After the 2012 election, while some Republicans were conducting an “autopsy” of their defeat at the national level, others were celebrating the party’s unheralded success down the ballot. For instance, the Republican State Leadership Committee boasted, “One needs to look no farther than four states that voted Democratic on a statewide level in 2012, yet elected a strong Republican delegation to represent them in Congress: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.”
In hindsight, the Democratic Party should have taken those words as a dire warning. Today they serve as a much-needed reminder of the path out of the wilderness. As the party seeks to recover from a devastating loss, it’s not enough to focus on the top of the ticket. The rebuilding needs to happen from the bottom up, at the state and local level, not in Washington.
For years, many progressives — including me — have called for taking our movement to the states. Yet Democrats have prioritized maintaining control of the presidency while giving short shrift to state-level infrastructure. Meanwhile, Republicans have invested heavily in winning state legislative and gubernatorial races, which has allowed them to advance conservative policies across the country and seize control of congressional redistricting. Heading into 2017, there are 68 legislative chambers under Republican control, 34 Republican governors and a record 29 Republican state attorneys general. It’s painfully clear which party’s strategy has been more effective.
Democrats no longer have a choice. With Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) wreaking havoc in Washington, it will be up to individual states to protect their residents against harmful right-wing policies. In the same way that red states refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (with disastrous results), Democratic state legislatures may be able to put up roadblocks to the Trump-Ryan agenda. Indeed, as Linda Hirshman recently wrote in The Post, “the potential for states and cities to become bastions of resistance” is significant.
A state-based strategy also represents the best and perhaps only opportunity to advance progressive policy goals in the near term. Over the past eight years, conservative lawmakers in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Kansas and elsewhere have demonstrated that state policies can have an outsized impact — for better or worse — regardless of what the federal government does. At the same time, despite gridlock in Congress, states with Democratic legislative majorities have made significant strides on progressive issues including the minimum wage, equal pay and paid sick leave. Moving forward, states such as Nevada, where Democrats successfully flipped both chambers of the legislature on Election Day, have a real chance to keep putting progressive ideas into action.
“The states will be the place where we can provide a proactive, positive vision of what progressive governance can look like,” says Nick Rathod, executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, or SiX, which pushes progressive policies at the state level. “If you get out of D.C. and actually listen to people, establish policies that respond to local needs, and build narratives around what that means and why it matters, people will understand that government can actually be a force for good, and that progressive policies are more aligned with the needs of working and middle-class families of all races, religions, and cultures.”
If there’s a reason for hope, it’s that leading Democrats seem to recognize the need to build a more dynamic state and local infrastructure. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a top candidate to take over the Democratic National Committee, has urged support for SiX, which is working on a state-based organizing agenda for the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. One of Ellison’s potential challengers, former chairman Howard Dean, has likewise called for a revival of the 50-state strategy he was the architect of during the George W. Bush era. As the race for party chair unfolds, it will be vital, as the Nation recently argued, that all of the candidates debate these and other ideas in public. And in 2017, the momentum for a progressive state strategy may get an additional boost from President Obama, who is expected to join forces with former attorney general Eric Holder for an initiative focused on state legislative races and redistricting reform.
Looking ahead, the need for a smart, state-based strategy is clear. State and local government is where the next generation of progressive voices will emerge — and, in fact, new leaders such as state Sens. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), both just elected to the House of Representatives, are already gaining prominence. Progressive groups such as People’s Action, the Working Families Party, Democracy for America and Our Revolution, the organization that emerged from the Sanders campaign, will focus on recruiting and supporting populist candidates up and down the ticket, while driving emblematic reforms — Fight for $15 , paid sick and family leave, and more at the state and local levels — that can help drive a national message.
At the state level, progressives can listen to disaffected voters, speak to their worries and act. Most of all, in a Trump administration, the states are where we can establish a foundation of progressive policies to drive our message and create a better, forward-looking model for the nation.