Sep 4, 2020
State capture refers to the idea that a set of organizations, businesses, and movements can capture a political office and dictate its agenda, decisions, and resource allocation to benefit their interests. Capturing state legislatures is especially effective because state governments – as opposed to the federal government – have control over significant aspects of our daily lives: taxes, minimum wage, health insurance, and administering elections.
Three powerful conservative organizations, commonly referred to as the troika, work in tandem to capture state legislatures: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the State Policy Network (SPN), and Americans for Prosperity (AFP). ALEC works with lawmakers directly to pass legislation it often writes and provides. SPN is a network of think tanks that works outside of government, creating reports, legislative testimony, and polling that champion conservative bills often created by ALEC. AFP operates like a political party with national, state, and local offices, all aimed at electing conservative lawmakers around the country.
Public policy can and does change politics. The troika has successfully promoted the adoption of so-called “right-to-work” laws, which weaken labor unions. These laws make it more difficult to unionize, collect dues, and support pro-labor candidates for office. In fact, they are a direct response to the unionization of public sector workers and their successful organizing, specifically the National Education Association in the 1960s-70s. Once anti-labor policies were in effect, it became easier for conservatives to continuously win elections and cement their political power.
Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is Associate Professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public affairs, where he studies the political economy of the United States, with a focus on the politics of organized interests, especially business and labor, and public policy.
His most recent book, State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States—and the Nation, examines how networks of conservative activists, donors, and businesses built organizations to successfully reshape public policy across the states and why progressives failed in similar efforts.
Hertel-Fernandez received his B.A. in political science from Northwestern University and his A.M. and Ph.D. in government and social policy from Harvard University.
You can follow him on Twitter @awh.