When it comes to moments in history, 1973 was not exactly a banner year for the Republican Party. The Senate Watergate Committee began its televised hearings in May. Spiro Agnew resigned in October. And President Nixon used a pre-Thanksgiving news conference at Disney World to unconvincingly assure the country that he was not, in fact, a crook. A tough year, indeed, for the grand old party.
But if you were a corporate conglomerate who dreamed of lower taxes and lax regulations and lesser rights for workers, 1973 was, ironically enough, a well-spring of new opportunity. That’s when a group of conservative activists joined together to engineer a different kind of burglary — one that involved forcibly entering cities and states with the intent to loot their working and middle classes.
The mechanism? A new organization dubbed the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The idea? Don’t just lobby state and city governments; write the actual laws you want them to pass and then hand it out as model legislation. In the decades since its inception, ALEC has dismantled environmental regulations, pushed for school vouchers, compromised public safety by backing “stand your ground” laws and crippled unions with right-to-work legislation.
ALEC remains the ubiquitous conservative puppet-master; its fingerprints and that of its most well-known supporters (the Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil, Pfizer, AT&T, etc.) can be found all over right-wing legislation that has made its way through the state and local legislative process. To understand the magnitude of its influence, consider that of the more than 100 bills introduced between 2011 and 2013 to repeal or weaken minimum wage laws, 67 of them related back to ALEC. And in 2009, 115 of ALEC’s 826 model bills were enacted into law.
I’m often asked why progressives haven’t developed an organization of its own to mirror the success of ALEC. The problem is, it’s not just the legislation that ALEC writes that progressives should object to; it’s also the methods they use to get it passed. ALEC operates without transparency, using an army of lobbyists to penetrate state agendas. They strong-arm lawmakers into granting corporate wishes and do the bidding of their biggest funders. What they do runs counter to the values of anyone who considers themselves a big “D” — or small “d” — democrat.
Still, there is the need for some kind of counterweight to ALEC, one built and operated with progressive values in mind. And soon, we might have one.
Recently, the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange and the Progressive States Network announced a merger to build an organization that will be focused on moving a progressive policy agenda in the states. While the goals of the new undertaking may resemble those of ALEC, their methods are vastly different. They will operate transparently, use no lobbyists, and make their model legislation and resources available to everyone; their database already showcases 1,800 examples of progressive legislation. And they will engage with people, not corporations.
The timing for this endeavor could not be better. As Nick Rathod, who is charged with building the new organization as its executive director, puts it, “Progressives need to look to the states to move [their] agenda because Washington is effectively broken. For example, in the 2012 election cycle, progressives believed we had ‘won’ by maintaining the U.S. Senate and the White House. But 18 months later, we have no hope of immigration reform, background checks for gun purchases or even addressing climate change in a comprehensive way.”
While Congress has dithered on heeding President Obama’s call to raise the minimum wage, 10 states and the District of Columbia have already passed their own increases this year. With Washington at a standstill, state and local legislatures are becoming the laboratories of progressive expansion.
There is, of course, a flip side to progressive success, as Republicans in North Carolina have shown. In just two years, they’ve turned back 50 years of progress on civil rights and gutted the social safety net, mostly using ALEC’S template legislation. Indeed, where they see opportunity, they move quickly; in the five years since “stand your ground” laws were first introduced in Florida, some form of the legislation has become law in 25 more states. Progressives may point to similar progress on marriage equality, but it has taken a decades-long fight to get here.
That’s what happens when you spend the better part of 40 years building a movement in the states. As Rathod underscores, “For nearly a generation, conservatives have outpaced us at the business of movement-building in states. They have focused hard on it, poured resources into it and have been ruthlessly efficient at it. Starting now, we will do the same.”
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