From Narrow Base Building to Building Majoritarian Power
We cannot win, wield and sustain governing power without majorities. Yet, in our work as organizers, we often do not strive to build majoritarian power. To do so requires three shifts in our current approach: 1) building base to lead a constituency, 2) building a multi-racial working class majority and 3) forging alliances to change the political conditions.
Building Base to Lead a Constituency
A hard fact about our movement’s approach to base building is that we do more mobilizing than organizing. As a result, we are nowhere near the scale of power we need to advance a governing agenda. Too often, an organizer recruits a grassroots volunteer to join an organization’s campaign by asking them to speak on behalf of others or to fulfill a shift on the doors. Occasionally, they might be allowed to make minor decisions about the direction of the campaign itself. But at the conclusion of the campaign, the volunteers find another campaign to join and our organizing is back to square one. We don’t hold onto our members, who are the basis of our organization’s power.
Another limit on many of our organizing models is that we have often prioritized developing leaders as representative voices for our communities, rather than aiming to develop leaders who are organizing others in their communities to act effectively for change. As a result, we have built organizations that can advocate to people in positions of formal power, but we have not built the constituency-wide power we need to shift the terrain of power itself. A workers’ organization that focuses on lobbying elected officials to change policy is operating in a different realm of power than a workers’ organization that has built enough constituent power to determine who gets into office.
To shift toward building base to lead a constituency, organizers can take these steps:
- Assessing your organization’s reach into its constituency. How many people are in the constituency that you organize? What percentage of the constituency can your organization reach? What percentage of the constituency will reliably follow your organization into action?
- Setting goals with your members for how many people they will organize and lead into action in concert with your organization’s mission and campaigns.
Building a Multi-Racial Working Class Majority
As we strive to organize and lead our own constituencies, we also need to connect with other organizations and constituencies to build a multi-racial working class majority. While leading an entire constituency represents an almost unprecedented scale of power for most of our organizations, it is not nearly enough to win real governing power; that requires cross-constituency power with people of different racial, social, economic, gender and geographic backgrounds who see a common interest in working together.
It is no small feat, for example, to build power in both urban Black and Brown communities and in suburban and rural communities with poor and working class whites. But it will be necessary if we want to build lasting governing power at the state and federal level. Building a multi-racial working class majority that can decide electoral outcomes, establish new narratives and sustain our agenda means that many of us will have to set aside our instincts toward ideological and political purity in order to honor and overcome differences.
To shift toward building majoritarian power across constituencies, organizers can take these steps:
- Researching the demographics of your state and assessing what constituencies can add up to a governing majority.
- Prioritizing campaigns that build new power, bring in new constituencies and foster cross-constituency relationships to grow.
- Building alliances that enable your organization to develop a strategic division of labor to organize across constituencies and geographies.
Forging Alliances to Change Political Conditions
If we are going to build multi-constituency majoritarian power, we will need to consider building alliances that transcend the limits of issue coalitions. We often build these coalitions to demonstrate broad support for an issue or candidate and to win short-term victories. Organizations usually join them knowing that they will concede some amount of control and creativity in return for the increased impact that is possible when more allies step forward on a campaign they care about. Coalitions are often meant to navigate the existing political landscape, but they are rarely designed to change it.
In several states, longer-term strategic alignment processes have taken root, seeking to change the political terrain. These processes, or alignment tables, are made up of power-building organizations that represent different constituencies, and who share strategic analyses and practices for building popular power and winning campaigns. These tables are focused more on building power and shared infrastructure than they are on winning short-term outcomes. Alignment tables are a place where allies practice building political unity, develop shared power analysis, and envision and lead broader strategies that aggregate and expand power.
Alignment tables can play an important role in building a multi-racial working class majority voting bloc at a state level. Specifically, alignment tables provide a space for organizers who have built a deep base in their own constituencies to think about building a majoritarian bloc that transcends their constituency and geography. For example, power-building organizations that are rooted primarily in urban communities of color have used their alignment tables to develop a strategic division of labor to build bases in suburban communities of color or predominantly white, working class rural areas. Two examples:
- In New York state, the alignment table is made up of power-building organizations that are predominantly based in New York City, who share a theory of change that the power base for progressive change in the state is a combination of communities of color in the New York metropolitan regions together with communities of color in smaller cities across the state. The New York alignment table provided one space where these organizations could think together about complementary approaches to expansion into smaller cities in Long Island, the Hudson Valley, and Western and Central New York.
- When the Florida for All alignment table started in 2014, their member organizations only had meaningful infrastructure in two urban areas: Miami and Orlando. They recognized that, if they were going to build towards governing power in the state, they needed to build power across issue areas, constituencies and geographic regions. So they invested in geographic expansion: Florida for All member organizations are now building bases in 35 of Florida’s 67 counties, including Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville and Tampa as well as many rural counties. Additionally, the table invested in staffing for coalitions in six regions of the state (with two more on deck), allowing their alignment to have a locally attuned “micro-geographical” approach to its issue and electoral campaigns. Florida for All has also invested in building issue tables addressing criminal justice reform, housing justice, preemption, budgeting and revenue. Finally, the table has created several constituency tables to ensure that different communities can build cohesion and power, including a Black Alignment Group, Florida Para Todos (a Latino Constituency table), and an Asian and Pacific Islander table along with Faith in Florida’s work to cohere faith leaders across the state and some efforts at building a table of youth organizations. This investment in building the infrastructure needed to build multi-constituency and multi-geography power is an important part of the power that the Florida for All table has built over the years.
Alignment tables look different in different places, but some common characteristics include:
- A small membership of select organizations that represent different constituencies and share strategic analyses and practices for building popular power and winning campaigns. Trust is at a premium, and power, credit and resources are negotiated and shared by members of the alignment table.
- There is a shared commitment to strengthening each member organization’s capacity, and often intentional work is done to support or incubate emergent organizations, especially in under-resourced communities and sectors, such as Black, Indigenous, and youth organizing. There is also a diversity of organizational forms, such as 501c(3)s, 501c(4)s, PACs, LLCs, and volunteer organizations that allow the alignment to access the tools, resources and protections that it needs.
- The public leadership of alignment table members is seen as primary, over that of the table itself, and groups encourage each other to lead publicly. Some alignment tables are not even publicly-known entities.
- The short-term campaigns of alignment tables are designed to advance the table’s transformative vision and to overcome the structural barriers that stand in the way.