There are a few dirty secrets about politics that progressives need to come to grips with.
The first maybe not-so-secret fact is that we have little power to enact progressive policy in Washington, D.C. The Congress, White House and Supreme Court are completely dominated by conservatives. And even if the Republicans lost enough seats to move nominal control to the Democrats, the reality is that a combination of conservative Democrats, filibusters in the Senate and presidential vetoes will block any serious progressive change.
The second dirty secret is that the rightwing has increasingly turned its attention to the statehouses across the country -- and most progressive activists haven't been paying attention. Groups like the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), backed by its many corporate patrons, have been taking over state legislatures after state legislature across the country. More than 2400 state lawmakers -- roughly one-third of all state legislators &endash; and 34 state house speakers, 25 state senate presidents, 31 state senate leaders and 33 state house Leaders are ALEC members.
ALEC-backed legislation has crippled social service budgets, deregulated industries, slashed medical care for the poor and undermined consumer and worker protections in state after state.
Why It Matters: Which is the third dirty secret of American politics: state policy matters.
State and local revenues account for 16.2% of the Gross Domestic Product, almost exactly equal to federal revenues as a percentage of GDP. Increasing "flexibility" and "waivers" offered to states in how they administer programs like TANF and Medicaid increases the stakes in who controls state legislatures. State courts reported 17 million civil cases in 2003, including contract, tort and real property disputes. Through state law and liability rules, the states regulate trillions of dollars of commerce in the economy. Through public employee pension funds, state governments control $2.7 trillion of capital. And with 1.9 million prisoners in state and local prisons and jails, it's worth remembering that the criminal sentencing decisions that have decimated a generation of young people, especially in minority communities, were made in statehouses, not on Capitol Hill.
Rightwing groups are able to dominate policy in the statehouses because state legislatures are often made up of poorly paid, part-time lawmakers with few if any staff to challenge the expertise presented by conservative operatives -- or to uncover the hidden payoffs for corporate interests contained in legislation they introduce.
The Rightwing Agenda: A lot of the rightwing agenda are simple payoffs to the corporate patrons of the rightwing: oil companies get gas tax cuts, pharmaceutical companies block proposals to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, cities are blocked from creating municipal Internet services, and so on.
But the real threat of rightwing groups like ALEC is that they are pursuing a coordinated strategy to undermine the very capacities of government to restrain corporate power. They are enacting constitutional provisions to permanently disable the taxing power of state governments, using the rhetoric of "tort reform" to shut the court room door to anyone holding corporate criminals accountable, and are privatizing government services and public pensions in order to undermine public employee unions and create a "pay to play" system of corporate contractors to feed their election machines.
They are using control of state government to cut off the sources of funding for progressive politics. Shutting down the tort system cuts off funds to trial lawyers, so-called "paycheck protection" laws undermine union political action, defunding academic research centers blocks alternative intellectual challenges to industry claims, and privatization shifts money from public employee activists to conservative corporate contractors. By operating at the state level, outside the glare of media attention and full political focus by progressives, it's a bit like the rightwing is tunneling underground; by the time the ground gives away, it'll be too late to save the progressive house.
Progressives Can Win: But there is one more political secret.
Progressives do win occasionally in the states and have the potential to win far more often than they do now. In states covering nearly half the population, the minimum wage has been raised above the national rate -- significantly more in many cities and states. Even as the federal government does nothing on global warming, a number of state legislatures have passed rules to restrict carbon dioxide emissions in those states. State and local governments are confronting corporate influence on elections with stronger campaign finance regulations: "red state" Arizona has become a pioneer with one of the most expansive systems of public financing of elections in the country.
Those efforts are often drowned in a sea of other rightwing legislation and local activists, unions and legislators toil in these fights with little or no national attention and little of the coordination of their efforts that the rightwing has orchestrated for decades. But the victories progressives do achieve show that more investment in state efforts will yield large dividends for national policy changes.
Enter the Progressive Legislative Action Network or PLAN which aims to provide national coordination of state legislative campaigns. This new organization is backed by major labor unions, including SEIU, AFSCME and the AFL-CIO, national policy shops, grassroots groups like MoveOn.org, and a wide range of legislators in the states. Its kickoff conference in Seattle last fall was attended by 300 people, including legislators from thirty-eight states.
PLAN's goal is to use every tool of grassroots mobilization to build unity among progressive state legislators and deploy both strong policies and innovative strategies to beat the conservatives at their own game. The overarching strategy has to be finding the best public policy and championing it with effective and cohesive messaging.
The whole idea was so compelling that I signed up last month as PLAN's Policy Director, part of an impressive team that will be implementing this strategy in the coming year. This month, PLAN is launching its website and twice-weekly email newsletter to keep legislators and activists up-to-date on what's happening in the states. And we are releasing a report detailing the rightwing agenda in the states and how progressives can respond. You can check it all out at www.progressivestates.org/
This column will no doubt be influenced by my work with PLAN but anything I write here in the future should not be construed as reflecting the communal wisdom of my new employer.
Nathan Newman is a long-time union and community activist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.nathannewman.org.