Meet Mr. Rogers
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In the face of the right's 2004 election victories and shrieking triumphalism, the Democrats picked Harry Reid of Nevada, a pro-life, pro-war, anti-flag-burning buddy of President Bush, to be their leader in the Senate. One of Reid's colleagues, Sen. Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, had this to say about the new minority leader, who is taking over from Karl Rove's drive-by victim Tom Daschle: "When the conservative talk show hosts start saying bad things about Harry Reid, it will be like attacking Mr. Rogers."
This is the Democrats' idea of mounting an opposition to the rightwing takeover of all three branches of the federal government? Let us all unite behind our fearless leader ... Mr. Rogers!
Fortunately, while party leaders are busy putting on their cardigans and practicing their Bible verses in the hopes that the big bullies in Washington won't pick on them, out in the states progressives are organizing.
Many of the independent groups that worked so hard to defeat Bush are now turning their attention to the longer-term battle to take back the country. They are modeling their efforts on what the right did in the 1970s.
Back then, Democrats controlled a large majority of governorships and state legislatures, and the Republican Party was trying to blend in behind the moderate face of Gerald Ford. Conservatives – particularly Christian evangelicals – were in despair.
That's when the coalition of corporate interests and family-values folks started working together to promote candidates and legislation at the state and local level – slowly building toward the takeover of the Republican Party, the nation, and, of course, the world.
At the center of this evil plot is a group called ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council. Founded in 1973 by right-wing Christian activist Paul Weyrich, ALEC drafts model bills and flies state legislators to posh, corporate-financed conferences to teach them how to push its agenda in statehouses across the nation.
"Every time I see a really, really bad idea come through, it seems to be generated by ALEC," says embattled progressive state assemblyman Mark Pocan of Wisconsin.
From rolling back pollution controls to privatizing health care to attacking what it calls a "liberal social agenda that ... pervaded the schools," ALEC has been busy for the last 30 years bringing its "groundbreaking" ideas to the states.
ALEC's charter members included state legislator Henry Hyde of Illinois (later chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during the Clinton impeachment) and future star Republican governors Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and John Engler of Michigan, who both pushed welfare reform onto the national agenda.
According to a comprehensive report on ALEC available on ALECwatch.org, "three hundred corporate sponsors each paying tens of thousands of dollars a year" draft model bills, sending platoons of lobbyists to help conservative legislators adopt and sell their ideas. Controlling policy at the state level can be almost as good, from the corporate point of view, as getting a law passed by Congress.
Today, the Republicans control most governorships and statehouses and are ramming through copycat legislation focusing on God, guns, and gays, as well as the rollback of regulation all across the country. Meanwhile, an increasingly right-wing farm team of politicians is winning Congressional races and moving up to Washington, D.C.
"Corporate America's Trojan Horse in the States: The Untold Story Behind the American Legislative Exchange Council," a report prepared by the National Resources Defense Council for ALECwatch, notes that ALEC started off by focusing almost exclusively on hot-button social issues: anti-abortion, anti-feminist causes. "In the late 1980s, however, ALEC abandoned most of these issues in favor of those that had the benefit of attracting substantial corporate donations," the report says.
ALEC members straddle the social conservative/corporate fat-cat fence quite effectively. They talk the red-meat talk that rallies their social conservative base, and they pass legislation that brings home the bacon for their corporate underwriters.
If progressives are going to have any impact on public policy, they have to begin to compete with this juggernaut. Everyone at the grassroots seems to agree with this analysis. Look at the Web sites of Progressive Majority ("purpose: to elect progressive champions who will help change the direction of this country"), Progressive Democrats of America (goal: to "create caucuses inside the Democratic Party structure at the state and local levels" and to take over Congress "by outorganizing the corporate interests that now control it"), and ALICE – the American Legislative Issue Campaign Exchange, a nascent effort modeled on ALEC.
The question is, can the left get together behind the kind of disciplined, coordinated campaign the right has managed to pull off? And can it be done without wads of corporate cash to finance the effort? The left has been slow to take an interest in state politics. "How many of your closest friends have run for office?" asks Joel Rogers, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and one of the prime movers behind ALICE. "For a generation, the left has been out of the business of competing for political power," he says. Republicans, in contrast, "get all excited about taking over the local water commission or the state assembly, or, God knows, the governorship."
No wonder legislators like Pocan find themselves fighting a lonely battle against a highly organized Republican machine and its sponsoring teams of lobbyists.
But thanks in part to Republican efforts to shrink the federal government, much public policy is now determined at the state level. It's time for the left to get in the game. We can't count on the courts or federal agencies to save the environment or civil rights.
Rogers thinks the financing could be relatively easy. Membership lists of 527 groups and other progressive organizations could be consolidated by state and shared. And weak state Democratic Parties are ripe for takeover.
It will take some serious coordination to get an effective effort off the ground.
"First, you have to want to do it," says Rogers, who is part of a multigroup effort to try to put together a take-over-the-states organization. "In the last thirty years, I've never been in a left or progressive conversation where people said, 'OK, what we've got to do is take over the Democratic Party in our state, create our own farm team, and run with a shared, simple program with broad appeal.' That has been the conversation on the right."
With so much energy and determination marshaled in 2004, the rest of this decade could be to the progressive movement what the decade of the 1970s was to conservatives. Signs of life at the grassroots already abound.
On Nov. 2, minimum wage referendums passed handily in Nevada and Florida, and legalizing medical marijuana won in Montana. There are plenty of people working on living wage, environmental, and social justice issues who have a message most Americans can agree with. The challenge is to get groups to come together that too often duplicate each other's efforts or splinter into factions.
If people who care about fundamentalist Christian moral values more than anything can make common cause with people who care about nothing more than money, surely progressives can bring together a powerful coalition, too.
Imagine if the left really became the dominant cultural and legislative force the right likes to run against. Now is the time to make it happen. And the states are the place.