From Winning One-Off Elections to Developing Independent Political Infrastructure and Co-governing
As organizers, we are so accustomed to resisting people in power that we often can’t help but see people in public office as anything other than targets. In our electoral work, we’ve also tended to cede too much control to the Democratic Party and its independent affiliates, many of whose members do not share our deeper agenda. These dynamics mean that we can confuse access to people in positions of power with the ability to actually influence them. We need to step back and ask, “What kind of relationship do we want with our allies in public office in the first place? What is our role to play in the political process, and what is theirs?”
To advance our governing agenda, we cannot treat public officials solely as opponents. It’s also insufficient to see anyone with “Democrat” behind their name as supportive of our goals. While we certainly need to be able to win general elections against conservatives, we also have to cultivate strong, mutually-accountable relationships with people in positions of authority who share our deeper agenda. This means remaining clear-eyed about the exceedingly limited political terrain that these public officials must navigate within the current system.
The first step toward building these kinds of strategic relationships is to create independent political infrastructure that is controlled by, and accountable to, our organizations. That work starts by engaging in direct electoral work, including forming 501(c)4s, political parties, political action committees and other formations that are extensions of our organizational vision. While these structures must be legally separate from 501(c)3s or other strictly nonpartisan entities, they should still be part of the same overall strategy to build governing power.
Second, we need to shift the role of our grassroots organizations from ground troops to strategists in our electoral fights. Right now, many of the organizations that engage in direct electoral work rely on the Democratic Party or its independent affiliates, like America Votes, to recruit and develop candidates, manage voter data and determine what to say to voters. But while our short-term goals will sometimes overlap with theirs, at some point our long-term goals will diverge. The Democratic Party exists for the transactional purpose of electing Democrats to office. Period. We, on the other hand, exist to make and sustain transformational change. Instead of depending on the Democratic Party for strategy and infrastructure, we will have to build the power to negotiate with it directly. Our role is to create and maintain control of our own electoral strategy, to broker the relationships we need to reach our goals and to claim credit for our work so that we can build stronger, mutually-accountable relationships with public officials.
Third, we need to adopt a co-governing approach when working with our elected officials. Instead of treating election day as the moment of victory and the job of an elected official as “delivering” on our agenda, we can learn to include the tenure of our champion’s time in office in the timeline of what it will take to win our potential victory. That means that we need to shed a deeply-held idea in community organizing that elected officials are separate from us as a movement. We can do that by asking ourselves questions like, “If we elect this champion, how will we work together to advance our shared agenda? What is the political terrain our elected ally will find herself in and what can we do to help shape a more favorable terrain? What is her role as an elected official and what is our role as a community organization?”
To co-govern and build independent political infrastructure, organizers can take a number of steps, including:
- Assessing the track record, leadership, capacity and financial backing of your state’s Democratic party and other broad-based progressive political formations. Looking for openings to influence the Democratic party or to expose oppositional corporate forces who are working to influence them.
- Assessing the gaps in independent political infrastructure between your alignment table partners and filling them. Examples of infrastructure that might be needed include shared data infrastructure, narrative and communications capacity, research capacity and more.
- Asking strong leaders in your organization to run for public office.
- Supporting the elected officials you have chosen with research, communications, strong campaigns or administrative staff.
- Supporting the elected officials you have chosen in the process of building coalitions with other elected leaders. Staying responsive to the other capacities that they need to be successful once they are in office.