Symposium | The Missing Progressive Infrastructure

50 ‘Movement Institutes’

By Faiz Shakir Sarah Miller

Tagged activism

We know that all politics is local. But for too long, conservatives seemed to act on that knowledge with far greater seriousness of purpose than the left. To be sure, many national progressive institutions do great work, helping to shape the debate in Washington and among elites. But they don’t do enough to develop and advocate for progressive policy solutions tailored to state and local challenges.

Pouring money into effective 50-state infrastructure building is both very costly and rarely as gratifying as funding major national fights. But with Republicans holding 33 governorships and two-thirds of all state legislatures, it is past time to develop permanent state-level progressive infrastructure that, while expensive, will almost certainly pay out major dividends in the years—and elections—to come.

An independent network of well-funded, state-based research and advocacy organizations in every state of the union is the place to start. These “movement institutes” would:

  • Provide research and analysis on policy issues specific to that state.
  • Connect progressive policy solutions with the specific challenges and debates that are happening at state and local levels.
    work to influence state legislation and state officials to
  • Implement progressive solutions and prevent conservative policies from being enacted.
  • Challenge local and national right-wing media dominance through sophisticated communications strategies.
  • Build a new generation of progressive leaders and potential officeholders at the state level and beyond.
  • Serve as a hub for experts, academics, and other progressive thought leaders who might otherwise lack opportunities to collaborate or contribute to policy and advocacy work.

These “movement institutes” could exchange ideas and information with sister organizations in other states, learning from their innovations and success stories. And they would ensure that Washington progressives have strong lines of communication with all 50 states, no matter how blue or how red. Think of groups that are focused around a particular set of issues and have independent, state-based affiliates nationwide—like the Chamber of Commerce, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, or the NRA.

The rationale is simple: We need to change hearts and minds (and voting patterns) to make our country more progressive, through policy advocacy and candidate selection and recruitment. That’s why we need to build state-level organizations that can produce policy work that responds to problems on the ground, which often cross party lines when presented in local terms: issues like small businesses being swallowed up by large corporations, degradation of the local environment, unfair working conditions and wages, and efforts to suppress the vote. Core conservative ideas—slashing taxes for the wealthy, stripping health care from millions of families, eroding hard-fought advancements in civil rights and civil liberties, heaping unfair advantages onto big corporations—are generally unpopular. In the era of fake news, right-wing propaganda, and diminishing investment in local news, there’s an opportunity and need to generate new fact-based research to drive news coverage.

Moreover, change for the whole country can, and often does, start in the states, rather than in Washington. There are many examples of aggressive, well-funded state-level advocacy paving the path to national change, with the fight for marriage equality being perhaps the preeminent example. In blue states, these organizations could help push progressive initiatives—such as “raise the wage” campaigns—that could help move our nation forward while Washington lags behind.

Because of the great work of organizations like Indivisible, MoveOn, Planned Parenthood, ACLU, Black Lives Matter, United We Dream and so many others, there’s a talented pool of committed individuals at the state level to recruit from. It’s time to pay them, give them a permanent home, and make them full-time staff.

For those states where similar organizations exist, it means bolstering them with even more funding. But many of the existing state-level organizations are simply too small or narrowly focused. It’s insufficient to have five full-time staff for states with a million-plus population. These organizations need at least 30 or 40 full-time staff. Think of a major campaign structure, but permanent.

Funders would need to embrace these organizations’ independence and deep knowledge of local contexts and focus on making sure they have a strong team working under high-quality management. Executed properly with the sufficient amount of independence, these groups will be policy laboratories who will offer ideas that could gain traction in Washington.

The last few months have highlighted the value of a grassroots, bottom-up strategy. This proposal would help to ensure that the local energy we’re seeing is sustained, organized, and channeled toward making both local communities and our whole country more just, equitable places to live.

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The Missing Progressive Infrastructure

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Faiz Shakir is the National Political Director at the American Civil Liberties Union. He previously served as a senior advisor to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Sarah Miller was policy director for the O’Malley presidential campaign and former chief of staff to John Podesta at the Center for American Progress.

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