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  • The Morality Politics of Lotteries and Casinos: Comparing Gambling Legalization in Tennessee and Mississippi
  • Michael Nelson (bio)

Fifty years ago, Nevada was the only state in the union to allow casino gambling. Not a single state had a lottery. Today Nevada is one of twenty-two states that authorize commercial—that is, privately owned—casinos to operate. 1 Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have lotteries, all of them publicly owned. Although the federal government has played an active role in some aspects of modern gambling policy—specifically, fostering tribal casinos and trying to suppress internet gambling—the spread of lotteries and commercial casinos across the American landscape has been almost entirely the product of state governments acting individually. 2

Most scholars place gambling squarely within the domain of morality policy because of both the nature of the issue and the states-centered politics through which it has been primarily contested. The politics of morality policy has distinctive attributes, political scientists argue. According to Christopher Mooney, morality politics involves clashes of “first principles” in which at least one side proposes “legal sanctions of right and wrong, validations of particular sets of fundamental values.” (The other side often tries to frame the issue as one of economic prosperity, libertarian choice, a competing moral value, or, as in the case of gambling, all three.) Because of the values-grounded nature of such debates, Mooney adds, “anyone can legitimately claim to be well informed,” making morality policy seem “technically simpler than most nonmorality policy.” And since the issues at stake “can be highly salient to the general public,” morality politics often spurs “a higher than normal level of [End Page 62] citizen participation.” In sum, the “politically relevant characteristics of morality policy and its politics [are] that it involves clashes of first principles on technically simple and salient public policy with high citizen participation.” 3

As for the states-centered character of morality politics—somewhat unusual in the face of the federal government’s rise to preeminence in most other areas of public policy—Raymond Tatalovich and Byron Daynes trace the reluctance of presidents and federal agencies to take the lead on many such issues to the Constitution. “The ‘police powers’ under the Tenth Amendment,” they observe, “ensure that subnational governments will be more than equal partners in the federal relationship. In numerous ways, the states safeguard public order, safety, health, and moral character.” 4 In addition, the different political cultures of the states make possible a wide range of locally popular policies that, for political reasons, federal officeholders may be loath to circumscribe.

To be sure, not all morality policies are dealt with exclusively or even primarily at the state level. Battles over slavery, prohibition, abortion, and the death penalty, for example, have all been fought in the national arena as well as in the states. Nor does the political system’s treatment of morality policy invariably follow the standard template of participatory and controversy-ridden morality politics. As Donald Haider-Markel and Kenneth G. Meier have shown in connection with gay and lesbian rights, when a moral issue is successfully channeled into “day-to-day interest group politics” in which “an intense minority seek[s] a policy in a situation with a quiescent majority,” a proposal that probably would fail if elevated to a public controversy may succeed in being enacted. 5

Viewed in general terms, the politics of gambling fits neatly within the category of morality politics. It is no coincidence that the spread of commercial casinos from one state in 1963 to more than two-fifths of the states in 2013 and of lotteries from no state to nearly nine-tenths of the states during that same period coincided with the rapid liberalization of the national culture on matters such as divorce, abortion, and sexual behavior. In the political arena, arguments that actions once forbidden by law should be transformed into matters of personal choice characterized debates over gambling as well as over other cultural issues—although, as chronicled below, gambling legalization also has been treated, especially by its proponents, as an economic issue.

It is also unsurprising that, as on other moral issues, states in the...


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