Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote in 1932 that US states should serve as “laborator[ies],” where local politicians could try “novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country”—or where, as Esquire’s Charles Pierce skeptically puts it, “the real work of governmentin’ goes on.”
Notwithstanding Pierce’s misgivings about the vagaries of state parochialism, though, our national Congress has shown itself incapable of effective governing (largely due to GOP obstructionism and extremism). So, if we’re going to see progress—in any field, really—in this decade, it’s the states that will have to provide it. Congressional ineptitude has reached such a level that Speaker John Boehner had to fall on his sword just to keep the federal government open for business. Such is governance by fire, and it is unsustainable.
Unfortunately, progressives historically have not paid enough attention to the state-level governmentin’, and, as usual, Republicans control the majority of state assembly chambers—that’s more power at the state level, in fact, than they’ve enjoyed since the 1920s. Republicans hold both the governorship and a legislative majority in 23 states, while the Democrats control both in just 7.
And it wasn’t just a tide of anti-Democratic sentiment that manage to flip nine state legislative chambers in 2014, bringing the total of GOP-controlled state legislative chambers to 69 out of 99 (Nebraska’s legislature is unicameral and officially nonpartisan). State senators and state representatives run locally, on local issues, far from the machinations of Washington. It only takes a handful of Republican ousters—sometimes fewer than that—to flip a state chamber to red and dash the hopes of progressive reformers. The extreme is in Kansas, where Sam Brownback is governor and where Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state’s legislature by nearly four to one. Pundits cannot find the right term to describe the state’s hyperconservative policies—“failure” and “embarrassment” seem to be the general consensus—and life is a nightmare for those who receive state assistance. Although not as radical, Chris Christie’s New Jersey has fared similarly.
It all makes for a difficult political landscape, but, fortunately, groups like SiX are stepping up. SiX stands for State Innovation Exchange, and its self-described mission “is to create and maintain a policy, communications, and political infrastructure that supports long-term progressive policy gains in the states and beyond, focusing the goals of progressives more on our communities, and less on Congress and the federal government.” To this end, SiX has combined the efforts and resources of the Progressive States Network, ALICE, and the Center for State Innovation. The idea is for progressives to approach the state capitols more proactively and aggressively, a remarkable about-face from the defensive catch-up that progressives have been forced to play in recent decades. You cannot watch the federal government repeatedly flirt with shutdown before recognizing that there is a better way, and that progressives stand ready to direct us there.