For the past 20 years, the Republican Party has perversely rewritten former Supreme Court Louis Brandeis’s notion that states could be “laboratories of democracy.” Where Brandeis imagined state governments pushing liberal and progressive ideas beyond the national consensus, drawing the nation forward, Republicans have worked to preserve a dwindling white majority through gerrymandering and have used state governments not merely to slow down liberalism, but to turn it to dust and ash in the broad center of the country. In the so-called red states, liberalism is now often relegated to a kind of folklore-ish local practice in college towns and mid-sized cities, while formal, statewide policy is strictly and stridently conservative.
Red states, in other words, are laboratories of anti-democracy—as many have been, in a way, since the days of slaveholding and Jim Crow. With the election of Donald Trump, it’s safe to say that most people’s lives will get worse in these states, and that the forces of intolerance and bigotry will grow stronger and even less cautious. But what about blue states?
Those of us who care about an equitable civil society, who believe in a just world, and who live in a proverbial blue state have an obligation to work locally to turn them into laboratories of something else: that diminished thing called hope. Optimism is retreating nationally and internationally. The nation as a whole seems no longer interested in celebrating any vision of equity, justice, and mutual respect. We need new symbols desperately. Blue states—especially those with democratic supermajorities and friendly neighbors, like Massachusetts and Rhode Island, California and Oregon—can be those symbols. And they can turn that symbolism into meaningful practice and policy.
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo is showing the way. Speaking last month at a prayer vigil for gun-violence victims, she said, “Tonight’s an opportunity to remember that hate and intolerance and violence have never been a part of what makes the state strong.” Raimondo insisted that Trump’s victory would not “erode our core beliefs,” but rather “provide a greater sense of urgency for the work that I do and for the values that we hold dear, to protect them even more because we realize we need to.”
On the other coast, California Governor Jerry Brown promised to turn climate science into a statewide enterprise if the federal government mothballs such research. “If Trump turns off the satellites,” Brown said, speaking to a crowd of scientists last month in San Francisco, “California will launch its own damn satellite.” Like his east coast analogue, Brown speaks with even greater resolve and determination now that his state is the vanguard of the political opposition.
Brown and Raimondo’s words stood in contrast to the major state-level political story of the month: North Carolina’s GOP-dominated legislature and outgoing Republican governor, Pat McCrory, moved to ensure that Governor-elect Roy Cooper would have no power to turn the state into exactly this sort of progressive workshop. Other states with GOP supermajorities—such as Indiana, Kansas, Wisconsin—have rolled back reproductive rights, gutted labor unions, undermined the value of public education, and attempted to impose religious qualifications for marriage and public service.
Rhode Island and California, two radically different states, have a slim chance to drive the country as a whole in a different direction. But Raimondo and Brown are trying to draw even more people and ideas to their states. “Don’t move to Canada,” Raimondo said, “move to Rhode Island!” One imagines that some version of the Affordable Care Act might survive in these contexts, or that we could witness new and important investments in higher education, public health, and material infrastructure. Given the proximity of Massachusetts to Rhode Island, and Oregon to California, one imagines cross-state agreements about these same issues, meaningful legislative connections that strengthen commitments to new energy policies, sustainable infrastructure for mass transit, and environmental common sense.
Governors of deep blue states also need to create the kind of place where anyone—of any hue, religion, language group, age, or sex—might want to live. That isn’t just about jobs and quality of life, though those things matter. It is also about the presence of justice—not just living wages, affordable education, safe streets, and clean housing, but also the end of police militarization, the implementation of structural criminal justice reform, the arrival of service jobs with meaningful benefits, the restoration of downtrodden neighborhoods to something beyond “clean” and “safe,” and a vision of civil society we haven’t yet seen on the ground.
These are troublesome times; half-measures won’t do. These blue state laboratories must not become guardians of the status quo ante Trump. The goal here shouldn’t be some centrist Clintonian paradise, nor should it be to resurrect the vitalism of the 1950s and 1960s, engineered for an America that no longer exists anywhere but in the white supremacist dreamscapes of the right. It should be to imagine and build the best conceivable civic landscape for everyone in the state, to banish timidity to the margins, to challenge ourselves to move so swiftly and so powerfully in the direction of progress that we become a symbol of what this country—what any country—can be in an age of revolutionary global migrations, disinvestment from the public sphere, and ascendant racial and ethnic tribalism. These laboratories won’t simply hope for a better future; they’ll build it.