Defining Governing Power

Governing power is the ability to win and sustain power within multiple arenas of decision-making so as to shift the power structure of governance and establish a new common sense of governing (that is, a new governing paradigm that replaces neoliberalism).

Said another way: To win governing power, we need the capacity to design, drive demand for, legislate, enforce and defend a structural reform agenda that serves the interests of our people (rather than the wealthy few). This requires us to reshape the structure of the government itself, so that it can advance democratic control, redistribution and reparation.

It is important to note that governing power can be achieved or exercised by a range of political forces to accomplish different governing agendas. The most recent governing paradigm of neoliberalism came to dominance through the intentional, strategic work of the conservative, corporate establishment. That paradigm or “common sense of governance,” is now in a moment of deep crisis, brought on by climate change, changing international conditions, and extreme inequality, which it has largely created. But what comes out of this crisis is not inevitable. Those in power now are already mobilizing political projects that ultimately aim to keep power in the hands of the wealthy few—whether in the form of an updated version of the neoliberal agenda or in the right’s advancement of a white nationalist agenda. Our job as organizers is to forge a new governing paradigm that reflects deep democracy, sustainability and equity.

What do we mean by a new “governing paradigm”?

A governing paradigm is the dominant political framework of a given era that structures the “common sense” of how government, the economy and society operate. Different eras in our history have been governed by different paradigms.

In the 1930s, the free market paradigm of the Gilded Age drove the economy into the historic crisis of the Great Depression. The free market paradigm operated on the assumption that minimally-regulated industrial growth would strengthen the American economy and establish its dominance on the world stage. Labor unions and popular movements organized powerfully in response, and they won a shift in the paradigm of governance towards what we know today as the “New Deal.” The New Deal paradigm was based on the theory that government regulation and investment in infrastructure and social programs were needed to maintain a strong capitalist economy.

But just as those victories were starting to make real improvements in our society, a new paradigm emerged and became dominant: neoliberalism. Neoliberalism draws on some of the core assumptions of the free market paradigm of the Gilded Age, and argues that capitalist economies perform best when they are unregulated and when the redistribution of wealth and power is minimal. Over the last decade and a half, this paradigm has gone into what seems likely to be a terminal crisis. There is now space to fight for a new governing paradigm, but it is far from clear what paradigm will emerge in its place. The forces that are able to win governing power in this context are the forces that will determine what governing paradigm comes next.

Winning and sustaining power within the multiple arenas of decision-making

It is easy to recognize that the decisions that affect our lives are often made in the visible places of government: in city hall or the town council, in a courtroom, at the ballot box and more. But there are less visible arenas that seem more neutral or distant, where power relations also shape the decisions that are made about our lives. Understanding the relationship between these arenas is necessary if we are going to attain governing power. 

Changing States: A Framework for Progressive Governance, produced by Manuel Pastor, Jennifer Ito and Madeline Wander, offers a useful reference which we build on and adapt in this paper. It suggests that there are six arenas where governing power is won and exercised: the electoral arena, the legislative arena, the administrative arena, the judicial and constitutional arena, the arena of worldview (which appears in the original framework as the communications arena) and the economic arena (which appears in the original framework as the corporate arena). Each arena relates to the others, and each has the ability to reinforce or undermine the progress we hope to achieve in another. Below, you’ll find a chart that examines and builds on the six arenas: what they are, what our efforts to build power within them typically look like and what organizing at the scale needed to win governing power within them will require. Learn more about Governing Power Arenas.

Shifting the power structure of governance

Building the power to win in these intersecting arenas of decision-making is a crucial aspect of building governing power. It is the art of fighting on the terrain of governance as it is today. But our ambitions are greater than wielding power within the system as it is. We also want the power to create new systems that can serve our communities better: more democratic forms of government, more popular control over the economy, new forms of jurisprudence, even a new Constitution. 

One example of what it looks like to reimagine our relationships with structures of power comes from fast food workers in California who, in 2022, organized and won a statewide council made up of workers, business representatives and government officials to set higher standards for the half a million people working for the industry’s largest chains. The workers and elected officials who made this possible could have chosen to focus their efforts exclusively on building the power that they would need to collectively bargain with one fast food restaurant at a time. Instead, they built a new structure in the form of a 10-person council that is empowered by the state legislature to set standards across the industry for wages, worker health and safety, sexual harassment, wage theft, employer retaliation and more. This has set fast food workers up to operate at an entirely different scale of power, giving them access to an important tool to combat low-road business practices while setting a more equitable and more dignified floor for workers and businesses in the industry. Corporate forces are well aware of the risk this structure poses to their agenda, and they have already introduced new legislation that, if won, would roll back the council’s power.

That’s what makes embedding popular democracy into government so foundational to the concept of governing power. Shifting the power structure of governance means ensuring that the people who are closest to the problem have the power to put the solutions on the table themselves. This task—of making decision-making power accessible to as many of our people as possible—requires elected and appointed leaders to not only see themselves as the agents of change, but to also work to structurally shift power into the hands of the communities they serve.

To Sum It Up: Defining Governing Power 

Governing power is the ability to establish a new common sense around governance that structures how government, the economy and society operate and interact. 

To do that, we need to be able to win and hold power in six interconnected arenas of decision-making: the electoral arena, the legislative arena, the administrative arena, the judicial and constitutional arena, the arena of worldview and the economic arena.

We also need to develop new systems and structures of governance that bring democracy much closer to home, giving our people the tools and power they need to solve their problems together. 

The path to governing power is not well-paved or well-marked. It’s a winding path that requires steps forward, backward and to the side. How we traverse that trail is called governing power strategy.