“I need to ask a second question,” Liz Jaff said, “and it’s not going to work well with the lighting.”
The 31-year-old head of business development for Crowdpac, the political crowdfunder, was on stage at the Lincoln Theater in Washington, D.C., on Saturday night, squinting into a dark audience of liberal lawyers and progressive activists gathered for the Rise Above conference—a strategy session for the left to convert the energy behind the day’s expectations-shattering Women’s March into practical political resistance and revival under President Donald Trump.
Jaff, though, wanted everyone to understand how Democrats got here: devastated at the local, state, and national level.
“Please put up your hand if you donated to the presidential race,” Jaff said to the audience.
Someone at the lighting board gave the crowd a purple glow, revealing the majority of hands in the air.
“That’s beautiful,” she said. “Keep it up if you gave to a senatorial race. Keep it up if you gave to a congressional race. Keep it up if you gave to a state senate race. State rep? City council?”
Jaff pointed at those who hadn’t raised their hands.
“Look around,” she said. “You guys wanna build a bench? You’re not doing it the right way.”
If Rise Above was any indication, the time has come to frighten and shame Democrats into devoting more energy and resources to down-ticket races. The party must rebuild itself from the ground up, providing a path for new young talent. But it must also focus on the local level for more immediate reasons: to stop emboldened Republicans in the Trump era.
“[W]e’re three statehouses away from them being able to pass constitutional amendments, and that should terrify us as attorneys—terrify us,” Courtney Madden of the New Leaders Council told the conference crowd.
Many Americans are already terrified by conservative aggression at the state level, whether it’s the anti-trans bathroom law in North Carolina, anti-union “right to work” policies across the country, or the gutting of voting rights to suppress minority turnout. Mark Schauer, the former Democratic representative from Michigan, reminded Rise Above that these initiatives “don’t just drop out of the sky.”
“They’re passed by Republican majority legislatures and signed by Republican governors in gerrymandered states,” he said.
GOP gerrymandering has given Republicans a clear advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Democrats need to grasp that state legislators draw those congressional districts, Schauer said. He’s working with former President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder on their newly formed National Democratic Redistricting Committee, and he urged the crowd to join him in “taking the fight to the states.”
“I think that as progressives we have had tendency really since the founding and certainly since the Civil War to focus on the federal governments as where positive change happens,” said Sam Munger of the Madison, Wisonsin-based State Innovation Exchange, a group that’s trying to dispel this notion. “If you think about states’ rights, the civil rights movement—the states were reactionary agents of opposing change, and the federal government was the white knight.”
Now that Democrats’ white knight has left the White House, giving way to a unified Republican government, perhaps the party needs less convincing than ever to focus on the states: It doesn’t really have any other choice.