Opinion | A Message For Democrats: It's The States, Stupid

Trump's Supreme Court could reshape our country for decades. But the Constitution offers a solution to a hostile and destructive federal government.

No matter how big the “blue wave” turns out to be this November, one thing is clear: Democrats in Congress will lack the votes to overcome presidential vetoes, and an extremist conservative Supreme Court majority, unbound by precedent, will set about erasing decades of settled law — on choice, corporatism, civil rights, federalism, and more.

With Congress powerless to pass sweeping legislation to counter it, our country’s laws will be reshaped by the Trump Court. No amount of denial can change this reality, but there is hope, because the Constitution offers a solution to a hostile and destructive federal government. Federalism is not merely a cudgel to hobble Congress. It is also a tool to empower states.

Democrats have long had a fundamentally different view of federalism, and that is one reason why my party has so terribly neglected state legislatures. There are other, less principled factors as well: consultants and lobbyists who elevate Washington because that’s where the money is; sitting federal legislators to whom powerful state legislators pose a threat; large Democratic donors more drawn to the glamour of presidential politics than profit-driven Republican donors.

But regardless of the reasons, the end result is the same. Of all the failures of Democrats in the last 20 years, ignoring the power and potential of states is the most consequential.

Even as President Obama and his attorney general Eric Holder found religion on the importance of states in drawing congressional maps, and DNC chair Tom Perez focused on the role of state voting laws in winning the electoral college, they missed the point. So do those who say that state politicians are important sources of talent, “building the bench” for future national leadership.

States are not merely tools of federal power. They are powerful themselves. And state legislatures are the last, best hope to prevent the damage of Trumpism.

I spent most of the last decade serving in the New York State Senate. It wasn’t for the perks (bottomless Chex Mix in the lounge) or the glamour (though I did develop a strange loyalty to the New York State Thruway’s Plattekill service area). It was because of the potential. Frustrated by structural barriers to reaching that potential, I left office last year to build an effort that shares resources, expertise, and ambitious goals with state legislatures around the country.

State houses can protect a woman’s right to make reproductive health decisions, even if the Supreme Court erases it. They can ensure our family members with preexisting conditions get health care, even if Obamacare is decimated. Meeting the Paris climate agreement goals, enacting paid family leave or policies to slash college debt — those are things states can do. Better roads, bridges and public transit, higher wages, stronger civil rights, fairer voting laws — states can do this too. Also, improved schools, ending mass incarceration. Even longer lives!

But today, that potential is as far from reality as a progressive majority on the Supreme Court. Sixty-seven of 99 state legislative chambers in the country are controlled by Republicans. Rather than a counterweight to the federal government, state legislatures are Trumpism’s anchor.

The situation is dire. But even at this late hour in the takeover of our democracy, all is not lost. State legislative majorities are fluid. A third have flipped control in the last decade. And, unlike in Congress, closely divided majorities can move big legislation and negotiate across the aisle to get it signed by governors (none of whom are named Trump, whatever party they are in).

Most importantly, winning state legislative majorities has an outsize impact on people’s lives and our democracy for a fraction of the cost of winning a highly competitive congressional race. Winning the House will cost more than $500 million on the Democratic side this year. Putting 10 key states in the best position to win legislative majorities would cost maybe a tenth as much.

Now more than ever, attention and resources should be directed to state legislatures. Not because they will help defeat Trumpism in Congress (though they will) or the White House (ditto), but because they are the key to changing the direction of the entire country, no matter what’s happening in Washington. With the Court lost and Congress stymied, state legislatures are not just a good investment. They are the key solution.

Daniel Squadron is cofounder and executive director of Future Now Fund and was elected the youngest member of the New York State Senate in 2008, serving until 2017. He coauthored Senator Chuck Schumer’s Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time.

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