After progressive victories across the nation on Election Day – with winning candidates at the federal, state, and local levels, and on issues ranging from the minimum wage to tax policy – two things are clear: the American public is much more receptive to progressive ideas than suggested by the media, and the conservative movement is in disarray.
So it was disappointing on November 17th to read the New York Times recycling of an old story written time and again about the power of rightwing think tanks: "Policy institutes have been central to a national organizing strategy that has long won the right a reputation for savvy, and state-level versions are growing in number and clout."
Yes, it's true, rightwing think tanks have been effective through their ideological discipline and ample resources. But the progressive community recognizes the importance of defining issues and advancing a policy agenda, too. There is now a network of savvy progressive think tanks working at the state level – and they are winning. So here's a modest proposal: perhaps it's time for the paper of record to create a beat on the progressive movement.
"The other side gets way too much credit," says Michael Ettlinger, Director of the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN). "Basically they have one idea: lower taxes and eliminate government. People act like they've been able to take command of the American consciousness and that's just not true."
EARN has 47 groups in 36 states. The organization links local, state, and national groups that conduct research, develop and advocate for policy, mobilize public opinion and win state policy victories. EARN works on a range of issues, including minimum and living wages, workforce and economic development, Social Security, education, tax and budget, and health care. This year EARN is developing broad state-level economic agendas that will offer a well-crafted, well-framed, counterbalance to the "tax cuts are the answer to everything" policy of the right. (It has already generated such agendas in conjunction with the Fiscal Policy Institute in New York and the Bell Policy Center in Colorado.)
"I'll stack our groups up against the rightwing think tanks in terms of effective communication and influence any day," Ettlinger says. "We have to prove not only that government can work, but how it can work. And we do it well. You will hear legislators say they disagree with us, but our numbers are right. You won't hear them say that about the right's work--because the right is much more concerned about its mission than the truth."
Tim McFeeley, Executive Director of the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), is optimistic about the progressive movement's growing infrastructure as well. "People recognize the need for players at the state level – including funders," McFeeley says. "We're way behind – conservatives have a 20 year head start – but we've made progress in the last two years. We have the resources and talent to do it even better [than the right], we just need the focus and ongoing commitment."
CPA works with legislators in all 50 states to advocate for progressive policymaking through leadership development (several of its fellows have gone onto Congress, including Senator-elect Jon Tester); policy tools that help legislators introduce and promote progressive initiatives; and networking between like-minded legislators to share information and develop strategies for success (nearly one in every four legislators in the nation has taken part in the CPA State Action Network).
McFeeley says there is a "seamless hand-off" between conservative think tanks and business lobbyists in state capitols who are advocating for little government and less taxes. In contrast, the progressive community faces the challenge of uniting its diverse forces.
"We have unions, gay rights advocates, civil rights lobbyists, environmentalists, etc.," McFeeley says. "But we're not working enough yet in a strategic, connected way. There is a sense that we have to get together still. So we're working on strategic partnerships with organizations that are on the ground locally – to get everyone in the same room."
McFeeley points to recent progressive victories in defeating Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) legislation – a gimmick designed to provide more tax breaks to wealthy corporations while forcing states to slash spending that benefits average residents. "We won, but there was a sense that we were playing defense," he says. "Now we are figuring out how to play offense."
Matt Singer, Communications Director for the Progressive States Network, also sees progressives addressing the need to transition to offense. "A lot of what we are doing, conservatives have been doing for 30 years with more resources," he says. "But we are on the ball now and things are happening quickly."
The Progressive States Network works with legislators, organizations, and think tanks across the country to craft new initiatives, develop coordination between legislators and advocates, and make sure "we're not reinventing the wheel in all fifty states."
In terms of strategy, Singer says progressives are much more savvy about choosing headline issues such as the minimum wage to lead campaigns for change. They strive to focus on policies that will change the way coalitions work in the United States (like same day voter registration and union card check legislation). And progressives don't shy away from wedge issues that fragment the opposition.
"There are a lot of good ideas out there," Singer says. "We just have to get them into the hands of the policymakers and help them win."
Ettlinger believes that as a result of the Democratic wave "kitchen-table" issues will start getting a lot of attention – from paid leave to the broken health care system to universal childcare to access to higher education. And new regional think tanks spearheaded by the Center for American Progress are emerging to help fight these battles as well.
Over the past decade, Nation contributing editor Joel Rogers has probably been the single most important advocate and architect of a progressive state policy presence [see, among other pieces, Nation, "Devolve This!"/"Cities: The Vital Core"/"Build the High Road Here"]. Director of the Wisconsin-based COWS, one of the earliest "think-and-do" tanks on progressive state policy, Rogers has been a moving force behind EARN, the Apollo Alliance, New Cities and other efforts to build national infrastructure for state work. His latest effort is the Commons Project, named after JR Commons, the Wisconsin progressive reformer of the early 20th century. This project will complement grassroots and legislative-focused efforts, while concentrating on providing policy support to progressive Governors and other state executives (Attorney Generals, Secretaries of State, Treasures, and others.)
"Absolutely there's a great opening for progressives in the states, and we're much better organized now to make something of it. Unlike many national leaders, Governors and other state executives can't afford ideology-driven policy," Rogers points out. "They need things that actually work. They've shown their willingness to try new ideas. It falls to progressives to supply more of them. That's a great invitation to offer practical alternatives that advance our values, and cohere as a majority agenda. The Right reinvented national government from the states. We can do the same."
If the New York Times, other mainstream media outlets, and more of the blogosphere started reporting on what's really going on in the progressive movement, especially at the state level, people might more readily envision a different and better world. After all, no one will cross Jordan until they see what is on the other side.