Last week, the U.S. Senate — a chamber charged with safeguarding the “national character” and resisting the “impulse of sudden and violent passions,” according to our founding fathers — voted to increase the defense budget by $80 billion. That’s enough money to pay for the elimination of tuition at four-year public universities in the United States, a reform that might benefit a system of higher education that, according to President Trump, currently leaves “our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.” (Who knows, maybe missiles and fighter jets can fix our national character and our schools.) This extraordinary surge in military spending passed by a comfortable margin, 89-8. An overwhelming majority of Democrats, even the ones who promised to “keep fighting back” and “stand with the people of the country” in the aftermath of Trump’s election, voted in favor of the budget.
Thankfully, we live in a federal republic; that means legislators in Washington, D.C. don’t wield a complete monopoly on the country’s future. Individual states have the power to chart their own course, even in defiance of the White House — and in the past couple of months, some have been vigorously exercising that power. Lawmakers in California have unveiled an ambitious regulatory agenda to strengthen environmental protections that the Trump administration may try to dismantle. And in April, New York announced a program to make the state’s public colleges and universities tuition-free. But California and New York are populous, wealthy states; in the Trump era, their flashy, large-scale, and expensive pushes toward long-standing progressive dreams are poor models for states closer to the mean.
That, my dear reader, is where Rhode Island enters the picture. As it turns out, there is a whole state — with a General Assembly, a governor and the fourth-largest domed marble building in the world for a State House! — beyond College Hill. Admittedly, it’s easy to overlook the happenings of the smallest state in the Union, but it’s worth our while to pay attention.
In the face of dysfunction and alt-right regress at the national level, Rhode Island is incontrovertible evidence that it doesn’t take an enormous tax base or garish promises to meaningfully enact a progressive agenda — one that actually makes a difference in the lives of average Americans.
Just this week, Gov. Gina Raimondo signed a bill that guarantees sick leave to 100,000 workers in Rhode Island starting in 2018. According to the new law, which benefits nine-in-10 working Rhode Islanders, workers in smaller firms will be entitled to three unpaid sick days per year; workers at larger companies will have access to five paid sick days by 2020. More impressive than the scope of the bill, though, is how it came to exist in the first place. A grassroots coalition of labor, healthcare and human rights advocates, organized by the left-leaning Working Families Party, used state and local elections to promulgate the importance of paid sick leave. As the Intercept reported, four WFP candidates, recruited for their progressive pedigree and commitment to paid leave policies, ran as Democrats and defeated right-leaning incumbents. By approaching local and state elections with energetic progressivism, activists were able to produce positive results for an entire state. It’s not black magic. Grassroots organizing wins votes, and that’s what Democrats — who are minorities in both chambers of Congress and at an all-time low in state legislatures — desperately need: votes.
Under Raimondo’s leadership, Rhode Island has also been on the frontlines in supporting immigrants and making college more affordable. (Full disclosure: I interned with the Governor’s office last fall; I was an awful intern — but I was a big fan, if that counts.) Last week, Raimondo revealed that Rhode Island had secured $170,000 to pay for the $495 fee that undocumented residents protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program need to extend their status. (Currently, 1,200 Rhode Island residents are recipients of DACA; up to 350 are eligible for status renewal.) And a few days ago, Raimondo celebrated the one-year anniversary of her plan to reduce the financial burden of college course materials, known as the Open Textbook Initiative. The College Board estimates that students at four-year public colleges spend nearly $1,200 annually on books; at Rhode Island College, the initiative has saved students close to $100,000 in 2016.
In the age of Trump, when a single tweet can upend the news cycle and maybe start a war or two, Rhode Island’s experience may appear insignificant. But it does offer crucial lessons for progressives across the country. For example, it seems wise to pursue incremental legislative change that will benefit people in the immediate term, as opposed to grander, less politically practical projects. That is, before we start clamoring for a single-payer healthcare system — which will require a dramatic overhaul of the country’s healthcare infrastructure and remains hopelessly unpopular among conservatives — we ought to make sure American workers have access to more basic benefits, like paid sick leave. (Before Rhode Island adopted them, only seven U.S. states and Washington, D.C. had paid leave policies in place.)
Of course, I can’t seriously pretend that Rhode Island’s recent policy initiatives, no matter how egalitarian, are going to magically compensate for Trump’s retrogressive proposals or deconstruct the impregnable grip of establishment politics. They won’t automatically give all Rhode Islanders easier access to college, healthier working conditions, or a better shot at surviving abrupt upheavals in immigration policy. They’re not easily replicable in other states. And they certainly won’t solve all of the state’s problems.
But, in totality, they do paint a picture of tremendous hope. Rhode Island has shown that it is possible, even for smaller states, to triumph over uncertainty and embrace a kinder, smarter sort of politics; and that it is possible, still, for people to come together, take care of each other and construct a more compassionate society. The fundamental precept of our democracy, that ordinary people can bring about extraordinary change, has not yet been extinguished. That is something Rhode Islanders — and all Americans who care about salvaging decency and dignity in our political culture — ought to be extremely proud of. True greatness, after all, comes from small beginnings. Or, in this case, from really, really small states.
Anuj Krishnamurthy can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.