The restrictions on women’s health care spreading like wildfire in states across the country have many people wringing their hands about Washington, DC. Out of anger that Donald Trump is in the White House. Out of fear that the Trump Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade. And out of frustration that Congress, even with a Democratic majority in the House, can't do anything to stop it.
But the focus on national politics misses a crucial point. This action is happening far from the nation’s capital, in statehouses across the country.
This moment should be a clarion call: No presidential race, even one as significant as 2020, can match the cumulative impact of the elections for our 50 state legislatures. We must shift more attention and resources to the states — that is the mission of Future Now Fund, which was founded by the coauthor of this piece.
Just look at the news. Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio are all moving laws that contradict Roe v. Wade’s definition of women’s health. It’s a long list, and it is no coincidence. There is a coordinated effort on the radical right to change our country by controlling the states.
Beyond reproductive health, states have been restricting voting rights, drawing racially and politically motivated congressional maps, and having a huge effect on people’s lives, from denying tens of thousands of kids with special needs the services they need in Texas to thwarting efforts to guarantee clean drinking water in Iowa.
For many Americans, the election of Trump to succeed Barack Obama appeared to be the most dramatic political shift in our lifetimes. But most Americans have not focused on what’s been brewing in state legislatures for decades. Corporations and right-wing activists have.
The American Legislative Exchange Council was founded in the 1970s to launder corporate and radical ideas into supposedly people-driven laws. ALEC pushed the 2010 Arizona law — written by private prison companies — that allowed people to be stopped for driving while Latino, and it embraced Florida's so-called Stand Your Ground law, which was used to justify the murder of Trayvon Martin, making it a model policy to be pushed across the country. Then there are the education bills, backed by school profiteers, that let the DeVos family and others privatize public education.
Corporations and radical right-wing activists have succeeded because they have been strategic about building power where it is easiest to change the entire political terrain: state legislatures. Meanwhile, progressives have been chasing the brass ring inside the beltway.
Trump did not decimate women’s health care in Georgia. Nor did he impose 99-year prison sentences on health care providers in Alabama. Their state legislatures did.
And let’s be very clear: If the Trump Supreme Court does gut Roe v. Wade, it will only be by affirming one of these laws that state lawmakers have passed. Without the radical capture of state legislatures, the court would not have the chance.
This article has been updated to clarify that ALEC embraced Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law as a piece of model legislation for the rest of the country.
Kathy Sykes has been a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives since 2016, representing District 70.
Daniel Squadron is the cofounder and executive director of Future Now and Future Now Fund. He was the youngest elected member of the New York State Senate in 2008, and served until 2017.