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Democrats Lost the States. A New Book Says Activists Are Fighting Back.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

You wouldn’t have guessed it from cable news, but Donald Trump was not the only major political event of 2016. Nor was the primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. To understand both the true import of 2016 and the scale of the defeat suffered by the Democratic Party, you must look to the states. Almost 90 state legislative chambers had elections in 2016, and by the time Election Day was over, the GOP controlled both chambers of more than 60 percent of the states. Democrats had flipped some legislatures, but the GOP had more momentum.

Though Democrats made up some ground in 2018, Republicans still control most state governments. It’s not a minor problem. Republicans have cannily used state governments as laboratories for radical policies. When state Democratic Parties are weak, they can’t block assaults on abortion rights, or voting rights, or collective bargaining rights. They can’t serve as talent incubators for future members of Congress, and that, in turn, weakens the national party. How did we get here? Journalist Meaghan Winter poses the question early in her new book, All Politics Is Local. The answer, she suggests, is multipronged. Statehouses are missing progressive and even centrist lawmakers, she writes, “because of choices not made, money not spent, organizations not sustained, would-be leaders never elected.”

Winter’s reporting took her to Missouri, Florida, and Colorado, where activists are trying to claw back territory at the local level. Their foes are many. Winter compellingly argues that progress isn’t just a casualty of the Republican Party and its powerful allies. It’s endangered by the decisions of Democratic consultants and fickle donors, and restricted by archaic campaign-finance laws. Winter spoke to me by phone to discuss her reporting, and to tell me why she hasn’t quite given up hope that politics as we know it will change.

Photo: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Sarah Jones: The Christian right is really active at the local and at the state levels, and they’ve been really successful there. What does the Christian right understand about the grassroots and local politics that the Democratic Party leadership doesn’t?
Meaghan Winter: The answer I give is not going to be complete because it is one of the central questions of our time, really, in terms of political dynamics. But one of the things that, for example, the anti-abortion movement has been wonderful at doing is connecting local activists to elite entities and institutions that have a lot of funding and political clout. One of the things that I heard, over and over again, from longtime progressive organizers and various movement leaders is they have had a lot of trouble getting big donors or institutional donors to sustain long-term organizing at the state and local level. So on the left, there’s just not the money to sustain a 10-year, 20-year program the way there is on the right.

You write that liberal donors love “a program with a unique, special air.” And that the left is largely guided by the moral whims of rich people, whereas the right is guided by rational business decisions. In your reporting, did you identify the point where this became true of the left?
There was a moment in the ’60s and ’70s when the right became more politicized in their institutional giving. And by the right, I don’t actually mean the Republican Party. I mean entities that were more extreme than that, like libertarian think tanks and people and donors who are reacting to the civil-rights movement. They decided to take a much more radical approach, whereas everyone else decided that they were going to take a safer approach, which was funding direct service rather than taking a more politicized approach.

Do you think that big liberal donors, in comparison to big right-wing donors, perceive their roles and perceive power differently?
Institutions on the right have an incentive to give because they’re going to get a return on their investment. If you are the Koch brothers and you spend a million dollars on lobbying, you’re going to get tenfold the amount of money back by pushing a piece of legislation because you’re going to get a tax break or you’re gonna get to drill oil, whatever you want. Where liberal donors, compared to Democrats at large, tend to be more socially liberal and economically conservative. And because of a bunch of complicated campaign-finance laws that I won’t go into now, there’s a lot of incentive for them to give to interest groups.

That is quite different than sustaining long-term organizing that unifies people across issues and creates an economically driven social movement, which I think ultimately could be more successful in uniting people across demographics, across the culture wars. People like Tom Steyer don’t have an incentive to give money to a bunch of people who are now disenfranchised and who, if they actually had power, would change his tax code and take away a lot of his social status.

Do you think that the left should reframe the way it discusses family values in order to appeal to rural voters?
I think a really serious problem that Democrats face is how successful Republicans have been in pushing issues like abortion — like transgender rights, like gun control, like immigration — to the center. It’s really only to the detriment of Democrats trying to win those rural districts where, at least hypothetically, messaging about unions or health care could potentially resonate more with voters.

I’m not saying that to minimize abortion rights or gay rights, obviously, but given the heightened emotions of those issues and given the fact that gun-rights supporters and anti-abortion supporters, as we were discussing, are extremely well-organized and are just there all of the time and, frankly, control so much of the culture of the statehouses. It’s really hard to see how the Democrats are going to win on those issues.

But there are some interesting things happening. Organizers in Missouri successfully passed a package of legislation that would limit lobbying. Its focus is on structural change, in terms of good government reforms that are appealing to people on the right and the left. I think that kind of change helps prevent Republicans from enshrining power for decades to come by just screaming about abortion and guns, and it also is a way to talk to people about the way they want their government to change.

The left has positions that it can communicate with the black-and-white certainty that we see in Republicans who oppose abortion rights. I’m thinking specifically of health care. It’s easy and accurate to say that people will continue to die from lack of health-care coverage without Medicare for All. But that message isn’t coming from Democratic leaders. It’s coming from either insurgents within the party or from people outside the party, like members of Democratic Socialists of America, certain labor leaders, and grassroots activists. Do you think that this is a missed opportunity for Democratic leaders to reclaim the language of morality on an issue?
The political parties, and by that I mean the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, are not the vehicles for change going forward because of campaign-finance laws. Right now, we’re in a situation where the interest groups can raise money more easily, that have more freedom. They’re gonna be the ones who really can push our politics in a different direction. That is important for people to know because that, again, is how we get to this position where a lot of culture-war stuff becomes front and center because those interests have more money and they can steer the conversation. That’s a more complicated reason than just “the Democratic Party leaders are incompetent.” It’s actually a much more complicated story.

Your reporting makes it clear that the Democratic Party has a money problem. It doesn’t have enough, and what money it does have tends to come from big donors. You connect that problem to the party’s growing reliance on consultants. Do you think that the rise of small donors can help break the hold of the consultant class?
Yeah, I think the rise of small donors is hugely important and one of the only sources of hope I have.

It’s funny that you mention hope because I wanted to ask you about that. What are your reasons to hope right now? Are there, for example, campaigns or organizations that are really getting things right?
I’ve been joking that in the course of reporting this book, it really became clear to me that I am a depressive. I would not be able to do the work of these activists or especially the state lawmakers who endure these daylong hearings.

So do I have hope? Some. There are a lot of people on the ground who are trying to change the way things are done and the way money is spent in politics. And actually, I think that getting involved in your own neighborhood or city or state is really good for your mental health. It’s important to get off Twitter and talk to people to figure out what’s going on, because you actually can exert change in small ways on the local level, whereas we are pretty powerless when it comes to impeachment.

Here’s an example. In Virginia, a number of groups like Activate Virginia and Clean Virginia are working to convince candidates for office to not accept money from major utility companies like Dominion Energy. And the Virginia Democratic Party announced that it’s no longer going to accept money from Dominion. That kind of change is actually a really big deal because it means it signals a change in what’s acceptable, what’s the status quo. That’s just one example of people getting together, deciding that enough is enough, and seizing some of the power back from these major corporations that threaten us.

I want to close with a question about journalism. Private equity is gobbling up local newspapers, which have historically been the source of a lot of statehouse reporting. Those jobs are disappearing. Do you think that helps explain why state bills and campaigns often don’t receive much national attention?
I’m so glad you asked about that. Because if you didn’t, I was going to just insert it myself. So here is my paraphrase of the problem. Most of these state-based campaigns are synchronized and nationalized. And what do I mean by that? I mean, for example, like an anti-union bill or an anti-LGBTQ bill. Anti-abortion bills. Gun bills. It’s all cookie-cutter legislation passed around the country. Interest groups are using states to push a national agenda.

But there’s no platform to adequately show that these are multipronged, synchronized national agendas and strategies that are working. There are hundreds of statehouse reporters who are overworked and underpaid and are upholding a crucial lever of our democracy. National reporters, as we know, cover these bills when it’s too late, when they are being decided by the Supreme Court. What else do we hear about them in the national press? Maybe The Daily Show will make a joke about it if a state lawmaker says something especially absurd.

Getting a national pundit on cable news is cheaper, faster, and easier than the laborious, long work of figuring out what’s happening with synchronized political campaigns across the country. It’s a market problem. It’s a collective-action media problem. And I understand to a certain extent that a lot of these media companies feel that they have their backs against the wall because of what’s happened to the industry. But on the other hand, so many of these major news networks and publications are really complicit in not explaining to the American public what’s actually happening.

All Politics is Local is out now from Bold Type Books. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Democratic Party’s Survival Depends on Local Activists