All Politics Is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States

Posted on December 18, 2019

Except from the book by Meaghan Winter (pages 20-21)

Many of the foot soldiers advocating for social change today are not explicitly working within the party structures; they are community groups, advocacy organizations, lobbying outfits, as well as political action committees. For decades now, libertarians and conservatives allied with the Republican Party have been able to rely on their own foot soldiers, whose organizations span the country, promoting their ideas and organizing political actions all year, rather than only during campaign blitzes.

Their megadonors have long invested in maintaining a constant local and statewide presence, which has translated into greater influence on the state level in particular and our politics in general. Since 2010, for example, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity has set up offices in thirty-eight states and now claims over three million members. As on progressive put it to me, “Donors on the right support the same old boring institutions year after year.”

That a relatively small number of ultrarich people pull the levers of political power in our country is not breaking news. Americans across the political spectrum disapprove of the amount of money spent on political campaigns. In the post-Citizens United era, when millions upon millions of anonymous dollars are being shoveled into our political system, it may seem strange to start by scrutinizing foundations and the ultra-wealthy individual charitable donors, but they are often overlooked and misunderstood.

To understand how Democrats lost so much ground across the states, and to understand the challenges ahead for sustaining progressive gains, we have to understand why for so long progressive groups outside the party structure weren’t able to apply a constant counterpressure to Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity lobbyists and the like.

One example crystallizes the core of the problem. After Congress passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA, popularly known as Obamacare) in 2010, insurance companies, right-wing foundations, and Republican state lawmakers coordinated to seize their opportunity. Blue Cross Blue Shield’s lobbying efforts during that time are a stunning illustration of how under-the-radar corporate advocacy happens in the states.

Blue Cross Blue Shield lobbied for Congress to include in the Affordable Care Act the individual mandate—the requirement that anyone uninsured buy insurance through the marketplace the government would establish. But Blue Cross Blue Shield also simultaneously worked with ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] to write and push state legislation that said that the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional because of that same individual mandate.

ALEC laid out those potential state bills in a 2011 guide titled The State Legislators Guide to Repealing Obamacare. That package of bills is just one example of a set of state laws designed to climb the courts, with the aim of whittling away at Democratic federal policy. And because in 2010 Republican operatives had enlisted corporate donors—including Blue Cross Blue Shield—to help elect a wave of Republican state lawmakers, those bills had eager sponsors from Arizona to Georgia.