By Bill Gaston
Nov. 6, 2019: The late Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., Speaker of the US House of Representatives, was often heard to say “all politics is local.” If O’Neill were alive today, he would probably add to that: all government is local too.
On that theme, Meaghan Winter, a native of Bronxville and the author of All Politics is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States, spoke eloquently at the Bronxville Field Club in October about the contentious battles being fought out today in local governments across the country. At state capitals, town halls, and village commission meetings, she said that the institutions of self-government increasingly find themselves under attack on many fronts from a variety of well-funded corporate interests – the same forces that President Teddy Roosevelt, during the Gilded Age, once referred to as the “malefactors of great wealth.”
In her book, Ms. Winter, a freelance writer with a MFA from Columbia University, spotlights these battles as they have played out in three battleground states: Missouri, Florida and Colorado. In each of these states, progressives have found themselves on the defensive, in some cases (as in Colorado) successfully holding off reactionary and libertarian legislation; in others (Missouri) collapsing under the weight of the right wing onslaught. Her on-the-ground reporting from these states is clear-eyed and sobering.
Fueled by the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, the GOP has leveraged tremendous success at winning elections at the local level and passing conservative legislation on issues ranging from abortion and gerrymandering to climate change and union rights. Ms. Winter explained how these defeats have left state level Democratic parties flat-footed and dispirited. By 2016, the GOP controlled legislative chambers in 32 states and governor’s offices in 33 (although those margins were somewhat trimmed back in the 2018 midterm elections).
Winter argued that Republican success at the state and local level is due to several factors. Among them, liberal interest groups have been vastly outspent for years by a flood of corporate money that has disproportionately been funneled into GOP coffers. Second, these same liberal groups have for decades concentrated their funding and organizational efforts at the federal level, mainly because civil rights were a federal concern. However, on a tactical level, that emphasis had the unintended effect of ceding the battle in the states to the Republicans.
Also key has been the success the GOP has enjoyed campaigning on cultural resentment and so-called “wedge” issues that have won over some traditionally conservative pockets of Democratic Party strength in “red” states.
For their part, Republicans have never relented in their multi-decade project of building dominance at the state and local level, pocketing those victories and creating a foundation for strength at the national level.
Another factor, said Winter, is the collapse of local journalism, and the void in public attention paid to what is happening. Much of the under-the-radar right wing legislative agenda in “red” states over the past decade has been barely covered, if at all, in most local media outlets for the simple reason many of them no longer exist or have gone bankrupt. National media outlets, more cost-conscious than in the past, simply do not have the wherewithal or inclination to cover state or local politics with the in-depth focus it deserves.
So are we at a dangerous tipping point between the power of organized wealth and the strength of our political institutions? Or are we past it?
Ms. Winter was by turns hopeful and pessimistic (“at times, I’m filled with nihilism”). She urged that citizens devote greater attention to local issues, and channel their donor dollars and efforts to local chapters of national affiliates where it may be more efficiently spent (and the outcomes are more visible). In any case, progressives will face an uphill climb to restore the health of our democracy without continued citizen engagement from the ground level up.
Pictured: Meaghan Winter
Photo courtesy of Simon Ramsey.