On Jan. 10, 1776, impassioned Americans - from the streets of the Colonies to private meetings in taverns - were moved by an anonymous pamphlet calling for independence and liberty from Great Britain. Today it is recognized as one of the most important rallying cries leading up to the Revolutionary War, and we know it as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
Eleven years after its publication, in 1787, the cries for liberty were answered when the Founding Fathers wrote and America ratified the U.S. Constitution, a living document to outline and protect our freedoms and liberties. And now in 2021, 245 years after the first distribution of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, newly elected officials across the states dive into the first sessions of the year, prepared to prioritize the values our country was first founded on.
Americans in 1776 were sure that local control and decision making would be the foundation of a successful society. It’s still true today. In 2020, voters everywhere rediscovered the important work of our state and local leaders, and asserted at the voting booths that they prefer principled leadership that is close to home.
And many of the recently elected state leaders have already begun to set their policy priorities for 2021 - to advance the principles of individual liberty and free enterprise, which have proven to create an environment for strong and resilient state economies, workforces, schools and health care systems.
How do we know this? Because 2020 put every state to the test. Those that prioritized liberty and fiscal restraint survived the impacts of the global health crisis with the least amounts of consequence.
For decades, organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have worked in tandem with principled state leaders on educational resources and model policy. No state looks or operates the same. Providing opportunities for state legislators to discover policies that worked - or didn’t work - in a state makes room for the tried-and-true policy solutions that best fit its people. Simply put, it invests in federalism, which is exactly what our Founding Fathers did all those years ago.
2020 inspired innovation across the states in the private sector, whether it was PPE manufacturing, vaccine development or keeping our workforce and schools connected during bouts of virtual working and learning. In our state legislatures, it inspired innovative solutions to issues like broadband and telehealth access in rural communities and keeping business safely open.
And from what we’ve seen so far, 2021 policy priorities will only build on this momentum. Last month, hundreds of state legislators virtually convened to map out the road to building states stronger in the year to come. Discussions ranged from COVID-19 vaccine deployment, balanced state budgets and returning students to a safe and effective classroom.
The takeaway? There is a mandate in the states, and our local leaders are ready to serve.
When we empower local control and say “no thanks” to big, distant government, we encourage the innovation and decision making of our state legislators, industry leaders and partners. American voters chose federalism in 2021, and I know that state legislatures are prepared to answer similar calls for liberty that were heard in our Colonies more than two centuries ago.
On January 10, 1776, Thomas Paine made a public declaration of the threat a distant and overruling power brings when it does not have the ability to address the needs of its communities. These threats to liberty look different today, sometimes even within our own government. They may always exist - especially in times of crisis. But it is exactly why Americans across the states voted for federalism, local control and state leadership in 2020.
It’s exactly why American vigor, strength and hope await us in 2021.
Nelson is the chief executive office of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization bringing state legislators and stakeholders together to develop public policy beneficial to the free market and individual liberty.