For stricken Democrats, a glimmer of hope

Inauguration -

These are dark days for the Democrats. For the first time since Dwight D Eisenhower sat in the White House, their party finds itself comprehensively shut out of power in Washington. Although they suffered worse electoral defeats against Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, even then they managed to keep control of at least one house of Congress. Now they have nothing; what are they to do?

At first glance the future looks gloomily defensive: if they stick together in the Senate they should probably have enough votes to frustrate some of the Republicans' wilder dreams and, conceivably, to block some of George W Bush's crazier Supreme Court nominees. It doesn't seem much of a platform on which to build an election-winning revival. But that is not the end of the story, for the American left is not without other avenues and - if the left seizes them - arguments to advance its agenda and cause mischief for the right along the way.

As Michelle Goldberg of the online magazine argued recently: "Having lost any say in how the nation is run, liberals may be about to discover states' rights . . . While Democrats have rarely had less power on a national level, they will still be major players in cities and states." Indeed, the opportunity to build opposition within the states is genuinely promising. Goldberg points out that even while Bush was heading for re-election and bars on gay marriage were being endorsed in a number of states, several important progressive initiatives were being passed at state level.

Voters in California, for instance, backed a proposition to allocate $3bn of state funding to embryonic stem-cell research - a departure from the policies of the Bush administration, which has acted to limit such research. In Florida and Nevada, two states which voted for Bush, the electorates endorsed a $1 increase in the minimum wage (again, despite opposition by the federal administration). Another Bush-voting state, Colorado, passed a measure requiring state utilities to get 10 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015.

The environment is shaping up as a flashpoint between some more progressive states and the notoriously anti-green Bush administration. California has joined other states in a lawsuit designed to force the administration to declare that carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, is a pollutant. This would oblige Bush to do what he has steadfastly refused to do: curb carbon-dioxide emissions. California has also just announced detailed rules to enforce a 2002 law requiring large cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions from cars, and despite attempts by Bush to challenge the law, seven other states seem poised to follow California's lead.

The administration's attitude to the car emissions law, its attempts to challenge California's medical marijuana law and Oregon's assisted suicide law in the Supreme Court, and its proposed Federal Marriage Amendment (which tries to regulate an area that has hitherto been the preserve of the states) all point up a paradox. Throughout the 20th century it has been the role of conservatives to defend the rights of states in the face of overweening federal governments. They used these arguments when opposing F D Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s, and the same language animated the philosophies of Strom Thurmond, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

Here is the Democrats' opportunity for the next four years. Across America, it is in the states that progressive goals are being realised: in Vermont, with its universal healthcare for children; in Wisconsin, where childcare is now an entitlement for low-income working families; in Connecticut, which is about to join Vermont in passing civil unions for same-sex couples. As the federal government has widened the scope of the death penalty over the past decade, some states have been moving in the opposite direction: like Illinois, where the previous Republican governor famously imposed a moratorium and commuted scores of sentences.

Progressives must be wary. They must, for example, avoid arguments that appear to abandon to their fate the poor and minorities in conservative states. None the less, by challenging Bush's "big-government conservatism" at state level, Democrats can both do some good and, perhaps, sow some confusion among those who were once rather keener on states' rights than they now appear.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Coronation, Texas-style