For the first time in decades, the Left is on the rise in the United States. This resurgence has primarily been driven forward by local and national struggles. In towns across the country, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapters have helped win important victories, such as achieving paid sick days in Austin, Texas and electing six socialists to city council in Chicago. And on a national level, the efforts of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have captured the imagination of millions.
These types of advances in our cities and in the national political arena are essential, but they’re not enough. Our strategy has a crucial missing link: we’re not yet consistently building power on a statewide level.
State governments in our country are far too influential to be ignored. Decisions made in the fifty capitols determine which residents get to vote; who bears the obligation of financing public services; the strength of union rights and labor protections; access to comprehensive health care for women and trans people; the criminalization of black and brown residents; and the funding allocation for everything from schools to prisons to nursing homes.
In the war over the future of the multiracial working class, state governments today compose a decisive front. Until we can build an effective challenge to the corporate dominance over our statehouses, we’ll continue to be fighting the bosses with one hand tied behind our backs.
Why States Are So Important
States have always had an outsized political weight in our country, a product of our anti-democratic Constitution and a long history of slavery and Jim Crow. And for more than a century, states have been a vital terrain of class struggle animating the construction and evisceration of the American welfare state.
Reforms pioneered at the state level in the early twentieth century laid the foundation for the New Deal. Though popular uprisings compelled the federal government to expand its reach over labor relations and social welfare, state governments remained significant by implementing many of the programs newly created to shore up the economic security of workers and the unemployed. By administering national programs including unemployment insurance, food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and Medicaid, the states came to shape the strength (or weakness) of the social safety net. Yet this role proved double-edged, as some also instituted right-to-work laws, racially-driven exclusions, and corporate tax breaks that contributed to the uneven geography of capitalist development.
The balance between federal and state governments has shifted dramatically during the neoliberal attack on the welfare state. Nixon sparked a sea change with his call to transfer federal responsibilities to the states under the aegis of the New Federalism. The “Reagan Revolution” turned this objective into an article of faith, assigning greater discretion to the states while slashing federal aid and taxes on the rich.
Support for expanding the autonomy of the states wasn’t limited to the ascendant conservative movement; Third Way ideologues joined in too. The Clinton administration as well as half of congressional Democrats joined Republicans to “end welfare as we know it” by abandoning the federal guarantee of cash public assistance, enforcing draconian rules and restrictions on benefit recipients, and authorizing states to design their own programs.
This reconfiguration intertwined with the march toward privatization. As Michael Katz argued in The Price of Citizenship, the devolution of public authority from the federal government to the states and the application of market models to social policy advanced in tandem. Caught in a vise between federal retrenchment and municipal crisis, state governments increasingly contracted out public services of all kinds.
What is the reason for such seismic change?
Devolution and privatization result from capitalists’ decades-long project to enhance their power. Recognizing that their unsurpassable money power is best deployed at the state level, corporate and wealthy donors have organized accordingly. Through trial and error since the 1970s, they have developed an elaborate infrastructure to promote their interests in every state across the country.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network (SPN) spearhead this apparatus. ALEC brings together thousands of state legislators and corporate representatives who produce and disseminate model laws; SPN comprises an array of state-level think tanks which lobby to enact them. Fueled by dark money, these are the motors of a coordinated strategy to eliminate any promise of a more equal America.
“We need to wage more than a battle of ideas — we need to wage war for the control of government,” proclaimed the founder of Pennsylvania’s SPN affiliate in 1989. “Ideas are ammunition, the bullets of a political movement, but let us not forget that to fire those bullets effectively we need a full arsenal at the state level.”
The systematic offensive against workers peaked after the Great Recession. Authors such as Gordon Lafer and Nancy MacLean describe how the top one percent have used state budget crises as a historic opportunity to bust unions, dismantle democracy, and impose permanent austerity. Severe cuts to public employment and services have diminished working-class living standards and disproportionately harmed communities of color. Corporate lobbies have achieved the most success wherever Republicans capture trifecta control, but they exert the same pressure to race to the bottom in blue states.
The scale of devastation is staggering. To name but a few developments in the last decade: five states, including union strongholds such as Wisconsin and Michigan, passed right-to-work laws (more than the number to do so in the previous half-century). Twenty-five restricted voting rights. And at least twenty enacted preemption measures that prohibit localities from raising labor standards like the minimum wage. Unless we can build an effective statewide response, working people won’t be able to confront and eventually defeat the billionaires and their political proxies.
Though socialists oppose the continued devolution of governmental powers to the states, we need a strategy that can confront the actual political conditions that face us today. This means we can’t afford to abstain from the statewide arena.
It’s tempting to focus solely on the low-hanging fruit of local politics since both our goals and our targets are more immediate in the places where we live. But advocates of the strategy of “municipalism” fail to realistically assess the limited economic and political powers granted to city governments. The big policy decisions over resource distribution and legal rights affecting working people are almost all made at a statewide and national political level. In Illinois, for example, a statewide ban on rent control remains the single biggest legal obstacle to winning housing justice in Chicago.
To illustrate the limitations of purely local organizing, consider the dynamics of the Oakland teachers’ strike that took place earlier this year. Despite a massive display of force by educators and their supporters, the strike’s results fell short of most strikers’ expectations in part because the local district did not have the money to meet most of the educators’ major demands. To win these would likely have required generating sufficient pressure at the capitol in Sacramento to have forced the state government to forgive the Oakland school district’s $36 million debt. But in the absence of strong pressure from a statewide movement, California’s “deep blue” legislature left Oakland’s educators and students high and dry.
Of course, it is possible to win significant gains locally through movement struggles. But these are at permanent risk of reversal as long as state politics remains in the grip of unchallenged corporate politicians. In Austin, for example, the recent gains won over paid sick leave were put into question by the Texas legislature’s drive to legally ban local progressive ordinances. Similarly, Pennsylvania lawmakers just this past week stripped away much of the authority of radical Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner.
While organizing locally is essential, we need to scale up if we’re going to bring about deep and lasting structural change. Whether we like it or not, many crucial decisions that affect our lives are made at state capitols. For that reason, most labor unions — the most important organizations of and for working people in our country — do have a statewide political orientation. However, most of their ample organizational and financial resources continue to be squandered in lobbying the Democratic Party establishment, a dead-end strategy that has helped to get the labor movement into its current crisis.
The explosive growth of DSA chapters across the country means that socialists now have the people power necessary to start envisioning statewide working-class campaigns in coalition with labor unions, tenants rights’ organizations, and other allies. DSA has the potential to act as the linchpin of such a movement.
Recent victories show the power of a statewide approach. In early June, community groups with DSA backing — and the support of allied elected officials like socialist Julia Salazar — won a landmark set of rent regulations for the entire state of New York. Similarly, the pro-rent control “Lift the Ban” organizing in Chicago has shown how statewide issues can play a central role in building working-class power locally.
And in 2018, DSA rank-and-file teachers in Charleston, West Virginia played a pivotal role in launching the statewide organizing that culminated in their victorious strike. Indeed, one reason why the “red state” education strikes have been so inspiring, and so successful, is that rather than fighting district by district, they’ve united educators from all across their states to fight for a new set of economic and political priorities.
Fortunately, the United Teachers of Los Angeles is now spreading this statewide fightback spirit to “deep-blue” California by promoting the Schools And Communities First ballot initiative and statewide campaign to win billions in progressive taxation by ending Prop 13’s infamous tax breaks for big business. This example should be emulated across the country. To roll back decades of neoliberal austerity, DSA chapters, unions, and allied organizations should launch statewide “Tax the Rich” campaigns to fully fund the public schools and public services that working people deserve.
State policies can also have dramatic consequences for racial justice. Campaigns to fund schools and services instead of prisons have the potential to powerfully fuse economic and antiracist struggles. And the Republican Party’s state-level efforts to disenfranchise voters, particularly working-class African Americans, pose a dramatic roadblock to our efforts to win real equality and build political power. For instance, the current fight in Florida to protect the voting rights of 1.4 million former felons is crucial not only for racial justice but also for our campaign to elect socialists to city office and Bernie Sanders as president.
Campaigns centered on progressive taxation, voting rights, unionism, and a revitalized public sector must be an essential component of any viable strategy against corporate power. It’s time we do this in the state capitols.