Devolve This! | The Nation


Devolve This!

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Joel Rogers is the Director of The Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS). Click here for more info on the group.

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Joel Rogers
Joel Rogers, a Nation contributing editor, teaches at the University of Wisconsin, where he directs the Center on...

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It’s time to embrace a new egalitarian politics.

After one of Supreme Court’s most anti-union rulings in recent years, is there still time for organized labor to save itself?

The reason progressives could start a serious state effort so cheaply is that we already have many of the needed pieces. We've got scores of campaign operatives and political consultants. We've got community organizing and issue advocacy organizations in all states, with most of the significant ones tied into national organizations with real resources. We've got major international unions with longstanding interests in state politics. We've got progressive state federations of labor, and progressive central labor councils. We've got state policy shops nationally, and in most states themselves. We've got expert advocacy groups on virtually every issue you can imagine, and they are networked nationally. We've even got at least some networks of progressive elected officials, at both the national and regional levels.

What we haven't done yet is put these different parts of the puzzle together.

Of course, it's not unusual for progressives not to unite around common projects, for altogether too familiar reasons. One attractive aspect of the project proposed here, however, is that many of those don't seem to apply, or apply with much less force than is normal. Nobody's doing this, so the field is not occupied. Most foundations won't touch it, so it wouldn't immediately steal resources from other progressive activities. Nobody really disputes its importance (they just don't like to think about it). And there's not even much disagreement about the content of the state policies at which it would aim.

We want states to get on the "high road" of high-wage, low-waste, democratically accountable economic development, with firms competing on product quality, innovation and distinctness, and drawing on a wide range of productive public goods. We want to close off the "low road" alternative, in which firms compete chiefly on price, and wind up in an endless race-to-the-bottom on labor and environmental standards and the evasion of social responsibility. And we want to reinvent government our way--with a clean and more democratic process, and greater input from popular organizations outside the states--to make it more efficient and capable. Based on years of work, we even know what this "high road" looks like in its different parts--education and training, transportation and infrastructure, land use and energy, democratic reform and administration. We just need to connect the dots into a picture, and display that more hopeful future to the public.

We know this program would be popular. We know this not only because it is in the interests of a vast majority of voters--labor, most people of color, most women, high-roading business and the many residents of inner-ring suburbs, depressed rural communities and central cities who are getting killed by present low-roading policy--but because our own organizing experience over the past decade has shown repeatedly that, given a choice, this is the one the majority makes.

So if progressives have the talent to do this, and can find their way to agreement on what needs to get done, what's the problem?

The problem is that building capacity in the states is a long-term project, requiring substantial if not humongous amounts of money spent over several electoral cycles, to improve the fortunes of a large number of largely unknown down-ballot candidates and officeholders. Until very recently, most progressive people and organizations putting serious money into electoral work never considered spending on these terms. They spent on individual candidates, usually at much higher levels of office, in a single cycle, or in presidential years on the Democratic Party itself, with the party and lead candidate overseeing the "coordinated campaign" that glued the field organization together. After the election this field operation would be folded, only to be rebuilt in the next presidential campaign.

But now George W. Bush, combined with the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, has changed that. The first has mobilized people, the second has barred the national coordinated campaign. So now we have unprecedented massive progressive electoral coordination, and money, operating outside the Democratic Party. Many of those doing this, moreover, want to continue playing together after the November election, maintaining and redeploying at least some good share of the capacity built up in the past several months--in staff, political intelligence, routines of cooperation, committed donors. Some even want to start the conversation about building a national political infrastructure to compete with the right. That means scaled, patient, performance-based investments, growing out of a shared and credible knowledge base of what's working, what's not and what's needed.

In that conversation, a progressive state strategy is a natural topic, and an easy argument to make for all the reasons summarized here: great opportunity, great threat, pretty clear on how to improve what we've got now. After retiring Bush, we progressives should be making that argument together.

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