Will Progressives Have to Fight for State’s Rights in 2017?

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It’s so predictable that it’s almost a joke: Republicans are against debt…unless there’s a Republican in the White House. Republicans are against foreign intervention…unless there’s a Republican in the White House. Republicans say they stand for state’s rights…

Well, you can figure out where this is going.

This morning, I read Justin Miller’s piece at the American Prospect about the “heartbeat” abortion bill that Republican legislators in Ohio are trying to pass.

In its lame-duck rush to push through a controversial legislative package, the Republican-controlled Ohio Legislature made headlines by passing the “heartbeat bill,” an oppressive—and likely unconstitutional—anti-abortion measure that, if signed by Republican Governor John Kasich, would be the most restrictive law in the country. But there was another harsh measure in the mix that flew under the radar: a measure that would force Ohio localities to comply with state minimum-wage regulations that top out at $8.10 an hour.

That minimum-wage measure is, of course, a giant middle finger to Cleveland workers’ attempts to get a $12 minimum wage on the ballot next year, and I think it’s a warning sign for all of us. Because the Fight for $15 has made such terrific strides in cities and states around the country—even in bright red states—it seems likely that Republicans at the state and federal level could very likely try to crack down on regional minimum wages in the year to come. Miller lists several recent attempts by state officials to preempt municipal attempts to ban plastic bags or provide paid sick leave, and it’s not hard to imagine a Republican Congress doing the same on a national level.

Please bear in mind that this is speculation. And also bear in mind that it’s easier said than done: any politician will tell you that it’s about ten thousand times easier to stop something from becoming law than it is to take a right or privilege away from someone. Try to take a minimum wage away from workers and you’ll see workers in the streets with signs and bullhorns in a hot second.

But progressives have seen such success in the years since 2000 on a local level—same-sex marriage, secure scheduling laws, minimum wage increases, gun responsibility—that conservatives will very likely try to do something to halt the progress. And now, with Republicans in control of the White House, Congress, and most state governments, we’re likely to see some attempts to hamper state and city rights to legislate themselves. Again, I don’t have any special knowledge of a sinister plot. It’s just common sense combined with a working knowledge of recent American political patterns.

Ohio looks like the first attempt to shut down progress before it happens. So it’s very likely to me that the next four years will see progressives become the state’s rights advocates, while Republicans argue for the importance of a strong central government. Protecting our right to improve our states and cities could very well be a major topic in the year ahead, and as we hunker down for the holidays and plan for 2017, we should think about the ways we can keep what’s ours and create a path for progress in our neighborhoods and counties.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.