In the States, Conservatism Fails

Voters Turn to Progressive Alternatives

Across the country, progressive ideas carried state representatives and governors to victory in support of the common good.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once referred to states as “the laboratories of democracy.” Last week, American voters made it clear that the conservative experiment of governance in these laboratories has failed. The failure can be attributed to a number of factors, but at its core, any political theory that views government as the problem rather than a solution is unsustainable.  Believing government as a burden rather than a vehicle for change, the conservative movement naturally led the country to the disastrous situation in Iraq, a failed response to hurricane Katrina, record deficits and an economy that works for the interest of only a few.

Despite years of redistricting to protect conservative representation, voters chose to support candidates and initiatives aligned with progressive values of governance rooted in the common good. Progressives place the interest of the public over the narrow self-interest of the few, work to achieve social and economic conditions that benefit everyone, and promote a personal, governmental, and corporate ethic of responsibility and service. As was evident last Tuesday, these progressive values are shared by the majority of the country. 

Progress on the Ballot: For years, conservatives have pointed to voter support for conservative ballot measures as proof that Americans share their values on governance and culture. Using this same standard, the results of last Tuesday’s midterm election have made it clear that the country is far more progressive on issues than conservatives would like to believe.  In fact, the outright defeat of anti-tax measures, the rejection of restrictions to women’s reproductive rights, and across-the-board support of increases to the minimum wage and expansion of stem cell research prove that Americans side more with progressives on fundamental issues of governance and culture than they do with conservatives.

For example, since taking control of state legislatures and state houses in 1994, conservatives have attempted to incubate ideological anti-tax and anti-rights legislation in several states.  The most notorious of these anti-tax initiatives is the so-called Tax Payer Bill of Rights, or TABOR. This theoretically flawed  experiment, backed by conservative ideologues such as Grover Norquist and Dick Armey, limited spending increases to a rate equal to the rate of population growth plus inflation. TABOR was planted in Colorado in 1992 with destructive results for the state’s first response and educational systems, farmers, and families. As a result, last year voters in Colorado put a stop to the devastation by voting for a referendum to freeze application of the constitutional amendment.

After failing to continue the experiment in Colorado, Norquist and other extremists attempted to place the measure on the ballot in numerous states around the country.  Their efforts were resoundingly rejected as Americans either chose not to support its appearance on the ballot or, in the three states where it appeared—Nebraska, Maine and Oregon—to defeat the measure outright. Voters also rejected anti-tax initiatives in Washington, Oregon, and South Dakota.

Americans also moved toward a more progressive position on social issues presented on ballots. For example, measures to restrict women’s reproductive rights failed in California, Oregon, and South Dakota. The South Dakota defeat was particularly significant because conservatives in the state introduced the ballot measure as a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, which would have outlawed abortion in all circumstances unless it was necessary to prevent the death of a pregnant woman. In addition, while same-sex marriage bans were passed in seven states, voters in Arizona made history by being the first state to outright reject an initiative to ban same-sex marriage. In addition, the margins by which the amendments passed in states fell from 70 percent in 2004 to only around 50 percent this year. 

While voters were rejecting conservative anti-tax measures and moving away from conservative positions on cultural issues, they were simultaneously showing their support for ballot measures that reflect fundamental progressive values.

Increasing the minimum wage and expanding embryonic stem cell research were defining progressive issues in the midterm election.  A rise in the minimum wage was accepted in all six states where it appeared on the ballot (even though the majority of voters in these states supported Bush in the 2004 presidential election), and the expansion of stem cell research, which appeared on the ballot in Missouri—a state where the pro-life lobby is the strongest lobby in the state—was accepted by a majority of voters.

The support voters showed for progressive measures and the rejection of fundamentally conservative policies underscore dissatisfaction with the way conservatives have used states to push ideological initiatives such as TABOR, restrictions on women’s rights, and anti-marriage amendments. All of these policies serve narrow self-interests, are short-sided, and harm the common good.

Progressive State Leadership: Nowhere was the mandate for progressive governance more apparent than in state legislatures and state houses across the country. Voters swept in hundreds of Democrats and Republicans who ran on fundamentally progressive policy platforms of education reform, homeland security, renewable energy, pension reform, stem cell research, and health care.  Meanwhile, candidates from both sides of the aisle who chose to support self-interested tax policy while failing to invest in education, infrastructure, and homeland security were handily defeated. 

A good example of the tenor of the American electorate and the direction the country is moving can be found in the traditionally conservative state of Kansas.  Voters in the state chose candidates who ran on common-good principles of hope rather than conservative principles of fear and divisiveness. Republican Roger Pine of Lawrence, KS won on a campaign that rejected a ban on same-sex marriage and restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. Raj Goyle defeated a three-term conservative for the Kansas state legislature by running on a progressive policy platform of health care and education reform. “In Kansas, traditional party labels are increasingly less important,” said Goyle. “What matters are leaders with the values of the people they represent.”  The values Americans supported not only in Kansas, but across the country were overwhelmingly progressive.

This message also rang true in New York where Elliot Spitzer’s overwhelming victory in New York revealed a clear mandate for progressive values in the state. As Spitzer suggested after his victory, “From here on out, we need a politics that bind us together, a politics that’s forward thinking, a politics that asks not, ‘What’s in it for me?’ but always ‘What’s in it for us?’” This declaration reflects the policies he chose to focus on during his campaign: a guarantee for access to pre-kindergarten for all students; $11 billion in budget savings; a reduction in energy and health care costs to spur business growth; and long-term Medicaid cost reductions. 

Similarly, in Ohio, Ted Strickland ended years of conservative gubernatorial rule by rejecting the self-interested systems that led to corruption and scandal at all levels. Instead, Strickland focused on education and health care reform, investment in renewable energy, and a smart economic policy to spur growth of business.

In California, Gov. Schwarzenegger responded to pressure from voters in the state and blazed to victory on a progressive platform of protecting the environment, reforming health care, strengthening education, funding stem cell research, and increasing the minimum wage. Schwarzenegger openly rejected the divisive conservative policy of restricting women’s reproductive health and rights. 

Finally, in three different regions of the country, support for expanded funding for stem cell research helped ensure victory for Governors Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, and Elliot Spitzer in New York. In Maryland Martin O’Malley ran and won on a progressive vision for effective homeland security and preparedness.  In Massachusetts, Deval Patrick’s fundamentally progressive stance on issues such as full-day kindergarten, energy security, and health care led to election history—he will be the first African-American governor of the state. Nebraska’s Gov. Dave Heinaman and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius , both of whom co-chair the Governor’s Ethanol Commission, were each voted into office in no small part due to their promotion and dedication to investment in renewable energy.  

A New Direction: Last Tuesday, Americans across the country ended the failed experiment of conservative governance in the states. By rejecting tax measures designed to hamstring government and culturally divisive initiatives that would roll back rights, voters provided a mandate for a clear majority of progressive state legislators and governors to refocus state policy agendas towards issues that Americans clearly care so much about: advancing stem cell research, investing in energy security, strengthening our nation’s public education system, and supporting the American worker.

These policy ideas represent a forward-thinking vision of governance that in no uncertain terms was endorsed by the American electorate. Just as Americans over one hundred years ago pioneered the first Progressive Era in our nation’s history, Americans today stand ready for a new progressive movement to take our country out of the darkness of conservative failures and assert new progressive governance with fresh ideas and real values that support the common good.

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