It doesn't matter what model bills are produced by the likes of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the 10th Amendment Center, and Americans United for Life if conservative Republicans don't have control of the legislature and the policy making apparatus. So that is exactly what the religious, political and business right have quietly been up to for a long time. While the national spotlight always shines on all things national, the right has grown in political strength in the states. (The New York Times has put together a map of their accomplishments.)
What I want to point to here is some of the infrastructure that got them to where they are today. And the dramatic anti-abortion, anti-marriage equality, anti-labor, school privatization, and anti-voting rights legislation that grabs our attention and affects the lives of so many today, are largely the product of this long, smart march to power. I wrote about this in a recent article in The Public Eye magazine.
Here is an excerpt:
The Democratic Party’s wins in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, and its modest successes in recent Congressional elections, have obscured a series of setbacks for the party in the states. As National Journal put it, the GOP “wiped the floor with Democrats” in the 2010 midterm elections, setting a record in the modern era by picking up 680 seats in state legislatures. The next-largest harvest of legislative seats was the Democrats’ 628-seat gain in the Watergate-dominated election of 1974. The 2010 landslide gave the GOP the upper hand in the subsequent Congressional redistricting process, allowing Republicans to tilt the playing field in their favor and shape U.S. elections for years to come. In the meantime, conservatives have used friendly, GOP-dominated state legislatures to ram their agenda through legislatures—in “red” states and even some states that lean “blue”—on a range of issues: imposing harsh voter restrictions in North Carolina, for example, and passing dramatic anti-labor legislation in Michigan.
The roots of this debacle go far deeper than one or two election cycles and cannot be explained by the normal ebb and flow in electoral fortunes of the two major parties. The seeds were actually sown in the late 1980s, when strategists in the conservative movement came to an important realization. If they were successful in their efforts to devolve much of federal policy-making authority to the states—a key goal of the “Reagan revolution”—they would need relevant resources to elaborate their vision, and the organizational capacity to implement it. The two networks of state-based think tanks that emerged from that realization amount to one of the great under-reported stories in modern American politics. We are just now seeing the implications of the networks’ work, and of the conservative strategists’ vision.
The State Policy Network (SPN) comprises think tanks that are modeled after the Heritage Foundation, in that they conduct research and make policy recommendations to government agencies and legislative bodies. SPN currently comprises 63 member organizations—at least one in each state. SPN members vigorously promote a “free market,” anti-labor agenda, and they are joined in this mission by dozens of conservative and libertarian groups with which they liaise, including national institutions like the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Alliance for School Choice, Americans United for Life, and the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights.
The second network comprises organizations that are modeled on the Family Research Council (FRC), one of the foundational organizations of the Christian Right that was, for several years, the public policy arm of Focus on the Family (FOF). These think tanks are called Family Policy Councils (FPCs), and they take policy research and political advocacy to state capitals the way the FRC does in Washington, D.C. They focus primarily on reproductive rights, traditional “family values” (especially marriage), and, increasingly, religious liberty. This is in keeping with the agenda of the 2009 Christian Right manifesto, the Manhattan Declaration.
Though the individual institutions tend to command our attention, the influence of the networks is much greater than the sum of their parts. Comprising part of the core infrastructure of the conservative movement, they create synergies by sharing information, resources, and best practices. These synergies allow even the smallest members to rely on the same research as the networks’ largest and best-endowed institutions. Crucially, they also equip the Right with a common set of talking points and understandings, even as the individual institutions maintain the flexibility to tailor their strategies to state-level circumstances.
“The states are our first and final frontiers of liberty,” an SPN video declares. “Just as the pioneers journeyed to the wild west to discover new frontiers and stake their claim for a new life, we must stake a claim for freedom for us and the generations yet to come. Moving the locus of power from DC to the 50 freedom frontiers requires fortitude, bold strategies and a network of equipped trailblazers.”