Allow my to mount a hobbyhorse of mine.
Like every other progressive in America, I was thrilled, inspired, and utterly gobsmacked by Texas state senator Wendy Davis’s heroic filibuster to stop a bill that was a monstrous imposition on women’s reproductive, and thus existential, freedom. It was a brilliant piece of political theater and a rare, albeit brief, moment of stunning triumph for progressives. And yes, I agree with everyone else that single-mom-community-college-student-turned-Harvard-Law-alum Davis is made of awesome sauce — to quote immortal P.G. Wodehouse, the woman is the bee’s roller skates.
But here, I want to focus not so much on the abortion rights issue, or on Davis as an individual, but on something else. Davis is a great example of the potentially large payoffs to progressives of diverting more activist energies away from national issues and towards the state and local ones.
Let me explain. First of all, I believe that progressives pay too much attention, relatively speaking, to national politics, especially at the presidential level. While electing a Democratic president is crucial, progressives who pin their hopes on electing a liberal president are all too likely to get burned. If you’re looking for a liberal savior (a highly dubious proposition to begin with), the presidency is likely to be the last place you’ll find him or her. Historically, Americans have never tended to elect progressive presidents. For one thing, we have an electoral college which gives disproportionate representation to smaller, whiter, more conservative states. For another, the unprogressive mainstream media, wealthy political donors, and political elites often more or less decide which candidates each party nominates, well before a single political primary vote is cast.
Think I’m wrong? Let’s look at what happens in Democratic presidential primaries. The most progressive candidates, such as Jesse Jackson in ‘84 and ‘88, or Dennis Kucinich in ‘04 and ‘08, tend to be underfunded and depicted from the get-go as unelectable and too far out of the mainstream. Though some argue that such candidates may influence the political positions taken by the eventual nominee, I see little evidence of this — even in the case of Jesse Jackson, whose campaign registered millions of new Democratic voters.
The real contenders for the Democratic nomination almost always tend to be candidates who are mainstream, centrist Democrats. They are usually of the same ideological stamp. Witness 2008’s knockdown, drag-out fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. For all the emotions and political energies progressives invested in that drama, can we really say there was a hair’s breadth of ideological difference between them? Can anyone argue with a straight face that a President Hillary Clinton would have been significantly more — or less — liberal than President Barack Obama has been?
Usually, in every Democratic presidential primary, one candidate plays the role of being the “electable” candidate who is more progressive than the frontrunner. But this generally amounts to a distinction without a difference — it reflects political strategy rather than political reality. Unless, that is, you think Bill Bradley (who ran in 2000), was significantly more liberal than Al Gore. Or that Howard Dean was way to the left of John Kerry. Or John Edwards was more progressive than Obama or Hillary. Or … well, you get the idea.
The fact is, only rarely do presidents bring about significant progressive change. And when they do, it is usually the culmination of a long political struggle — when it comes to progressive change, presidents tend to follow rather than lead. The two times in twentieth century history when a president enacted the most significant progressive legislation — FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society — were historical anomalies. They happened because of unique, hard-to-reproduce political circumstances (the worst economic depression in our history, in one case; a martyred president, in the other) and because those administrations were pressured to do so by large, powerful mass movements (the labor movement in the case of the New Deal, the civil rights movement in the case of the Great Society).
That said, it’s not hard to understand why progressives expend enormous political energies on presidential races. Of course it matters who is president — though for the most part it matters far more what party holds the White House, not which particular candidate is chosen as the party’s standardbearer. And the personality-driven narratives the media creates are often very compelling, on a human level. But they tend to distract us from the reality that where a president’s agenda and achievement is concerned, historical and systemic factors tend to be far more determinative than the individual ones.
Which is not to say I wouldn’t be stoked if a progressive favorite like Elizabeth Warren jumped into the 2016 presidential race. Nevertheless, those of us who want to build a more progressive America would be well-advised to pay relatively less attention to presidential races and more attention to politics at the state and local level. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Because state and local races tend to have lower turnout, you get more bang for your activist buck. A relatively small but well-organized and committed group of activists can make a big difference in a low-turnout election. And because local campaigns are cheaper than national ones, your donations can be more powerful. Think about it: to whom was your marginal political dollar worth more in 2012, Barack Obama in his campaign for president, or Wendy Davis in her campaign for the Texas state senate?
2. Mass political movements with the most staying power and popular support often are enacted first at the grassroots level. Only later do they work their way up the political food chain. Case in point: the modern American conservative movement. In the 50s and 60s, conservative activists tended to focus on local issues, such as school board elections, as this and other histories of that movement document. Only after over 20 years of intense activism did the conservatives finally get their dream president, Ronald Reagan.
3. One way to ensure you’ll have strong progressive candidates for national office (the presidency and the U.S. House and Senate) is by electing strong progressive candidates at the state and local level. That’s where those national candidates are recruited from, after all.
4. Lots of really bad stuff is happening at the state level these days, and progressives should be doing everything they can to prevent it. States continue to enact an extraordinary proliferation of viciously punitive abortion restrictions, such as the one Davis helped to (temporarily, at least) defeat. There are also well-funded campaigns afoot in over 31 states to repeal wage protections, such as living wage laws and state minimum wage laws, which mandate higher minimums than the federal law. Finally, the right-wing war on public sector unions continue apace. So you know the drill. The only way we can stop this crap is by electing more Wendy Davises.
5. Believe it or not, there are some good things happening in the states, too! The Obamacare state exchanges, for example — when Democrats control the statehouse, these exchanges can potentially work out very well indeed (in California, for example, insurance premiums are surprisingly affordable). Other cities and states have pioneered programs that expand worker rights in important new ways, such as living wage laws, paid sick leave, and paid family leave. Louis Brandeis referred to the states as “laboratories of democracy,” because the states have been the origin of many policies that were later adopted at the national level. These include progressive policies ranging from the original minimum wage and child labor laws, all the way up to Massachusetts’ universal health care law, which was the model for Obamacare.
6. Building a strong progressive movement on the state and local level is particularly important during times like the present, when we have divided government and GOP obstructionism runs amok. Not only can progressives achieve some of their political goals on the state and local level, but by maintaining a strong local presence, they can also help break GOP-driven gridlock in Congress. One reason for the gridlock is that partisan gerrymandering has caused the GOP to punch above its weight in the House. In many states, the state legislatures are responsible for drawing up the Congressional map. Having a stronger progressive presence at the state level helps ensure a fairer process that makes it less likely that the GOP will wield disproportionate power in Congress.
Shifting more progressive attention and energies toward what goes on in the statehouse and city hall is a challenge. Even the most informed voters, progressives and non-progressives alike, are often far less knowledgeable about state and local issues than about national ones. Local TV news often gives short shrift to local politics, and the decline of newspapers means there is far less coverage of local government there than there used to be.
On the plus side, though, most states and cities boast excellent blogs (such as this one) that specialize in local politics and often do a better job covering these issues than the mainstream media ever did. And social media can also be used in creative ways to organize and to shine a spotlight on local issues. After all, it was Twitter and livestreaming that created the Wendy Davis phenomenon.
If you’re a progressive and you aren’t doing so already, I strongly urge you to start reading local political blogs and to get involved in issues you care about at the local level. You may be able to make far more of a difference than you realize.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.