All Democrats who are interested in party-building should read “How the Right Trounced Liberals in the States: Conservatives have mastered the art of cross-state policy advocacy, while liberal efforts have fizzled. Here’s what has to change” by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Theda Skocpol. As the authors outline the challenge:
State politics loom large for liberals. As Washington gridlock halts big new national initiatives, states are where the action (or inaction) is to be found on important liberal priorities ranging from legislative redistricting and boosting wages to addressing climate change and, of course, expanding Medicaid coverage for low-income people as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
But just as state-level action turns out to be crucial, the legislative terrain across much of the country looks downright disheartening for centrists and liberals alike. Building on huge electoral gains in state legislatures and governors’ offices in 2010 and 2014, hard-line conservatives have wasted no time in passing state measures that gut labor protections and the ability of workers to organize, that eviscerate health and environmental regulations, cut spending on the poor, shrink taxes on business and the wealthy, and erect new voting restrictions that disproportionately affect young, low-income, and minority citizens. Radical policy changes, often undoing decades of progress on liberal issues, have not been limited to traditionally very conservative areas in the Deep South and inner West. “Purple” states in the upper South and once “blue” states in the Midwest have also been the sites of sharp rightward policy turns.
The authors add that “a lot depends on whether progressive organization-builders can figure out why previous efforts to organize cross-state policy networks have failed, and discover ways to fashion their own versions of successful right-wing strategies.”
Toward that end, progressives have launched the State Innovation Exchange (siX) to challenge the right-wing’s state initiatives, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which many credit for empowering the conservative take-over of state governments, the State Policy Network (SPN) and Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the latter of which has paid staff in 34 states.
Despite their “nonpartisan” fig leafs, these three Republican-controlled organizations have worked so well together that their joint efforts were instrumental, for example, in taking over the state of Michigan, a once-Democratic stronghold. But it’s not just MI. In other states, the three conservative groups have had alarming success, write Skocpol and Hertel-Fernandez:
In Maine, for instance, bipartisan legislative majorities came very close to overriding vetoes of Medicaid expansion by a Tea Party governor, but a determined minority of GOPers, many of them ALEC members, got public backing from AFP-Maine and the SPN-affiliated Maine Heritage Policy Center to hold firm. In two pivotal states, Missouri and Virginia, the naysaying far-right troika has prevailed, using activist pressures stoked by AFP and other groups, along with opposition research and testimony to legislative commissions prepared by SPN think tanks. In Tennessee, the troika even defeated a conservative proposal to expand and revamp Medicaid that was put forward by an extraordinarily popular GOP governor, Bill Haslam, who had just been reelected with 70 percent of the vote.
The authors detail the strategy and tactics ALEC, SPN and AFP used to gain control in the states over the years, while progressives lacked an effective counter-initiatives. It’s pretty clear that Democrats and liberals were simply out-organized, as well as out-funded, at the state level. As a direct result, “ALEC-derived state laws tripled from the 1990s through the early 2000s.”
As for the remedy, Hertel-Fernandez and Skocpol cite “two networks of state-based policy research organizations, which survive to this day and in some respects rival SPN think tanks across the country”:
One network, originally called the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative and recently renamed the State Priorities Partnership (SPP), is directed by Robert Greenstein’s Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). SPP has enrolled or stimulated the creation of policy research organizations in 41 states and the District of Columbia so far. These mini-CBPPs offer research on state tax and budget issues, with a special focus on programs to help the poor. Increasingly, they also help to build political coalitions of advocacy groups to lobby state legislatures and executives.
The other network, called the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN), is coordinated by Lawrence Mishel’s union-backed Economic Policy Institute. More loosely knit than the SPP network, this assemblage of 61 groups across 44 states and the District of Columbia disseminates research on wages, job benefits, and other economic issues relevant to unionized workers and the broad middle class.
Each of these networks convenes annual meetings and keeps in touch with affiliates, and SPP holds an additional meeting for state directors each year. EARN does not have many resources to invest in its affiliates, but SPP deploys funds from center-left donors such as the Ford Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation to provide some infrastructure support to affiliates, and it has a steering committee that thoroughly vets potential new state affiliates. Yet that process is so slow that some key, historically divided states like Tennessee have not installed SPP affiliates yet.
Progressives still lack an effective counter-force organization that can match ALEC’s success, particularly in fund-raising. “Supporters of past efforts to counter ALEC–including foundations, individual donors, and labor unions–have not matched the efforts of right-wing donors and, perhaps more importantly, have not provided sustained and predictable resources…In many ways, the funding problem has gotten worse now that unions are struggling with declining dues-paying memberships and adverse legal decisions that threaten their very existence.”
However, add, the authors, “We see five areas where SiX leaders–and others endeavoring to build liberal policy capacities in and across the states–might learn from conservative experiences. The trick is to look for the left’s own versions of clever innovations and organizational solutions discovered years ago by the right.” These include establishing ‘meaningful membership’; leveraging existing ‘networks and social ties within states’; creating ‘mechanisms for dealing with competing policy priorities’; finding ‘better funding solutions’ and viewing policy ‘as a means to political goals.’ Read the article for an illuminating discussion of the five strategies.
Skocpol and Hertel-Fernandez conclude, “The challenge is bigger than simply raising more money. Network builders have to get out of their comfort zones in the worlds of liberal advocacy groups mostly headquartered in New York, Washington, California, and a few other blue enclaves to find and activate network connections across the vast heartland. And if progressives want to gain credibility and clout in the states, they will need to become far more strategic about engaging in widespread policy fights with the greatest potential to reshape the political landscape in conservative as well as liberal states across America.”
It’s a formidable challenge Democrats must meet, if we want to break the pattern of having gains achieved in national elections all but erased by the Republicans at the state level. National politics will continue to draw the most media and public attention in 2016. But Democrats should begin mobilizing their resources to meet the challenges presented by Hertel-Fernandez and Skocpol. With such a commitment, we could have even more to celebrate in November than holding the White House.