In my previous post on civics, I talked about the structure of the federal government and how it works. Knowing that is a fundamental part being able to get things accomplished, as well as knowing what needs to be fixed. Ideals are wonderful, but if you don’t know how to make those ideals become reality, they’ll remain just that. Ideals. Nice theoretical constructs, but nothing that actually happens. But that’s just one of several governments you should be concerned about if you’re talking about getting progressive ideals into progressive reality. As it turns out there’s another 50 to look at, and yes, the Constitution as well as Congress gives them certain responsibilities. Those are the states.
While specifics of each state vary when you’re talking about legislative powers, gubernatorial powers, terms of office, and structure of the legislature, they all have a chief executive (governor) who is responsible for the administrative running of the state, and a legislature which is responsible for passing laws and budgets. In many ways, the state government has a greater impact on your day-to-day life than what is done by the federal government.
Think of all the things you use, need, and laws you live under. For the majority of it, they’re state laws and services. The roads you drive on are built and maintained by the state. The requirements to get your driver’s license, your car registration, insurance, and traffic laws are state laws. How you register to vote, where you vote, how an election is handled, and how candidates get on the ballot are all done by state election laws. What is or isn’t a crime, and how severe a crime it is? The state, once again. Educational policies, school funding, state parks, food inspections, environmental protection, health and safety inspections, and so on are all a small part of what state governments do. In addition, many federal programs are delegated to the states to handle, and they’re allowed to place their own requirements on them. You want Medicaid, SNAP benefits, unemployment insurance, or “welfare?” Your qualifications for them, as well as how much you’ll get is done by the state, not the federal government.
All of them impact you every day, and how progressive – or regressive – they are depends on who is sitting in the governor’s office and which party controls the state legislature. Yes, federal laws do exist, and states have to follow them, but it’s important to note that in many cases federal law sets a floor. That is, “bare minimum,” not “best.” It’s the part that tends to be ignored by many of the so-called “real progressives,” and often turns out to be a major hindrance in getting progressive policies into place.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. In 2013, less than three years ago, the landmark case of United States v. Windsor overturned a big section of the Defense of Marriage Act. It said that the federal government could not define “marriage” as strictly between a man and a woman, and it was therefore unconstitutional to deny benefits to legally married couples. Just last year, there was Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down all bans on marriage equality. Landmark decisions, and major victories for equality. But here’s the thing: None of this would have happened if some states hadn’t legalized marriage equality! Marriage laws have been left to the states, so as long as all states were not allowing LGBT’s to marry, there was “no controversy” for courts to decide. Political controversy, sure, but not legal controversy. You can’t sue Texas for not recognizing your marriage if you’re not married in the first place. However, as states started to pass marriage equality, LGBT’s began to get married, and with the federal government and other states still banning it, there was. In short, the courts couldn’t get involved until at least some states moved on the issue.
There is a tendency among many to look to the federal government as the place where some program or action should be started. I’ve often had people point to various “great progressive achievements” by one or more Presidents, or great progressive movements of the past. What they generally ignore is that often those very achievements and movements got their start in the states. Individual states tried them, and if they worked, they started catching on. Progressives of the past were able to use those states as examples, and push their states to act, and then the federal government.
What this means is that if you want progressive action, to start a progressive movement, or “political revolution,” you have to start with the states! It’s what the frustrati ignore, and is why so many of the past’s progressive achievements are under attack. Oh, there are plenty of blogs thundering against various state actions, and complaints, but when it comes time to do something about them, they’re notably absent.
How? Simple. Most people focus on the Presidential election. They’re held every four years, there’s lots of (even obsessively continuous) press coverage, campaign events, and so on. It’s attention getting, alright. The problem? Most states don’t elect governors or some (or all) of their legislatures then. Thirty four states hold their elections during presidential mid-terms. Another 12 hold theirs in odd years. Those are also the elections with the least voter turnout. A great many people sit out those, or blow them off, because they’re “not important.” There’s some “justifications” used for it, like “I’m sending a message,” “I’m pissed off at the President,” or “I refuse to participate in a corrupt system” are just a sampling. The end result is that right now, there are 31 states with Republican governors, and 24 state legislatures controlled by Republicans. Some of the governors who were reelected were among the most reviled by various liberals. Rick Scott, Scott Walker, Rick Snyder, Sam Brownback, and Paul LePage among them. The ones who had big targets on their back with liberals. The problem? Not enough showed up to vote, so they’re around for a few more years. Some states which had Democratic governors now have Republican ones. Kentucky switched, and the popular insurance portal Kynect is being dismantled, thanks to the new governor.
It’s why I take all the chatter about a political revolution, a mass progressive change with a hefty grain of salt. You see, pragmatic progressives realize that the states have a big say in that, and apparently the real progressives can’t be bothered with them. It’s why they’re bound to be disappointed yet again, because they haven’t laid the groundwork for their “revolution.” The oldest rule in politics is “First, you have to win.” Given the record, they’re not even qualifying for the playoffs.