In 1973, a small but powerful group of right-wing state legislators and activists met in Chicago. They gathered to form an organization for those who believe that government, in their words, ought to be limited and “closest to the people.” And since, thanks to Chief Justice John Roberts and Mitt Romney, we know that corporations are, in fact, people, it makes sense that Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart and Koch Industries are among the funders of this secretive and influential group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, known by its sweet-sounding acronym ALEC.
For nearly forty years, ALEC has quietly and successfully pushed its extremist agenda in state assemblies across the country. As The Nation and the Center for Media Democracy exposed last summer — work recently cited by The New York Times’ Paul Krugman — ALEC literally writes state laws by providing fully drafted model legislation to more than 2,000 state legislators. This corporate leviathan backed the recent national conservative push to further enrich the one percent while rolling back workers’ rights, inventing new ways to harass and debase women and suppressing the vote. They also wrote the so-called “Stand Your Ground” gun bills that now blight some 20 states across the country and are implicated in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
While conservatives are skilled puppeteers, progressives are great at mobilizing people and channeling energy for the big fights, whether it’s putting the crisis of income inequality at center stage, or even electing a progressive president. But ALEC’s astonishing influence exposes the progressive Achilles’ heel: a lack of a similarly entrenched, nationwide infrastructure of state and local policymakers and advocates that can create and support lasting change.
Sure, well-coordinated progressive responses throughout the country, thus far, have prevented more extensive damage to our democracy. Mississippi, for instance, soundly defeated a ballot initiative to legalize “fetus personhood.” Maine saved same-day voter registration at the ballot box. The people of Wisconsin have fought back against a relentless right-wing attack on workers’ rights and forced Governor Scott Walker into a recall election.
But playing defense isn’t enough. The progressive movement needs to build a bench that can play offense at the grassroots, local, state and national levels, and one that is positioned to pull every lever of power in our multi-layered political system. Without that, for every big union busting bill defeated, or every progressive president elected, there still will be hundreds of right-wing initiatives percolating through the political system, eroding our rights and unraveling our hard-earned progress.
The good news is that this is already happening, resulting in key wins on paid sick leave, the minimum wage and gay and lesbian equality at the state and local levels. “People are now looking to do what the right has done so effectively — coordinating ideas, narratives, legislators and activists to really push in a progressive direction,” says New York City councilman and Progressive Caucus co-chair Brad Lander.
It was in this spirit that Lander met earlier this month with other progressive city leaders from across the country, key allies and groups like Progressive States Network, New Bottom Line and PolicyLink, to discuss the creation of a national network focused on promoting local progressive action by sharing and spreading great legislative ideas. This budding network joins established organizations like the Center for American Progress, Working Families Party, Progressive Majority, and Center on Wisconsin Strategy.
At the same time, Progressive Majority director Gloria Totten and a range of allies are pursuing a complementary project called the Elected Officials Alliance to coordinate state lawmakers across issue and organizational lines. Ultimately, the goal is to link state and local officials to policy organizations, like the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN). All of these groups are aiming to build a counterforce to ALEC.
On the policy front, the centerpiece of the effort is an initiative called the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE), started by Center on Wisconsin Strategy director Joel Rogers. ALICE would offer model laws for both state and local legislators and support citizen-directed efforts like ballot initiatives, all based on the values of equity, sustainability and responsible government.
But much more is needed. To successfully counter ALEC, the progressive movement also needs troops on the ground to complement the work of legislators. While conservatives may have built the best movement that money can buy, progressives build movements fueled by what politicians need more than money: people and their votes.
That’s why the time is right for this week’s launch of the 99 Percent Spring, a new movement led by a huge coalition of progressive organizations — from MoveOn.org to the UAW. It will train 100,000 people across the country to tell the true story of how the one percent’s financial excess and political abuse destroyed our economy. Participants will be trained and equipped to campaign for change through non-violent direct action.
As I’ve often said, political leaders move to where the energy is. If we want to see lasting progressive change, we need to inject that energy, driven by ideas and strategy, into every level of the process. That’s what the growing networks of progressive legislators and the 99 Percent Spring are positioned to do.