Progressive Wedge Issues for Cities and States

For years, conservatives used “wedge issues” to split moderates from progressives—measures like criminalizing flag burning, cutting “welfare,” and (until recently) banning same-sex marriage. They still do that, of course, but the Tea Party has forced conservatives to put greater emphasis on policies with little popular appeal.

It’s time for progressives to promote some wedge issues of our own. To be clear, a progressive wedge issue: (1) pulls Americans to our side, (2) forces conservatives to defend an unpopular position, and (3) is both simple and substantial enough to become a voting issue in the next election.

With conservatives in control of the U.S. House and Senate, progressives can introduce bills but can’t really generate the publicity for them that would be necessary to impact the public. These bills won’t even get a hearing in Washington. But the same issues can be raised successfully in many states, cities and counties. Even if our wedge issues aren’t enacted, they show voters the stark differences between conservatives and progressives. They show we are the ones on their side.

#1 Close tax loopholes for the rich

Americans believe, by overwhelming margins, that our tax system is unfair and that rich individuals and large corporations are not paying their fair share. Specifically, polling collected by Americans for Tax Reform shows that: voters are more concerned with tax fairness than lower taxes; the public responds especially well to calls to end tax loopholes for large corporations; and Americans are convinced that the current tax system is rigged in favor of powerful special interests and against the middle class. The most recent polling is here.

Progressives need to press their advantage. There is no state or local tax code that can’t be improved by eliminating some regressive tax deductions, credits or subsidies. There are a number of ways to proceed. First, search your own jurisdiction’s tax code for regressive tax breaks to reduce or repeal. In addition, governments should list all tax expenditures and provide that each must sunset unless regularly renewed. State and local governments can hire more auditors, investigators and attorneys to collect from big corporate scofflaws. And States with income taxes ought to make their brackets more progressive and add a surtax on extra-high incomes.

(For the best arguments about tax fairness, see Voicing Our Values on Budgets and Taxes.)

#2 Pick a fight with banks

The Great Recession of 2007-09 reminded Americans that our financial system is unsafe, unfair, and often provides no real benefit to society. Right now, you can’t lose with voters by picking a fight—any fight—with banks.

There are several options for both states and localities: you can limit predatory mortgage lending and payday lending; stop unnecessary property foreclosures and unfair debt collection practices; and control the marketing of credit cards, debit cards, and pre-paid cards.

(For the best arguments about our economic fairness in our financial system, see Voicing Our Values on Economic Fairness.)

#3 Support LGBT rights

Between 1998 and 2012, conservatives used LGBT people as political scapegoats. Right wingers proposed state constitutional amendments to prohibit same-sex marriage, enacting such measures in 30 states. They also sought to prevent LGBT Americans from working as teachers, tried to block them from adopting children, and tried to prevent the mention of homosexuality in school biology and social studies classes. A couple years ago conservatives even fought to keep gay children out of the Boy Scouts.

But the political tide has turned, dramatically. Americans now favor same-sex marriage and, by strong margins, oppose discrimination against gays and lesbians. Some prominent conservatives have started to recognize that their movement is on the wrong side of history and that continued opposition to LGBT rights is political suicide. But as a Pew Research poll of LGBT people found, the political damage is done.

Over one-third of lesbian and gay people have experienced workplace discrimination and about one-sixth have lost a job because of their sexual orientation. Sadly, over half of states and most cities do not ban discrimination against LGBT individuals. The LGBT Fairness Act prohibits such discrimination. 

(For the best arguments about LGBT policies, see Voicing Our Values on LGBT Rights.)

#4 Support immigrants’ rights

Immigration is another issue where conservatives have spent the past many years demonizing Americans for partisan political gain. It’s not that persuadable voters are ready to embrace unauthorized immigrants without reservations. Voters remain adamant that such immigrants should not have access to social services like Medicaid and food stamps. But thanks to the efforts of the immigration reform movement, the larger political environment has changed.

In a CBS poll, nearly 70 percent favored allowing “illegal immigrants” to stay in the U.S. while only 27 percent want them to be compelled to leave.

It is evident that the issue of immigrants’ rights will have a tremendous long-term impact on American politics. Progressives should not hesitate to seek justice for new American immigrants. The Don’t Ask Immigration Status Act simply says that government agents shouldn’t ask about anyone’s immigration status unless required by federal law. We can show persuadable voters that, by encouraging immigrants to report violations of the law, it will protect all of us. Also, assigning the role of immigration law enforcer to local police both overburdens law enforcement and increases the use of racial profiling. Let the Tea Party shout their way into anti-immigrant wing-nut land. It hurts them, not us.

(For the best arguments about immigrants’ rights, see Voicing Our Values on Immigrants.)

#5 Make conservatives sputter about climate change

Climate change is real, of course. 2014 was the warmest year on record and the ten warmest years have all occurred since 1998. Simultaneously, we have seen increasingly severe weather cause billions of dollars in damage. Except for the right wing, Americans believe in global warming and climate change. A CBS News/New York Times poll found that only 24 percent of adults believe that “global warming won’t have a serious impact.”

Some of the effects of climate change can be predicted and some of its damage can be mitigated with planning. States and localities should create commissions to study the local effects of climate change (e.g., flooding) and what policy changes could address them. Minnesota is a great example of a jurisdiction that has done a detailed study on the impacts of climate change, a copy is here. Admittedly, this is very modest legislation and we don’t suggest progressives limit themselves to studies. But this measure would create an effective wedge. Anything that forces conservatives to debate the existence of climate change is a good thing.

(For the best arguments about climate change, see Voicing Our Values on Climate Change.)

Find model bills for all these policies through hyperlinks in the Progressive Agenda for States and Localities.

Bernie Horn the Senior Advisor for Progressive Majority Action and the Public Leadership Institute

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