Until recent years, I did not pay much attention to state politics. My interests are local, with a particular interest in how people come together to solve problems in cities and regions.
But increasingly I’ve found myself worrying about state governments—and, in particular, their legislatures—because something troubling is happening there. The immediate problem is that we are seeing a wave of “preemption” legislation, laws aimed at forbidding cities from doing things state legislators don’t like.
Now, I am not opposed to all preemptions. If local governments habitually pass ordinances discriminating against minority groups, rewarding cronies, or favoring one form of real estate development over another, I think state governments ought to step in. (The courts usually do a good job of stopping isolated problems.) I also think state governments have a role in preventing cities, counties, school districts, and authorities from spending themselves into insolvency.
But this wave of preemptions has nothing to do with bias, corruption, favoritism, or profligacy. It’s about forbidding local governments from doing things that legislators oppose for political reasons—things like ordinances protecting gay citizens, enacting minimum wages, taxing sugary sodas, restricting fracking, or regulating the use of plastic shopping bags. The Texas legislature even considered several bills limiting cities’ ability to preserve their tree canopies.
You may or may not agree with these local decisions. But I see no reason for one level of government imposing its political judgments on another’s. Especially when the preempting government is the more distant one.
Still, if this were just about heavy-handed legislatures, I wouldn’t be as concerned as I am. We’ve had overbearing legislatures before. It’s how and why legislators are coming to these judgments that is new and ominous.
Many of the preemptions are driven by out-of-state corporations that don’t want to deal with these issues city by city. Having a state legislature ban all cities from taxing soft drinks, regulating plastic shopping bags, or imposing rules on Uber and Lyft saves lobbyists from fighting battles in dozens of city halls.
So the corporate interests are clear. Selfish, lazy, and damaging to good government, but clear.
But why would a legislature go along with these things? Why would legislators run roughshod over a sizable portion of their voters and pick a fight with a formidable group of local elected officials?
Well, in part because they can. In most cases, legislatures can extend or withdraw home rule as they wish. And in part because the benefits of doing so (contributions from out-of-state corporations) outweigh the risks (blowback from citizens, mayors, and the media). Again, the interests are clear. Venal but clear.
O.K., but why now? Why are we seeing this wave of special-interest preemptions today and not 20 years ago? And how are legislatures getting away with it? Three reasons, I think.
First is the decline of the mainstream news media, which kept a watchful eye on state legislatures in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. There simply aren’t as many reporters in statehouses today as 20 years ago. So when legislatures act in ways that benefit the few at the expense of the many, there’s a good chance no one will notice.
Second, we’ve seen the rise of organizations that marry ideology with self-interest and are aimed specifically at influencing legislatures. The most obvious is the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC, the right-wing organization behind many of the preemption measures and a lot of other bad ideas that have spread from state to state. (For a glimpse of how ALEC works, read this New York Times editorial.) ALEC has little-brother organizations in nearly every state now, right-wing “think tanks” supported by big corporations and ideologists, churning out dubious research and “model legislation.” (Who are the people in your city writing op-ed articles that call public transit a boondoggle and promote private-school vouchers? It’s likely someone on the payroll of one of these state-level mini-ALECs .)
Finally, some state politicians have learned to use distraction and division as a strategy. That is, they use emotional but symbolic issues (in the 1990s these were called “wedge issues”) to create smokescreens for their real interest, which is passing laws that few would support—if they knew about them.
This explains the bathroom bills, which are unadulterated acts of demagoguery. You probably remember the one in North Carolina that set off a national firestorm of protests and boycotts, resulting in the legislature’s retreat. Surely, given that experience, no other state would go down the same road, right? On the contrary. Similar bills have been introduced (and passed) in other states.
Why? Because, in truth, the North Carolina bill accomplished what it set out to do: It divided voters over symbolism while distracting them from issues of substance. The odds of a North Carolinian sharing a public restroom with a transgender person were small to begin with. The chances that any harm would come if he did were . . . zero. And yet for a year this became the dominant political issue in North Carolina—more discussed than education, transportation, water, economic development, the environment, or any other issue that might actually affect the state’s citizens.
Over the years, ALEC and its allies have gotten good at driving wedges and laying down smokescreens with constitutional amendments forbidding gay marriage, crazy concealed-carry laws (and now, laws permitting silencers!), so-called religious liberty laws, elaborate voter-suppression efforts, and other legislation aimed at riling half the citizens of a state while rallying the other half. This is politics at its worst: distracting, destructive, and dangerous. And unless we figure a way to stop the demagoguery, things will grow only worse.
But how could we do that? I have a suggestion: Let a political party begin listening to the citizens. Not in a metaphorical sense, but literally. Start holding meetings around the state asking citizens what they need and want.
In doing so, we will quickly see that, given an opportunity to think about things, citizens aren’t interested in wedge issues; they’re interested in “web issues” (to use a Bill Clinton phrase). That is, issues that nearly everyone agrees are important, that unite us rather than divide us.
I’ve seen it over and over in years of citizen engagement work at the local level. With space to think about what they truly need and want, citizens don’t ask for voter-suppression laws, handgun silencers, privatized education, or the right to chop down trees. They ask for better public schools, more transportation options, new forms of economic development, greater access to broadband, and more ways of keeping young people in cities, towns, and rural areas.
But hold on. Meetings convened by a political party? Held across an entire state? Open to any citizen? Could anything good come from such an effort?
The short answer is yes. The longer answer is . . . well, let me explain.
Why engaging citizens is right for today. The most obvious reason is because politics are so broken in our states. We need something to shock legislators back into focusing on what their citizens need and want, and not what out-of-state corporations and wealthy ideologues are willing to pay for.
And there is nothing more convincing to a politician than hearing citizen after citizen, from one end of the state to the other, asking for the same basic things from their government. Not in an angry protest or online petition. Not in a town-hall screaming match. But in calm, neutral discussions in small-town church basements, suburban school cafeterias, and neighborhood libraries.
Can it be done? And can it be done across an entire state? Yes. And yes. We do it at the local level all the time, so we don’t lack experience in holding civil, meaningful discussions about public policy or the ability to make sense of what the citizens are telling us. We lack a motivated sponsor. (If you’re interested in how to create civil conversations, start with this, then read this, then this. Oh, and know that we’ve held inclusive, polite, forward-looking, communitywide conversations for a long time . . . at least since the 1940s.)
O.K., but could we hold these discussions across an entire state? There’s no reason to think not. I’ve been involved over the years in visioning projects that convened a dozen or more meetings in different parts of a city or county. A state is larger, of course, but the principles are the same: to hear the voices of citizens, go to different parts of the state and ask essentially the same questions. (Here are some good ones: If your community could be everything you’d like it to be, what would it look like and how would it work? What would need to change? What needs to stay the same? Then ask: If the state government could help your community achieve these things, what are the most important two or three things it should do?)
But why ask a state political party to do it? Because it’s the surest way of repairing our broken state politics. Nothing focuses attention like serious competition. If one political party is convening meetings across the state asking citizens what they need while the other is cozying with special interests and engaging in demagoguery, citizens will notice. And eventually so will the leaders of both parties.
But why a political party? Why not a candidate? This gets us a little deeper in the thicket of state politics. State political parties are pretty feeble organizations. That’s because most of them don’t do much but carry out light-housekeeping election responsibilities and wait for candidates to emerge. They have neither the ambition nor the resources to do anything else.
Which strikes me as odd, given how important the labels “Democrat” and “Republican” have become in the past 30 years. Book after book and scholarly article after article have documented the rise of partisan identity in America. Some even see partisanship behind where people choose to live today. In many states, having an “R” or “D” next to your name is enough to ensure your re-election or doom you to defeat, depending on the district. No company in America has brand loyalty as great as America’s political parties.
So if you are the minority party in a one-party state, why not try to change your brand? Why not give those who would never consider voting for a Democrat a reason to see things differently? I believe having a state political party, year after year, holding civil, open, constructive conversations with voters—and publishing what it hears—could be just such a game changer.
But couldn’t a candidate do this kind of thing even better than a party? After all, plenty of politicians have begun their campaigns with “listening tours” in which they asked voters what’s on their minds. One candidate, Lawton Chiles of Florida, kept it up for his entire campaign. In 1990, Chiles asked people to tell him what was working in their communities all the way to election day. (The voters must have liked this unusual way of campaigning. They elected him governor.)
The problem is that most of the listening tours are just political tactics that are quickly dispensed with. Chiles’ efforts weren’t—he truly seemed to learn something by talking with voters—but he didn’t stick with it once he became governor. Candidate “listening tours,” then, aren’t sustainable. Nor are they systematic.
And that’s what we need: A new form of state politics based on listening to citizens in ways that are systematic and sustainable. And we can’t depend on candidates to do this. We need a permanent sponsor, an organization that sees value in engaging citizens year in and year out and is in a position to change politics.
And the only entity I can think of that fits this description is a political party.
So what would it take for a political party to take on a statewide citizen engagement process that continues indefinitely?
It takes a leader. Not a candidate or office holder (elected officials have their hands full with their own campaigns), but a donor, staff member, or party activist. Someone in a position to answer the three “P” questions of public policy: How do we manage the politics (inside the party)? How do we bring the public along (by positioning this new initiative)? And how do we pay for it (by finding donors willing to support such a bold new initiative)?
But what about publicizing and holding the meetings and making sense of what the citizens say? Isn’t this difficult? Well, it does require a talent for organization, a devotion to listening and reporting things accurately, and some skill with facilitation, but none of these is particularly hard to learn. (Trust me, I’ve learned all these things.) You can find consultants who can help, but if the party does it long enough, it will create these skill sets among its own staff.
So let me summarize: We have a way of changing the toxic nature of politics today. It has been thoroughly tested at the local level. It could change the way voters look at the two parties—to the benefit of the one bold enough to undertake such an initiative. It could bring purpose to one of our most underutilized political institutions, state political parties. We need just one thing: a leader willing to fit the pieces together in her state and make it work.
This sounds good, but wait a minute. What would we do with the results of all this citizen engagement? If the Georgia Democratic Party or the California Republican Party went from city to suburb, town to country asking people what they wanted, if it made sense of what the citizens needed and wanted, if it created a report listing the top 10 (or 20) needs . . . then what?
In essence, nothing. Publish the results on a website (videos from the meetings would be nice) and send out a press release. (“Here is what the citizens of Georgia told us in 12 open-ended conversations across our state.”) Then repeat the following year.
After the first year, nothing will happen. Probably not much will happen after the second year. But about year three, the media, reformers, and your party’s leaders will start paying attention—and so will the opposition party’s leaders.
Among other things, they’ll notice that, in conversations across the state, in neighborhood libraries, suburban school cafeterias, and small-town church basements, citizens asked for the same things, over and over. They’ll also see that the citizens have big ambitions for their communities—a bigger vision than elected officials—but are realistic about the state’s role. And as these things sink in with legislators, the tide will turn.
As legislators and the news media see what the citizens really want, the demagogues will look foolish and those peddling special-interest legislation will be unmasked. Members of the party sponsoring the citizen meetings will rush in with bills responding to the citizen needs. Members of the other party will cast doubt on the meetings, but that won’t last long because the needs and wants will be so . . . obvious. And if they persist in denying the needs, that’s fine too. Because they won’t be the majority party for long.
My aim in putting this idea forward isn’t to elect more Democrats in Georgia or Republicans in California, but to change state politics. It probably would elect more Democrats to my state’s legislature because it would give voters a reason to reconsider the party. After all, it’s a great tactic. (“The Democrats listen to Georgia’s citizens, the other party listens to out-of-state interests.”)
But it’s more than that. It’s a way of reorienting politics to listening to citizens and treating them as equals in decision making. No government, state or local, should ever do things for citizens. It ought to do things with citizens. With, that is, the understanding that individuals, families, nonprofits, institutions, charities, religious organizations, and other governments have roles to play in making places better. All progress in complex societies is collaborative.
It begins with some simple questions: What do you need and want? What are you as citizens willing to do to achieve these things? What could others in your community do? And what could the state government help with?
And there’s only one group that can answer these questions: the citizens.
Postscript one: I’ve learned from long experience that one thing is essential in citizen engagement, and that is integrity. Manipulate the meetings by asking leading questions or packing the sessions with supporters, and you’ll be spotted as a fraud. You must make a sincere effort to get a cross-section of citizens to attend, and you must ask open-ended questions whose answers are recorded publicly and reported accurately.
Likewise, as you compile and analyze the comments and search for common themes, your methodology must be made clear. It has to answer this question: In combing through thousands of comments made by hundreds of citizens, how did you decide these were the things they wanted?
Trust me, the other party will criticize everything you did. So be prepared to defend everything you do. (Having videotape of the meetings will help.)
Postscript two: Small detail but big consideration. Should you let elected officials speak at these citizen meetings?
My answer: no. Elected officials (of either party) should be welcome to come, observe, and—if they wish—join the citizens as a citizen in talking about local needs. But allowing them to address the meeting would open the process to charges that the results were manipulated (see postscript one). These meetings should be about listening to the citizens. And that’s what elected officials should do in them: Stand to the side and listen attentively. They just might learn a thing or two.