Joel Rogers in the Nation adds his voice to the growing chorus that says progressives need to focus their electoral energies on the local level:
Progressive reluctance to develop such a strategy is in some ways understandable. Variation and competition among states has historically been the single most resilient barrier to democratic politics in America. The very idea of a progressive state strategy--as opposed to a determined focus on a more democratic national government able to surmount that barrier--has long seemed oxymoronic, or merely moronic. It's also true that state politics is less compelling than other politics, if not downright boring. This is especially so today, with the nation at war and facing from its national government the greatest internal threat to our democracy in our history, but the observation holds in safer times. Most progressives also mourn devolution, which has been coterminous with if not defined by the dismantling of the New Deal welfare state, twentieth-century American liberalism's greatest domestic achievement. Understandable, then, that we are in a sort of collective denial that "the era of big government is over."
But whatever the reasons for our neglecting the states, good and bad, we need to get over them. We need a progressive strategy in the states, because not having one is now doing us two sorts of grievous harm.
The first is that we're getting killed there politically, with results we are likely to feel for years to come. For the first time in a generation, a rightist GOP has recently gained the edge in total governors, legislative chambers, controlled legislatures and legislative seats. And in states no less than nationally, the right is clearer on its ends than are the Democrats, and infinitely more aggressive in casting even modest electoral victories in policy cement.
The second is that we're missing an enormous political opportunity in the states, which today are the most natural sites of progressive growth. States wield control over many ingredients of a well-run economy and polity--from human capital to transportation to campaign finance and election rules--and they have relatively porous political systems that we could in fact organize. In at least some states, we already have close to the organizational density (e.g., among unions, community groups, service and advocacy organizations of different kinds) and diffuse public support to do this relatively quickly--if we aimed at this goal in a deliberate and coordinated way. With real government power in the states, progressives could demonstrate that our ideas actually work--that a government run in our way is more efficient and accountable, that a "high road" economy of the sort we favor delivers higher living standards, that social service and insurance systems financed our way are cheaper, with deeper coverage. We could in effect take a page from the original Progressives of a century ago--the folks who worked out at the state level many of the ideas that later informed the New Deal and who, before it became a cliché, gave real meaning to the idea of states as "laboratories of democracy." We could try new things, test their effects, compare them across states and surface the best new ideas into national debate.