In February 2018, journalist Meaghan Winter was in the Colorado State Capitol building, sitting in on a hearing for what was known among Colorado politicos as a “kill committee”—properly, the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee—put into place by Republicans so that leadership had a method of killing progressive bills even as the minority party. For hours, Winter observed a cycle that repeated itself bleakly: impassioned, deeply informed citizens would share painful stories or argue for needed policy solutions; the committee chair would say thank you; someone else would have their turn; all until the committee voted to “postpone the bill indefinitely” and move on to another one. Some of these citizens were teachers, students, and parents hoping for a grant for public schools to spread awareness about mental illness and warning signs for self-harm and suicide. Others wanted safe injection sites and other community harm-reduction programs for drug abuse. A physician, who was also a state senator, wanted to prevent pharmaceutical manufacturers from price-gouging. “I was struck by the futility of…political theater,” Winter writes in All Politics Is Local, the book documenting her tour of state legislatures and the lawmakers and organizers who do battle in them, “but also the ordinariness of personal courage.”
During her hours in the hearing, one group did successfully advance their bill—gun owners lobbying for concealed-carry without a permit. As the cycle repeated into the evening, Winter texted a progressive lawmaker she had accompanied that she had seen enough and was preparing to leave.
“A miracle is about to happen though,” he replied.
“I can’t tell if you are joking,” she texted back.
“I stared down nihilism while writing this book,” Winter told me during a recent phone call. “I saw things I could not believe I didn’t know as someone who reads the paper every day. These libertarian strategists chose to push their agenda in those rooms because they knew we weren’t going to be able to see it, and they were right.” In hearing after hearing, like the one described above, conservative lawmakers made decisions about Medicaid expansion, gun rights, and voting rights, with little or no attention or comment from the national press.
Across the US, Republicans have seized control in statehouses to quash progress and entrench right-wing agendas, even as public opinion moves slowly left, and even in swing states or states that were once Democratic strongholds (see: Wisconsin). All of this has been done in broad daylight, but without garnering much attention from the mainstream press, thanks to deliberately-considered and aggressively-funded organizing by Republican operatives.
But during her time on the frontlines of a staggering right-wing takeover, Winter interviewed countless progressive organizers and lawmakers engaged in fierce counter-attack. In Missouri, Florida, and Colorado, Winter profiles people and organizations fighting against the odds for things like abortion rights and gun control. Their relationship with the Democratic Party is varied and tenuous: while some have forged tricky alliances with progressive megadonors, others are constrained by the timid missions of major foundations, and some have been elected as Democrats themselves.
All Politics Is Local is not a how-to for citizen activists, nor is it a history lesson. It is a gimlet-eyed journalistic account of the triumphs and failures of progressives in deep-red and swing states, led by a shrewd reporter who is equal parts hopeful and skeptical. In her conversation with Guernica, Meaghan Winter discussed the nature of successful organizing, the complicated state of progressive foundations, and how the national media ignores state-level politics to the detriment of us all.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
—Spencer Green for Guernica
Guernica: Let’s begin with your account of how right-wing operatives took over statehouses in the first place. Democrats controlled most state governments throughout the 1960s. Then many powerful people—from the founders of ALEC and the Heritage Foundation to figures like future supreme court justice Lewis Powell—decided that the right needed to consolidate power at the state and district level. How exactly did this happen?
Meaghan Winter: It’s an important point that none of this happened automatically. There were a number of strands that coalesced in the last, let’s say, fifty or sixty years. At the onset of the civil rights movement, various leaders of what we would recognize today as “the right”—many of them libertarians—began making appeals about “states’ rights.” They realized that if they targeted state legislatures, they could stop a lot of what was building, because it was going to be much harder for the public to pay attention to what they were doing there. Entities we are familiar with now, including Koch-funded ventures like ALEC and Americans for Prosperity—the seeds for these things were planted decades ago by a separate set of thinkers.
Over time, these efforts became more successful and better-funded, gaining traction in the ’70s and ’80s, largely in reaction to people’s movements, consumer protection movements, and the environmentalist movement, all of which were trying to crack down on corporate abuses. It was a similar moment to today in some ways, where these cries for corporate accountability were taking hold. To quash that, a broad array of Republican and corporate operatives decided they were going to mount this offense in the states, building institutions for the long term that connected people and groups—especially funders—who had a broad array of interests.
Guernica: And there’s a fair amount of evidence that they learned some of these strategies from the left, who had gained what power they had thanks to institutions like powerful unions. When Republicans began stealing from their playbook, did Democrats not realize what was happening, or were they just unable to stop it?
Winter: I put that question to a lot of people. To a certain extent, I continue to have it. The way it was put to me over and over again was as a “boiling frog” problem. And there were, and are, a lot of organizers and political strategists on the left, in [state and local] Democratic parties, or in different interest groups—for example, abortion-rights or gun-safety groups—who have been advocating for a more locally-based organizing model since the 1970s.
But for a number of reasons—unfortunately, many of them having to do with money, and with who steered the missions of these organizations—Democrats and the left generally decided to adopt a more federally focused strategy. In some specific instances this may have been the right choice, but in retrospect it’s obviously so easy to see that neglecting to build any power on the state level for decades was a mistake.
Guernica: I’m interested in incrementalism as a theme. It’s maligned a lot among progressives, but you argue that it was crucial to the right accomplishing their agenda. Is there a difference between how Democrats and Republicans make use of it?
Winter: Somehow Republicans have mastered it both ways. On the one hand, their messaging is so much simpler. Again and again, they’re proactive, they demand something, or call for something that speaks to people. Psychologically and emotionally, this just makes sense. They’ve called for bolder ways to reframe the political conversation—which, now, we are seeing progressives and some Democrats doing themselves, especially with campaigns for Medicare For All or Abolish ICE, for example.
But at the same time that they’re being proactive, Republicans have mastered these incremental legal agendas which they set years in advance, before they actually achieve their goal. They do this on a number of fronts, but an example that will be familiar to readers are the anti-abortion legislation we’ve seen this year: that began in the 1970s! Their attempt to chip away at unions, also, was a decades-old, decades-long strategy.
Very few things in government and democracy happen quickly. So if you’re looking to change major federal policy, you’re probably going to have a lot of disappointment on the way to success. Psychologically, that’s really difficult, and it’s bad for morale. If you’re an anti-abortion activist, and you’ve been chipping away at Roe for the past 30 years, along the way you’ve had dozens of reasons to celebrate and to believe that your work matters, and to believe that talking to your neighbors and going to rallies and electing people to office really matters. So it’s important for organizers—and organizers know this, maybe the rest of us don’t—to have smaller wins along the way so that you can show your supporters it’s not all nihilism, that there’s a reason for them to continue showing up. The Republican Party created a wonderful psychological feedback loop for their people on the ground, and that combined with their constant funding is a really crucial part of their longer-term success.
In these cases, incremental doesn’t mean, “Oh, we’re only going to ask for a little tiny thing.” Republicans are actually reaching for very broad change, but they recognize this change may not come in one fell swoop. So their “incrementalism” has been incredibly effective, because it was always in pursuit of a really ambitious goal. That is not something Democrats and progressives have gotten, and why not? I put that question to a lot of people.
Guernica: The first chapter of All Politics Is Local takes on the problems with progressive foundations and progressive donors: they’re afraid to be bold. They’re terrified of being seen as overtly political. This isn’t anything that’s ever constrained conservative organizations, as far as I know. Why are progressives so timid?
Winter: This is so important that I want to put it on a billboard everywhere: the real answer is funding. These centrist foundations—I’m calling them centrist, perhaps left-leaning in some of their goals or missions—they tend to fund direct service work because their tax designations prevent them, to a certain extent, from funding overtly political work. Like political parties, these are small-c conservative organizations. They’re essentially a tax shelter for rich people. Major foundations like Gates, Ford, etc., hold stock and bonds of companies like Walmart and Facebook—they’re very much a part of an elite-driven capitalist society. There’s a lot of recent writing about this, and everyone who cares about our democracy and equity in our society should be thinking about it.
It has been the tradition of these foundations—which, by the way, have more money than many of the right-leaning foundations—to stay away from funding people’s organizations, or anything that has the whiff of political advocacy, even when they could. And donors tend to avoid state-based organizing because it’s not glamorous or prestigious. The ACLU, for example, has found it much easier to raise money for litigation moving through courts than to raise money for organizing—which is a bad thing, because over the course of American history, social change has come from organizing people.
Why have groups working to improve the lives of poor and working people not been able to muster a political response worthy of what’s happened in this country in the past 30 years? The more I looked at it, the more I realized that the reason Democrats haven’t had an effective response to Republicans really is about organizing. If you look at the way foundations are spending their money—who’s going to argue against a direct service program that’s giving children lunch? I’m not going to argue against that. But I wish there were a way these foundations could empower groups who organize low-wage workers so that we could have actual political change that would sustain itself for years to come. The right has built institutions that effect this kind of structural social change.
Guernica: In your writing, you seem to have an ambivalence about progressive megadonors. I’m thinking about the “Gang of Four” in Colorado, a set of ultra-wealthy philanthropists who aggressively funded local races and got the statehouse back for the Democrats in 2004. They seem crucial, but do we need them? Are we stuck with them? Can we envision a world without needing to depend on them?
Winter: I think for the short- and maybe even medium-term, we are stuck with a campaign finance model where, unfortunately, [megadonors] are the most efficient, and probably pragmatic, way for Democrats and progressives to have a fighting chance in elections, and even in advocacy work. It’s a real problem: from extensive polling we know that extremely wealthy people hold different views from the American public generally. They tend to be more economically conservative and more socially liberal. More accepting and supportive of abortion rights, gay rights, immigrant rights, but less in favor of things like Medicaid expansion. In Colorado, for example, there’s a libertarian tax policy that was put in place by ballot initiative in the 1990s. The state is progressive by so many measures, because liberal donors did such a good job of flipping elections, building organizations, and cultivating young talent. They really made sure that it was possible to have progressive politics for many, many years. And yet, that tax system has not been overturned. There are complicated legal reasons for that, but of course those progressive megadonors are not going to overthrow a law that helps ensure that they pay very few taxes.
When donors define your politics, it changes the agenda for both the right and the left. A majority of Americans have left-of-center economic views. They don’t always vote on that; they may vote on gun rights, or because they respond to anti-immigrant race-baiting, or whatever emotional appeal they’re responding to. But a majority of Americans have left-of-center economic views and those issues are not being pushed to the fore because donors on “the left” are ambivalent about politics that the public is much less ambivalent about.
Guernica: You distinguish early between organizing and other kinds of political work like advocacy, activism, or awareness-raising. I appreciated this so much, because so many people—not just journalists, but also people in the non-profit world—will stick that word organizing to everything. For you, it clearly means a specific set of skills. So what is your understanding of what organizing is, why is it important, and how is it distinct from other kinds of activism?
Winter: Advocacy is what the left has actually funded, to a certain extent, more than organizing. It’s basically lobbying under a different word: going to speak to your lawmakers or city council, a fight over one lawsuit, doing legal work, promoting your ideas. Whereas organizing—I’ll probably get a million emails telling me this is not so—is a slower, more laborious process. It recurs over months and years: knocking on doors in your neighborhood, meeting with people, pulling them into the political process. You’re creating a core group of people committed to working with each other towards a unified goal. That kind of community-building, that kind of sustained attention—I can’t think of any political movement in our country that hasn’t used that kind of model. This is one reason why I chose to write about the anti-abortion movement and the gun rights movement: the right was at its most successful when they used organizing models. Yes, they used litigation, but they organized.
Let’s say there is a “Stand Your Ground” bill that the right wants to pass in the state legislature. This is what they did in Missouri a couple of years ago. Pro-gun groups in Missouri get a chance to do “advocacy,” right? They can talk on behalf of the bill. But this also gives them a chance to get together and talk to each other. They can call their neighbors and get them to come to a meeting. They do all kinds of work on the ground to let people in their community know this is happening. That kind of work seems really boring, and mundane, and not particularly exciting, and it’s not going to be splashy and get some full treatment in a glossy magazine. But it’s fundamental to getting anything done.
And so aside from the labor movement—and that’s a whole separate thing—the left has not sustained this kind of organizing as effectively as many of the organizations on the right, in a large part because of funders who don’t find it glamorous and don’t fund it (although that is changing). That’s why we see so many potential voters who feel no sense of commitment or connection to the Democratic Party, because it’s very different to go to regular meetings where someone asks you, “OK, is your priority healthcare, or immigration? Which environmental laws mean something to you?”—it’s very different to do that than it is to just get a flyer the day before the election.
Guernica: At various points in your book, you or someone you interview makes a distinction between persuasion and mobilization: the difference between trying to change someone’s mind versus finding and motivating people already on your side. I thought about this a lot when you discussed the more hardcore anti-abortion activists in Missouri, or gun enthusiasts in Colorado. I’m not sure that some people will change their minds very easily. But you’re absolutely right that our current political divisions are not according to some sort of “natural order.” They’re a product of what the right has spent decades building. So, when can we persuade, and when do we mobilize? How do organizers understand these ideas?
Winter: While reporting this book, I learned about this fascinating survey of anti-abortion activists. Roughly half of them, a majority of them, had not been anti-abortion before they began their activism. There was a range of answers: either they had previously been pro-choice, or they didn’t care or had never had an opinion. So how did they get involved in this activism in the first place? A friend asked them to come to an event, and they liked their friend, and they were pulled in through that pre-existing social connection. This illustrates precisely what is possible with persuasion and mobilization. A lot of [progressive] groups on the ground are now changing their model to find people who are connected to their communities, and trying to get those leaders to pull people into political work or volunteerism.
In districts that are deep red, persuasion is a challenge. It’s a 20-year project, not a “We’re going to show up in August 2020 and persuade anyone” project, and I don’t know if we have time. Much of what Democrats have done over the years is short-term fundraising, crash into a place, get some volunteers to canvass in the summer. I see much more clearly after writing this book the opportunities for mobilization over persuasion. It’s not that it’s easier; it’s a couple-of-years project rather than a decades-long project.
But Democrats can’t write people off anymore. For example, I ask in the book, why did Florida vote for Obama twice, when it hasn’t had a Democratic governor in 20 years? This will not come as a surprise to most readers, but Democrats really struggled to turn out black and brown voters. Miami is a minority-majority city, a Democratic stronghold with some of the most Democratic neighborhoods in the country, but the Florida Democratic Party didn’t have the apparatus to reach out to Latino and Black voters. You need diverse leadership, and you need to actually go into neighborhoods with messaging that suits a particular place. You don’t need to be a political mastermind to come up with any of this, but it just isn’t happening. That kind of effort is extremely laborious, and it takes a lot of volunteers, and I can’t even describe how much work it takes—but it’s the kind of thing that we all need to be doing or it’s not going to work.
Guernica: There’s a common problem in “solutions journalism”—you find a group of people who are doing something exactly right, but it’s not flashy. Even if it’s extremely high-stakes, the answer to the question everyone is asking, you feel like you just have to shake people’s shoulders to get them to get it.
Winter: Oh my god, yes!
Guernica: I kept noticing these small, kind of self-referential moments peppered throughout your book. What did you learn about getting people to care about things that are so important, so ubiquitous, but it’s all just kind of happening right under our noses?
Winter: I actually wrote about this for Columbia Journalism Review. In 2016 I reported out several stories about abortion laws in Missouri and other statehouses, highlighting Republicans’ incremental approach to restricting abortion rights for years. To be honest, it really began to enrage me how difficult it was to place some of those stories, some of which never saw the light of day. That spring, there were so many antiabortion bills, and so many stories about those laws. But when it wasn’t too late—when the fate of abortion rights was not already in the hands of a conservative-majority Supreme Court—that would have been a good time for outlets to run stories about the synchronized campaigns in the states! We live in an era where national news is decided mostly by editors in New York, most of whom are—and this is not news to anyone—middle-class, upper-middle-class white people, mostly men. Similarly to donors, you have to do a lot of work to persuade them that this thing that’s happening in this unglamorous hearing room a thousand miles away actually does have national impact and stakes for ordinary Americans. It’s what’s happening, and so it’s the job of a news organization to cover it.
I fully expect no one to care now, and that’s really sad. I wrote this book because I saw things, things I could not believe I didn’t know as someone who read the newspaper every day. These libertarian strategists chose to push their agenda in those rooms because they knew we weren’t going to be able to see it, and they were right. Me writing this book is no match for whatever happens to be on CNN or MSNBC tonight. I really wish those networks, which have plenty of money and a huge audience, could have a panel of, say, state commissioners whose job it is to regulate energy companies. That would be a major public service and it’s what their job is supposed to be. I mean, I hope that these things happen but I also know that they won’t.
Guernica: It’s fundamental to the premise of All Politics Is Local—at least this is how I read it—that while we have a responsibility to pay attention to what local organizers are doing in all parts of the country, there may be no grand unifying theory of progressive victory. How did you negotiate this while you wrote this book?
Winter: I mentioned Colorado earlier, how the progressive megadonors are such a part of that story—unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, there aren’t that many states where something like that is possible. But if you’re someone who is interested in good government reform, or progressive movements, there are general principles on how we can collectively be effective.
I really stared down the barrel of nihilism a few times writing this book, but I still very firmly believe that, collectively, we can get a lot done and turn this thing around. Organizing really matters. And the organizations that are going to be the most effective going forward are organizations that are “there” all of the time. Not just an electoral campaign that’s going to be somewhere for a brief period of time. Make the Road New York, the New Florida Majority, Organize Florida, New Era Colorado: These are the groups that are really based in their communities, and they’re not going to fold up and go away because a candidate wins or loses. They’re not out for candidates; they’re out for policies, trying to change the conversation and change the culture. Supporting organizations like these, one, is good for our mental health, because you’re not alone, you belong somewhere, and that’s important for these kinds of fights. And two, that’s how change is made. Long-term organizing has been neglected, and these groups are trying to fill that gap. Alone, we’re just a voice in the wilderness, but if we act collectively we see that we can change.