It seems obvious to say, but if you want a real sense of the differences between America’s two major parties — and if you want a sense of what the future could bring if either party wins full control of the federal government next year — all you have to do is look at the states.

Where Republicans have gained this kind of full control over state legislatures and statehouses, they have used that authority in pursuit of policies meant to curtail the ability of people in their states to live as they please.

You know what this looks like. It’s the “anti-woke” policymaking of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Florida, from laws that stigmatize L.G.B.T.Q. students and teachers in public school classrooms to an assault on higher education that has driven professors out of state. “What we are witnessing in Florida is an intellectual reign of terror,” LeRoy Pernell, a law professor at Florida A&M University, said in an interview with a special committee of the American Association of University Professors.

It’s not just Florida, of course. Republican trifectas in states across the country have introduced and passed dozens of bills aimed at the public existence of trans and other gender nonconforming people. Republicans in Oklahoma banned the use of nonbinary gender identifiers on birth certificates; Republicans in Tennessee, similarly, banned trans people from changing their gender on their birth certificates. Republicans in Arkansas and Alabama have passed laws that ban gender-affirming care for young trans people and Republicans in Texas have gone as far as to say that under state law, gender-affirming care can legally constitute child abuse.

There is also the issue of abortion. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, a number of Republican-led states pushed and passed stringent policies to restrict the bodily autonomy of women and other residents. New abortion restrictions in Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas — to name just a few states — have left millions of American women without access to abortion services, even in the face of life-threatening complications. Republicans in Texas, in fact, waged and won a legal battle against Kate Cox, a 31-year old woman who sought to terminate her essentially nonviable pregnancy or face potentially deadly complications. This week, she left the state to receive care. Or put another way, Texas decided that Cox’s life was not threatened enough to relent.

The state-level Republican agenda also includes efforts to restrict voting or gerrymander political opponents out of representation. Taken all together, you could say that Republicans are engaged in a comprehensive effort to limit the freedom of entire categories of people.

Compare this with the legislation passed in states that, after the 2022 elections, became Democratic trifectas.

Late last month, Michigan Democrats overhauled the state’s election laws, with a set of bills designed to increase access to the polls. Most groundbreaking is a bill that would automatically register incarcerated people upon release from prison, unless they opt out. Other measures include a bill to allow 16-year-olds to preregister to vote ahead of their 18th birthdays and a bill to strengthen penalties for intimidating or harassing election workers.

The package, signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, is the latest in a barrage of legislation that’s been passed in the year since Michigan Democrats won control of all three elected branches for the first time since the 1980s. Within months of the start of the new legislative session, Whitmer had already signed laws to increase the state earned-income tax credit, expand anti-discrimination protections for sexual and gender identity, repeal the state’s right-to-work law — which hindered the ability of unions to organize — and repeal a 1931 statute criminalizing abortion care.

And Michigan Democrats aren’t alone in their pursuit of policies to benefit the broad swath of residents under their charge. Upon winning their trifecta in 2022, Minnesota Democrats — led by Gov. Tim Walz — embarked on a similar effort to make life better for most people in the state. In the face of largely united Republican opposition, Minnesota Democrats mandated paid family and medical leave, barred employers from holding anti-union captive audience meetings, strengthened workplace protections in warehouses and meatpacking plants, curtailed wage theft and gave free breakfast and lunch to all children in Minnesota public schools.

Maryland Democrats, for their part, have used their new trifecta to speed up the state’s transition to a $15-per-hour minimum wage, expand tax credits for low-income residents, limit where people can carry firearms in public places and protect abortion rights.

One final observation: Over the long term, state-by-state policies have a measurable impact on life expectancy. Writing for The American Prospect, Paul Starr summarizes the results of a 2020 paper looking at the disparity in life expectancy between the most liberal states and the most conservative states, singling out Connecticut and Oklahoma as two states where policies shifted the most, either to the left or to the right. “Their model,” Starr writes, “indicated that if all states’ policies were the same as Connecticut’s in 2014, U.S. life expectancy would have been two years longer for women and 1.3 years longer for men — and if all states’ policies were like Oklahoma’s, Americans’ lives would have been shorter.”

Americans are often taught to think of the differences between Republicans and Democrats as a set of reasonable disagreements over how to tackle agreed-upon problems. But what we can see, in the divergent agendas of Republican-led states and Democrat-led states, is how the differences have far more to do with the actual purpose of government. For Democrats, that purpose is usually the public good. For Republicans, that purpose is harsh social regulation, with little apparent regard for the lives of those who have to endure these policies.

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