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A Checkerboard Strategy for Regaining the Progressive Initiative

Checkerboard laid out for a game

Does the successful checkerboard strategy provide a model for future activism?

President Obama is Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” – the first Democratic president to receive two consecutive popular-vote majorities since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yet these are clearly tough times for progressives. Everything progressives have fought for is seemingly on the chopping block nationally, and in many states and cities. Programs are being cut; public assets are being sold off; school teachers are losing their jobs; unions are being attacked; pension and health care benefits are being slashed – even Social Security is being challenged.

Progressives, in short, remain on the defensive.

No one would deny that defense is important. But even as every effort must be made to hold the line, how, specifically, might it be possible to regain the political initiative?

History suggests one powerful strategy – one that begins by getting clear about the checkerboard of power, and its possibilities.

Washington may be stalemated. But Washington is not the only space on the political checkerboard. The American system of federalism allows for political initiatives that can take the offense across a range of scales and locations, and politics involves many different squares on the board. Some are currently blocked, but others may be open for doing something interesting. A serious checkerboard strategy may also open the way to national solutions as well.

The steady city-by-city, state-by-state Progressive Era buildup to national women’s suffrage offers one well-known example of a checkerboard offensive. Another involved the state-by-state buildup of work and safety regulations prior to the New Deal. In more recent times, numerous places on the checkerboard have demonstrated how progress on social issues can be made as well, square by square, over time, even in a very conservative era.

Prior to 2004, for instance, no state in the nation allowed same-sex marriage. Today, less than ten years later, same-sex marriage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. Moreover, broader public opinion is slowly turning in favor of equal rights for same-sex couples. Step-by-step, further progress is all but certain.

Similarly, fed up with the harsh repercussions of the failed drug war, a majority of Americans now favor legalization or decriminalization of marijuana – and two states on the checkerboard, Colorado and Washington, recently voted in favor of legalization. (Many more already permit the use of medical marijuana).

Along with such highly visible successes on social issues, just below the surface of public awareness numerous important economic and institutional advances have long been developing in cities and states occupying different squares on the board. Although the increasingly hobbled national press rarely covers state and local issues, the advances include little noticed progressive policies in support of cooperatives and worker-owned firms, public- and neighborhood-owned land development, public power and internet delivery, new environmentally sustainable energy strategies and even public enterprise, including publicly-owned health care facilities.

Numerous additional policies operating in various parts of the country also could be turned to progressive advantage and expanded over time – if there were a clear strategic determination to do so (and a lot of hard work). Among others, these include: municipal investing strategies, state venture capital investing, pension and retirement fund investing, move-your-money and bank-transfer efforts, land and mineral revenues for public benefit and municipal methane-capture efforts. On a larger scale, public banking efforts similar to the Bank of North Dakota and progressive health care reforms similar to those recently adopted in Vermont are being pursued in dozens of states.

What is striking about the new range of possibilities is that most also introduce the concept of democratizing wealth ownership into practical and political reality. [cont’d.]

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