The creeping right

You may have wondered, as I often do, how Democrats prevail at the national level in the election of presidents but have done so abysmally in state legislatures. Republicans now control a majority of state houses and governors’ mansions. Even Washington state, known as a liberal bastion for years, last electing a Republican governor in 1980, sees the Republicans controlling its senate and nearly besting the Democrats in the house.

Thomas Edsall, a sociology professor and frequent contributor to the New York Times, provides some insight in today’s column. He quotes a professor of political science:

“It comes purely from a strategic political calculus,” according to Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego:

The federal government has become more progressive over its history in the case of slavery, the New Deal, the civil rights advances from 1957-1965, and the environmental regulations of the 1970s. When you lose battles at the national level but still hold sway in many states, taking a stand for states’ rights becomes the rational thing to do.

Americans, on the whole, are a liberal lot. But there is only one nationally elected position, that of president. States, meanwhile, are more diverse, and in some cases far more conservative bastions, especially in the South.

The Republicans and their wealthy benefactors steadily gained control of states by appealing to racist and religious sentiments, which are decidedly pronounced in former Confederate regions but also exist within state boundaries. For example, while Seattle and the Puget Sound area are solidly liberal and progressive, counties east of the Cascade Mountains might as well be Iowa or Kansas.

Edsall suggests that the Democratic Party and its wealthy patrons failed to appreciate the Republicans’ strategy for dominating states. Moreover, conservatives can rely on community organizations, especially churches and social groups like the Elks, to establish and maintain their political hegemony. Liberals and progressives, on the other hand, lack such community-based institutions, save for unions, which, as we know, have been hemorrhaging members over the last several decades. Edsall:

Rob Stein, a founder of the Democracy Alliance — a “partnership” of liberal donors established in 2005 — pointed out in a phone interview that the right can tap into an embedded

structure of community-based cultural, religious, social organizations — churches, Elks, veterans halls, gun groups, local business organizations, etc. — that are gathering places with offices, meeting halls, phones and computers that can be used by activist troops for logistical and operational support.

Stein, who has worked in the field for decades, said that the result for conservatives is that

your volunteers and paid activists come out of a values-based institution, which is essentially not a political institution. People are there because of their values. If you come to politics from a club or church or veterans hall, it reinforces the stickiness of your work, your willingness to keep at it even if you are tired.