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Marriage Equality Victories Show How Change Happens, One Step at a Time

Before 2004, no state allowed same-sex marriage. Today, it’s legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia. If you want to see how political progress is made, look to the local level.

In many areas, progressives feel blocked and on the defensive. But there are, in fact, far more open spaces on the political checkerboard than we often consider. The American system allows for political initiatives that can take the offensive across a range of scales and locations. Some squares on the board are currently closed, but others may be open for doing something interesting. A serious checkerboard strategy could lead to longer-term national solutions as well.

The city-by-city, state-by-state Progressive Era buildup to national women’s suffrage offers a 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 10 years later, same-sex marriage is legal in 11 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, Colorado and Washington, recently voted in favor of legalization. (Many more already permit the use of medical marijuana.)

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

Numerous additional policies operating in various parts of the country could also 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.

Even more important—as the long developing pre- history of women’s fight for the vote, the long developing pre-history of the New Deal, and now the developing state- by-state changes in connection with same-sex marriage and marijuana all suggest—much larger national change is likely ultimately to build upon the experience developed by local and state work done now, square by square, across the national checkerboard.

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