The Right Wing Surge in the States

In state legislatures, 2015 is the right wing’s best chance to enact their most extreme legislation. The right now controls more state legislatures than at any time since the 1920s.

This opportunity is fleeting. Because of increased voter turnout in presidential years, Democrats will probably erase at least some of the Republican state legislative gains next year. In addition, GOP political leaders will want to paste a more moderate face on their party's brand in 2016. So this is their year, they think.

The right has made clear that its partisans have three overarching state legislative priorities, in this order: (1) weaken labor unions, (2) suppress voting by progressive-leaning citizens, and (3) satisfy their religious extremists.

Effort to weaken labor unions

As early as this week, the Wisconsin Senate may pass a so-called right-to-work law, which is primarily designed to de-fund labor unions. Governor Scott Walker said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk. Progressives are doing everything they can to stop this legislation, but it’s on a fast track.

Similarly, the Missouri House passed a right-to-work bill last week, the Kentucky Senate passed it a few weeks ago, and the New Mexico House is widely expected to pass one as well. Fortunately, none of these three states are as likely as Wisconsin to enact the law this year.

The new Republican governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, signed an executive order earlier this month that attempts to impose a right-to-work system on state government employees. The problem is, Rauner’s order violates state law. He is basing his action on a legal argument that collecting dues from free-rider workers violates the First Amendment. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has declared the executive order unconstitutional and the matter is now in federal court.

Right-to-work is just one high-profile battle in the right wing’s war on workers; we’ll see much more as the 2015 legislative sessions unfold.

Effort to suppress voting

Over the past five years, 21 states have restricted voting rights. While proponents of these laws have mostly claimed they’re to prevent “voter fraud,” it has been proven that the kind of in-person voter fraud they allege is virtually nonexistent. The obvious reason for these measures is to make it harder for minorities and low-income citizens to vote.

Currently, right-wingers are pushing voter ID bills in Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico and North Dakota, among other places. Such legislation was defeated already in Colorado and Nebraska.

Nevada seems the most likely to adopt voter ID, with Republicans in control of the legislature for the first time in decades. Republican governor Brian Sandoval supports the legislation, which would tend to suppress both the African-American and Latino vote.

Voter ID is not the right’s only voter-suppression tactic. There are also efforts to cut down on early voting and end Election Day registration.

Effort to satisfy their religious extremists

Naturally, the religious right wants an all-out attack on the right to choose abortion—and they’re getting their wish. So far, the West Virginia House has passed a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks, the Kentucky Senate passed a waiting period, the Arizona Senate passed legislation attempting to eliminate abortion coverage from health insurance, and the Missouri House is poised to require women who seek an abortion to watch an anti-choice video beforehand.

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback rescinded rules that had protected LGBT state employees from employment discrimination, and the Arkansas House voted to block any city or county from enacting LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances. The Indiana Senate passed a bill to allow hiring discrimination by state contractors based on religion. The Mississippi House passed a bill to exempt the drivers of large church buses from having to get a bus drivers’ license (nicknamed the “Jesus Take the Wheel Act”).

And for other types of extremists, the Colorado Senate and Montana House passed pro-gun legislation promoted by the NRA. The Oklahoma House passed a bill to ban AP History in favor of a course based on America’s “foundational documents.” (If you haven’t heard, the right now thinks that AP History is, like President Obama, too negative about America.)  Last but not least, the Utah House passed legislation to reinstate the death penalty by firing squad.

And it’s only February! There’s so much more insanity to come.


The Science of Political Persuasion - Part Two

Last week’s column explained the science behind political stubbornness. Essentially, our brains are hard-wired to engage in “confirmation bias.” Further, our opponents get a blast of dopamine and feel pleasure after they rebut our arguments—even when that rebuttal is based on irrationality and falsehood. By the end of last week’s column it may have seemed like political persuasion is virtually impossible.

And yes, it is extremely difficult to change the minds of partisans. There are conservatives, for example, who are unpersuadable no matter how many scientists testify to the truth of global warming, no matter how much evidence shows that the death penalty doesn’t deter murder, no matter the incontestability that voter fraud at the polls is too rare to worry about.

In fact, politics isn’t really about changing our opponents’ minds. It’s about mobilizing our own base while persuading that slice of voters who are persuadable.


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The Science of Political Persuasion - Part One

Why won’t people listen? They’re so irrational! You make a sensible, even irrefutable political argument and they’re still not persuaded.

Cognitive science tells us that persuasion is hard. When deciding whether to agree with you, people rely on emotion and ingrained beliefs far more than facts. Indeed, if your listeners hold beliefs intensely, you’re probably wasting your time no matter how many facts you can muster.

There is science behind that stubbornness. Let us explore why people’s brains react this way and use the information to restructure our arguments to make them more effective.

Confirmation bias

Generally, political science (like economics) is based on the assumption that people mostly act rationally, that their political opinions and the way they vote are based on self-interest. But that’s unrealistic.


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The State of the States and Localities

Due to the ghastly 2014 elections, more state legislators are Republican and the GOP controls more state legislative bodies than at any time since the 1920s.

Republicans now control the governorship and both houses of the legislature in 23 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Statehouse Republicans won’t want to appear too extreme in 2016, both for the presidential election and for their own reelections. Therefore, we must expect a deluge of ultra-conservative legislation in 2015; we’ll start to see it within weeks.

The business wing of the conservative movement will push for long-term structural changes—measures that make it easier for right wingers to win future elections, or policies that tilt the system to benefit the rich even more. And these changes are hard for progressives to undo. They include: bills to weaken the political influence of key progressive allies like labor unions, trial lawyers, and public school teachers; measures making it harder for people to vote, like voter ID and rolling back early voting; and bills to cut taxes on rich individuals and corporations, starving governments for revenue so that, in Grover Norquist’s words, right wingers can shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

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Five Progressive Wedge Issues for 2015

For years, conservatives used “wedge issues” to split moderates from progressives—measures like criminalizing flag burning, cutting “welfare,” and (until recently) banning same-sex marriage. They still do that, of course, but the Tea Party has forced conservatives to put greater emphasis on policies with little popular appeal.

It’s time for progressives to promote some wedge issues of our own. In 2015, progressive wedge issues tend to fall into three categories: (1) addressing the way our economic system has been rigged to benefit the rich; (2) supporting important groups that conservatives target; and (3) promoting issues that drive conservative extremists to say crazy things.

The minimum wage remains a powerful wedge issue but it’s not listed among the five because it already has been or is being pushed just about everywhere. These policies—which hyperlink to model bills featured in the Progressive Agenda for States and Localities—should be introduced in both red and blue states. If you can’t enact the legislation, use these battles to organize the grassroots and show voters the differences between conservatives and progressives. Let them see that we are the ones on their side.

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Top Ten Legislative Victories of 2014


To be a progressive is to seek new laws that advance economic and social justice for all. That endeavor was thoroughly frustrated by the last Congress, and the next one will be worse. On the federal level, progressives had to settle for President Obama’s executive orders, which are praiseworthy but subject to reversal by a future president.

Yet there were true legislative victories last year—in states and localities across America. Progressive state legislators, city council members and county commissioners enacted a wide range of protections and reforms. These lawmakers are now squarely at the vanguard of the progressive movement and we ought to recognize some of their accomplishments:

  1. Minimum Wage—While Congress ignored this crucial issue, ten state legislatures (CT, DE, HI, MD, MA, MI, MN, RI, VT, WV) and many cities (including Chicago, District of Columbia, San Diego, Santa Fe, and Seattle) raised their minimum wages in 2014. In addition, the minimum wage was raised in four states (AL, AK, NE, SD) through November ballot initiatives. Today more than 60 percent of Americans are protected by a state or local minimum wage that is higher than the federal minimum.
  2. Paid Sick Days—The effort to provide employees with paid sick days achieved a breakout year in 2014 with legislative victories in two states (CA, CT), a ballot initiative victory in Massachusetts, and laws in at least 16 localities (including New York City, Washington DC, Seattle, Portland OR, Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, Newark and Trenton).
  3. More Employee Protections—“Ban the Box” legislation, which prohibits a question about criminal history on job applications, was enacted in four states (DE, IL, NE, NJ) and several cities (including Baltimore, Columbia MO, Louisville, Mobile, New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Syracuse). Today 13 states and more than 70 cities and counties Ban the Box. In addition, six states (LA, NH, OK, RI, TN, WI) enacted social media privacy laws that prevent employers from asking workers or job applicants for their social media passwords or asking them to “friend” the employer. San Francisco enacted a first-in-the-nation Retail Workers Bill of Rights.
  4. Protecting Immigrants—While the U.S. House ignored a Senate-passed effort to reform immigration law, states and cities have decisively sided with immigrants. Both Florida and Washington enacted DREAM Acts, so now a total of 18 states provide in-state college tuition to unauthorized immigrants. Spokane, Washington was the latest city to enact a “Don’t Ask Immigration Status Act,” and New York City passed legislation to create a city ID card available to all residents whether authorized or not.
  5. Electronic Surveillance— Ten states (CO, IL, IN, IA, MD, MN, TN, UT VA, WI) enacted laws requiring police to get a warrant before accessing data tracking an individual’s movements through their cell phones. Three other states (IN, IA, WI) passed legislation requiring a warrant before police use drones for individual surveillance. (However, Governor Brown vetoed similar drone legislation in California.)
  6. Universal Pre-K—A number of states and cities significantly expanded pre-Kindergarten programs, including Maryland, Rhode Island, Vermont, Chicago, Nashville and New York City.
  7. Voter Registration—Illinois enacted a pilot same-day registration program and a bill that will make the process permanent has passed both the state house and senate. Utah also enacted legislation to test same-day registration, while in November Montana voters rejected a right-wing ballot initiative that attempted to repeal same-day registration. Ten states (not including Utah) and the District of Columbia now offer registration on Election Day. In addition, three states (MA, MN, NE) enacted laws to permit online registration, making such registration now legal in 24 states.
  8. Pregnant Workers Fairness—Four states (DE, IL, PA, WV) and three cities (Philadelphia, Providence RI, Washington DC) enacted a “Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act” that ensures pregnant employees receive reasonable accommodations to help them stay on the job. So far, a total of 12 states and five cities have enacted this important legislation.
  9. Cell Phone Kill Switch—Both California and Minnesota enacted laws mandating that smart phones come with a “kill switch” that renders them useless if lost or stolen.
  10. Gun Violence Prevention—The big news was Washington State’s approval by ballot initiative of background checks for all gun purchases. Less well-known are eight other state legislative victories in the past year, especially a groundbreaking Gun Violence Restraining Order law in California and a comprehensive strengthening of gun law in Massachusetts.

The fact is, right-wing organizations have long understood the importance of state and local policy and they have responded by providing strong, coordinated assistance to conservative lawmakers, most publicly through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In 2014, ALEC created a new organization, the American City County Exchange (ACCE), to spread their “free market” model laws across the nation at the local level. Progressives need to aggressively fight back.

The Public Leadership Institute just published its 2015 Progressive Agenda for States and Localities. Our Progressive Agenda includes hyperlinks so that left-of-center legislators, council members and commissioners have direct access to more than 150 progressive model bills, almost half of which are authored by our staff at the Public Leadership Institute. Working with allies across the nation, we will promote our proactive Agenda to a nationwide network of more than 13,000 progressive state and local lawmakers.

If you want to get involved at the state or local level, please feel free to join the effort here.

(This column is cross-posted on the Campaign for America’s Future blog.)


When progressives cry “freedom,” what does it mean?

Where government has no proper role, because public action would violate individual rights, progressive policy should be based on freedom. By freedom, I mean the absence of legal interference with our fundamental rights—freedom of speech, religion, and association; the right to privacy; the rights of the accused; and the right of all citizens to vote. Compared to an individual, government wields tremendous power, so a progressive policy adds great weight—in the form of strong legal rights—to the individual’s side of the scale. For example, freedom of speech is absolutely sacrosanct unless it immediately and directly puts others in danger—“falsely shouting fire in a theater” as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it.

Freedom should be fairly easy to understand—it’s a defense of our basic constitutional rights and civil liberties. I include the right to vote because it should be as sacred as any constitutional right. The very definition of democracy—rule by the people—requires the unrestricted right to vote. So laws that keep American citizens from casting ballots should be eliminated on the grounds that they violate our most fundamental democratic freedom.

I very intentionally adopt a limited definition of freedom, often called “negative freedom.” Why? Because a limited definition keeps the word from becoming meaningless.

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How to argue over the Thanksgiving table

In the wake of the disastrous 2014 election, you might be dreading Thanksgiving a bit. Every year your loud-mouthed right-wing Uncle Mort insists on debating politics over the dinner table. This year, you expect, he’ll be louder than ever.

There is no point in trying to “educate” Mort. Instead, follow the basic rules of persuasion that we describe in our book, Voicing Our Values. Find a point of agreement and use values to show that you understand his point of view, and that overall, you share the same goals. It’s very unlikely you can get Mort to change his mind, but you will throw him off his game and connect with other “persuadable” people around the table.

Below are short discussions of three issues the might come up: (1) immigration, (2) Obamacare, and (3) taxes and the 47 percent. For much more about these—and dozens of other policies—consult Voicing Our Values.


Right wing advocates want to make this debate about upholding the rule of law: “But they broke the law!” they will say. If these are the terms of debate, you will lose; it strongly suggests the solution is to treat immigrants as criminals. You must move the conversation to our nation’s broken patchwork of immigration policies.

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Police cameras to protect public safety

Technology is changing the business of law enforcement. Because of DNA evidence, we know that far too many innocent people have been prosecuted and imprisoned. Because of cellphone cameras, we know there is far too much unnecessary violence by police officers.

Part of the problem is old-fashioned police procedures—an overconfidence in unreliable eyewitnesses and an emphasis on profiling and random-but-targeted stops. These problems can and must be solved; our states and localities need to adopt fairer and more accurate law enforcement procedures.

At the same time that technology has cast a spotlight on police procedures that require reform, technology can also provide some solutions—specifically small video cameras.


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It's the media, stupid

The 2014 election has been a shameful, ignorant affair. Americans are choosing candidates based on obsolete stereotypes, phony memes, and absurdly untruthful campaign ads. Why does the mainstream media tend to repeat all the lies?

In 1997, legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee gave a speech about truth and lies in politics. An excerpt recently published in the Post sheds light on our current problem.

Bradlee explained that newspapers “don’t tell the truth” when they (a) don’t know the truth, (b) quote someone who is lying, or (c) accept someone’s false “spin.” Even when they know it’s falsehood, the media generally won’t dare come out and say “That is a lie.”

[F]or better or for worse, we [have] aided and abetted in publishing something that wasn’t the truth, something that was a lie. I hate to hedge this by calling them non-truths; I like to call them lies. And even the boldest editorial pages, where such a comment might be appropriate, are reluctant to strike that hard, that fast. So we have to wait, searching aggressively for ways to prove the lie….

That was the 1990s. The media—television, radio, and especially newspapers—tried to act as watchdogs, and couldn’t always do so immediately. But at least the best of the media tried to dig into the story and prove the lie. We’re no longer in Bradlee’s era; the media has changed in several unfortunate ways.

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