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Why Progressive Cities in Conservative States Are Losing Their Political Influence

Lawmakers are increasingly using tactics that suppress progressive legislation being passed in metropolitan areas.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

Two refrains reverberate throughout the political discourse on America's cities in this era of peak polarization. The first is that "cities are rising." Citing frustration with federal gridlock, progressive city leaders are taking initiative on all manner of issues, including income inequality, climate change, voting reform, and public health. In so doing, cities across the United States—from Seattle to Pittsburgh to Indianapolis—are earning the label laboratories of progressive innovation.

The second is that "cities are sinking." A proxy for the accelerating threat that climate change poses to U.S. cities, this narrative underscores the literal prospect of coastal cities becoming submerged, and the nationwide ripple effects that may come about as a result. It also shines a light on how President Donald Trump's climate change denial and his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement exacerbate the difficulties cities already face in grappling with and preparing for climate disaster.

Both versions of the story are worthy of coverage. But this fixation on national-level politics, and the respective appeal to the optimist or worry-wart in each of us, has given them an unfair advantage over a third, equally important framing: Cities are weakening.

The reason is preemption, a legal doctrine that holds that any local ordinance can be overridden by state law, just as any state law can be preempted by a federal one. More specifically, the reason is Republican-controlled states' misuse of preemption to block progressive policies from being enacted under their roof.

Indeed, while preemption has always been available to state lawmakers, the rate of preemption bills has spiked dramatically with the rise of state-level conservative power. "Six out of 10 Americans now live in a state where a city can't pass a minimum wage that's higher than the state minimum wage," according to Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor of political affairs at Columbia University and the author of the new book, State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States—and the Nation. Given the tremendous success of the Fight for $15 movement, this statistic serves as a stark reminder that "success is necessarily limited to these blue states," owing to state preemption.

This unprecedented flexing of preemption power was part and parcel of a greater cross-state conservative mobilization strategy, one that was over three decades in the making. As Hertel-Fernandez writes in State Capture, the strategy was coordinated and executed by three conservative organizations—the American Legislative Exchange Council, the State Policy Network, and Americans for Prosperity—which he dubs the "right-wing troika."

State Capture traces the troika's history through conservatives' phenomenal takeover of the states in 2010 and Trump's ascent to the presidency following the 2016 election. The book also asks a number of questions: What did conservatives do right? Why have liberals struggled to build cross-state organizing clout? How can the left recover from the incursion of red statehouses into blue cities?

It was these questions that took center stage at an event last week, "State Capture: How Conservatives Claimed Power and How to Restore Balance," hosted by New America's political reform program. The event brought together Hertel-Fernandez, program fellow Lydia Bean, and program director Mark Schmitt, who each shared their expertise on and experience with state power-building. They paid special attention to the ways in which progressives can build the infrastructure necessary to reverse conservative efforts to demobilize big-D and small-d democratic state-level organizing in recent years.

Hertel-Fernandez discussed his findings on what facilitated the rise and reign of conservative organizing, policy, and social networks. In particular, he credits continuous cross-state funding and operations, decentralized organizational structures, perseverance, and the promotion of specific bills that pave the way for future victories.

To push back against this, he recommends that left-wing groups take to heart the lessons of the troika's successes as they chart their own state power-building strategy, rather than simply re-appropriate items from the right-wing toolkit, which, as he notes, has only generated poor results. This "secret sauce" fallacy, as Hertel-Fernandez and Schmitt put it during the event, has contributed to the demise of multiple progressive state policy networks. Among them, the cheekily named American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange, threw all of its resources behind creating a library of model bills—model bills being one of ALEC's specialties—and expected state power to follow. It didn't.

But cafeteria-style picking from the tradition of conservative organizing isn't always a specific choice. Often, it's the best these groups can do with insufficient and inconsistent funding. Hertel-Fernandez criticized the left-wing funding apparatus for failing to provide necessary and sustained support for promising counterweights to the troika (a manifestation of what he calls "national elitism" among high-octane funders). He also referenced the "myth of conservative diabolical competence and big money," an excuse he says liberals, and not only funders, fall back on again and again.

The left indeed has more than enough money to mount a legitimate challenge to conservative dominance at the state level—if only it could direct funds there in a consistent and sufficient manner, as Bean emphasized in her opening remarks.

A Harvard University-trained sociologist and movement strategist, as well as political reform's newest program fellow, Bean drew on her first-hand experience trying to build state power as a leader and consultant for faith-based organizations in Texas for her analysis of progressives' struggle to compete at the state level—to "unscrew themselves"—under the cloud of preemption.

She stressed how preemption renders progressive organizations in Texas' biggest, wealthiest, and bluest cities effectively powerless, and reflected on her work—done together with a core set of progressive organizations—to persuade others in the tent to prioritize a broad regional strategy that places the preemption issue front and center. In Texas, she said, the Republican-controlled legislature has gone to great lengths to disempower the state's blue cities via preemption on issues like raising property taxes (to fund public education) and paid sick leave.

"We're also seeing the growth of these 'Deathstar preemption bills,'" Bean said, which would prohibit any and all local action related to, say, economic issues, in one fell swoop.

Acting as both moderator and presenter, Schmitt, a former foundation program officer and policy director on Capitol Hill, reminded the audience that preemption isn't just a Texas thing—or a thing that only flows in one direction. "You can think of it as control at the state level allowing conservatives to exercise power down and restrict democracy down, as well as express power upwards in the way they control, for example, congressional districting and so forth," Schmitt said. "It's one of those issues that, when you think about it at first, is a bit of an eye-roll ... but it's actually profoundly significant."

While all three presenters agreed that the left shouldn't, as Hertel-Fernandez put it, "blindly carbon-copy" whatever the right does, one tactic it ought to borrow if it hopes to counter the troika is investing in legislative advocacy centered on bills that produce positive feedback effects for Democrats.

In other words, it should play the long game.

To illustrate this point, Hertel-Fernandez spoke about a bill passed by the Iowa state legislature in 2017 to restrict collective-bargaining rights—an anti-union bill. "Politicians did not campaign on it, and the voters did not ask for it," he said. Yet it was the first item on the agenda for the newly sworn-in Republican-controlled legislature. Why? Because any laws that undercut or incapacitate Democratic power centers like public-sector unions hurt Democrats' chances in subsequent elections. Or put another way, these laws can act as an insurance policy for Republicans to hold onto state power. The previous November, Republicans gained trifecta control of the state government in Iowa—and they wanted to keep it that way.

State Capture asks a number of questions. Some—like "what did the right do right?" and "what did the left do wrong?"—we can answer to a satisfactory degree. As to what the long-term policy consequences of unchallenged conservative state hegemony will be, however, we can only speculate. Likely, Republicans will continue to capture states with the help of policy feedback bills like the one in Iowa. And if this is true, they'll continue to invoke their preemption authority to override measures designed to improve the lives of ordinary workers, curtail the effects of climate change, and promote economic growth in some of America's most populous and bluest urban centers. Unless progressive politicians, funders, and organizers can shape up and formulate a strategy to rival conservative power at the state level, the outlook for blue cities in red states isn't so good.

This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.