from the desk of H. Bowie...

desktop with typewriter


The Progressive Path Forward – A 12-State Strategy

Arrows pointing upwards
image credit: iStock/Suppachok Nuthep

By now leading progressives are starting to realize that they face some severe structural impediments if they are serious about getting real progress in the United States.

What do I mean by real progress?

Let’s just list a few common, reasonable goals.

  • LGBTQ rights
  • Immigration reform
  • Protection for the environment
  • Prison reform
  • Policing and judicial equity for minorities
  • Better gun legislation
  • Abortion rights
  • Increasing income and wealth equity

For most people who call themselves progressives, I think that the list above would be accepted without much fuss. We all want these things.

But how do we get them?

Here we run into a population distribution problem.

Modern progressives are mostly found in our large urban centers, while conservatives tend to be clustered in our more rural areas.

Unfortunately for progressives, our urban population is increasingly becoming concentrated in only a few parts of the country.

Here’s the way one article puts it:

The nation’s economic activity is increasingly concentrated in a tiny fraction of major metropolitan areas. By nearly every measure that matters – job growth, income growth, share of business creation and investment – there are about two dozen metros capturing the lion’s share of the wealth.

Which is fine, except that, when progressives try to achieve their goals at the national level, they run into three major structural barriers:

  • The electoral college. As happened in 2016, a presidential candidate can lose the popular vote, but still win the presidency.
  • The senate, where every state, no matter how small its human population, gets the same two votes.
  • The process for amending our constitution, which requires approval by all but twelve of our fifty states.

No wonder that Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, in their book, We Are Indivisible, summarize the situation by saying: “Our political system is not equipped to deliver solutions – in fact, it’s equipped to block them.”

So how do we progressives advance our agenda when so much of the country’s geography is dominated by conservatives?

It’s tricky.

But here are the components of a plan that will allow us to get there.

1. Patience and Strategy

This is not a plan that will achieve all of its results in a single election cycle, or perhaps even a couple of them.

2. A Sympathetic President

My plan doesn’t require our president to be an active supporter or leader, but we need to elect a president who will not obstruct progress.

3. A Focus on Demonstrable Results and Broad Positive Impacts

While working on all of this, progressives need to focus on demonstrable results that will produce felt benefits for a large majority of the population.

4. Policy Formulation and Coordination at the National Level

In We Are Indivisible Greenberg and Levin summarized the work of the Koch brothers by saying:

…they built an extraordinarily powerful network, bringing together a coalition of conservative donors to fund think tanks, advocacy groups, messaging firms, academic institutions, and individual politicians.

Progressives need a network that is similarly well organized and funded. But to start with, we need a national progressive group – let’s just call it a “think tank” – that can formulate sensible, coherent policy, along with model legislation, at the national level.

5. Coordinated Implementation at the State and Local Levels

National leaders – including, but not necessarily limited to, elected officials – then need to plan and implement – working with and through selected local elected officials – a coordinated rollout of the target policies and legislation in left-leaning states and cities. This can include pilot efforts in regions that are early adopters, possibly followed by suitable modifications, and then by implementation in late adopters. Note that this will require progressive majorities at the local level, but not at the national level.

6. Cooperation, Not Competition, Between Progressive Population Centers

When Amazon conducted a nationwide search for new headquarters, states and cities were falling all over themselves to see who could offer Amazon the sweetest deal and the largest tax incentives. But why let big companies force us to compete with one another, allowing them to walk away with sweetheart deals, and leaving the winners with buyer’s remorse? Instead, why not work together to come up with reasonable terms, and then let companies pick cities based on the actual attributes of the cities, and the companies’ own lists of priorities? This way cities and citizens win, and big companies can’t bully us into accepting terms that leave local governments with all of the problems, without the tax base needed to solve any of them.

7. Intentional Distribution of Work

And as long as progressives are cooperating, why don’t we work together to encourage large companies to move work to areas of the country that need it? This would not only help the people in those communities, it would help to expand our progressive base to new parts of the country. Why do all of our large, successful metropolitan areas feel like they need to endlessly continue their own growth? Is this really what their citizens want? Or is it just something that makes their political leaders wealthier and more powerful?

8. Success Stories

The advantage held by progressives is that, unlike the conservatives, we actually want to do things that will benefit most people. So, unlike the conservatives, we don’t need to keep any of this a secret. No, instead we need to shout it from the rooftops. We can let everyone know what we’re planning, and what we’re doing, and how it’s turned out.

In doing so, though, we need to present real progress as wins for the progressive movement, not just as isolated victories for certain local politicians. Let’s talk openly about how well progressive policies and legislation are working, and point to the areas where they’ve been implemented.

9. Real Competition between Progressives and Conservatives

But of course, if we’re going to talk about how well the progressive agenda is faring, we need to compare and contrast it with something else.

Here’s where the 12-state part of the strategy comes from.

In order for progressives to pass even the smallest, most popular, constitutional amendment, we need ratification by 38 states. Which means that as many as 12 states can remain solidly conservative, without blocking progress.

So why not pick twelve states and allow them to be suitable models for the conservative agenda?

I don’t have an authoritative list, but here’s a beginning group to help start the discussion. See below for the candidate states, along with the numbers of electoral votes held by each.

  1. Alabama - 9 electoral votes
  2. Alaska - 3 electoral votes
  3. Arkansas - 6 electoral votes
  4. Idaho - 4 electoral votes
  5. Mississippi - 6 electoral votes
  6. Missouri - 10 electoral votes
  7. Nebraska - 5 electoral votes
  8. North Dakota - 3 electoral votes
  9. Oklahoma - 7 electoral votes
  10. South Dakota - 3 electoral votes
  11. Utah - 6 electoral votes
  12. Wyoming - 3 electoral votes

So let’s encourage conservatives to put their best feet forward in these states. Let them show us what they’ve got. And then let’s point out the differences over time, as progressive states show real progress, and conservative states stay stuck in the mud.

The Bottom Line

Progressives tend to be united in their resistance to Trump and the current GOP, but tend to fragment themselves over everything else. But our nation and our world cannot stand another round of seesawing back and forth between progressives and conservatives, leaving us deadlocked more often than not, unable to make any real progress. What we need instead is a viable, forward-looking strategy that will work consistently over the long haul, making real progress along the way.

And if progressives are serious about making progress for most of humanity, then we need an approach – like this one – that includes competition between competing ideas, and a disciplined approach to trying out those ideas and honestly assessing the results. Simply doing what feels good won’t keep us in the driver’s seat for very long.

What I’ve tried to present here is a workable way forward.

Here’s hoping the progressive movement can organize itself well enough to make real progress over a period measured in decades, and not just one or two election cycles.

June 29, 2020