This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Minnesotans, with their comparatively generous social safety net, live seven years longer than people in conservative (and low-income) Mississippi. Louisianans are more than five times more likely to be in prison as Mainers. And in New York, where bargaining rights are better protected, roughly a quarter of workers enjoy the security and wage premium of union membership, compared with fewer than 4 percent in union-hostile South Carolina. While other factors contribute to these realities, it’s safe to say that state policy matters immensely.
The right gets this. In the 1970s, conservatives set their sights on statehouses as the best (and most readily captured) mechanism for rolling back the gains of the New Deal, the Great Society, and the civil rights movement. This assault is both intensely damaging and profoundly undemocratic. Its electoral gains depend on an unprecedented attack on voting rights. Its legislative agenda is paid for and carried out by the American Legislative Exchange Council, its corporate supporters, and other moneyed interests. And when citizens in cities and counties choose more progressive approaches, right-wing control of state government often preempts local control.
New Mexico Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham
All of this makes the 2018 election results, where power shifted decisively in many states, that much more promising. Those outcomes will have long-term and powerful implications for how many of our babies make it to their first birthdays, how secure we are at work, and how we participate in the democratic process, among other things.
Republicans still have trifectas—both houses and the governor’s office—in 23 states. But by the time all votes from 2018 were counted, Democrats had taken seven governors’ races, in Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, and Nevada, and lost one, in Alaska. They captured six state legislative chambers—the House in Minnesota and New Hampshire and the Senate in Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, and New York. Here too, they lost in Alaska, the state House. This left 13 states with divided government and Democratic trifectas in 14.
Ballot initiatives were particularly good for workers, democracy, and criminal justice reform this cycle (although revenue-improving measures tanked in Colorado, Maine, and elsewhere). Voters gave formerly incarcerated adults the franchise in Florida, shed Jim Crow–era rules that allowed convictions with non-unanimous juries in Louisiana, raised the minimum wage in Arkansas and Missouri, and expanded Medicaid in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah. Citizens made voting easier or fixed districts in seven states (including Ohio, where a deal was negotiated before it reached the ballot), improved environmental protections in three, decriminalized pot in three, and passed LGBTQ protections in one.
In states around the country, women and people of color were elected to an unprecedented degree. There will be more than 2,000 women state legislators, and at every level of government there are more black, Muslim, Latinx, Native American, LGBTQ, and other candidates who’ve historically been kept away from power. This will make a tremendous difference for the perspectives that get considered and the policies that advance.
States that were already all blue and have stayed so are most ambitious, determined not to squander the moment. “In California, the governor and the legislature have worked together to make consistent progress—to restore our fiscal health, build back programs, prepare for a recession, and strike some major deals on important gaps in our state,” says Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget and Policy Center. “Lives are better today because of that. There’s more money for schools, there’s an Earned Income Tax Credit, there’s a $15 minimum wage, and we’re gradually expanding child care and preschool. But behind that is very deep wage stagnation, global and national, made far worse by a housing affordability crisis.”
Hoene is ready for the state to go beyond the crisis repair that has been done. “We have to strike a new social contract with the private sector in California, that they either start taking care of workers or there will be a public system response. If you’re not providing retirement and health—we’ll put in portable benefit systems and tax you to do it. Either you do it, or we’ll tax you and deal with it,” Hoene said.
In Washington state, also still all blue, the list is similarly ambitious. John Burbank, who runs the Economic Opportunity Institute there, rattles off disciplined post-election goals that emphasize early learning, health care, and scheduling reform in 2018, which he hopes to follow up with retirement security and vacation requirements in 2019. The state has already made groundbreaking strides on paid sick leave, paid family leave, minimum wage, and other pro-work policies. Burbank seeks also to raise progressive revenue, something that’s been elusive in Washington but that, if crafted right, could finally fly.
Blue Skies Ahead
States with recent Democratic trifectas are intent on now putting in place a new vision. When asked what’s now possible, James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children in just-turned all-blue New Mexico, has one word: “everything.”
“We have the opportunity to put forward an agenda focused on more than trickle-down, which defined the last eight years for New Mexico,” Jimenez says. “Early childhood education, K-12, home visiting, progressive tax reform, these are all back on the table.” New Mexico, where 75 percent of children are of color, ranks 50th on the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s child well-being index. Jimenez says deep investments could demonstrably change those rankings.
Better worker policy is also now attainable, from boosting the $7.50 minimum wage to giving a raise to teachers who’ve gone half a decade without one. The key is to use the victories to push for transformative change. “We need to continue to remind people that the winning message was opportunity for everyone. Now is the time to be bold, not incremental,” Jimenez says.
In Illinois, Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker campaigned on changing the flat tax to a progressive income tax and legalizing marijuana. “The fight now is to make sure that happens,” says Amisha Patel, executive director of Grassroots Collaborative. “Some moderate Democrats love the idea of a revenue-neutral tax—that’s the last thing we need in this time of austerity,” Patel says. “We also have to make sure that the revenue from [marijuana] legalization goes back to the black communities that have been the target of the war on drugs.”
Illinois, despite having the country’s fifth-largest economy, ranked 43rd per capita in spending on education, health care, and human services combined in 2016. Patel is unrelenting about the consequences of outgoing Governor Bruce Rauner’s right-wing regime, but she’s nearly as critical of the way Democrats handled their full control from 2003 to 2014. “The impact of Rauner’s radical right ideology was felt by a million people in Illinois who lost services, lost tuition waivers, lost home health-care aides for their parents, lost day care for their children,” Patel says. “But the previous Democratic governors who had supermajorities did not do enough to raise wages or raise revenue from the wealthiest residents and that’s why they lost. Now that they’ve got it back, it’s a different moment, so this is when we need real deep organizing capacity to hold the new administration accountable and push the legislature to be bold.”
Working Families Party National Director Maurice Mitchell had similar optimism given New York’s new Democratic trifecta. “When you take a step back and look at all of the results, Election Day was really a remarkable day for working-class people,” he says. Mitchell sees job one in New York as reforming the state’s election system, led by a coalition of labor and people of color. “Our elections are stone-age, but there is now a robust, omnibus strategy to address early voting, vote by mail, public financing, to get corporate money out of our elections,” he says. “When the right takes power, first on their agenda is changing the rules to advance people with money. When we get power, number one has to be changing the rules back to help working people.”
Activists in New York plan to follow that up with a slate of progressive priorities from a $15 minimum wage, to Medicare for all, to protection for Dreamers. “When it comes to policies that meaningfully change people’s material conditions, so many things happen in states,” Mitchell says. “In New York, many of the incoming legislators are insurgents who have come to deliver a progressive mandate. That’s what they were elected on.”
In other states where Democrats have new trifectas—Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, and Maine—a quick survey of policy advocates and researchers found that almost all want to work on tax fairness, education investment from early childhood through college, and shoring up health care, among other priorities.
Divided Government, United for Improvements
In states where Democrats have the governor’s mansion but face Republican legislators, analysts are nonetheless optimistic.
“We will have people in charge who are actually interested in the project of running government well. This feels enormous, especially for the environment and social services,” says Laura Dresser, associate director of COWS(the Center on Wisconsin Strategy), a research center based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Leadership that is committed to protecting water and resources, to enforcing the law and believing in science: This makes for a better Wisconsin, where state workers can actually do their jobs.”
Wisconsin Governor-elect Tony Evers and Lieutenant Governor-elect Mandela Barnes
Dresser thinks the perspective of Governor-elect Tony Evers, a former teacher, will be transformative, compared with that of defeated Governor Scott Walker. “Evers will be centering workers and the people of Wisconsin instead of corporations. Walker’s theme was ‘Wisconsin: Open for Business.’ Evers’s is ‘Building the state for the people.’ This in itself makes a difference.” Of course in Wisconsin, like in neighboring Michigan, new leaders can’t get sworn in quickly enough, as their lame-duck sessions have featured shameless maneuvering by outgoing Republicans to disempower the incoming Democratic administrations.
Still, Dresser balks at the notion that good policy can move only when Democrats hold unilateral power. “There’s a bunch of policy that we think of as blue-state policy that’s actually incredibly important to all of us. While the map is deeply divided, good policies can move in either kind of place. We make these blue things, but they aren’t.”
Annie McKay, president and CEOof Kansas Action for Children, agrees. “Republicans also have an eye on repairing the damage done in Kansas,” she says. Kansas’s results in November 2018 were mixed, with Democrat Laura Kelly winning as governor while some Democrats and moderates lost seats in the legislature, where Republicans still control both houses.
McKay points to the extremity of the previous administration, led by far-right ex-Governor Sam Brownback until early 2018. “Brownback was perfectly happy leaving federal welfare funds unspent while Kansas children were dying,” McKay says. That underfunding plus barriers to enrollment meant the number of families getting food aid and cash assistance plunged while the number of children in Kansas’s privatized foster-care system soared. The state weakened standards for child-welfare investigators, giving 18-year-old high school graduates positions that previously required a bachelor’s of social work. “All this added up to devastating, devastating impacts on children,” she says, describing a grisly series of child abuse and neglect cases, where repeated calls from relatives were ignored by overworked and underqualified caseworkers.
Extremist policies led to multiple crises—in mental health and school achievement as well as foster care. But the tone has shifted. “We can now begin that repair. We’re helping policymakers see how we can invest in early education and child care now and take it out of criminal justice costs in 20 years,” McKay says. “With the new governor comes a new cabinet, so there are opportunities in staffing, in rules, and regulations—basically we have a chance to plug things back into the wall and get our state functioning again.” McKay points to past victories on child-care funding and tax credits for working families as evidence that bipartisanship can deliver wins for Kansas kids.
Red Not Dead
Even some states where Republicans retain full control have brighter possibilities for 2019. David Blatt, who runs the Oklahoma Policy Institute, describes Oklahoma’s roller-coaster political year. After the state enacted the most severe cuts to education funding in the nation, their teachers joined educators in West Virginia and Arizona to walk out of schools. Lawmakers then boosted taxes to better fund education. Blatt says, “Of the 19 who opposed the increase, only four will return. The rest were term-limited, retired, or lost.”
With that more-moderate group emerging, Blatt says the general election “stopped being about taxes and teachers and started being about [Brett] Kavanaugh and caravans,” helping Republicans retain a trifecta.
Despite that, Oklahoma teachers are getting an 18 percent raise and Blatt thinks surviving legislators will be wary of slashing taxes and spending. He also ticked off a litany of solid recent wins on ballot initiatives in the state—criminal justice reform in 2016, medical marijuana in 2018, and defeat of measures backed by Walmart in 2018 and big agribusiness in 2016.
Like Dresser and McKay, Blatt rejects blue and red labels for reasonable policy. “There’s a disconnect between partisan affiliation and policy positions that is not unique to Oklahoma voters,” he says, citing minimum-wage increases and health-care expansions that passed this year in deep red states, even where Republicans won. “On issues, we are a center-left nation, but in rural and Southern areas, there’s a strong partisan attachment. Voters are very supportive of education, as we saw in the teacher walkouts. The massive cuts to public education had real consequences for conservatives in Oklahoma, who spent the last two years trying to get themselves out of the mess that tax cuts created for them.”
But there are big risks to unilateral Republican control. In gerrymandered Ohio, Republicans held onto the governorship and supermajorities in both houses despite winning only 50 percent of state legislative votes. Within two weeks, legislators had held a hearing on a so-called right-to-work bill that would force unions to represent members who don’t pay any fees, passed an extreme version of “stand your ground” (redubbed “kill at will” by opponents) that will increase murders, as it has elsewhere, and passed a six-week abortion ban. If the bills pass in the Senate, they’ll likely be vetoed by outgoing Governor John Kasich. They’re nonetheless a harbinger of what unchecked extreme-right leadership brings.
A Different Conversation
As optimistic as advocates in purple and red states may be, the truth is that investments in families and workers fare better where more Democrats are in power. While not perfectly correlated, higher minimum wages, more per-pupil education spending, more health-care access, lower incarceration, and more progressive taxes tend to cluster in states where Democrats have had more power. There are surprises—Massachusetts, Illinois, and Colorado have flat income taxes that fall more heavily on poor people; Washington, despite the litany of pro-worker policies, still has no income tax. But places led by progressives do more progressive things. And it pays off—education, income, life expectancy, and other measures of well-being are generally higher in places with liberal policies.
That’s because higher wages and more public spending leads to better outcomes. A recent study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) demonstrates that austerity is often rooted in racism. As report co-author Michael Mitchell tweeted, “Tax policy has been weaponized throughout history to harm communities of color and prevent progress.” The report describes how underfunding and privatization of public services, supermajority requirements for tax increases, and reliance on regressive sales taxes instead of progressive income taxes have both racist history and racially inequitable results. Fair taxes and strong public services, according to this account, are not just smart, they are a profound lever for advancing racial justice. The report maps out an approach to taxation that lawmakers should follow throughout the country.
That may happen. “A different conversation about revenue and public investment is now possible, and it’s possible in more states and in different kinds of states,” says Nicholas Johnson, who runs CBPP’s network of state think tanks. Despite the challenges that revenue measures face on the ballot, Johnson’s survey of the platforms of candidates who flipped governorships found almost all called for significant new spending on K-12, pre-K, higher education, infrastructure, and other priorities.
Illinois Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker and Lieutenant Governor-elect Juliana Stratton
Johnson also sees potential to expand Medicaid in more states and protect those that have done so. “Medicaid expansion winning in Idaho, Utah, and Nebraska is jaw-dropping,” Johnson says. “With voters enthusiastically approving this in seemingly conservative places, I think legislators will either pass it or put it on the ballot themselves.” He mentioned Oklahoma, Missouri, and Florida as strong contenders for that.
On this point, the confluence of race, region, and legislative control has been particularly acute. About 2.2 million poor adults fall into a “coverage gap” because their states didn’t accept federal Medicaid expansion dollars but they earn too little to qualify for other subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report. All live under Republican rule. Fully 89 percent live south of the Mason-Dixon line. More than half are people of color.
Could Workers Rise Again?
Naomi Walker, who directs the Economic Analysis and Research Network out of the Economic Policy Institute, sees more opportunities for state-level worker justice than Americans have had since 2010, when Republicans gained control in many states. “We have a chance not just to get back to where we were but to make advances,” she says. Like others, Walker sees opportunity in states with Republican legislatures. She’s analyzing what governors and attorneys general can do without legislative approval to drive economic justice through executive orders, enforcement, and administrative action, including establishing labor enforcement units within attorney general offices.
“This is a moment for states to secure what has been lost. … So much damage was done to workers’ ability to stand together,” Walker says. “There is the possibility now to ensure that people earn enough to support their families, have rights on the job, have health care.”
“These are not big scary policies,” Walker emphasizes, pointing out that an increased minimum wage has passed every time it’s been on a statewide ballot for the past 22 years.
Walker wants EPIand its state partners to build on their traditional focus on workers and the economy. “The debacles on voting highlight the flaws in our election system. We have to remember that voting is a way that working people get closer to controlling their economic destinies.” In an America where moneyed interests more easily dominate when citizen power is limited, fair districts, universal registration, and easy voting are not just pro-democracy, they’re pro-worker.
Finally, the divided U.S. Congress shifts focus, interest, and possibilities to the states. After two years of Trump’s every tweet dominating the news cycle, it’s appealing to think that instead Americans can contemplate lead abatement and road repair in Michigan, health care in Maine, and wider voter participation in Florida, all galvanized by the 2018 election.
America urgently needs policymakers to tackle deep economic divides that almost always track racial fault lines. In states with a progressive agenda ascendant, people will be more able to afford child care, pre-K, and college for their kids. Workers will have new tools to fight for better incomes and benefits. And perhaps most importantly, the point can be reinforced that electing those who defend workers, children, and the planet can improve lives—in every state.