S1: I’m sort of curious, given the work you’ve done, like have you been watching the Democratic presidential debates here in there?
S2: Alex Fertel Fernandez is a political scientist, teaches at Columbia. When I asked him this question, he was laughing because the way he thinks about political power, it goes so far beyond the White House, far beyond the national politicians in these debates. In a way, I wonder if you kind of see them as beside the point.
S3: You know, I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that the way our institutions are so fragmented, the fact that you have city governments and state governments and bureaucratic agencies, you know, there are a lot of ways of getting what you want.
S4: Alex’s specialty is all the different ways of getting what you want in American politics. He thinks about the health of our overlapping political ecosystems. The think tanks that feed research to politicians, the city workers who carry out legislation both big and small. This web of support, it can strengthen or dilute a president’s ideas and eventually a president’s policies.
S5: And that is, I think, a far bigger variable in explaining what parties end up winning and how they use their power over time. You know, I think it was so striking when Obama stepped down as president, one of the first regrets that he had was not doing more to build up the party system.
S6: We haven’t done it as well as we need to.
S2: Obama spoke about this regret in an interview with NPR just before he left office. If you listen really closely to what he’s saying here, it’s that this political ecosystem is really fragile for Democrats at least.
S6: For example, we know that the Republicans funded through organizations like the Koch brothers, have been very systematic at building club around the building from the ground up and communicating to state legislators and financing school board races and public utility commission races. I think we’ve ceded too much territory and I take some responsibility for that going into this election year.
S4: You can see how this ground up coordination has worked for Republicans. The party has moved forward in lockstep when it comes to that kind of unity. Democrats are struggling.
S3: But on the other hand, in a piece I wrote a few years ago, I argued that progressives have the advantage of backwardness. So in economic development, people talk about how less developed countries can actually have a faster time developing and more developed countries because they can learn from the mistakes that other countries did and copy what worked. And I think in some ways, progressives can take advantage of that.
S2: I love that you’re comparing the Democratic Party to a third world country. I think there’s some parallels.
S4: Today on the show, if you’re wondering what the progressive path forward in this election is going to look like, Alex says. Just look at what the Republicans are doing. He’s gonna take us inside the political ecosystem. Conservative advocates built from the ground up and ask, can Democrats assemble anything like it? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.
S2: If you picture a big map of the U.S. with states colored red or blue, depending on which party controls the local legislature, there are more red states. Plain and simple. You’ve heard this story before that Republicans have prioritized gaining control of statehouses. But Alex Fertel Fernandez says something interesting about this, that even when Democrats have gained majorities in a state legislature, they haven’t wielded their power very purposefully.
S7: I think a great example of this is what is happening right now in Virginia, which just flipped to having trifecta Democratic control for the first time in, I think about two decades. And they had an opportunity to pass laws that would greatly expand union rights, making it easier for private sector workers to unionize and for those unions to have more resources. And those efforts just got scuttled. In fact, even before the bills were announced to repeal the state’s so-called right to work law, the governor said that it would be a mistake for Democrats to prioritize this law. And the fact that Democrats have this internal division over what they should do first is just such a striking comparison to what happens on the right. A key question when your side gains control of state government, when you get a trifecta, I say is what are you going to do with that power? And what are the things you’re gonna do first? And what are the things you’re going to do later? And that’s a question that conservatives have gotten really good at answering. You see that when Republicans take over state government, the first things they do are to try and weaken unions, try and weaken other progressive activist groups, and then change election rules in ways that will make it easier for them to win when Democrats gain control of state government. There’s a lot more division over what they should be doing.
S2: Alec says state Republicans have gotten good at this, mainly because they have a major organizing force on their side. The American Legislative Exchange Council. It’s commonly called ALEC. ALEC was founded with money from wealthy conservative donors and corporations. It’s promulgated limited government, free market policies, and it’s been able to do that by bringing conservative lawmakers together and saying, hey, we’ve done all the thinking and the law drafting on this subject. Here are the exact bills you should pass. We’re going to spoon feed it to you.
S5: Crucially, many state legislatures don’t give lawmakers much in the way of resources to make policy. And so they often are very hungry for ideas and resources that they can use to write legislation. And Alec basically provided all of those resources that lawmakers otherwise lacked. The ideas behind the bills, the polling that they would need to pass, the bills they even had for a while, a hotline that lawmakers could call if they wanted help drafting a particular piece of legislation or coming up with a good argument. And so Alec sort of served as a private research assistant for four state legislators.
S1: And Alec has become known for these bills that are basically copy paste jobs, like a legislator pays 50 bucks of annual dues and they have access to a whole library of potential legislation, which is important because they don’t have a lot of time. And some of these bills include Stand Your Ground laws and voter I.D. laws. A lot of anti-union laws and blocking Medicaid expansion, for instance. Stuff that people would be pretty familiar with originated with this one group.
S8: A lot of attention has been focused on the model bills that ALEC produces. And a lot of lawmakers have found it easy to simply take off the boilerplate language that ALEC has at the top of these models and submitted under their own name. And actually, in some cases, lawmakers even forget to do that part. And you you’ll see bills introduced where at the very top it says this is an ALEC model bill. Or you may forget to insert their state when at the top of the bill says state name here.
S2: So the membership of ALEC encompasses state lawmakers and huge corporations. And sometimes these members disagree about how a model bill should be crafted like this one time when Enron and Coke industries disagreed about how to regulate electricity. Alec came up with a really simple way of settling things.
S3: They said, you know, whoever is willing to pay more is going to get to write the model bill. And at the end of the day, Enron was willing to pay more and that push paid off.
S9: A number of states during this period ended up passing Alec’s model bills just as Enron wanted.
S2: So it’s not just that Alec is a conservative organization. It’s kind of a mercenary organization. It paves the way for the highest bidder.
S10: I should be clear that there is nothing illegal about coming up with model bills and encouraging lawmakers to pass those model bills. You know, that’s a time honored strategy throughout American history. You know, you go back as far as as the progressive era and you had groups that were trying to get states to pass pension programs in developing model bills around that. So I don’t think there’s anything illegal or immoral about that strategy. I think what’s more problematic is the fact that Alec and the other members are pushing policies that most voters don’t want. Which means that the only ways that they can really they can really pursue that agenda is by making it harder for people to participate in elections and and doubling down on appeals to to the sort of white identity politics that we’re we’re seeing characterize the Republican Party today.
S11: It wasn’t always like this. Back when Alec got started in the 70s, it was Democrats controlling most state governments. Back then, the Democrats leaned on the organizational power of teachers unions to achieve their goals.
S12: A group that I focus on that was a key inspiration for organization, on the right was teachers unions and other public sector employees. Now, I didn’t know this before coming into the project, but public sector workers like teachers, they don’t collectively bargain and have labor rights governed by the federal government. Their labor rights are governed by the states. And at this time, when teachers unions in particular were forming, they were becoming very politically active. And the thing about the teachers unions were that they weren’t just lobbying on education related policies. They were also supporting liberal Democrats and pushing for higher taxes and more regulation on private sector businesses.
S5: And conservatives saw this and in particular saw that they were connected across the state so they could share ideas from state to state and share resources from state to state. Conservatives saw that and they said, you know, geez, if we’re going to be competitive, we have to come up with similar cross-state networks of our own.
S1: Hold it. So, Alec, this very conservative interest group modeled its organization off of unions.
S5: It both modeled its organization off of unions and was founded out of the threat that unions presented to them at that at that time, which is hard to believe because we think about unions today as being so weak politically.
S1: It seems like unions are really important sort of shadow thread to this where you have one party that’s willing to completely sell out the unions and then you have another party that doesn’t really want to sell out the unions, but doesn’t really, for lack of a better word, have the balls to like hold the corporations accountable. I mean, it’s like, you know, they they’re like an important part of this conversation that seems like to me.
S13: That’s totally right. I think you really hit the nail on that. You know, the rise of public sector labor unions in the 60s and 70s was an important reason why conservatives felt like they had to get their act together and create organizations at the state level across states. And it was also one of the key objectives that they were pursuing right from the start. There were many parts of Alec’s agenda that ebbed and flowed, but unions still are a huge part of what they do and in fact, were on the agenda for the ALEC meeting that was held in December last year.
S1: I feel like your research makes this really clear point that in the 70s the unions had power. That was the same time that Democrats had a lot of power at the state level and elsewhere. And that is union power declined. Democratic power also declined. And it seems to me like an organization like ALEC takes advantage of the fact that while the Democrats did benefit from the unions being powerful, the unions were also holding them accountable. They weren’t the same thing. You know what I mean? So Democrats aren’t fully incentivized to make unions more powerful. They also need to be accountable to corporate interests. And so it’s a wedge that they can open up and then take advantage of.
S7: And I think the situation has only gotten worse as Democrats have come to increasingly rely on white collar professionals and and campaign support from financial executives and from Silicon Valley. These are sectors that tend to be much more skeptical of labor unions. And so it makes it a lot harder for Democrats to think about supporting labor policy that would that would bolster unions. And I think that’s changing in very recent years. But I think over over the past few decades, it’s made it a lot harder for Democrats to focus on rebuilding the labor movement.
S2: I think reading your work. The one thing I was left wondering was what can progressives learn from what Alex doing? Or is it just that progressives have forgotten what the unions were already doing back in the 70s?
S9: So I think progressives have realized that the states matter, particularly after the 2010 election and the shifts in state policy and politics that we’ve seen since then on the right. So they’ve accomplished that. The question is whether or not the organizations that they’re investing in can have the same effect as the organizations on the right. And that remains to be seen.
S1: Is there a progressive analogue for ALEC?
S9: There’ve been a number of progressive efforts over time to construct counterweights to ALEC, but they’ve often fizzled out because they haven’t received sufficient attention from donors or they were just focused on organizing power in states that were already progressive like New York or California. There are a couple efforts right now in present day. The State Innovation Exchange is one example that’s building out capacity in a number of key states focused on these very targeted states. And then future now is another organization that is in many ways trying to replicate Alec’s success by building a national network and also thinking very strategically about policy, thinking about the ways that policy can be used to either advantage one’s allies or defang one’s opponents. And that’s a lesson that conservatives learned really well when they targeted labor unions for decades. They knew that if they took out labor unions, they would make it easier to elect conservative candidates and pass conservative policies.
S14: I wonder if you ever get frustrated with how much attention Trump gets, because it seems to me like Trump is pretty separate from what these state level organizations are doing. Like that work benefits the administration. But it’s not their movement. And I wonder if you look at some of the national coverage that focuses on what’s happening at the presidential level and just think like men. I really think the problem is somewhere else every day.
S15: And the other thing I would point out is the way in which, you know, it didn’t matter in a way whether or not it was Trump or another Republican candidate who ended up winning because these organizations would have worked with the Republican administration, in any case, to pursue the sort of policies that complement the Republican Party at the local, state and national level.
S16: Alex Fertel Fernandez, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks so much for having me on.
S4: Alex Fertel Fernandez is a professor of public affairs at Columbia. His book is called State Capture. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Daniel Hewitt. Silvers, Mary Wilson and Jason de Leone. I’m Mary Harris. We’ll be back in your feed tomorrow.