Donald Trump's presidency has been a disaster, but he has succeeded beyond his wildest expectations in one key way: getting attention – attention that fills the void where the rest of us have a soul.
The bad news for the rest of us is Trump isn't going away anytime soon. But the good news is that it's not only possible but crucial to pay less attention to the president. That's because fighting back against Trumpism doesn't begin at the top, with Trump himself. It begins with winning back the state legislatures that draw electoral maps and make the rules that shape elections.
Yes, state legislatures are a tough topic to get excited about. Most voters cannot even name their state reps. Yet when we think about some of the worst developments in modern politics – voter suppression, purged voter rolls, ruthless gerrymandering, abortion restrictions, Neanderthal educational policies, brutal sentencing and policing "reforms" – they emanate not from D.C., but from state capitols. Right now Democrats control 31 of 98 partisan state legislative chambers nationwide.
Read that again. That's less than one in three. That's not lagging behind – that's getting blown the hell out.
Of course the most regressive parts of the right-wing agenda will become reality when Republicans control state legislatures this lopsidedly. Trump is increasingly the focal point of politics on the left, but he is not the one who stacked the deck in favor of the right over the past two decades. Republican success at every level is built upon control of state legislatures that dictate essential aspects of elections.
How long is the early voting period? Will mail-in or absentee ballots be easy to acquire? How strict is the voter ID requirement? When is the registration deadline? Can felons and ex-felons vote? Are voting locations convenient, and do they have sufficient equipment? How will votes be counted and verified? Don't look to Trump or Congress for answers to any of these critical questions. The GOP uses state-level power to answer them, and has effectively suppressed the vote in recent elections.
Then there's the matter of redistricting. The 2010 Republican victory was both overwhelming and well-timed for the party. Between 2010 and 2012, GOP-dominated redistricting tilted the electoral landscape in Republicans' favor. Redistricting after 2020 will follow the same lamentable trajectory if Democrats cannot make inroads in state houses. In the era of Big Data and geographic information systems, redistricting is a precise science, not an art. The party that controls the process can put its thumb on the scale for a decade.
Institutions matter more than policy in the short run, but it's worth remembering that loosening the GOP stranglehold on state legislatures will also produce policy benefits in areas like education, the administration and distribution of social programs (food stamps, unemployment benefits, public health programs) and criminal justice issues. Some of the things coming out of state legislatures make Paul Ryan look like Trotsky. These are not abstractions, but matters of life and death for many people.
So what can be done?
The payoff of being politically active simply is greater in down-ballot races. House and Senate races are of course important, but the marginal benefit of adding one more volunteer to those campaigns is small compared to what an activist can contribute to a local race. Throwing your donation and evening volunteering hours into the miasma of money and noise that is a modern congressional race is like spitting into the ocean. In a local race, the time and money you can donate will be much more impactful. Knocking on doors and speaking to a few hundred voters on behalf of an unknown candidate in a state assembly primary could make a real difference.
It goes without saying, of course, that Trump matters. His nihilistic brand of politics is a real threat to millions of Americans. Resisting his dangerous agenda remains essential. However, there is a downside to paying so much attention to Trump and so little to less sensational parts of the system. So maybe today, instead of reading a 50th story about Trumpian antics (spoiler alert: He did a stupid thing because he is a stupid person), research who's running or considering running in your state Senate and House elections. Is there a progressive challenger you could support in the primaries? Turnout in midterm election primaries is very low. Getting involved at that stage can make a real difference.
The "midterm loss" phenomenon and the colossal embarrassment that the Trump presidency has been suggest that Democratic candidates will have the wind at their backs in 2018. The timing is perfect to get serious about down-ballot races and start chipping away at the dominant position Republicans hold in state capitols across the country.
Donald Trump is not the problem with the GOP; he is the symptom of the party's top-to-bottom absence of principles and willingness to manipulate rules. If progressives focus exclusively on Trump, that makes it easier it is for Republicans at other levels to push their loathsome agenda forward. So give it a shot: Try paying a bit less attention to the loud-mouthed clown and a lot more to the low-key races that will determine control of America's electoral future. The country will be better off for it.