For decades, the great project of American liberalism has been to transform the nation as a whole into a more equitable and tolerant place. Many of the leading U.S. foundations and biggest philanthropists have given billions to advance this vision.
But the results have been mixed at best, since a broad swath of white Americans have never embraced the liberal project, even as they’ve benefitted from it. Obamacare is a case in point. Like so many other Federal programs, one of its prime effects is to transfer wealth from affluent blue states to poorer red states. Yet red state voters fought this program fiercely from day one, and are now gleeful about its impending destruction.
So here’s an idea for funders and others: Forgot the dream of national progress, at least for now.
Instead, think blue.
On nearly every issue that progressive funders care about—inequality, climate change, workers’ rights, criminal justice reform, healthcare, etc.—there’s room to make huge gains by focusing mainly in blue states, capitalizing on the promise of federalism.
Let’s start with inequality. If you want to redistribute wealth, you don’t need to go through Washington to it. Right now, the biggest income disparities are in blue states, where much of the nation’s wealth generation occurs. California alone has more millionaires that nearly all the states Trump won combined.
Since funder-backed efforts to redistribute wealth through the federal government have hit a roadblock yet again, it makes sense to invest far more in fighting inequality within the blue states than funders have ever contemplated before. Even as federal taxes on the rich fall under Trump, funders can back efforts to raise taxes on these same earners at the state and local levels, with new revenues used to promote economic opportunity and security. Meanwhile, backing changes to state-level labor laws—especially hikes in the minimum wage, with four more states voting to do exactly that on Tuesday—can also deliver big gains to lower income groups.
Producing most of the nation’s wealth, blue states have all the resources they need to build the kind of equitable society progressives want.
What about all the poor people stranded in the red states, especially in communities of color? That’s a concern, for sure. But actually, the most concentrated poverty in America can found in the urban areas of blue states and much of the fast growing Latino population—a group we urgently need to invest in—also live in blue states. If progressives are only able to make gains fighting inequality in these states, that would be huge.
In practice, this strategy would mean shifting philanthropic dollars away from national organizations working on equity to build up a much larger state- and local-level policy infrastructure. New York State is a great example where this approach could yield dividends. It’s a blue state with tremendous wealth and also many millions of poor people. Yet it’s a laggard when it comes to enacting policies for greater equity. State-level progressive groups in New York are famously weak and under-resourced. New funding could make a big difference, here.
On the other seminal issue of our time, climate change, a state and local strategy also offers some real hope, along with additional approaches that don’t hinge on Federal policy. California, the second-largest carbon emitter, has shown the way here, moving aggressively on its own for years to reduce greenhouse gases. Other states and regions have also moved to reduce emissions, often with foundations catalyzing this work, as we’ve reported at IP. What’s more, even before Obama gave greater powers to the EPA, funder-backed efforts to shut down coal-powered plants were scoring many victories, including in red states. With enough resources for litigation and activism, those victories may continue.
Cities are also critical in this fight. A great amount of carbon emissions come from urban areas that tend to be Democratic, even if they are in red states. Efforts to reduce greenhouse gases at the municipal level, work that some funders have backed, have shown much promise, and again, don’t depend on Washington to act. Also, changes in individual behavior everywhere, whether it’s putting solar panels on one’s roof or buying an electric car, can add up in a big way. Environmental education, now a small priority of green funders, could accelerate these shifting norms.
Overall, far larger investments by funders toward state and local actions, as well as new strategies to change individual behavior, could produce major gains on climate change that can offset the grievous setbacks that will occur at the federal level under Trump.
We’ve repeatedly argued in the past that climate change funders need to invest far more money than they are currently providing, even if means dipping into endowments. Now that imperative is greater than ever, and there are plenty of arenas where this heightened giving could make a difference no matter who controls Washington.
A third area where plenty of progress can still be made is criminal justice reform. Remember, states and localities hold most of the power, here, and right now, blue states incarcerate huge numbers of people of color. Rolling back draconian policies in just these states alone in coming years would be a historic victory. The rapid gains in marijuana legalization, with California just joining in, gives a sense of how dramatic progress can be made here. Of course, philanthropists like George Soros played a huge role in making that happen.
Finally, let me wrap up by mentioning education—also historically a province of states and localities. Blue states now have some of the most segregated schools in the nation, with this pattern closely tracking with residential segregation. We’ve often argued that funders can do much more to challenge this area of structural racism, and coming years would be a good time to ramp up such work.
Higher education is an even more promising area where funding new policy and advocacy work could yield gains. In many blue states, tuition at public universities has soared amid budget cutbacks. Millions of low-income kids in these states struggle to afford college. You don’t need to go through Washington to address this college access problem. You need to go through state capitals, and funders can foster the citizen power to do that.
I’m not saying that the great liberal project of national progress is forever dead. But it’s been a tough sell for a long time to many voters, and now is a good moment for funders to shift gears and invest heavily in a different strategy. There are plenty of problems to solve in the more liberal parts of this nation, and plenty of resources with which to solve those problems, given the wealth of these states.
The beauty of federalism is that there’s always a path forward in America.