Civics 101: The Elections You Missed – The States

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.


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12 responses to “Civics 101: The Elections You Missed – The States

  1. Great post. Necessary information. People are fired up. They’re angry. This, I think, is the next step toward actually building a more progressive America. And you’re right; local politics is largely ignored both by the media and the left. I think this is part due to the greater use of the internet by lefties, which is great at globalizing ideas, but not as well suited to localizing them. Growing up in this kind of environment conditions people to think on the larger scale, even though that’s not necessarily where the real fight is won.

    I’m still not big on referring to misdirected progressives as “the frustrati.” I just find it divisive and counterproductive. Everything else you’ve written is extremely productive and I think it will be eye-opening to a number of people who read it. We’re all victims of our own bubbles to an extent. We see big problems and feel we need big leaders to help fix them. But fixing our noses to one little dot (or even a big one) isn’t going to lead to the results we want. I think your example on the gay marriage issue is very illustrative of the importance of state and local politics and the role it plays in creating major change. Hopefully your message will resonate. We need more people saying the things you’re saying. Keep beating the drum ,my man.

    • The reason they got tagged with that is that they all seem to have exactly the same responses, which amount to their screaming that they are so frustrated with (fill in the blank) and therefore, not going to vote or support anything else. Then they scream some more about how someone else should do something to get their vote or support. Which has things backwards. Milt Shook calls them the “Progressive Unicorn Brigade.” Over the past month, there have been times when I feel like I’m talking to a Republican rather than a supposed progressive, which rather gives me an appreciation for the saying that if you go far enough along the political spectrum on either side, you end up meeting up

      In hard numbers, they tend to be a small percentage of the Democratic Party, probably not much more than 10% at best. The problem I have with them is that they’re also the noisiest, with the result that the end up helping Republicans and harming the very “causes” they were supposedly after.

      • Y’know, I had a conversation with someone who refused to vote for Hillary Clinton if she wins the primary. He was completely unresponsive to the potentially devastating consequences of a Republican president and congress. If Bernie Sanders didn’t win the primary, he refused to vote in the general, period. Textbook example of making perfect the enemy of good while, not coincidentally, displaying a galling lack of critical reasoning.

        Even though I am a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter, more so even than Obama in 2008, Bernie’s far from perfect. I expect I’ll feel the same about pretty much every presidential candidate I ever support. So demagoguery, especially over politicians seems alien to me.

        For me, progressivism is a mode of cognition which leads to certain values that in turn lead to policy positions. Compassion and fairness play parts in it. But so does pragmatism. So I always approach other progressives as though they can be reasoned with. I have learned otherwise. I guess I’ve got to get used to just walking away from dogmatism wherever I might find it.

        • As I said in my next post, I have been up until recently, neutral. Our primary date isn’t for a while, so I generally take my time deciding. But some of Bernie’s rabid supporters often make me double-check where I’m reading, because it sounds like I’ve stumbled upon a Tea Party group. Not only is it not helping persuade me to support Bernie, it’s pushed me towards Hillary, and I’m not alone in that reaction. Now, if Bernie does win the nomination, I’ll vote for him in the general. The same with Hillary. One of the things I often point out to the “purists” is that there are other offices on the ballot. We’re not having an election for President on November 8’th, and another one later on for everyone else. That seems to be the big thing that’s forgotten, and it’s a function of “top down” thinking. You have to think “bottom up.”

  2. sjterrid

    I’m so glad that you’re back to writing on your blog again. I shared this on Facebook.

  3. ryokomocha

    I didn’t realize you were writing this, man, I’ll be reading! 🙂

    Aaron Litz

  4. Excellent Post! Civics education has been falling by the wayside. The responsibilities of actually being a citizen (informed voter) get lost in the noise of the internet. I always took my sons to the voting booth with me and both now report in that they’ve voted whenever there is an election. Attending a caucus in MN is a higher bar and only the oldest son thinks that is a good thing.

    • Thanks! In most states I’ve heard, “civics” got rolled into “social studies” back in the late 60’s or in the 70’s. Given all the other things that have been piled into that course over the years, “how your governments work” is given very short shrift. I said elsewhere that I remember what a big deal it was when the voting age was lowered to 18, and how excited I was to be able to vote. These days I wonder why they even bothered, given the turnout in the 18-25 age bracket.

      • sjterrid

        I think because of the draft, we realized how important it was to vote. When both my kids were in high school, they had one term of gov’t as their history requirement in their junior or senior year.

        • I sometimes thing a draft or a national service requirement might be a good thing, because it might give young people incentive to turn out and vote. Every time I hear someone tell me that young people are for something or other, and there’s some big “movement” they’re talking about, I know they’re going to end up being disappointed by the lack of any action. For one big reason: Politicians know that they won’t turn out to vote. For all the chatter about money in politics, or “corporative takeovers” of parties, at the end of the day, politicians still pay attention to who is voting. They know people in my age bracket are going to be at the voting booth. People under 30? If you’re depending on them, you’re asking to lose

          • sjterrid

            I agree with you. Especially the idea to have a national service requirement. This way they can actually experience what it means to live in poverty and see how difficult it is to get by, and not take everything for granted.