In 1973, a small but powerful group of right-wing state legislators and activists met in Chicago. They gathered to form an organization for those who believe that government, in their words, ought to be limited and “closest to the people.” And since, thanks to Chief Justice John Roberts and Mitt Romney, we know that corporations are, in fact, people, it makes sense that Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart and Koch Industries are among the funders of this secretive and influential group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, known by its sweet-sounding acronym ALEC.
For nearly forty years, ALEC has quietly and successfully pushed its extremist agenda in state assemblies across the country. As The Nation and the Center for Media Democracy exposed last summer — work recently cited by The New York Times’ Paul Krugman — ALEC literally writes state laws by providing fully drafted model legislation to more than 2,000 state legislators. This corporate leviathan backed the recent national conservative push to further enrich the one percent while rolling back workers’ rights, inventing new ways to harass and debase women and suppressing the vote. They also wrote the so-called “Stand Your Ground” gun bills that now blight some 20 states across the country and are implicated in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Post.
While conservatives are skilled puppeteers, progressives are great at mobilizing people and channeling energy for the big fights, whether it’s putting the crisis of income inequality at center stage, or even electing a progressive president. But ALEC’s astonishing influence exposes the progressive Achilles’ heel: a lack of a similarly entrenched, nationwide infrastructure of state and local policymakers and advocates that can create and support lasting change.
Sure, well-coordinated progressive responses throughout the country, thus far, have prevented more extensive damage to our democracy. Mississippi, for instance, soundly defeated a ballot initiative to legalize “fetus personhood.” Maine saved same-day voter registration at the ballot box. The people of Wisconsin have fought back against a relentless right-wing attack on workers’ rights and forced Governor Scott Walker into a recall election.
But playing defense isn’t enough. The progressive movement needs to build a bench that can play offense at the grassroots, local, state and national levels, and one that is positioned to pull every lever of power in our multi-layered political system. Without that, for every big union busting bill defeated, or every progressive president elected, there still will be hundreds of right-wing initiatives percolating through the political system, eroding our rights and unraveling our hard-earned progress.
The good news is that this is already happening, resulting in key wins on paid sick leave, the minimum wage and gay and lesbian equality at the state and local levels. “People are now looking to do what the right has done so effectively — coordinating ideas, narratives, legislators and activists to really push in a progressive direction,” says New York City councilman and Progressive Caucus co-chair Brad Lander.