In American politics, who controls the states controls the nation. The right understands this, and for a generation has waged an unrelenting war to take over state government in America. It has substantially succeeded, in large part because it hasn't faced any serious progressive countereffort. Despite the visibility of the right's advance, and the decades of devolution and economic decentralization that have made states hugely important sites of politics, progressives haven't made one.
To be sure, we progressives do all sorts of great organizing, service and advocacy work in the states. We regularly protest state government actions and try to move its members in one direction or another. We even help with a few campaigns for state office, albeit almost always after the candidates and their agendas have already been set by others. What we don't do is what the right has done--i.e., determinedly aim at taking over state government and running it ourselves. We haven't built an infrastructure for progressive state electoral politics and government. And so we can't, and don't, recruit and train thousands of progressives to run for state office, provide them with state-specific platforms to run on, help them in implementing those platforms once in office, and coordinate all this across states for mutual gain. So it should not surprise us that very few of the 7,382 state legislators in America even think of themselves as part of, and accountable to, a broad, ambitious, technically savvy and policy-smart progressive movement--since in the states, we're not one. As politics is conventionally understood--candidates, elections, identifiable policy agendas, the compulsory powers of public authority--progressives don't have a state political strategy.
Progressive reluctance to develop such a strategy is in some ways understandable. Variation and competition among states has historically been the single most resilient barrier to democratic politics in America. The very idea of a progressive state strategy--as opposed to a determined focus on a more democratic national government able to surmount that barrier--has long seemed oxymoronic, or merely moronic. It's also true that state politics is less compelling than other politics, if not downright boring. This is especially so today, with the nation at war and facing from its national government the greatest internal threat to our democracy in our history, but the observation holds in safer times. Most progressives also mourn devolution, which has been coterminous with if not defined by the dismantling of the New Deal welfare state, twentieth-century American liberalism's greatest domestic achievement. Understandable, then, that we are in a sort of collective denial that "the era of big government is over."
But whatever the reasons for our neglecting the states, good and bad, we need to get over them. We need a progressive strategy in the states, because not having one is now doing us two sorts of grievous harm.
The first is that we're getting killed there politically, with results we are likely to feel for years to come. For the first time in a generation, a rightist GOP has recently gained the edge in total governors, legislative chambers, controlled legislatures and legislative seats. And in states no less than nationally, the right is clearer on its ends than are the Democrats, and infinitely more aggressive in casting even modest electoral victories in policy cement.
The second is that we're missing an enormous political opportunity in the states, which today are the most natural sites of progressive growth. States wield control over many ingredients of a well-run economy and polity--from human capital to transportation to campaign finance and election rules--and they have relatively porous political systems that we could in fact organize. In at least some states, we already have close to the organizational density (e.g., among unions, community groups, service and advocacy organizations of different kinds) and diffuse public support to do this relatively quickly--if we aimed at this goal in a deliberate and coordinated way. With real government power in the states, progressives could demonstrate that our ideas actually work--that a government run in our way is more efficient and accountable, that a "high road" economy of the sort we favor delivers higher living standards, that social service and insurance systems financed our way are cheaper, with deeper coverage. We could in effect take a page from the original Progressives of a century ago--the folks who worked out at the state level many of the ideas that later informed the New Deal and who, before it became a cliché, gave real meaning to the idea of states as "laboratories of democracy." We could try new things, test their effects, compare them across states and surface the best new ideas into national debate.
Some of this policy experiment, of course, is already happening. States are generating far more progressive legislation--in areas from campaign finance to consumer protection, predatory lending to land-use control, school finance reform to inclusionary zoning, worker training and economic development, and of course civil rights--than we've seen from recent national administrations, Democratic and Republican alike. This work should be honored as well as built upon in any more general progressive effort. But--and the most seasoned state activists and progressive elected officials are among the first to point this out--it still falls well short of the scale and scope that is possible, and probably required, for lasting effect. In no state are there functional majorities of self-consciously progressive elected officials, working together off a visible, coherent program of progressive economic, social and political reform, linked systematically to outside progressive forces. That is what the right is building on its side, and what we need to build on ours.