The original law review article by Ben Sachs and Kate Andrias that inspired our series on countervailing power pointed out that laws like the Wagner Act created leverage for organizing. But their article did not address what it took to get those laws. The Wagner Act was enacted by a heavily Democratic Congress and signed by a Democratic president. 

For progressives, having allies in government makes it possible to pass such laws. In this essay, I’d like to consider both the synergies and the tensions between electoral organizing and the kind of countervailing power treated in previous articles.

An emblematic case of this synergy is the vital work of trade unions in multiple arenas. The labor movement organizes workers, not just to win collective-bargaining agreements but to vote and mobilize others to vote for policymakers who can defend and advance labor’s gains.

The door-knocking and active listening that undergirds effective labor and community organizing is also vital in electoral mobilization. A superb example from the 2022 midterms is the success of UNITE HERE in helping to make the difference in three key swing states: Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. These states very narrowly elected or re-elected progressive Democrats to the Senate, keeping the Senate with an enhanced Democratic majority.

That said, I respect the importance of pursuing other avenues of countervailing power and not making the mistake of assuming that all politics are electoral. Elections can drain energy. Elected officials don’t always deliver. Leadership alliances with elected officials invariably require compromises that may frustrate the membership.

It’s worth taking a closer look at the synergies, alliances, tensions, and evolution of the role of electoral politics in the theory and practice of organizing for empowerment.


IN THE HEYDAY OF THE INDUSTRIAL LABOR MOVEMENT, elections were paramount. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was a major force in electing progressive Democrats, via both campaign contributions and mobilization of its members. The CIO created the first political action committee, called CIO-PAC. In the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a prime goal was voter registration in the South and enactment of federal voting rights legislation to secure the right to vote, break the white lock on political power, and win full citizenship for Black people.

But as the movement shifted north, there was increased skepticism in some quarters about establishment politics. The Johnson administration had mired the nation in Vietnam. “Corporate liberalism” was seen as hopelessly tainted by many in the New Left. Jeff Blum, later a leading organizer for Citizen Action groups, recalls: “As a 23-year-old movement activist, when Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election, I remember thinking, we ousted a president without getting involved in electoral politics. Who needs elections?” Blum later revised those views.

The wariness of electoral politics was far from universal. At Berkeley, where I was a graduate student, I joined anti-war activists seeking to send a Peace Democrat to Congress. The initial campaign of Robert Scheer in 1966 narrowly failed, but in 1970 Ron Dellums ousted the Democratic incumbent. Even the militant Black Panthers got involved in Dellums’s campaign and other local elections. In San Francisco in the 1970s, gay activists worked to elect Harvey Milk to the Board of Supervisors.

The view that movement organizers should avoid electoral politics was most pronounced in Chicago and Boston, where the Democratic Party was viewed as impenetrable and hopelessly corrupt. In that context, contesting elections or making alliances with politicians seemed a fool’s errand. Better to build power by creating independent organizations to confront economic and political elites by making concrete demands, and winning small victories that could then lead to bigger victories.

André Gorz, author of one of the influential radical texts of the era, termed this strategy “non-reformist reform,” meaning that a victory in a fight over something as modest as a zoning or traffic issue might seem incremental, but it could lead to bigger victories that would be cumulatively transformational of both consciousness and power. Saul Alinsky, who had immense influence over the theory and strategy of community organizing, taught that community groups should function as outsiders pressuring officials, pick fights they could win, and not get entangled in electoral alliances.

Chicago in the early 1970s epitomized the sense of the futility of taking on the Democratic machine electorally. Richard J. Daley and his machine controlled the city wall to wall. Forty-five of the 50 aldermen were Daley loyalists. Variants on Alinsky-style organizing became the playbook for a diverse set of community groups.

“Before 1980, I was turned off to electoral politics,” says Heather Booth, a widely admired organizer and teacher who founded the Midwest Academy in 1973 to train organizers. “I thought it wasn’t where real change happened. But after Ronald Reagan was elected, I realized that our deeper problem was that we didn’t have enough power.” Booth quotes longtime Chicago Black activist and former state senator Alice Palmer, a close ally of progressive community groups: “If you don’t do politics, politics does you.”

George Goehl, who worked with National People’s Action from the days when it was primarily an anti-redlining group and led its growth into the broader People’s Action, still warns that too much focus on elections can damage community organizing by centering it on election cycles. Goehl’s way to square this circle is to use the “deep canvass” of long-term engagement with voters attracted to Trumpism, to learn their concerns and help open their minds to voting for pocketbook progressives.

In Boston in the 1970s, the key Alinsky-style community confederation was Massachusetts Fair Share, founded in 1975. Organizers enlisted local people in neighborhood chapters. The issues were defined by the membership, who were white, Black, and Hispanic working class. In its heyday, Fair Share had 110,000 member families paying dues of at least $15 each. It could turn out hundreds and even thousands of people at meetings to press city and state officials for policy changes on such issues as schools, public services, utility rates, rent control, and taxes.

Jeff Blum recalls, as a young organizer for Fair Share, arriving early at a church in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood to set up for a meeting to decide the chapter’s next campaign. He was mugged and robbed on the church steps. When local leaders arrived, they concluded that the prime neighborhood concern was public safety, specifically a playground across the street from the church that had become a gathering place for drug dealers. Working with police, Fair Share succeeded in getting the dealers evicted.

Fair Share built enough power that elected officials had to take the group seriously, but the group did not work in elections or make endorsements. Michael Ansara, Fair Share’s founding director and leader for its entire existence, told me, “We assumed that electoral politics was so corrupt that we had to operate outside it. Instead, we pressured elected officials.” He paused for emphasis. “We were wrong.”

One big missed opportunity, says Ansara, was a closer alliance with Boston’s sole economic populist mayor, Ray Flynn. A native of South Boston, Flynn began as an anti-busing activist when he was first elected to the city council in 1978, but he evolved into a class-based populist, and was elected mayor in 1983. “A vast part of Ray Flynn’s operation was Fair Share leaders and members,” Ansara says, “but the organization could not reap the political benefits because we never endorsed him or campaigned for him.”

By then, Fair Share was broke. One cause was its reliance on VISTA volunteers for a large portion of its paid staff. When Reagan killed the VISTA program in 1982, that loss exacerbated Fair Share’s already shaky finances. Fair Share’s collapse made Flynn’s job harder, since it left no large community group as a counterweight to the residual power of banks, corporations, and real estate interests. To some extent, the Mass Tenants Organization played that role, but its base and issues were narrower than Fair Share’s. When Flynn left office in 1993 to become ambassador to the Vatican, there was a weakened progressive base and no logical progressive to succeed him. His successor, Tom Menino, was a classic centrist downtown Democrat.

Ansara, who now works on voter mobilization in close alliance with state and local Democratic organizations, adds, “If you’ve built power in community organizations, you can use it in elections. It’s crazy not to use it. Otherwise, you are a constant, low-level player …There is a virtuous cycle: You organize, you seize political power, you pass laws and rules that create opportunities for more organizing and more power.”


IRONICALLY, MASS FAIR SHARE INDIRECTLY SPAWNED one of the nation’s most successful and durable alliances of community organizing and electoral politics. The Connecticut Citizen Action Group was founded in 1971 by native son Ralph Nader as a coalition of labor, consumer, and racial justice groups. CCAG grew to about 50,000 dues-paying members. Like Fair Share, CCAG avoided electoral politics. In 1979, as Citizen Action was being created nationally, the outgoing CCAG director, Marc Caplan, created a parallel coalition to work in electoral politics, called the Legislative Electoral Action Program (LEAP). John Flynn, political director of the still-potent UAW Region 9A, became LEAP’s president. Miles Rapoport left his post as Boston director of Fair Share to become the new CCAG director.

In 1982, the president of CCAG, Doreen Del Bianco of working-class Waterbury, ran for the legislature and won an upset victory, working with LEAP organizers and canvassers. CCAG itself explicitly embraced electoral politics. This began a wave of community activists running for office and transforming Connecticut politics.

In 1984, Rapoport and Lynn Taborsak, the state coordinator of the National Organization for Women (NOW), both challenged ten-year conservative Democratic incumbents for seats in the legislature, in West Hartford and Danbury. Both won, driven by the kind of grassroots organizing championed by CCAG. Rapoport soon became House assistant majority leader, and later won statewide as secretary of the state, in charge of voting and registration.

The long-term success of this effort was a progressive majority in the legislature, and the conversion of Connecticut from a swing state with a corporate Democratic Party into a reliably progressive one. A crowning success of this strategy was a progressive state income tax. Connecticut had long been a holdout on any form of income taxation. There was heavy reliance on regressive sales taxes and the property tax, to the fiscal disadvantage of Connecticut’s poor cities. Democratic as well as Republican governors regularly “took the pledge” that there would never be an income tax, much less a progressive one.

CCAG and LEAP made progressive tax reform a priority in their organizing and legislative work. By the late 1980s, LEAP-endorsed progressives had more than a third of the Democratic caucus, and they succeeded in installing a progressive Speaker. The state was facing a budget crisis. In 1991, Gov. Lowell Weicker, a liberal Republican turned independent, reversed his long-standing opposition and endorsed an income tax. The tax had a flat rate of 4.5 percent but was effectively progressive because of generous exemptions of $24,000 for a family and $12,000 for an individual. The tax was passed by the legislature and signed into law. Subsequent revisions added a progressive rate structure as well.

These victories didn’t just happen. They were built on an alliance of grassroots issue organizing and electoral organizing. As Rapoport (now a Prospect board member) points out, the CCAG coalition not only was a powerful source of issue organizing and work with legislators. It served as an incubator for progressive activists who could run for everything from school boards to Congress. Marc Caplan adds that the cure for unreliable allies in government is to elect more grassroots people to office. Caplan himself went on to help organize LEAP-style coalitions in four other New England states.

It also helped that Connecticut is one of just two states—the other is New York—that allows fusion voting, meaning that more than one party can endorse a candidate, who can then get votes on more than one line. Fusion systems are well suited for the marriage of issue and electoral organizing. As we shall see, the New York Working Families Party was built on fusion voting.


ELSEWHERE, REFORMERS HAD LONG BEEN ENGAGED in electoral politics. In New York, where Tammany’s grip had been as tight as the Daley machine’s, a movement of Reform Democratic Clubs was launched in the early 1950s, and soon started ousting Tammany regulars from the party position of district leader and the city council. The Reform Clubs elected their first member of Congress in 1960, William Fitts Ryan, whose power base was the clubs of Manhattan’s West Side. (I worked for Ryan as a legislative assistant in the late 1960s.)

The difference between the aversion to electoral politics among organizers in Chicago and Boston, and the early embrace of it in New York, I think, is the old argument between liberals and the New Left about the possibility of “working within the system.” The Reform Clubs in New York were the province of left-liberals who never doubted the value of electing progressives to office. The Alinsky-style organizers considered themselves movement outsiders. In New York, radicals had long worked in electoral politics, for example sending left-progressive Vito Marcantonio to Congress from East Harlem in 1934. Marcantonio’s party was the American Labor Party, predecessor of the Working Families Party.

In Chicago, less than a decade after some New Left organizers swore off electoral politics, the movement groups became part of the coalition that elected that city’s first Black and first progressive mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983. Washington’s support depended on class-based organizing, since it was impossible to elect a Black mayor with Black votes alone. Washington, who won a narrow majority on the Board of Aldermen, was able to enact several reforms long sought by community groups.

During the period when movement groups were ambivalent at best about electoral politics, the splendid outlier was ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. ACORN was founded in Arkansas in 1970 by Wade Rathke to organize poor and working-class people and win gains on a range of issues including housing, wages, welfare, taxes, and public services. From the start, ACORN had both a 501(c)(3) to work on voter registration and a (c)(4) to do explicit politics. At its peak, ACORN had more than 500,000 members in some 150 cities in over 30 states, and a national budget in excess of $100 million.

ACORN sometimes worked with the Democratic Party and sometime against it. In Arkansas, the organization supported the young Bill Clinton in his campaigns for attorney general and governor. But after Gov. Clinton worked to defeat an ACORN ballot initiative to take the sales tax off food and medicines, ACORN refused to endorse Clinton in 1980, an election that Clinton lost. And as the national Democratic Party became more captive to neoliberalism, ACORN was an early convert to the effort to create a third party.

ACORN was destroyed in 2009 in a hit job by right-wingers James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, who secretly filmed, edited, distorted, and released videos with low-level ACORN personnel that wrongly implied criminal activity. Though investigations later exonerated ACORN, the bad publicity scared off funders and some political allies, and the organization never recovered.

Though its successor organization, the Center for Popular Democracy, continues to do important work, it lacks the reach of ACORN. A number of ACORN successor organizations at the local or state level are still powerful forces, including the Texas Organizing Project, Florida Rising, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and New York Communities for Change.

Zach Polett, who was ACORN’s national political director, says that the Republicans who wanted to kill ACORN didn’t care much about its issue organizing; they were threatened by the group’s highly successful multiracial voter registration. Politicians, he points out, can ignore poor and working-class people when they don’t vote.

Anthony Thigpenn, the founder and president of California Calls, an alliance of 31 organizations in 12 counties, has spent more than 30 years organizing for voter education and registration and connecting that work to enhanced political power to make change. Thigpenn said, when he won the 2018 Irvine Foundation Leadership Award, “The likely voter doesn’t reflect the diversity of the state. Low-income communities, people of color, immigrants and young people often times don’t vote, and so their voice is not heard.”

Thigpenn’s career has combined extensive work to increase participation by excluded communities with sophisticated political organizing. California Calls’ biggest triumph was organizing to pass a millionaire’s tax by ballot measure in 2012. The surge of progressive low-income voters to the polls simultaneously led to a two-thirds Democratic majority in the legislature, which was previously thought impossible. It has held for most of the last decade.

A further benefit of this brand of organizing linked to electoral politics is transracial alliance. Heather McGhee, in her powerful best-selling book The Sum of Us, argues that the most effective form of anti-racism is to embrace both race and class. Racism hurts Blacks disproportionately, but it also hurts whites who could benefit from activist policies precluded by the politics of racial division. It’s also poor and working-class white people who can’t get affordable health insurance, get bilked by mortgage fraudsters, and get stuck with college debt. Better policies for all are precluded by racial animus, and transracial alliance around economic issues is the best cure.


BY THE MID-1980s, REFORMIST LIBERALS and movement radicals came to a rough consensus that electoral work made sense as long as it did not crowd out base organizing. The exception, however, was many faith-based coalitions.

To this day, most faith groups affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, the original Alinsky group founded in 1940 by Alinsky, progressive Catholic leaders, and trade unionists, still avoid electoral endorsements and campaigns. The West/Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation (W/SWIAF), long led by the widely esteemed Ernesto Cortés Jr., concentrates on issues. Its coalition includes religious congregations, schools, civic associations, labor and professional organizations, and nonprofits. According to its mission statement, “All the [member] organizations are politically non-partisan.”

Cortés told me that the group has long debated whether to endorse candidates, and always concludes that the strategy of focusing on issues such as workforce training and services for the low-income and neglected colonias of Texas is a better fit, because it allows IAF to work with both parties. Ann Richards, Texas’s last Democratic governor, worked with the group to create a widely praised workforce development program called Project QUEST. George W. Bush, who succeeded Richards, refused to support QUEST, but rebranded his own version of it and worked with Cortés and SWIAF.

“In Texas the IAF network worked very hard with [Democrat] Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby to pass an indigent health care bill,” Cortés says. “We also worked with moderate Republican senators Ratliff, Cryer, and McFarland to get water and sewer services to colonias. We worked across the aisle to get federal money for water and sewer services on the border.”

Cortés adds that this kind of bipartisan work is far more difficult today, because moderate Republicans have all but disappeared. But IAF continues to resist working in elections.

“From my perspective, organizing is about identifying, developing, and testing out leaders who are connected to institutions and networks,” he says. “It is teaching people how to be their own agents, their own advocates, how to have meaningful conversations with people they don’t always agree with and sometimes don’t even like.”

The group does support ballot initiatives, and its voter education work can tacitly make clear who are the organization’s friends. SWIAF did not formally endorse Ann Richards, and in a sense it didn’t have to. On the other hand, more door-knocking might have helped save Richards from defeat in 1994, when she lost to George W. Bush by about seven points.

The obvious takeaway is that one size does not fit all. What works at some times and in some places does not work everywhere. Organizing is nothing if not local.

Another respected and highly effective faith coalition that carefully and thoughtfully revised its long-standing aversion to electoral work is Minnesota-based ISAIAH. Minnesota progressives had suffered from the death of the quintessential grassroots organizer turned politician, Sen. Paul Wellstone, in a plane crash in 2002, followed by the two-term reign of a right-wing Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty. When it looked as if the Democratic nominee

in 2010, Mark Dayton, had a decent chance of winning, ISAIAH did not make an endorsement but worked hard to influence his agenda and policies.

“We realized that the conservative movement has been systematically organizing in electoral politics, from school boards on up, creating pipelines of candidates; thinking about power in terms of infrastructure; using a base to drive their agenda,” said ISAIAH’s executive director Doran Schrantz. “We had a base but we were not moving a long-term agenda in politically serious ways.”

Only in 2017, after the election of Donald Trump, did ISAIAH’s leadership decide to explicitly work in elections. ISAIAH remains nonpartisan; an allied new group, Faith in Minnesota, is a (c)(4). Schrantz serves as executive director of both.

Even as she has embraced electoral work, Schrantz is very mindful of the pitfalls. “Our power comes from extensive local organizing and having a clear analysis of tactics and goals,” she says. “We are NOT a voter contact firm. In 2018, we used our power in the precinct caucus process in the Democratic primary for governor. We ended up with a bloc of 237 uncommitted delegates, 11 percent of the total. We became the swing vote.”

ISAIAH’s successes reflected 15 years of organizing work, not just the kind of election-year blend of media, field, and fundraising so typical of conventional politics. Even many progressive organizing groups find it challenging to combine the kind of deep organizing plus electoral work that ISAIAH does.

In 2022, Minnesota became a Democratic trifecta state for the first time since 2014. Attorney general Keith Ellison narrowly won re-election. Progressive governor Tim Walz was re-elected by almost eight points and Democrats swept the statewide constitutional offices and the legislature. ISAIAH and Faith in Minnesota deserve substantial credit.


THE MOVEMENT FOR BLACK LIVES BEGAN with a deep skepticism about electoral politics. Maurice Mitchell, one of its leaders, became a local organizer for radical criminal justice reform after a classmate at Howard University, Prince Jones, was murdered by police in 2000, the same murder that had a searing effect on Ta-Nehisi Coates. In 2014, after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Mitchell moved to Missouri to be part of what became the Movement for Black Lives and co-founded two major support groups.

“In the run-up to the 2016 election, we saw our role as a social movement working to inject issues such as police behavior and state violence into the political area,” Mitchell told me. “Politicians respond to the political climate. If we can change the climate, then politicians have to deal with our issues. But after Trump got elected, it was humbling. It inspired us to think harder about the alignment of movement energy and electoral energy. Folks realized that social movement power was just one set of tools.”

Mitchell was one of several people who had worked with the Movement for Black Lives to create the Electoral Justice Project. The project had major success in St. Louis, where its organizing work helped elect Black progressives Cori Bush to the House in 2020 and Tishaura Jones as mayor in 2022.

In his own personal odyssey from movement organizer to electoral strategist, Mitchell became the Working Families Party’s national director in 2018. “We recognized that our social movement power is essential but insufficient,” he says. “For people to contest the power of capital, the only available tool with the requisite capacity was state power; and the only way to get state power was through elections. That’s what brought me to the Working Families Party.”

The Working Families Party (WFP) is at the center of the story of the two streams of American progressivism—movement radicals and reformers—coming together, blending grassroots organizing with electoral politics and a coherent strategy of empowerment. It was founded in New York in 1997 to take advantage of New York’s constitutional provision that allows fusion voting. If a third party can get 2 percent of the votes in a given election, it is guaranteed its own ballot line in the next election.

Fusion allows an “inside-outside” strategy to get progressive candidates the Democratic nomination for a range of offices from governor to city council. Sometimes it means making a tactical decision to hold one’s nose and endorse a more establishment candidate in exchange for access and influence, as well as assuring the party the needed votes to keep its ballot line. The definitive account of the founding and tactics of the WFP is Harold Meyerson’s piece published in The American Prospect in 2014. The party was founded by a number of veteran activists and organizers including Dan Cantor, who had previously worked for ACORN and on an earlier failed third-party effort, and Bob Master of the CWA, working with several other unions, New York Citizen Action, and ACORN.

Thanks substantially to the work of the WFP, progressives were able to break a more reactionary form of fusion in the New York state legislature, where corporate Democrats had joined Republicans to keep conservative control of the state Senate, despite a nominal Democratic majority. Once progressive Democrats gained a working majority in the Senate in 2018, that weakened the power of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had played off the Assembly against the Senate. Cuomo was now forced to bargain with the progressives and notably with the WFP. The result was a cascade of long bottled-up progressive legislation, including a higher minimum wage, paid family leave, repeal of the Rockefeller-era drug laws, rent control, public financing of elections, higher taxes on the rich, and a good deal more.

What enables the WFP to succeed is relentless base organizing that turns it into a force politicians must take seriously, both as candidates and as elected officials. As one longtime activist says, “The strategy is to inject our issues into the electoral debate, learn who is on our side, who is not on our side, support your friends, take out your enemies, and get your legislation passed.”

In some respects, we are in a golden era of organizing married to electoral politics. But one threat to that strategy is money, and not just right-wing money that substitutes the power of wealth for the power of citizens and votes. Democrats and progressive issue organizations are also awash in billionaire money. That may help Democratic candidates stay competitive electorally, though it often finances corporate Democrats at the expense of progressives.

But the reliance on billionaire money, as the Prospect reported in 2021, can have a more insidious effect. As one progressive leader, who asked not to be quoted by name, puts it, “Billionaire funding liberates organizations from having to have a base. When you have a billionaire base, there is no incentive to do the organizing and get the feedback you need to be aligned with how real people feel about issues.”

Unity and divisiveness on the progressive left seems to go in waves. Today, local and state-level groups have had substantial success electing progressive activists to office. The elections of AOC, Jamaal Bowman, and several others were built on prior grassroots organizing by groups like the Working Families Party and its affiliates.

Democratic Socialists of America chapters have also elected several members to office, including AOC and Bowman. Yet other progressives have criticized the DSA stance of refusing to support candidates who don’t declare themselves socialist. As Harold Meyerson (a longtime DSA leader) has written in the Prospect, the Atlanta DSA local refused to endorse Stacey Abrams, and national DSA announced it was not supporting Joe Biden—one day before socialist Bernie Sanders made his full-throated Biden endorsement.

As the election of Eric Adams as New York mayor shows, when progressive leaders and activists can’t agree on a candidate, even the most astute organizing is not sufficient to keep progressives in office. “We need to have those endorsement conversations earlier,” says Maurice Mitchell. “That’s why we need to build a party. A party is a coalition where you can discipline yourself and have those conversations inside the party.”

Schism and fragmentation remain the bane of the left. For the most part, however, the story is evident in the larger successes—the mobilization of millions of Black, brown, and white citizen-activists and the increasingly sophisticated linkage of community organizing with involvement in the electoral process.


THE CONSERVATIVE POLITICAL SCIENTIST JAMES Q. WILSON came to prominence with a 1962 book titled The Amateur Democrat. It was an empirical study of “club politics” in three states, specifically the New York Reform Democratic Clubs, the anti- machine Independent Voters of Illinois, and the  California Democratic Clubs. Wilson pretty much validated the folk wisdom expressed by Manhattan ward boss George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, as interpreted by his biographer William L. Riordan in 1905. “Reformers are morning glories,” Plunkitt sneered. Politics was a profession like any other: “You’ve got to be trained up to it, or you’re sure to fail.”

More than a century later, the three states where insurgents drew the scorn of Plunkitt and Wilson—New York, Illinois, and California—now have progressive Democratic trifectas. As for political training to beat the professionals, nobody does it better than the amateur democrats who pursue the grassroots organizing that does double duty to transform power in elections.


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