So far this year…
● The Oklahoma House passed legislation to eliminate AP American History classes from public schools because, right-wingers said, the course is too negative about America.
● The Tennessee House voted to designate the Holy Bible as “the official state book,” ignoring an attorney general’s opinion that it would be patently unconstitutional.
● Both Arkansas and Arizona enacted laws requiring doctors to tell patients they could potentially reverse the effects of a medication abortion, an assertion without scientific merit.
● The Mississippi House approved a bill to exempt the drivers of large church buses from the requirement of possessing a bus driver’s license—nicknamed the “Jesus Take the Wheel Act.”
With bills like these, it’s easy to dismiss the right wing as just plain crazy. Remember the trans-vaginal ultrasound legislation? Know about the Texas bill to allow the open carrying of handguns, even in Houston and Dallas? For that matter, what about the new Kansas law that bars people from using Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds to get a tattoo, go to a swimming pool, or take a cruise? A cruise, really? I grew up on what was then just called “welfare,” so trust me when I say the monthly support is barely enough money for basic necessities, let alone a cruise.
So, yes, it can seem crazy. But it’s not. It’s strategic.
The right wing advances different legislation for different reasons. Sometimes bills are intended to excite their political base, even if the law is not expected to pass; sometimes the measures have little substance or might be struck down in court, but they provide wedge issues that force progressives and moderates to defend a difficult political argument; and sometimes their legislation flatly enriches powerful conservatives or weakens progressive constituencies.
The measures described above are principally designed to motivate the right’s political base. Why shouldn’t they pass ridiculous bills if it makes their activists happy? At this moment in political history, the right wing hardly ever gets blamed or feels any electoral downside for supporting ideological garbage.
Kansas and Oklahoma recently enacted laws to ban a procedure for second trimester abortions. These are almost certainly unconstitutional, but the effort mimics the so-called “partial birth abortion” tactic, making progressives defend a medical procedure that the right wing paints as “gruesome” and “horrific.” This is an example of political experimentation, looking for new electoral wedge issues.
Just this year, Wisconsin enacted so-called “right-to-work” legislation, the Illinois governor began an effort to create “right-to-work” zones, Nevada partially eliminated the prevailing wage, and South Dakota lowered the minimum wage for minors. Over the past few years, numerous states have attacked unionized teachers, made it harder for progressive-leaning constituencies to vote, and cut taxes for the rich. It’s this kind of legislation that galvanizes their base and weakens ours—and gives the Koch brothers exactly what they’re paying for.
That’s the right wing’s business model. Usually it works, but occasionally it doesn’t. They got beaten up when they pushed a bill to encourage Indiana businesses to discriminate against LGBT residents. But hundreds of other times they’ve passed equally bad bills that haven’t raised an eyebrow. In February, for example, Arkansas enacted SB 202, which forbids cities and counties from enforcing general anti-discrimination ordinances—creating essentially the same result as the Indiana law that brought nationwide condemnation.
The right wing goal is not short-term change; it’s a long-term strategy. They’re trying to manufacture situations where, for progressives, there’s no way to win. Conservatives may pass their law or not, but either way they have defined the debate. They’ve studied the policy, done the polling, and taught their advocates what to say. Whether a bill passes or fails, they are pushing the envelope and building for the future.
It is time to stop letting the right wing dictate the agenda. Progressives need to fight back with our own proactive strategy.
First, we need to organize around a compelling policy agenda that energizes our base, pulls swing voters our way, and wedges the right wing. Our candidates should drive a set of robust policies in multiple states and localities that, together, illustrates an overall theme and demonstrates that we’re on the voters’ side and conservatives are not. That’s the focus of the Public Leadership Institute.
Second, we need to train both progressive officeholders and candidates at every level how to use our proactive agenda to triumph in the 2016 elections. This requires far more than getting them to memorize policy facts. They need to understand message frames and debating techniques, learn how to use their voices and nonverbal cues to persuade, and be able to communicate overarching progressive values. Much of this is laid out in the Progressive Majority Action’s book, “Voicing Our Values: A message guide for candidates and lawmakers.”
Third, we need to recruit the very strongest progressive candidates to contest every key legislative, county and municipal race. And we need to funnel contributions to the races that count most. This is the fundamental mission of Progressive Majority.
Quite frankly, progressives are having a very bad year and we’re going to continue to lose as long as we remain on the defensive. Playing offense is far more fun—and far more effective. Let’s go put some points on the scoreboard.
Gloria Totten is president of Progressive Majority, Progressive Majority Action, and the Public Leadership Institute.