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Progressive elites only remember that states exist when they’re out of power in DC. That’s a problem.

Progressives have struggled to build policy clout at the state level. Here’s why.

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Abortion rights supporters rally in front of the Texas Capitol building.
Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

After the 2010 Republican wave election, state legislatures were flooded with almost-identical bills that would require strict photo ID to vote, weaken unions with right-to-work laws and allow individuals to use lethal force if they felt threatened. Democrats were taken off guard — but they shouldn’t have been.

A right-leaning “troika” of powerful interest groups had been working steadily for years to consolidate their power over a majority of states. Conservatives came to drive policymaking in the states through a collaboration between three powerful organizations: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and the State Policy Network (SPN). Meanwhile, progressives have struggled to build similar policy clout at the state level — but why?

As a scholar of right-wing politics who has also worked in progressive organizing, I caution the left not to cut-and-paste uncritically from a right-wing playbook. Instead, studying right-wing successes and failures is an exercise in self-awareness, like looking at one’s self in a stranger’s mirror. One sees different things from a different angle and in a different light.

Gazing into the right-wing mirror, it’s shocking how little attention and money Democrats and the progressive movement have put into state power-building over the last 40 years. Alexander Hertel-Fernandez’s new book State Capture is a tale of conservatives building large, well-funded, organizations to shape policy in a majority of states, plugging away leisurely in full view, making mistakes and learning from them along the way.

Conservative power-building in the states evoked relatively little opposition or alarm from progressives until it was too late. Progressives took only a sporadic interest in the states, and those who sounded the alarm were unable to marshal consistent funding for state-based policy and organizing.

On those few occasions when progressives have invested serious money and attention in state policy, it was because they were locked out of power at the federal level. To use a hydraulic model: Center-left money only flowed to the states when it had nowhere else to go at the federal level. During the Reagan years and first Bush presidency, a bipartisan but loosely progressive interstate policy network, the Center for Policy Alternatives, emerged and grew, only to lose funder interest in the mid-2000s.

A second push of state-level capacity-building began in the mid-2000s, during another season of soul-searching after Democrats lost a second time to George W. Bush. But just four years later, Democrats enjoyed a wave election in 2008 with Barack Obama, gaining control of the Senate after having taken the House.

Interstate policy and state power-building promptly dropped out of view again during the Obama presidency, even as Democrats lost dangerous ground in state legislatures and governorships, and conservatives showed how well prepared they were to quickly implement an agenda of tax cuts, right-to-work, and aggressive redistricting.

Then, the election of Donald Trump with Republican control of the House and Senate roused a new wave of post-2016 interest in the states.

In short, interstate organizing on the progressive side has proceeded in stops and starts, only gaining momentum when Democrats experience catastrophic losses at the federal level.

Inconsistent funding has hurt progressive state organizing

Throughout the last four decades, there has always been a faithful remnant of organizers and policy advocates who champion state power-building and attempt to build strong, large-scale interstate networks.

I’ve had the honor of working alongside these amazing people as a community organizer in Texas, where building state-based power has always been a top priority — out of a fierce sense of state pride, but also because Texas has only recently gained attention as a potential battleground state that could matter in presidential elections.

But within elite national circles, investment for state-based policy and power-building has consistently been too small and too fickle, drying up the minute that Democratic fortunes improved even modestly at the federal level.

Hertel-Fernandez also finds that progressives tend to duplicate efforts in the field of state policy, creating an “alphabet soup” of underpowered organizations that compete for funding and attention, instead of an integrated field of large organizations with complementary strengths. My interpretation of this problem differs slightly from the author’s; I’m not sure it’s fair to blame progressive interstate policy entrepreneurs for being too fractious.

Hertel-Fernandez’s book offers many examples of interstate policy entrepreneurs making heroic efforts to merge duplicating efforts and approach funders jointly, only to have funders pass or under-invest. When even all-star teams of progressives struggle to raise money together, it’s hard to argue that the problem is fractiousness on the left. Reading State Capture, I ultimately blamed the inconsistent funding that has left interstate networks underpowered and scrambling to fill the gaps.

Hertel-Fernandez offers three reasons why it has been so hard to raise money for state-based policy on the center-left.

1) Funders long for the “good old days” of bipartisanship

First, most large foundations express a preference for nonpartisan or bipartisan policy agendas, even those foundations associated with the center-left. But it is hard to do effective policymaking on a bipartisan basis in today’s political climate, now that Republicans have pulled out of an older generation of bipartisan state legislative institutions.

When large foundations do give to more Democratic-tinged policy work, they give to a small number of large, national groups working at the federal level. To the degree that centrist and center-left donors have had an appetite for more bare-knuckles policy advocacy, it has historically been at the federal level.

2) Progressives have a historical preference for national policymaking

Second, Democrats and center-left leaders have an ideological bias against state-level policymaking, instead seeing the national level as the most promising venue for change. States are seen mostly as barriers to effective national policy through the lens of civil rights battles over “state’s rights” and the legacy of conservative Southern Democrats’ opposition to the New Deal.

In the words of federalism scholar Heather Gerken, many progressives “think ‘federalism’ is just a code word for letting racists be racist.” States have also been seen as incapable of advancing redistributive agendas, given budget constraints, state fears of losing capital to other states, and the threat of becoming a “welfare magnet.”

3) National politics is seen as more prestigious than work in the states

Third, there is a culture of national elitism among the very set of high-capacity donors and foundations who would be most likely to give to interstate organizing. The world of centrist and center-left funders is driven by a small set of highly educated people, who see Washington, DC, as where the most talented and exciting leaders are operating.

State-level policy is frankly seen as less prestigious. And the legislators, policy experts, and organizations working at the state level are presumed to be lower-capacity and less worthy of investment. While conservatives recognized this lower state capacity as a strategic opportunity to offer legislators missing services, liberals saw it as an excuse to ignore states.

The book does not discuss regional differences, but I have found this is a particular problem in Southern states — where the opportunities are ripe, but where funders are deterred from being the first to give to smaller, scrappier organizations in a foreign land. Many Southern progressives suspect that funders are also influenced by a stew of racial and regional biases that make it seem “riskier” somehow to invest in, say, black women organizing in small-town Georgia.

This could be the turning point for building state power

There are encouraging signs that Democrats and the center-left have built a more permanent commitment to state power-building, learning from the sustained midterm losses under Obama, culminating in the election of Trump. The progressive funders network, the Democracy Alliance, has supported a Committee on the States and a growing network of state-level donor tables.

Hertel-Fernandez reports that the Committee on the States coordinated about $50 million in the 2013-2014 electoral cycle, and hopes for double that in 2020. Most importantly, there are signs that foundations and major donors are starting to see the need for steady investment in state policy and organizing as an end in itself, rather than dropping in last-minute money into purely electoral efforts. For example, an influential report called “Changing States: A Framework for Progressive Governance,” which makes the case for investing in state power-building, has become required reading for program officers interested in civic engagement and policy advocacy.

The center-left also benefits from a strong field of state-based policy networks. The two largest interstate policy networks together have affiliates in 45 states: The Economic Analysis & Research Network, overseen by the union-connected Economic Policy Institute, and the State Priorities Partnership, associated with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Though the policy field is divided into two networks, many groups belong to both. A third network founded in 2014, the State Innovation Exchange (SIX), is experimenting with both policy and electoral power-building in a core set of Democratic and labor stronghold states.

Enthusiasm for state-level organizing has also surged at the grassroots level since the 2016 election of Donald Trump. This outpouring of new leadership and new organizational energy powered a wave election in the 2018 midterms, even in areas like the small cities of southwest Pennsylvania that Trump carried in 2016.

In the more professionalized field of community organizing, state-based groups are collaborating on an interstate agenda through national organizing networks like the Center for Popular Democracy and People’s Action. Community organizing groups are also strategizing about state power-building through new informal venues that cross network lines like the State Power Caucus.

But progressive state power-building is still fragile

The real test is whether money and attention continue to flow to the states, even if opportunities reopen at the federal level. What will happen to these innovative efforts to build interstate power if Democrats recapture the White House and hold the House in 2020?

Will Democrats blink like goldfish and instantly forget that states exist, like they have so many times before? Will state donor tables lose their momentum, if donors become distracted by “sexier” new opportunities in Washington, DC? Have enough national elites been genuinely converted to the value of state power as an end in itself, and not just as a stepping stone to collecting electoral votes?

My prediction is that the pivot towards states will be durable at the grassroots. Too many new leaders have woken up to their power at the local and state levels since 2016, and I expect their enthusiasm for electing and lobbying state legislators will outlast Trump.

But after reading State Capture, I worry about how vulnerable the professionalized fields of interstate policy and organizing are to the shifting interests of major donors and foundations.

As an organizer, I’m encouraged by the renewed clarity around state power-building in our field, and by the exciting investments that major donors and foundations are making in state-level work — but we’ve been here before. If the past is any guide, interstate organizers have less than a year to win as many converts as they can to the cause of state power before their work is tested by the outcomes of the 2020 elections.

Lydia Bean is a fellow in New America’s political reform program. She is the author of The Politics of Evangelical Identity. From 2014 to 2018, Bean founded and led Faith in Texas, a multiracial movement organizing faith communities for social change, part of the Faith in Action Network.

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