Forget just 50 states; Democrats need a 3,141-county strategy
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After a gut-pounding defeat, progressives are asking themselves, what's next?

While there are a lot of questions worth asking, here is a number to remember: 3,141.

That is the number of counties in the United States.

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After the reelection of President George W. Bush in 2004, Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean promoted a 50-state strategy. After victories in 2006 and 2008, though, Democrats turned to governing. Progressive think-tanks proposed federal laws, regulations and legal strategies. They focused almost completely on Washington. There was some investment by progressives in organizing, mostly “base-building” in cities.

Bad idea.

Conservative organizations have been building power in the states for a generation. Without urban centers to count on, they have built power county by county. This is a superior strategy.

Not all voters are equal. The Founders gave extra clout to rural people when they wrote the Constitution. The Senate tilts power to voters in small rural states. The House packs urban liberal voters into single member districts, diluting their power. And the Electoral College ... well, both 2000 and 2016 show what that can do.

Getting more votes in the United States doesn't guarantee victory. You need the right votes in the right places.

Which is awful. Majority rule is a core principle of democracy.

It's no surprise that reformers want to fight for it now. Many want the Electoral College abolished. Some even dream of multi-member House districts. But these dreams put the cart before the horse. People who hold power are not going to sign-off on reforms that take their power away.

And that brings us to 3,141. Conservatives have been running a bona-fide 3,141-county strategy for years. Progressives need to do so, too. A well-organized movement cuts turf, assigning different counties to different organizations. Organizations that do well get rewarded with more funding and more turf. Organizations that don't get the job done lose funding.

Conservatives get this. The National Rifle Association (NRA) organizes in pretty much every county in the United States. So does the anti-abortion movement. And the ultra-right Koch brothers network funds Americans for Prosperity and other grassroots groups that work county by county across the nation.

In the states, as Theda Skocpol and Alex Hertel Fernandez have shown, conservatives put together ideas, elite relationships and on-the-ground organizing muscle. The State Policy Network supplies ideas and evidence for conservative policies. The American Legislative Council, ALEC, links right-leaning lawmakers to conservative and corporate lobbyists. And Americans for Prosperity brings county-by-county power to issues like fighting Medicaid expansion and to elections.

A 3,141-county strategy includes, of course, a 50-state strategy. A majority vote in a state can elect a governor, but you need to work the counties to win real power in the states. After all, state legislatures, not governors, write laws. And, at least most of the time, state legislatures draw congressional district lines.

Even before the 2016 election, the 3,141-county strategy was bearing fruit for conservatives. The GOP controlled the House and the Senate, along with the vast majority of state houses yet.

In recent years, recognizing the problem, the progressive movement has begun to play catch-up. They have a long way to go.

Yet liberals and progressives are far from the only groups who need a 3,141-county strategy.

In this polarized nation, civil society needs a 3,141-county strategy. So do environmentalists, immigration reform proponents, feminists, racial justice fighters and disability rights advocates.

Bipartisan and nonpartisan movements also need to work in 3,141 counties. Universities and college professors who want policies to be based on research and evidence need to work in 3,141 counties, too.

For too long, too many Americans have focused on national fixes. It's time to get local, and 3,141 is a good start.

Or, if you want to be aggressive, think about building in every municipality. There are about 30,000.

Green is the executive director of the Scholars Strategy Network.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.