The inability of a Florida jury to convict Jordan Davis' killer of murder is mostly a reflection of the white supremacy that holds the lives of young black men in low esteem. (Others, such as friend of the blog Chauncey DeVega, have articulated this fact well.) However, that verdict was abetted and given legal cover by the "Stand Your Ground" doctrine in Florida. That law is the result of a fearsome change going on in state governments around the country.
Radical reactionaries and their monied paymasters have realized that their ideology has become so noxious to the majority of the population that they cannot get one of their number in the White House, and their preferred candidates often have a hard time getting elected to national office. (Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are the exceptions that prove the rule established by Todd Akin, Christine O'Donnell, and Sharron Angle.) Instead they have leveled their sights on statehouses, where off-year elections for many state offices mean low-turnouts. With fewer voters at the polls, the voice of an extreme faction can be amplified by a concerted get out the vote campaign. Billionaires like the Koch brothers can get a Scott Walker or Rick Snyder in office at discount rates, then sit back while labor laws are gutted, knee capping their most powerful opponents in the process.
America's antiquated federalist system gives state governments a surprising amount of power, even over issues that touch on fundamental rights. States decide who gets to vote and how, which has led to several laws banning felons from voting, requiring ID, and reducing early voting opportunities. The intent behind these laws is pretty obvious. These actions have now been given legal sanction by the Supreme Court striking down parts of the Voting Rights Act, driven by the "states rights" orientation of chief justice Roberts. States also have a great deal of control over education, which allows the Bobby Jindals of the world to privatize public education and give state money to religious institutions.
In recent weeks the power that state-level reactionaries hold has become sickeningly apparent. The Kansas House has passed a horrible bill that would make it legal for businesses to discriminate against gays and to give legal cover for employers who fire workers based on their orientation. The Jordan Davis case has shown yet again how Stand Your Ground can be used to let killers get away with murder. The state of Arkansas is moving to end its "private option" Medicaid expansion and deprive hundreds of thousands of its own citizens of health care. The state legislature in Arizona has voted to nullify the EPA and make federal officials answer to local sheriffs. In Florida polling places have eliminated in areas with large populations of people of color.
The hold that radical reactionaries have on so many state houses does not look like it will change anytime soon. As the state-level attacks on Obamacare have proven, federalism can be manipulated to blunt and frustrate reform, just as the Senate can be filibustered. The reactionaries also have a massive propaganda machine on their side, in terms of Fox News and talk radio. The political culture in places like my Nebraska hometown has been completely altered from conservative yet still public-minded (I grew up with well funded schools, libraries, and parks) to batshit-crazy radical reactionary.
I am at least heartened by the fact that bona fide progressives like Bill de Blasio have been elected to important local offices, and are pushing unabashedly progressive agendas. If national change is impossible in the capital and whatever does happen gets shredded by state-level reactionaries, progressives need to organize locally and start building from the bottom up. They also need to stop being ashamed of themselves. DeBlasio's election prompted all kinds of hand-wringing about a progressive mayor of New York City, one of the most liberal cities in the country. Wouldn't that just be natural? We take the fact that Texas barfs up the likes of Perry and Cruz at face value, but somehow a liberal from a liberal place is an extremist.
In the aftermath of Citizens United and the ability of wealthy puppet masters to buy local elections, I don't hold out much hope for a reaction against the reactionaries in places like Kansas, despite its more moderate political past. (Perhaps things can change in Wisconsin and Michigan, but the damage may already be done.) However, states like New York, Massachusetts, and California can offer models that include more rights for workers, more educational opportunity, and a more humane way of life. My heart goes out to my marginalized friends in Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Nebraska. I hope that their fight to roll back the reactionaries succeeds, but in the meantime lets give them a better alternative to point to.