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How the Right Trounced Liberals in the States

Conservatives have mastered the art of cross-state policy advocacy, while liberal efforts have fizzled. Here’s what has to change.

By Alexander Hertel-Fernandez Theda Skocpol

Tagged conservatismpoliticsprogressivism

Democrats create an ALEC-killer,” declared the November 9, 2014, Politico headline. “Chastened by the conservative movement’s startling success at using national money to dominate state legislatures,” explained reporter Kenneth P. Vogel, “liberal activists” were asking progressive donors to provide a total of up to $10 million a year to finance a new State Innovation Exchange—dubbed “SiX”—to compete with well-financed right-leaning groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that “for years have dominated state policy battles, advancing pro-business, anti-regulation bills in state after state.”

State politics loom large for liberals. As Washington gridlock halts big new national initiatives, states are where the action (or inaction) is to be found on important liberal priorities ranging from legislative redistricting and boosting wages to addressing climate change and, of course, expanding Medicaid coverage for low-income people as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

But just as state-level action turns out to be crucial, the legislative terrain across much of the country looks downright disheartening for centrists and liberals alike. Building on huge electoral gains in state legislatures and governors’ offices in 2010 and 2014, hard-line conservatives have wasted no time in passing state measures that gut labor protections and the ability of workers to organize, that eviscerate health and environmental regulations, cut spending on the poor, shrink taxes on business and the wealthy, and erect new voting restrictions that disproportionately affect young, low-income, and minority citizens. Radical policy changes, often undoing decades of progress on liberal issues, have not been limited to traditionally very conservative areas in the Deep South and inner West. “Purple” states in the upper South and once “blue” states in the Midwest have also been the sites of sharp rightward policy turns.

Is the left now poised to shift the skewed balance of power in the states? Maybe so, but a lot depends on whether progressive organization-builders can figure out why previous efforts to organize cross-state policy networks have failed, and discover ways to fashion their own versions of successful right-wing strategies.

The Conservative Triple Whammy

Across much of America, conservatives can mount powerful state legislative campaigns through three well-funded networks that operate as complements to one another. Think tanks affiliated with the State Policy Network (SPN) spew out studies and prepare op-eds and legislative testimony. Paid state directors and staffers installed by Americans for Prosperity (AFP) sponsor bus tours, convene rallies and public forums, run radio and television ads, send mailers, and spur activists to contact legislators. And inside the legislatures themselves, many representatives and senators, especially Republicans, are members of ALEC, which invites them to serve alongside business lobbyists and right-wing advocacy groups on national task forces that prepare “model” bills that the legislators can advance at the state and local level, with assistance from ALEC staffers.

Year in and year out, this three-pronged approach ensures that a steady diet of conservative proposals is on the menu for legislative consideration and public discussion—and when political openings appear, dramatic policy changes can result. Michigan, for example, has long been a Democratic-leaning labor union stronghold, but right-to-work legislation designed to eviscerate union finances was enacted there in late 2012, after a lightning campaign that featured reports from the SPN-affiliated Mackinac Center for Public Policy, public rallies organized by AFP-Michigan, and legislative votes in part choreographed by ALEC members in key leadership posts.

Year in and year out, a steady diet of conservative proposals is on the menu for legislative consideration.

Blocking bipartisan measures is also a troika specialty. For instance, federal subsidies to expand state Medicaid programs under the ACA are so generous that, even in divided or GOP-run states, many governors and some GOP legislators with ties to hospital associations and chambers of commerce have looked for ways to sign on. Yet even bipartisan efforts backed by business groups have been parried in many states. In Maine, for instance, bipartisan legislative majorities came very close to overriding vetoes of Medicaid expansion by a Tea Party governor, but a determined minority of GOPers, many of them ALEC members, got public backing from AFP-Maine and the SPN-affiliated Maine Heritage Policy Center to hold firm. In two pivotal states, Missouri and Virginia, the naysaying far-right troika has prevailed, using activist pressures stoked by AFP and other groups, along with opposition research and testimony to legislative commissions prepared by SPN think tanks. In Tennessee, the troika even defeated a conservative proposal to expand and revamp Medicaid that was put forward by an extraordinarily popular GOP governor, Bill Haslam, who had just been reelected with 70 percent of the vote.

Trial, Error, and Organizational Innovations on the Right

Conservative clout in the states has been decades in the making, starting from a time when the right was well behind the left. The 1960s and ’70s brought many liberal reforms, and over those decades Democrats dominated over four in ten state governments, while the GOP fully controlled fewer than one in five. Liberals also wielded influence through bipartisan networks of state officials, including the National Conference of State Legislatures (founded in 1975) and the New Deal-era Council of State Governments, both of which pushed for liberal priorities such as standardized tax systems, improved public programs, and the professionalization of state legislatures. Meanwhile, public-sector labor unions were also gaining clout. By 1970, about 40 percent of states permitted at least some collective bargaining by public employees. Even more than their private-sector counterparts, public-employee unions are inherently political, their very existence dependent upon friendly state legislatures willing to maintain their organizing rights. More generally, these unions have supported adequate taxation and spending on education, health care, and other public services.

Worried by such liberal advantages, conservatives hatched strategies to push back. In 1973, a far-sighted group of conservative politicians and political entrepreneurs launched the American Legislative Exchange Council as a forum to bring state legislators together with representatives from businesses and conservative advocacy groups. At first, ALEC had little success. It offered few benefits to lawmakers, and many corporations hesitated to join because ALEC’s early agendas were set by movement conservatives like Paul Weyrich, who wanted to do battle with the left on controversial social issues like abortion, guns, and the Equal Rights Amendment. In a recent interview with a conservative Democratic state legislator from Tennessee, we learned that he attended only one meeting in the 1970s and then immediately left ALEC, because the group’s stances at the time were too far right for him.

During the 1980s, ALEC leaders learned from previous setbacks and, step by step, put in place a self-sustaining organizational model that could advance business-oriented and conservative bills in the state legislatures and, at the same time, give ALEC the resources it needed to flourish. Starting in the early 1980s, recruitment of both legislators and corporate members was delegated to ALEC chairs appointed within each state. The legislative chairs were often party caucus heads, committee chairs, or leaders in legislative chambers—people well positioned to pitch membership to other legislators. Similarly, the private-sector state chairs were prominent business leaders who could tap into their own social networks to persuade other firms to join and pay dues to ALEC.

ALEC also began helping legislators develop and craft bills. Members got access to dedicated staffers who could answer questions about specific proposals, and they received publications offering detailed advice on how to frame issues and communicate with constituents. As recent scholarly research done by one of us shows, these resources have been especially valuable for inexperienced and understaffed legislators.

Businesses were given a much bigger role via participation on new ALEC policy task forces, established to deliberate and prepare model bills in key areas such as agriculture, telecommunications, and health care. Heavily regulated firms, especially companies coping with rules in multiple states, now had a reason to get on board. Companies in the tobacco, energy, and pharmaceutical sectors were prominent among businesses that recognized the value of promoting legislative agendas across the states, where they could often accomplish more than in Washington.

Once in place, these reinforcing organizational innovations paid off. By the early 1990s, ALEC had recruited hundreds of companies, including major Fortune 500 firms, and boasted that just under a third of the some 7,500 state legislators were members. Most members have been Republicans, but some Democrats have also joined, and ALEC officially presents itself as “nonpartisan.” This may seem an obvious fig leaf, but the nonpartisan label on public materials helps ALEC recruit widely in state legislatures. Dues are collected from both legislative and corporate members, but the much heftier corporate dues are, of course, what fill ALEC’s coffers and have enabled it to put on posh meetings attractive to legislators and lobbyists. During the 1990s, hundreds of model bills drafted by ALEC task forces were passed by nearly every state legislature. These bills deregulated key industries like electrical utilities, privatized state services, and weakened labor-market protections. And that was just the beginning. Recent analyses one of us has conducted suggest that enactments of ALEC-derived state laws tripled from the 1990s through the early 2000s.

Even as ALEC promoted conservative legislation, the right found it needed more policy support in the states. In 1986, leaders at ALEC and the rapidly growing Heritage Foundation launched a new network of state-level think tanks focused on economic policy. Initially dubbed the Madison Group, this was incorporated as the State Policy Network in 1992. Today, every state has at least one SPN-affiliated, free-market-oriented think tank. Coordination is encouraged and, indeed, some high-profile SPN think tanks, like the Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) in Florida and the Heartland Institute in Illinois, regularly assist sister affiliates. SPN policy shops operate in close coordination with ALEC, sometimes sitting on ALEC task forces and providing reports, media outreach, and testimony in support of ALEC bills.

The final piece of the right’s powerhouse troika in the states has arrived through the rapid growth of Americans for Prosperity, a centrally directed, well-resourced advocacy federation founded in 2004 that Washington Post journalist Philip Bump has dubbed America’s “third-largest political party.” AFP has paid staff in 34 states (and counting) and can deploy substantial resources—staff time, money, grassroots activists—in both electoral and legislative policy campaigns. AFP budgets and staffing levels have skyrocketed in recent years, allowing organizations in most states to hold public forums and mobilize activists to pressure state legislatures. The organization sees itself, with good reason, as a counter to public-sector unions able to combine insider lobbying with outside grassroots mobilization.

Sputtering Liberal Efforts to Counter ALEC

Right and left in American politics tend to keep an eye on each other and respond when one side gains advantage. Fears of liberal advances motivated conservative leaders to form ALEC and SPN; AFP’s sponsors have vowed to push back against unions and Democrats. Liberals were mostly focused on Washington in the 1970s and ’80s, but some on the left did understand the need for more state-level capacity, only to struggle at marshaling adequate responses. Time and again, the same story has played out. Liberal entrepreneurs launched state-focused networks to much fanfare, only to see them fade away—and then the whole cycle started again.

Liberal initiatives began two years after ALEC’s founding, when the National Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies (CASLP) was started in 1975 in Madison, Wisconsin, as “a meeting place for local officials and others to exchange ideas, bills, and proposals through a wide ranging program of publications, newsletters, and regional and national conferences.” Annual meeting attendance doubled from 300 to 600 in the first five years, and there were some notable legislative achievements. But the effort faded and by the 1980s, CASLP’s founder had moved on to other projects. Some participants in CASLP tried again in the 1990s to build the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), which aimed to create a network of state and local lawmakers to disseminate progressive ideas and bills. Membership grew and CPA’s budget nearly reached the size of ALEC’s, but big center-left foundations lost interest by the mid-1990s. After its activities narrowed, CPA closed its doors in 2008.

Even before that demise, liberal leaders again bemoaned conservative strength in the states and launched the Progressive States Network (PSN) in 2005. The idea was to publish legislative proposals, convene national meetings, and help the most left-leaning lawmakers form links to national liberal advocates and policy organizations. But because much of the funding came from unions struggling with their own survival, PSN—which has now become part of SiX—tended to be restricted in the issues it tackled. Resources and membership never reached the levels attained by ALEC or the earlier left-leaning CPA.

In the post-2000 era, Joel Rogers, a social scientist at the University of Wisconsin, launched a raft of related organizations operating out of Madison, including the cheekily named American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE), which built an online library of progressive policy ideas for lawmakers, as well as the Center for State Innovation (CSI), which provided similar resources and training to state executive staff. Unlike PSN, CPA, and ALEC, however, the Madison-based groups did not try to enroll state legislators as rank-and-file members. In the phrase of organizer and scholar Marshall Ganz, they functioned as “bodiless heads” directed largely by professional staffers.

More Success with Center-Left Research Networks

As these efforts to build a counter-ALEC faltered, liberal policy organizations in Washington nurtured two networks of state-based policy research organizations, which survive to this day and in some respects rival SPN think tanks across the country. One network, originally called the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative and recently renamed the State Priorities Partnership (SPP), is directed by Robert Greenstein’s Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). SPP has enrolled or stimulated the creation of policy research organizations in 41 states and the District of Columbia so far. These mini-CBPPs offer research on state tax and budget issues, with a special focus on programs to help the poor. Increasingly, they also help to build political coalitions of advocacy groups to lobby state legislatures and executives.

The other network, called the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN), is coordinated by Lawrence Mishel’s union-backed Economic Policy Institute. More loosely knit than the SPP network, this assemblage of 61 groups across 44 states and the District of Columbia disseminates research on wages, job benefits, and other economic issues relevant to unionized workers and the broad middle class.

Each of these networks convenes annual meetings and keeps in touch with affiliates, and SPP holds an additional meeting for state directors each year. EARN does not have many resources to invest in its affiliates, but SPP deploys funds from center-left donors such as the Ford Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation to provide some infrastructure support to affiliates, and it has a steering committee that thoroughly vets potential new state affiliates. Yet that process is so slow that some key, historically divided states like Tennessee have not installed SPP affiliates yet.

State legislators are not members of either SPP or EARN, but in many places state-based experts have formed close working ties to a wide range of legislators and their staffs. Annual budget deliberations, above all, prompt many legislators to look for solid numbers and projections, and SPP affiliates have gained a reputation for providing these facts in many states.

Does it make any sense to have two partially competing research networks on the center-left? As we learned in interviews, people in Washington have different views from those in the states. Beltway leaders are quick to differentiate among the networks, with SPP leaders touting their network’s budget expertise, focus on poverty programs, and credibility with state legislators of varying outlooks, while EARN officials stress that their network is part of the broad left movement focused on middle-class and labor issues. On the ground, however, fully 70 percent of the states have policy organizations that participate in both networks, and more than half the states have just one policy organization enrolled in both networks. State think-tank leaders see the same differences in style and expertise that the D.C. directors do, but they don’t much care. They see ties to SPP as more substantial, because it has resources to help state organizations build capacities. Some directors in conservative states also value SPP’s nonpartisan reputation. “Unions are not much of a presence in my state,” one director told us, emphasizing that his organization tries its best to maintain space for conversations with conservative as well as liberal legislators.

Why the Shortfalls on the Left?

SPP and EARN are solid achievements, to be sure, but the buildup of liberal policy research capacity in the states is arguably undercut by divisions and competition in Washington. And of course the research organizations stand alone, without liberal equivalents to ALEC and AFP. In particular, efforts from the 1970s to the 2000s to build a liberal counterpart to ALEC have left behind little more than a litany of abandoned acronyms.

Why did so many investments and so much talent produce so little? Invariably, organizers of the abandoned efforts emphasize too little money and uncertainties about long-term funding as the chief barriers to success. Today’s promoters of SiX clearly also see money as the big constraint. The broadly shared premise is simple: If only the left would spend as much as the right, liberal clout across the states would be assured.

There is some truth to this diagnosis. Supporters of past efforts to counter ALEC—including foundations, individual donors, and labor unions—have not matched the efforts of right-wing donors and, perhaps more importantly, have not provided sustained and predictable resources. Fledgling efforts like CPA have been abandoned as liberal funders switch to a nascent competitor. In many ways, the funding problem has gotten worse now that unions are struggling with declining dues-paying memberships and adverse legal decisions that threaten their very existence. Of course, the right has deliberately gone on the attack to bring about exactly that outcome.

Fickle funding has left counter-ALEC organizers spending too much time trying to attract support by differentiating each attempt from the others. Even EARN and SPP leaders continue to distance the networks from each other, mostly so each can maintain its brand and reputation with dedicated funders. This is just one version of a problem that has long plagued liberal advocacy politics: Hundreds of groups form, and the leaders of each struggle to attract donations or grants. Without anyone necessarily intending it, product differentiation becomes the overriding goal, hindering substantive achievements. The problem of too many organizations chasing insufficient, short-term funds cannot be redressed by simply having donors urge “collaboration.” At best, this encourages alliances for short-term campaigns. At worst, it leads to a lot of fruitless meetings. Or it prompts organizations to add long lists of allied groups to symbolic “advisory boards.” Note, for example, that SiX features such a board on its website, chock-full of representatives from unions and progressive advocacy groups mostly headquartered on the coasts. This hardly sends a welcoming message to more moderate legislators in the heartland, but it probably seems to SiX like a good way to encourage allied groups to donate resources and to signal to progressive donors that everyone is cooperating this time.

Donors, in turn, have their own concerns. Does a new venture have a sound plan to avoid past difficulties and failures? That is a good question, and it brings us to an oft-seen shortfall in unsuccessful efforts to counter ALEC. Again and again, liberal organizers have placed too little emphasis on leveraging ties within states, and have not given enough thought to discovering organizational solutions of the sort that ALEC devised in the 1980s, after it moved away from its original movement-conservative focus on hot-button cultural issues.

In development economics, a concept called “the advantage of backwardness” highlights possibilities for learning from the past and adapting models from pioneering competitors. According to the late Alexander Gerschenkron and other scholars who developed this idea, countries entering the race to industrialize late could look back at what worked and did not work for countries that had developed earlier. Ideally, late developers could speed things up by figuring out ways to avoid dead ends and coming up with their own substitutes for needed resources.

In the case at hand, exploiting the advantages of backwardness would require liberal builders of cross-state policy networks to learn from ALEC and the right, something they so far have seemed loath to do. Repeatedly, people exclaimed to us, “We can’t imitate ALEC, because they get money from business,” or “They are just a business front group.” But of course that is not the point for organizational learning. Leave aside the fact that left-leaning legislative networks cannot build clout within and across the states by attracting corporate lobbyists and collecting business dues, as ALEC does. Are there nevertheless functionally equivalent ways for liberal organization-builders to imitate, on their own terms, the clever moves ALEC made years ago in membership recruitment, task-force operations, and support for legislators? And are there ways for liberals to encourage inter-network synergies in the states like those in the conservative troika?

Learning from the Right

We see five areas where SiX leaders—and others endeavoring to build liberal policy capacities in and across the states—might learn from conservative experiences. The trick is to look for the left’s own versions of clever innovations and organizational solutions discovered years ago by the right.

Establish meaningful membership. ALEC, AFP, and SPN all draw strength from the broad and engaged individual and organizational memberships they have built. ALEC has both legislators and private firms and organizations as members; AFP has citizen activists on state-by-state lists; and SPN uses newsletters, meetings, and surveys to keep in close touch with state-level think tanks and affiliated groups. Membership is variously defined in these conservative networks, but the identities and ties deliver information and benefits. In contrast, progressive alternatives to ALEC have either restricted themselves to attracting the most progressive lawmakers (as with PSN) or have not bothered to establish memberships at all. The liberal research networks, especially SPP, offer some benefits to affiliated organizations, but the ties are looser than in the right-wing SPN—and there seems to be no liberal equivalent to the SPN practice of having specialized think tanks like Florida’s FGA operate across as well as within state lines to deliver extra expertise in key policy areas.

Any effort to advance progressive policy-making beyond deep blue enclaves requires offering concrete, practical benefits to members. As we’ve noted, ALEC learned the hard way that stressing conservative causes was not enough. It gained clout only after it figured out how to offer specific benefits that a wide range of legislators and companies could really use—and required participants to become dues-paying members to get those benefits. Similarly, SPN did better once it started conducting surveys of its affiliates to understand their desire for services, such as communications training. On the center-left, SPP has taken some steps along these lines, and SiX surely aims to take a page from ALEC by offering research and policy expertise to potential legislative members, as well as opportunities for members to interact at occasional meetings.

But to date, SiX seems to be emphasizing national fundraising strategies while offering an online “bill library” and promoting a few progressive “campaigns”—likely to be relevant only to a sliver of legislators in most states. In some ways, SiX is following strategies that more closely resemble ALEC’s early emphasis on conservative causes or AFP’s intense ideological activism. Indeed, an open question might be whether SiX is not so much building a counter to ALEC as, in effect, trying to launch a progressive counter to AFP, making up for the faltering public-sector labor movement. This might not be a bad idea. One interviewee in a conservative state told us he would not mind seeing an AFP-like federation drumming up public support for progressive causes, leaving his SPP think tank to offer less overtly partisan expertise. But even if that niche in a new progressive division of labor were to be the one SiX ends up trying to fill, SiX would still need to build organizational infrastructure—including paid leaders—within each state, as AFP has done since 2004.

Leverage networks and social ties within states. Spreading benefits is not the only way to build a presence in states, especially not at first. Successful U.S. federated networks tap into existing social ties within states, rather than just trying to attract participants from afar to attend national meetings or heed communications from national headquarters. One state legislator who attended the SiX inaugural meeting held in Washington in 2014 told us he enjoyed it, but might not go again, because legislators are asked to do so many things and SiX’s offerings, such as the online bill library and templates for progressive issue campaigns, seemed irrelevant to his most pressing needs in a divided-government state. Maybe these resources would matter later, he said, if and when Democrats took over all of his state’s government.

As this underlines, it is going to be a challenge for SiX to build credibility in states where Democrats or progressives do not currently have majorities—which right now means most states. The best way to make progress may well be to imitate ALEC’s move in the 1980s of instituting in-state chairs, respected local legislators who can gradually spread the word and connect others to practical benefits useful even in relatively conservative states. Another obvious tactic would be to work with SPP-affiliated think tanks, which in many states have an established track record of working with a range of legislators, not just with those who already think of themselves as very liberal or progressive. Surprisingly, SiX does not include anyone from SPP on either its board of directors or its jam-packed advisory board; and SPP directors we interviewed told us that SiX people have not been in touch. This is a worrisome omission, because building upon already established social-network ties is a proven way to expand organizational capacities.

Establish mechanisms for dealing with competing policy priorities. On the left and right alike—but maybe more on the left—political coalitions and policy advocates struggle with how to reconcile and prioritize diverse goals and perspectives. Should a new cross-state network stress bread-and-butter middle-class economics? Helping the poor? Addressing racism or sexism? The fight for voting rights? Reproductive rights? LGBT rights? Saving the planet from global warming? Left-leaning coalitions spend endless hours debating such questions, and usually end up just adding everything up into humongous lists of “demands” to satisfy advocates of every cause. In our interviews, organizers wondered how they could get anything going in the states without including all progressive causes at the table. Meanwhile, state legislators already feel pulled in opposite directions by competing advocacy groups.

Interestingly enough, ALEC faced an analogous problem decades ago, when it realized that companies had competing policy preferences and found that the interests of major corporations are not always aligned with those of right-wing activists. To handle these challenges, ALEC institutionalized multiple task forces. Each has exclusive responsibility for a major policy arena and includes member firms, conservative organizations, and legislators who work on model bills in that domain. The ALEC members most invested in a particular policy area are put in charge of that domain, and within each task force, the corporate members who contribute the most in dues get the most say. Americans for Prosperity, run from the center, offers a different model. AFP ensures that state directors and activists stress issues within clear boundaries—matters of taxes, regulations, social spending, voting and union rights, but not religious or cultural causes.

Obviously, liberal cross-state networks cannot directly copy the institutional arrangements ALEC and AFP have devised, but they should think of ways to avoid the collective-action problems inherent in assembling coalitions that just add up diverse interests. For example, SiX could create national task forces in some key areas—such as working-family economics, education, democratic rights, and environmental protection and climate change—and ask organizational and legislator members to choose one or two to join at a time, depending on where their priorities lie in any given period. Similarly, advocacy groups could sort themselves out a bit, rather than insisting on fighting about One Big Agenda. Furthermore, already established networks, such as the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, might want to join and help support a specific SiX task force.

Reliance on foundations and contributions from unions and wealthy donors makes liberals vulnerable to shifting donor fashions.

Find better funding solutions. Although conservative organizations are staunch proponents of market competition, ironically it is liberal-leaning donors who encourage advocacy entrepreneurs to compete for limited, short-run funding well beyond the point of usefulness. And even though leftists stress the value of participants controlling their own organizations, it is ALEC that has institutionalized membership rights and duties, including obligations to pay regular dues in return for benefits and participation on its task forces.

SiX would be smart to move toward sustained funding from dues-paying individuals and organizations, even if the flows would not be as opulent as corporate payments to ALEC. Over-reliance on foundation funding and contributions from unions and wealthy donors makes liberal ventures, including cross-state networks, vulnerable to shifting donor fashions or shrinking donor resources. ALEC charges state legislators only modest dues, and there is no reason SiX, once it leverages ties and provides benefits, could not do the same. Furthermore, although there is no left equivalent of rich corporations to pay high levels of institutional dues, SiX could charge institutional dues to foundations, policy organizations, environmental groups, unions, and other entities that want to join relevant task forces. Even more creatively, perhaps foundations that want to support SiX could do so by establishing funds to help legislators with low incomes pay for dues and travel to meetings, and perhaps also establish funds to which community and citizen groups could apply to cover their costs of SiX membership and task force participation. Why provide resources through dues rather than central grants? The answer is straightforward: Dues, even if subsidized, would empower legislators and groups themselves to join and take ownership of SiX task forces.

To date, SiX is not raising anything close to $10 million a year from individual progressive donors. Funding appeals are going mainly to unions and foundations, the very organizations that in the past have often provided insufficient or sporadic support. As in past start-stop cycles, the key issues are clear: Will potential funders currently on the horizon insist on realistic plans that really enable SiX to reach into states where liberals and labor unions currently have little clout? And if convincing plans are devised and presented, will funders get behind the effort and stay committed? There is little reason for optimism, as long as SiX remains exclusively focused on courting small numbers of national funders.

View policy as a means to political goals. We conclude with a turn back to substantive strategy. On the left, there is a strong tendency to pursue policies for their own sake and to think in terms of expert-structured technical proposals rather than choosing policy battles likely to create future openings. Fortunately, many progressive groups are currently giving priority to protecting and expanding voting rights—although this issue rose on the left’s agenda only after dozens of states had already enacted rules that greatly disadvantage potential liberal voters. In other areas, moreover, opportunities to link policy and political transformation are mysteriously missed.

For example, after helping to push through the Affordable Care Act of 2010, the broad cross-state Health Care for America Now coalition stood down in favor of more limited campaigns to sign people up for benefits and advocate for health-care consumers. For years, the right has treated state-level decisions about building exchanges and Medicaid expansion as major political fights. But the left in general has not recognized that pressing for full health reform implementation in all states presents a huge political opportunity to strengthen citizen faith in government and to further economic and racial equality. Liberals have not pressured legislators or Democratic candidates to talk up health reform the way conservatives incessantly push their politicians to bash Obamacare and block implementation. Strikingly, SiX itself has not made it a top priority to fight for expanded Medicaid in the 20 holdout states, even though these struggles happening right now, from Georgia to Wyoming to Florida to Maine, offer an ideal opportunity to reap political as well as social rewards down the line.

All these considerations bring us back to where we started: Is the left really building an “ALEC killer” with the State Innovation Exchange? It is far too soon to tell. But it is not too soon to say that SiX and other cross-state network builders on the center-left have a lot of organizational and strategic learning to accomplish. The challenge is bigger than simply raising more money. Network builders have to get out of their comfort zones in the worlds of liberal advocacy groups mostly headquartered in New York, Washington, California, and a few other blue enclaves to find and activate network connections across the vast heartland. And if progressives want to gain credibility and clout in the states, they will need to become far more strategic about engaging in widespread policy fights with the greatest potential to reshape the political landscape in conservative as well as liberal states across America.

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Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is a Ph.D. candidate in government and social policy at Harvard University, where he is completing a dissertation entitled “Corporate Interests and Conservative Mobilization Across the U.S. States, 1973-2013.”

Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University and the Director of the Scholars Strategy Network, a federated membership association for civically engaged scholars at colleges and universities across the United States.

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