Texas Governor Greg Abbott likes to brag about Texas’ business environment and jobs record, especially if he can also get in a swipe at California and other blue states while doing it. California Governor Gavin Newsome has started his own effort at defending his state against his conservative rival Governors by running advertisements in Florida and Texas challenging the red state policies of both. We might like to think that the Governors of the largest states in the country are above such sniping but their slings at each other highlight an underlying policy competition – the red state vs blue state model. Texas and California tend to stand in as representatives for each model respectively and if one is doing better than the other that gives partisans more evidence that their side is right. So, who is right? Where is it better to live in a blue state or red state? It is possible to evaluate the performance of liberal and conservative states on many dimensions but perhaps the most important measure is in terms of citizens just simply staying alive, and on that measure the results are clear – its blue states by a mile.
Examining mortality rates across the fifty states one finds some striking results. In one recent studyscholars found a significant mortality gap between Democratic and Republican counties with the latter’s mortality rate increasing sixfold compared to Democratic countries from 2001 to 2019. Of course, mortality rates are driven by many factors that can be independent of policies pursued at the state and county level, but scholars have also tested that very proposition. In another recent study, a team of scholars concluded that the change in life expectancy across Republican and Democratic states was driven by the adoption of more liberal policies at the state level. For example, they note that in 1959 Connecticut and Oklahoma had the same life expectancy – 71.1 years. However, by 2017 the life expectancy in Connecticut had increased 9.6 years while the life expectancy in Oklahoma only increased by 4.7 year. Both increased but the blue state of Connecticut greatly outpaced the red state Oklahoma.
This overall mortality gap between Red and Blue states has only been exasperated by new policy decisions regarding COVID-19 mitigation measures, gun control policies, and abortion restrictions. Researchers studying the partisan response to COVID-19 find what they describe as a pandemic policy “U-Turn” where red state Governors where much more likely to ease COVID-19 restrictions up to a week earlier than blue state Governors. Although pandemic restrictions must be weighed against other factors such as economic concerns and mental well-being, loosening restrictions too early contributed to increased spread of COVID-19 and therefore increased death rates. This is seen in the COVID-19 death data as well where counties with a higher voting percentage for Donald Trump in the 2020 election also have higher death rates from COVID-19. These are driven by loose adherence to restrictions, if they existed at all, and lower vaccine rates. With regards to gun control, the U.S. as a whole has shockingly high gun violence rates compared to other similarly situated countries but there are also internal differences in gun violence and death in the U.S. based on partisan control of state governments. Texas has lead the way in loosening up, and all but eliminating, gun control regulations culminating in the open carry law Governor Greg Abbott signed in 2021. Texas is not alone in opening up gun ownership as many states have implemented right-to-carry gun regimes. Much research has went into studying the impacts of right-to-carry laws and the outcomes are clear – they lead to more violent crime. This belies the propaganda of the NRA and their Republican sycophants but the evidence is clear to all but the most allergic to common sense. Finally, in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court, and for Texas even before that, red states have been tripping over themselves to drastically restrict abortion access. Although these dramatic reductions in abortion access are new the news and research describing the consequences of these policies are horrific. In Texas specifically, early researchhas already shown that the seriously restrictive abortion regime has already lead to increased morbidity for pregnant women and will almost certainly lead to more maternal deaths. Tragically, the states that have imposed the most draconian abortion restrictions are already the states with much higher maternal mortality rates to begin with.
Whether its abortion policy, gun policy, COVID-19 restrictions or overall general health care policy the divergence between red and blue states is sharp and only increasing. States governed by Democrats have citizens with higher life expectancy and lower mortality rates. These differences are not just do to underlying population differences between the states but are also driven by policy differences. Democrats pursue policies that help people live longer and Republicans do not (or at least do so to a lesser degree). In his masterwork, The Leviathan, political philosopher Thomas Hobbes described life in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes was describing life in a thought experiment not a real place but if Republican states continue on their recent, they ae doing their best to bring his nightmare into realization.