Building Governing Power Within the Multiple Arenas of Decision-Making

Below builds on Changing States: A Framework for Progressive Governance (Pastor, Ito, and Wander 2016), with the intent of making it more actionable for organizers building power at the state level. Changing States: A Framework for Progressive Governance

Electoral Arena

Definition: The electoral arena is where voters have a direct say in who is elected to public office or where voters directly approve or reject laws by referendum. 

What it takes to build power in this arena: To build power in the electoral arena, we can educate and turn out voters in support of candidates who share our values, and we can run referendum campaigns. 

We can also recruit and develop candidates from our base who are committed to our agenda.  

What it takes to govern in this arena: To actually govern in the electoral arena, we would need to have built a majoritarian bloc of voters that can decide the outcome of key elections. In other words, our voters are the majority bloc, and we win major elections and referendum campaigns.    

What becomes possible if we govern in this arena: With a majority bloc of voters and the ability to win referendum campaigns, we are able to advance an agenda year over year that shifts the balance of power from the wealthy few to the people.  

View Case Study: Million Voters Project: Building governing power in the electoral arena

Case Study: Million Voters Project (MVP): Extending the Strategic Time Horizon and Making Power Building as Important as the Win 

In 2019, Million Voters Project (MVP) launched a process to develop a Long Term Agenda (LTA) (Hinson 2019), just as they were gearing up for the fight to win Prop 15, the Schools and Communities First (SCF) ballot measure, a historic effort to reform California’s inequitable system of property taxation. MVP is a statewide alliance of seven community-driven state and regional networks, representing California’s geographic, ethnic and racial diversity. MVP recognized that in order to maximize all the power and momentum that they would build through the SCF campaign (regardless of the outcome of the election), they would need to be able to quickly pivot to the “next big fight.” They also recognized they could not fight on all fronts, and had to prioritize issues if they were going to advance transformative structural reforms.

In partnership with the Grassroots Power Project (GPP), MVP began a multi-phase process to identify its Long Term Agenda: prioritizing a set of structural reforms they would advance for the next 3-10 years. MVP and GPP started by deepening ideological and strategic alignment within the networks, conducting strategic political education on key concepts, such as the multidimensional view of power and the Long Term Agenda. MVP and GPP worked together to articulate four “strategic pathways” for change, or fronts on which power can be shifted over time, that cut across issue areas and overlap. The strategic pathways identified by the alliance were: 

  • Building Economic Power: redistribution of wealth, clearing the economic barriers to pursuing popular economic reforms like fair taxation. 
  • Expanding Democracy: efforts to reduce the role of money in politics, to expand voting rights and to create more experiences with direct, democratic decision-making.
  • Building a government based on care and inclusion: to provide the basis of good quality of life for all communities, including education, healthcare, transportation. 
  • Reparations and Restoration: Addressing the effects of systemic inequalities, discrimination, racism, exclusion, disinvestment, environmental racism and criminalization. 

Developing coalition power 

MVP recognized that they needed to be in coordination and alignment with a broader set of allies, because no one organization or alliance can make the big wins that communities need alone. MVP convened grassroots power-building organizations and networks, policy intermediaries and aligned funders to grow the coalition power necessary to develop a multi-year, multi-issue and multi-sector agenda. This became the “North Star Committee” (NSC), a group created to help align the movement ecosystem, build greater constellations of power and collectively develop the Long Term Agenda. 

Utilizing multiple strategies to develop a Long Term Agenda 

MVP and GPP’s first step was a strategic research project. The organizations started with a scan of structural reforms across seven key issues: progressive revenue, immigration, housing, gender justice, criminal justice, climate and democracy. MVP and GPP interviewed over 60 organizers, advocates and academics, reviewed research with NSC members in the field, and brought forward 7 structural reforms, with a power and landscape analysis, for the NSC’s consideration. 

The North Star Committee then discussed and debated all 7 reforms, and brought them back to their core leadership to narrow the 7 down to 3 reforms. Over the course of six weeks, 16 state networks and their affiliates and over 250 people discussed and debated the 7 potential structural reforms with the goal of narrowing down a prioritized set of 3 reforms for the NSC to take on as part of its Long Term Agenda. After all organizations voted, the NSC selected universal family care, progressive revenue and social housing for deeper research and consideration. 

Groups within MVP and the NSC all represented a wide range of constituencies and issues, so narrowing the reforms down was challenging. All of the issues the potential structural reforms represented are deeply felt by communities across California, and the groups had an impressive track record of work on many of them. However, all participants recognized that the social movement was split across too many fronts and was up against powerful opposition. If MVP and the NSC were going to win big, they would need to focus. To help move the process forward, the NSC created a set of “strategic criteria” (included below) that provided a shared framework to assess each structural reform, and which looked at a range of factors such as resonance with the base, political positioning and movement infrastructure. 

The next phase included deeper research, power-mapping and grassroots engagement to further narrow the 3 top issues down to 2. GPP and MVP brought together 28 different organizations and 3 different research consultants in research work groups to further explore the policy mechanics of each, the balance of power, the movement landscape, and the potential path to winning. 50 organizers and leaders from across the state then participated in another six-week long process to discuss the research findings and evaluate all the recommendations against the strategic criteria that had been developed. 

MVP also deployed additional strategies to develop the LTA; to ensure breadth of engagement from the base of all affiliates, MVP surveyed 20,000 voters to test the resonance of the reforms. MVP also conducted research to help inform narrative strategy and issue terrain.

Grassroots engagement and finalizing a Long Term Agenda

MVP also worked to authentically engage grassroots members in the process of finalizing the LTA. Over the course of many community and organizational meetings, a statewide conference, and one-on-one’s, 750 organizational and grassroot leaders used bilingual, popular education materials to discuss the top 3 reforms. Each NSC member then voted again, and landed with strong alignment on the top two issues to focus on for the next 3-10 years: social housing and building progressive fiscal infrastructure. 

The selection of these two issues reflects both the material conditions in communities, and the body of shared work together within the NSC. Housing costs impact almost all Californians in some way, particularly low-income communities of color, and MVP aligned around the visionary goal of winning housing that is not on the private market. Winning progressive fiscal infrastructure means generating new progressive revenue, like the Schools and Communities First property tax, but it also means changing the rigged finance and budgeting laws that favor corporations and the elite. MVP recognized this would also mean building the local infrastructure and capacity for organizations to engage in budget fights to directly control where resources are spent in their communities. By including this in the LTA, it builds on MVP’s leadership and the many lessons learned over the course of moving progressive revenue measures, and reflects the shared assessment, reaffirmed over the course of the LTA process, that revenue is needed across issue areas, and thus a critical terrain to fight on. 

At a broader level, the LTA process:

  • consolidated MVP and key partner organizations’ shared commitment to a Long Term Agenda that is  deeply grounded in power-building;  
  • built strategy muscle, by engaging participants in rigorous issue analysis, power assessment, prioritization, discussion and debate on a wide range of issues across a diverse set of organizations; 
  • fostered deep, democratic process and debate by authentically engaging hundreds of organizational leaders and grassroots members in a deliberate process;
  • strengthened the social movement ecosystem by creating new conditions and relationships for better coordination, shared strategy and stronger community leadership in future fights.

MVP is now focused on bringing the LTA to life with shared campaigning, strategy development, continued issue analysis, and deeper engagement in the related social movement sectors. Having an LTA now informs how MVP takes on any of its immediate term work, be it policy, electoral, or organizing, helping the alliance think strategically about how any fight it wages will help it to move towards its Long Term Agenda. 

Download Criteria for Narrowing Down Structural Reforms Worksheet

also view “The Creative Methods Workers Are Using to Stop Bosses’ Abuse” (Scott 2022) about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) embedding power-building and enforcement into policies.

Legislative Arena

Definition: The legislative arena is where elected leaders convene to create or change laws.  

What it takes to build power in this arena: To build power in the legislative arena, we can partner with legislators to pass policies that shift wealth and power and to create new systems and institutions that increase democratic participation. This includes building grassroots lobbying capacities, policy expertise and public pressure campaigns.  

This also means taking a strategic approach to co-governing with elected champions, and organizing caucuses (or teams) of elected leaders to advance our agenda through strategic negotiations. 

What it takes to govern in this arena: To actually govern in the legislative arena, we would need to have built sufficient electoral power to have our elected champions be leading the dominant caucuses in both legislative houses, and we would need real influence in the executive branch.   

What becomes possible if we govern in this arena: We are able to advance a structural reform agenda that shifts power year over year, and that expands the definition of what is politically possible. Examples of policies that shift power include campaign finance and redistricting reforms, voting rights expansions, raising taxes and redistributing public resources equitably, or a multitude of tactics that rein in corporate power and expand worker and community control. 

View Case Study: The Congressional Progressive Caucus: Building governing power in the legislative arena

LEGISLATIVE ARENA: The Congressional Progressive Caucus 

In the 2021-22 legislative period, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) was the second largest caucus amongst Congressional Democrats. The CPC had 96 members—95 of the 221 House Democrats and just one of the 50 Democrats in the Senate (Bernie Sanders). The New Democrats, a pro-business caucus, had 97 members. One of the critical factors that played a role in the CPC’s ability to grow its power in the legislative arena was the electoral success of progressives that, in turn, grew its ranks. A second critical factor was the leadership of organizer-turned-Congresswoman, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the CPC. Jayapal became a political force for a progressive agenda in Congress by ensuring that CPC members would be required to vote as a bloc on a regular basis. This power was tested in the legislative battle between Congressional Democrats over the Build Back Better bill.  

In its first year, the Biden Administration put forward two related bills: 

(1) The “infrastructure bill,” which was designed to invest $1.2 trillion dollars in rebuilding roads, bridges and railways and which had bipartisan support. 

(2) The Build Back Better bill, which was originally proposed to provide $3.5 trillion dollars to launch an expanded safety net in this country, including new programs like universal Pre-K, paid family leave and provisions that would allow Medicare to directly negotiate prescription drug prices.  

Corporate Democrats immediately moved to shoot down the Build Back Better bill while moving the bipartisan infrastructure bill forward, leveraging their power over the slim Democratic majority in the Senate. In the past, they would have been able to do this with little to no resistance from their colleagues because there was no real organized progressive power in Congress. But the CPC fought back for the first time by withholding their votes on the infrastructure bill, which had bi-partisan support but not enough votes to pass without CPC votes in the House. This meant that passing the infrastructure bill would require a simultaneous vote in the Senate on the Build Back Better act, forcing corporate Democrats to come to the negotiating table to determine what pieces of the Build Back Better bill would make it into law.  

In addition to voting as a bloc, the CPC employed three other strategies to use its power in this legislative fight. First, because the CPC knew it couldn’t win everything it wanted to include in the Build Back Better bill, it set shared priorities that it would fight for, including increasing the number home health care workers available to the public through Medicare, making investments in affordable housing and tackling climate change with a combination of mandates and strategic investments. Second, the CPC coordinated lobbying and grassroots advocacy directly with progressive organizations through the Progressive Caucus Center, an organization that linked outside groups and CPC members. Third, the CPC built an alliance with the leadership of the Democratic Party to check the power of corporate Democrats in the Senate. 

There were real limits to what progressives could accomplish in that moment, given the Democratic Party’s narrow majorities. The Build Back Better bill was narrowed down from $3.5 trillion to about $2 trillion in spending and many programs were cut or narrowed along the way. Then, after a disastrous off-year election, both centrists and progressive Democrats were swayed to pass the infrastructure bill without passing Build Back Better. 

Still, the CPC was able to mark itself as a real power player in an arena over which the corporate Democrats had previously held near-exclusive control. Because the CPC was able to approach its strategy in a way that reshaped the terrain of the legislative fight it was waging, many of the policy priorities that were not passed in the Build Back Better bill remained on the table and were passed in the following year. Notably, the Inflation Reduction Act, which has been billed as the largest climate legislation in US history, was passed by Congress and signed into law in August 2022. 

Administrative Arena

Definition: The administrative arena is where the directives of the electoral and legislative arenas are transformed into actionable rules and where the process of implementation is shaped. 

What it takes to build power in this arena: To build power in the administrative arena, we can develop knowledge of the legal parameters and bureaucratic structures related to the policies we are fighting for in order to bring popular political muscle into the debate around how they are implemented. 

What it takes to govern in this arena: To actually govern in the administrative arena we would need to have sufficient influence with elected executives to appoint trusted leaders who are allied with power-building organizations and who have the skills and expertise to shape policy, to effectively implement it and to enforce the laws and regulations around it.  

What becomes possible if we govern in this arena: The policies that we pass in the legislative arena or through referendums are made real in practice. They are both utilized and enforced: reining in corporate power, advancing the power of working people and ensuring democratic rights.  

View Case Study: Our Minnesota Future: Building governing power in the administrative arena


One example of what it looks like for grassroots groups to influence the makeup of the administrative arena comes from Our Minnesota Future (OMF). OMF was a 17-member political alliance that was created in 2016 to develop a co-governing relationship between grassroots groups and the state’s next governor. To accomplish that goal, the OMF groups decided to develop a common narrative frame and set of values that they each repeated in the lead up to the 2018 gubernatorial election. They also organized forums where their members met in large groups with the candidates and backed up each other’s priorities. Importantly, the groups organized and turned out large numbers of people from all across the state to attend the Democratic Party caucuses and to elect delegates to represent them at the party’s state convention. 

This is typical of the approach progressive organizations take when shaping state policy: they focus on engaging candidates on their priorities and then on ensuring that the candidate who shares the most important elements of their agenda is elected. Once the election is won, they tend to shift their efforts toward lobbying their elected champion to implement and support those policies. But the OMF groups knew that the way their legislative agenda would be enacted after the election could look radically different depending on what forces were at play in the administrative arena. So they decided to shape the context in which the next governor would be implementing the policies that they had demanded he commit to during his candidacy. This meant that well before the election, OMF searched their own membership rolls for leaders who could be appointed to the hundreds of administrative positions in state government. It also meant that member-leaders were enrolled in multiple political education programs to understand the structures of governance that they would need to win in order to set the agenda, and to learn more about the strategies they would need to deploy to get there. 

Each of the leaders who was identified as a potential appointee was vetted by OMF groups for areas of expertise, skills and ideological alignment with the groups’ issue priorities. They developed dossiers on more than 120 leaders, shared it with the new governor’s transition team before the election and followed up to ensure their appointees were considered after the election was won. Because many of the OMF groups supported a candidate in the primary election that lost to the eventual governor, OMF’s influence with the incoming governor was diminished. Still, some of their work paid off. The governor appointed two of OMF’s recommended leaders as state commissioners of Minnesota’s largest agencies—Education and Human Services. The assistant commissioner of Human Services was an OMF appointee as well.  

Instead of waiting to see if the officials appointed to the next governor’s administration could be pushed into an alignment that fit their values and priorities, OMF decided to ensure that people who already shared their agenda were appointed to enact those policies. In doing so, they made use of a power that many progressive groups tend to forfeit—the power not just to influence policy, but to make it all but certain that the intention behind a policy’s development is reflected in its implementation and enforcement.

Judicial and Constitutional Arena

Definition: The judicial and constitutional arena of decision-making is where laws and rules are interpreted and applied.

What it takes to build power in this arena: To build power in the judicial and constitutional arena, we can engage in strategic litigation to force the application of regulations on large corporations, monitoring the decisions of a particular court, or training and developing judges to be seated on the bench.

What it takes to govern in this arena: To actually govern in the judicial and constitutional arena, we would need to be able to place enough judges on the bench (via elections or appointments) who share our agenda to shift jurisprudence.

What becomes possible if we govern in this arena: We are able to shape how laws are interpreted and ruled on. We have a court system that reliably penalizes and deters bad behavior. We may even have the ability to pass constitutional amendments.

View Case Study: The American Constitution Society (ACS) and the Florida Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative: Building governing power in the judicial and constitutional arena

JUDICIAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL ARENA: The American Constitution Society (ACS) and the Florida Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative

Progressive movements have a lot of room to grow in our approach to building governing power in the judicial and constitutional arena, but organizations like the American Constitution Society (ACS) and recent constitutional amendments won at the state-level point to new paths forward. 

The ACS provides resources to progressives to shape key legal and public policy issues and fosters a network of law students and lawyers across 48 states and in almost every law school. In 2020, its work to “nurture the next generation” of progressive lawyers, judges, policy experts and legislators supported the White House and Senate in identifying hundreds of candidates from its network for judicial offices and the federal bench. These are key placements for movement allies who can help shape and interpret laws that align with our values and support our agendas. 

At the state level, constitutional amendments like Florida’s 2018 Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, demonstrate a different yet powerful way to make laws work in our favor. Run and won as a ballot initiative that required a 60 percent supermajority to pass, Amendment 4 passed with 64 percent of the vote and re-enfranchised over 1 million Floridians who had served their sentences. Running ballot measures to influence state law is not an uncommon tactic for progressive organizations, particularly for those operating in states like California. But by running a ballot measure that could change the nation’s fundamental law, the organizers who won Amendment 4 created the opportunity to win a larger-scale, more permanent shift in power than most ballot measures tend to achieve. 

This was a victory that had the potential to affect all elections to follow in this critical swing state, particularly given that more than 20 percent of otherwise eligible, Black adults were unable to vote in the system as it existed before. But it was a win that also demonstrated the need to build governing power across multiple arenas. Shortly after Amendment 4 was won, Republican lawmakers in the state legislature successfully passed a statute that prevents the people who have been re-enfranchised by the amendment from voting until all fines associated with the conviction have been paid. The statute was challenged as unconstitutional, but upheld by the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

Building governing power in the judicial and constitutional arenas means thinking big about our potential wins—particularly because this arena can often feel distant and almost untouchable. But it’s not. These rules have all been made by human hands to serve particular interests, and they can change all the same—to serve our people’s interests.  

Worldview Arena

Definition: Worldview is an arena of decision-making where different ideological and political interests deploy narratives to shape popular values, beliefs and what we come to understand as “common sense.”

What it takes to build power in this arena: To build power in the arena of worldview, we can unmask dominant narratives and expose their contradictions. We can lift up narratives that reflect our beliefs and animate people to unite with each other toward solutions that are reflected in our agenda.

What it takes to govern in this arena: To actually govern in the arena of worldview, we would need to establish a new popular “common sense” that reflects our deeper beliefs and values. 

What becomes possible if we govern in this arena: With this new common sense, our new governing paradigm is seen as the obvious and only reasonable approach to governance. We have reclaimed the role of government, called the concentration of wealth into question and advanced a deep commitment to multi-racial democracy.

View Case Study: The Sunrise Movement: Building governing power in the arena of worldview

WORLDVIEW ARENA: The Sunrise Movement

In January 2019, youth climate activists at the Sunrise Movement led a sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s offices. Their demand? A “Green New Deal,” to stop climate change, invest in good, green jobs and advance racial justice. The event, which received broad coverage after newly-elected Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez decided to join the activists, marked the eruption of the “Green New Deal” frame into mainstream media and policy debates. Often, when groups engage in direct action to shape the narrative around their issue, staying in the news cycle for a few hours or days is understood as the ultimate victory. In this case, climate activists took a different approach. The sit-in was followed by intensive organizing and media campaigns, including a major push in the 2020 primaries to make climate a top issue for Democratic candidates. The power that the Sunrise movement and groups like them were able to win in the worldview arena around climate justice had more than one result that year: Bernie Sanders adopted much of the Green New Deal agenda and Biden released a final climate platform that was significantly more progressive than it would have been otherwise. 

The Green New Deal frame is not without contradictions. It has become the Right-wing media’s favorite punching bag, as Conservative forces continue to promote climate denialism as a narrative tool to advance their agenda. And while some Democratic politicians have taken up “climate,” as a priority, it still exists in the public mind, for the most part, within the existing neoliberal narrative framework. This means that politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to work with Big Oil and Gas to popularize policy solutions that bypass the significant government regulation that a comprehensive climate response will require. Even now, the Green New Deal frame is contested amongst progressive forces and a wide range of constituencies struggle to align around it. 

Still, the fact that over four years, social movements were able to make “action on climate change” a central component of the national, Democratic agenda, is a significant victory. Their efforts have been advanced by the ongoing impacts of climate-related, extreme weather events and decades of on-the-ground organizing in frontline communities and in the broader climate movement. But the fights that climate groups have waged more recently in the realm of worldview have also been key.

That work has had a clear impact—in August 2022, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which has been billed as the largest climate legislation in US history. Action to stop climate change has become part of the “common sense” of what is expected from governing powers, which has created new opportunities for policy and programmatic wins. 

Economy Arena

Definition: The economy is the arena where our wages, work-life and consumer choices are decided.

What it takes to build power in this arena: To build power in the economic arena, we can wage campaigns to organize workers into unions to collectively bargain. We can also wage policy campaigns that expand worker control of the economy, and that empower the government to reign in corporate power.

What it takes to govern in this arena: To actually govern in the economic arena would require us to have a large proportion of the workforce organized into unions, and to have sufficient electoral and legislative power to radically extend democratic control over the economy.

What becomes possible if we govern in this arena: We win democratic control over the sorts of economic decisions that have historically been considered ‘private,’ we ensure the government is the entity meeting the public’s basic economic & social needs (like health care or education) instead of profit-driven corporations, and we create new structures that facilitate worker and consumer control. Workers have the ability to use workplace action or government intervention to set standards for wages and working conditions across entire industries.

View Case Study: California Fast Food Council: Building governing power in the arena of the economy

California Fast Food Council: Building governing power in the economic arena

In 2022, fast food workers in California organized and won AB 257, the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act. The first law of its kind in the US, this legislation established a 10-person statewide council made up of workers, business representatives and government officials who would set higher standards for the people working for the industry’s largest chains. 

The workers and elected officials who made the fast food council possible could have focused their efforts exclusively on a smaller segment of the industry or on a shorter-term win. Instead, over the course of years, fast food workers across California held over 300 strikes in support of legislation that would give them the power to regulate an industry that employs over 500,000 workers, around stronger standards for wages, worker health and safety, sexual harassment, wage theft, employer retaliation and more. 

This win was unique in a few ways. First, progressive organizations often ask government to investigate bad behavior and impose penalties on bad employers on their behalf. In this case, workers have a direct say in setting higher standards themselves. Second, the policy campaigns that progressive organizations and unions often wage in this arena tend to focus on one or a few issues at a time. The Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, on the other hand, establishes more democratic control for workers over their workplace over a broad range of issues common to the industry. 

Winning this historic advance also required compromise. As workers negotiated with legislators, joint liability was pulled from the bill. This provision would have made both fast food corporations and their franchises responsible for penalties. Now, only the franchiser is responsible for any penalties imposed. Workers also agreed to narrow the scope of the wage board to companies with 100 or more franchise locations instead of companies with 30 or more locations, which is what workers originally wanted. 

Still, this legislation has given fast food workers access to an important tool to combat low-road business practices, while setting a more equitable and dignified floor for workers and businesses in the industry. It has also positioned other municipal bodies to replicate the model and to fight for their own versions of a statewide council across a range of industries and geographic locations. 

Corporate forces are well aware of the risk this structure poses to their agenda. In September 2022, the National Restaurant Association and International Franchise Association introduced a referendum that, if won, would overturn the fast food council and roll back its power. Their efforts remind us that it is not enough to win big in one arena of power—we must be prepared to sustain that power with the expectation that when we win, corporate forces will put the full weight of their influence behind undoing our gains.

It is critical that organizers understand these six arenas of decision-making so that we understand how they intersect and can prepare to build power across them. Building a campaign to win a policy, lawsuit or election is an important first step toward governing power. But the problem is that for many of us, it’s often the only step that we are prepared to take. After we “win,” we are eager to move onto the next fight when the real battle is just beginning. A legislative win can be undermined if we don’t pay attention to the administrative arena, where it is implemented. A corporate campaign can be undone by a judge’s decree if we don’t have power in the judicial and constitutional arena. Sustaining what we win so that we can shift the structures of power is what governing power is all about.