim human rights will be necessary to uproot far-right ideas from corridors of power, disconnect the disinformation pipelines, and rebuild our nation in a way that lives up to our ideals.