The Weak Link: Winning State Elections

This has not been a positive year in state legislatures, and there’s a good chance that, for progressives, this may be the worst session in decades.

Wisconsin imposed “right-to-work.” Nevada suspended prevailing wage rules for school construction projects. South Dakota lowered the minimum wage by a dollar an hour for workers under age 18. Many states are slashing funds for public education and social services. Several are legalizing the carrying of guns on college campuses or abolishing the 80-year-old requirement of a permit to carry a concealed firearm. Utah brought back firing squads as a means of execution. Even the Indiana “religious liberty” battle didn’t have a happy ending: the law they passed is not a good one, it’s just less bad.

The reason for the states’ lunge to the right is clear—the GOP gained more than 300 state legislative seats in the 2014 elections. Republicans now control 69 of the 99 state legislative bodies in the U.S. (if we include Nebraska, where lawmakers are technically nonpartisan but effectively Republican), while Democrats control only 30. That’s the most legislative chambers Republicans have ever held.

PolitiBlog2.pngPut another way, there are now 25 states where both the legislative and executive branches are entirely controlled by Republicans, if we include Nebraska and Alaska (where the governor ran as an independent but is effectively a Republican). In contrast, there are only seven states with a Democratic legislature and governor: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont. In four additional states (Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey), Democrats control the legislature but progress is stymied by a GOP governor.

It should be obvious that progressives desperately need to engineer a strong comeback in 2016. It’s not just that 150 million Americans living in GOP states are subject to regressive rule. The longer the right wing holds power, the more “gamechanger” policies they enact—like voter ID and union busting—designed to rig the electoral game for the long term. Even more important, it’s nearly impossible to take back the congressional redistricting process in 2021-22 unless we start winning state legislative seats in 2016. Progressives need to put in place strong incumbents who can withstand a difficult 2018 election cycle. It would be sheer folly to wait until 2020 to try to win back legislative chambers for reapportionment.

The old saying goes, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” In state politics, progressives have some very strong links indeed. Over the years, our movement has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in terrific policy research, excellent polling, and a lot of hardworking grassroots organizations and activists. But because of one glaring weak link, conservative majorities block good policies and enact bad ones. Progressive investments at the state level are stymied by a distinct lack of focus on winning elections there.

The good news is that our movement could do very well in 2016. We could conceivably move legislatures from split to Democratic control in seven states: Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, and Washington. And we could possibly move legislatures from Republican to split control in eight others: Arizona, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin (although half of these are longshots).

Fortunately, 2016 presents Democratic legislative candidates with a wealth of advantages:

  • A lot of the seats won by the GOP are naturally blue—it’s easier to take them back;
  • Turnout in 2016 will create a much more Democratic-friendly electorate;
  • Conservatives’ extremism in 2015-16 can be used against them; and
  • The national narrative should provide a much better environment for our candidates than the 2014 narrative—especially if we do the work to promote a smart, state-level progressive agenda for our candidates to run on.

Can progressives re-cast our weak link in the coming 18 months? Absolutely, and the path to victory is straightforward. As for campaign mechanics, we need to contest every key legislative district; recruit the strongest progressive prospects to run; provide thorough training and political support to candidates and campaign managers; and funnel direct contributions to the races that count most. Given our losses in recent cycles, this is no small undertaking, but it can be done.

In addition, we need to use the rest of 2015 to design and organize around a compelling state policy agenda that energizes our base, pulls swing voters our way, and wedges the right wing. I’m talking about a real agenda—not a laundry list of policy ideas or a “narrative.” We’ve got to drive a set of robust policies in multiple states and localities that, together, illustrates an overall theme and shows explicitly that we’re on the voters’ side and conservatives are not. And we can’t wait until the summer or fall of 2016 to promote that agenda—we need to push our policies hard in the 2016 legislative sessions, forcing the right to publicly alienate the middle.

Strong progressives tend to have their own priorities: economic equality or environmental protection or criminal justice or social justice for women, African Americans, immigrants or LGBT people. And we tend to work in silos, with some groups doing electoral work or civic engagement or voter registration and others developing policy or networking elected officials or organizing advocacy campaigns. Now, no matter our policy or political priorities, progressives need to link up in every way possible to drive toward one goal—winning the states back for the American people. The alternative is political disaster.

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Gun ownership is declining, so why is the gun lobby so powerful?

Last week, the General Social Survey reported that gun ownership has declined to a record low. About half of all American households owned at least one gun in the 1970s. In 2014, only 31 percent had a firearm.

The General Social Survey is considered the gold standard for polls. It’s based on face-to-face interviews going back four decades, conducted by the independent National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and funded by the National Science Foundation.

The numbers reflect a long-term trend. During the same period, the percentage of households with a hunter plummeted from 32 to 15 percent. Other important factors during these decades: the percentage of the population living in urban areas increased from 73 to 81 percent while the percentage of the U.S. that is non-Hispanic White declined from 83 to 63 percent. The last demographic is important because, while 39 percent of White households possess firearms, only 18 percent of Black and 15 percent of Hispanic households have them.

Age is also a factor. Today, 30 percent of Americans aged 65 or older own firearms while only 14 percent of adults under age 35 do—so the proportion of households with guns will continue to decline in the coming years, perhaps dramatically. (Survey details are here.)

At this point you might be wondering: Why does it seem the gun lobby is strengthening while their numbers are weakening?

First, consider that according to the Congressional Research Service (page 8), there were about 310 million civilian-owned firearms in the U.S. in 2009, and more than 8 million have been manufactured or imported annually since. Not many of these guns wear out each year. So, matching this trend with gun ownership figures, we have more and more guns in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

There are about 116 million households in America. Applying the 31 percent gun ownership rate, we find that about 36 million households own about 340 million guns (a conservative estimate), which comes to an average of more than nine guns per household. By itself, that’s pretty extraordinary. But like any activity, there is always a fairly small group that accounts for a disproportionate number.

We can get an idea of the number of households that own substantial arsenals of guns by examining data from a poll of gun owners conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz for Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Question: “How many guns do you or does a member of your family own?”

Number                     NRA Member            Non-NRA

1 gun                        18%                           25%
2 guns                      16%                           20%
3-5 guns                  26%                           30%
6-9 guns                  17%                           15%
10 or more guns     24%                           11%

About 10 percent of gun owners belong to the NRA. You can do the math yourself. The numbers compute to this rough estimate: The owners of one-to-nine guns possess a total of about 110 million firearms. That means the “10 or more” respondents represent about 4.5 million households that own 230 million firearms—an average of more than 50 guns per household. And that’s just an average, which means some very large number (a million?) own more than 100 guns.

Our analysis leads to two conclusions:

(1) There is a tremendous need for background check laws to cover private sales. The number of potential private sellers with gigantic quantities of guns dwarfs licensed dealers. There are a few more than 50,000 retail gun stores in America. So, there are perhaps 50 private arsenal-owners for every licensed retail gun store.

(2) This is why the NRA is so extreme: The arsenal owners control it. Poll after poll shows that the NRA’s political positions do not in any way reflect the opinions of gun owners or even rank-and-file NRA members. The NRA is run by and for a group of people who have invested a huge amount of money, time and emotional energy in their gun collections. That takes them far outside the American mainstream but also makes them willing to fight so hard for unregulated guns that it seems completely irrational. But understand, to the arsenal owners, it isn’t.

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What We Stand For in Twelve Words

What explains the popularity of the conservative brand? Polls consistently show that, when presented one at a time, Americans support progressive, not conservative, policies.

By margins of at least two to one, our fellow citizens favor a substantial raise in the minimum wage; believe big corporations and the rich are paying too little in taxes; oppose repealing the Affordable Care Act;support the idea that Medicare should negotiate prescription drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies; want strong federal action to address climate change; would mandate a background check before any gun purchase; think labor unions are necessary to protect workers;oppose discrimination against gays and lesbians;and do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Americans are progressive when it comes to specific issues. But voters know extremely little about those. They “know” instead about political generalities.

A few years ago, former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) explained the conservative stereotype to a New York Times reporter:

PolitiBlog3.jpgI can describe, and I've always been able to describe, what Republicans stand for in eight words, and the eight words are lower taxes, less government, strong defense and family values. . . . We Democrats, if you ask us about one piece of that, we can meander for 5 or 10 minutes in order to describe who we are and what we stand for. And frankly, it just doesn't compete very well.

This description of “conservative” is pretty much taken for granted. Paul Waldman called "low taxes, small government, strong defense, and traditional values" the "Four Pillars of Conservatism." In Don't Think of an Elephant!, George Lakoff listed the conservative message in ten words: “strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government, family values."

How do we fight this? Certainly not by opposing these extremely popular generalities. Who wants a bigger government than we need? Who dislikes a strong national defense? Who is against morality?

No, the solution is not to tear down their stereotype; it is to build up ours. We need American voters to view their election choices through a different lens. It used to be fashionable for progressive message framers to offer short-version philosophies, e.g., “What we stand for in ten words.” This is a really valuable exercise because it forces us to suggest the simplest description of "progressive"—just a few words that persuadable voters might understand and remember.

How about this? Progressives are for: fair wages, fair markets, health security, retirement security, equal justice for all. Let me describe each in turn.

Fair wages means that we recognize and will address the problem of income inequality. Everyone wants and deserves fair pay for their work. We'll push toward fairness by increasing the minimum wage, promoting unions, deterring ultra-high executive pay, and addressing the wage-depressing effects of globalization.

Fair markets is the progressive response to free markets. Progressives need to employ this term to defend our economic ideology. There's simply no such thing as a "free" market. If we continue to let that term go unchallenged without a proactive alternative, we may never overcome conservative economic framing.

Health security is an essential value. For good or bad, progressives are inextricably linked to the Affordable Care Act. We need to make it clear that improving and expanding the ACA is one of our top priorities.

Retirement security may be the next healthcare. Baby Boomers are retiring, Social Security needs strengthening, and current jobs generally don't include any reasonable provisions for retirement pensions. In fact, we should advocate for larger Social Security benefits—as conservatives push for increasing the retirement age, we should push to lower it back to 65.

Equal justice is intended to encompass many other values. It’s not only about justice in courts; we mean something broader, economic and social justice. After all, that's the purpose of government. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist, "Justice is the end of government." (If polling shows that voters can’t understand “equal justice” outside of the courts, we might substitute “equal rights.”)

Finally, “for all” represents the quintessential distinction between the progressive and conservative philosophies. Conservatives seek rights and opportunities for a select few. Progressives seek them for all.

You may look at this short description of progressivism and say there's a lot missing. What about environmentalism? Energy independence? Or national security? We can still talk about those. But the point of this exercise is to create a list that's short enough to remember and repeat, while emphasizing the strengths of our progressive philosophy. We're a multi-dimensional movement, but our strong suit is economic policy.

These twelve words—our fundamental goals—fit naturally with our fundamental progressive values of freedom, opportunity and security for all. (For a discussion of progressive values, click here.) They work because these goals describe the American Dream.

We cannot continue the current asymmetrical debate—they spout generalities (which voters know and understand) while we earnestly “educate” voters about our specific policies. Progressives need all Americans to comprehend who we are and what we stand for. If we change the political narrative, we can change the world.

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Progressive Values 101

It is an exaggeration to say that today’s progressives don’t have a philosophy. Progressives have a fairly consistent agenda–we know what we stand for. The problem is, we don’t have an effective framework to communicate our philosophy to persuadable voters. Because a crucial election looms before us, progressive thinkers are rightfully focusing on this problem.

But in fashioning a solution, we must ensure that the language we use speaks to the Americans we are trying to persuade. This is a challenge, because most persuadable voters are not like us—they are normal people. Unlike us, they don’t think much about public policy, they don’t have a policy checklist for candidates and they don’t speak policy or use intellectual jargon.

How do we persuade people who are so different? By assuring them that we share their values. “Values” need not be the anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-science mores of the right wing. In politics, they are ideals that describe the kind of society we are trying to build. There is a set of values that progressives can employ to frame public policy in language that will win over persuadable voters. And to those we are trying to reach, our values will sound very familiar: freedom, opportunity and security.

What’s so special about these rather moderate-sounding words? First, they resonate with all Americans. When we use these values to describe and defend progressive policies, voters understand that we’re on their side. But more important, they summarize a progressive philosophy that voters can grasp and remember. Successful message framing isn’t just repetition of preselected words and phrases. The trick is using those words and phrases to communicate a coherent set of principles—a vision for the future.

We can begin by defining the proper roles of government. Progressive policies fit fairly well into three situations, where: (1) government has no proper role because public action would violate individual rights; (2) government acts as a referee between private, unequal interests; or (3) government acts to protect those who cannot protect themselves, including future generations.

Where government has no proper role, the progressive value we should speak of is “freedom.” The idea of freedom is deeply ingrained in American history. It is universally popular. Oddly, progressives rarely talk about freedom, perhaps because we are afraid that defending civil liberties makes us unpopular. But that’s the point of values: to help us bridge the gap between popular ideals and policies that truly uphold them.

Where government acts as a referee, the progressive value is “opportunity.” Americans believe in a land of opportunity where hard work is rewarded and everyone has equal access to the American Dream. Equal opportunity means a level playing field: fair dealings between the powerful and the less powerful, the elimination of discrimination and a quality education for all.

Where government acts as a protector, the progressive value is “security.” Conservatives want to narrow the definition of security to mean only protection from domestic criminals and foreign terrorists. But Americans understand that protection of our health and well-being is also security. Insuring the sick and vulnerable, safeguarding the food we eat and products we use, and preserving our environment are all essential to our security.

While progressives work to extend freedom, opportunity and security to all Americans, conservatives try to limit these rights to a select few. When conservatives restrict basic reproductive rights, encourage discrimination by police, and impose their creationist doctrine on schoolchildren, they are trampling on American freedoms. When they put corporations over people and traffic in government favors, no-bid contracts and economic development giveaways, they are crushing equal opportunity. When conservatives try to gut Social Security, dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and block programs designed to address climate change, they are wrecking our security.

This brings us to “responsibility,” a value that plainly sets progressives apart from conservatives. We take responsibility for the well-being of our nation by crafting policies to extend freedom, opportunity and security to all. Conservatives cynically turn the word inside out by chanting a mantra of “personal responsibility.” They mean that unemployment, hunger and discrimination are the individual’s problem, not society’s. In this way, conservatives twist the language of responsibility to avoid responsibility. It’s downright Orwellian.

So talk the talk: When advocating a public policy, emphasize freedom if government action would violate individual rights, opportunity if government should act as a referee, and security if government should act as a protector. And point out that the progressive position takes responsibility for solving the problem, while the conservative position abdicates it.

Polls consistently demonstrate that progressive policies are quite popular. Americans want fair wages and benefits, consumer protections, quality education, a clean environment and healthcare for all. But many persuadable voters don’t trust us to deliver these programs, because they don’t understand our philosophy. Let’s explain ourselves in language that voters will understand and appreciate. Let’s make it clear that, for progressives, “values” is not just a buzzword.

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