If you watch the news, you’ve probably spent the past two years being overloaded with stories about who the next president is going to be. That’s what national news trains us to obsess over — the war for the White House.
The presidency is very important, but it isn’t where most of the magic happens in politics. The biggest ideas in American history have started with ordinary people campaigning in the states. Usually, one state is pushed to go out on a limb and try out some new idea. Then another state copies it — and then another state. And then the national news finally starts paying attention, and then Congress does too — and then the President ends up being the end of the story, not the beginning. Abolition, women’s suffrage, the minimum wage, social security, marriage equality, marijuana legalization — they all started in the states.
And in a time when national politics is so disappointing, this pattern gives me a lot of hope. You can see it happening again today, in last month’s election results:
- With Measure 110 passing with over 58% of the vote, Oregon has decriminalized drug use, paving the way for how to end the disastrous War on Drugs.
- In a major win for alternative voting methods, voters in St. Louis established approval voting for city positions. And with Measure 2 passing in Alaska, there are now two states with ranked-choice voting.
- In Boulder, Colorado, voters took a major step toward Civil Lawyers for All with Ballot Issue 2B, which taxes landlords and uses the revenue generated to guarantee free legal representation to tenants facing eviction.
- In Multnomah County, Oregon, voters approved a tax on upper-income families to guarantee Preschool for All 3- and 4-year-olds in the county.
- With Proposition 17’s passage, California expanded voting rights to 55,000 people on parole.
- With Question 3’s approval, Nevada voters reduced the role of their governor in the pardon process, making it easier for a State Board of Pardons Commissioners to reduce the state prison population.
- In Colorado, voters approved Proposition 118, which guarantees Colorado workers 12-16 weeks of paid family leave.
- Dozens of cities across the country — from Akron, Ohio to Kyle, Texas to San Jose, California — approved reforms to their police departments.
- And in Los Angeles, voters elected George Gascón to be District Attorney — and on his first day of office, he announced a series of major reforms, including doing away with cash bail, sentencing enhancements, and charging juveniles as adults.
The more democratic America of which we dream is already sprouting up, piecemeal, across the country. This movement in the states is what we have been working to support with the Democracy Policy Network since we launched earlier this year — the fostering of promising state policy ideas and the diffusion of them to more places. (For our opening efforts, check out our public banks and democracy vouchers policy kits.) In the coming year, we can find hope in building on these efforts, showing each other, initiative by initiative, seedling by seedling, what a deeper American democracy could look like.