Three weeks ago, the Progressive Caucus of the U.S. Congress enacted a strategy to keep a small number of corporate Democrats from derailing the Build Back Better plan on behalf of corporate lobbyists. Progressive members’ ability to hold the line at that moment resulted from years of work fortified by deep partnerships with movement organizations; the election of a wave of progressives to Congress; the leadership of Representatives Jayapal, Omar, and Porter; and a little noticed set of changes to the caucus’s rules that increased its capacity for shared action. Though the outcome remains uncertain, this moment offers us a glimpse of what it might look like to build, hold, and use collaborative governing strategies to shift power away from donors and corporate lobbyists and toward people.

In this issue of The Forge, we explore places and ways elected officials, community leaders, bureaucrats, and organizers are figuring out how to govern together — elements of which have been termed co-governance, collaborative governance, inside/outside collaboration, and movement governance. Drawing on work by the Grassroots Policy Project as well as a number of contributors to this issue, we define governing power as control of the structures and processes that shape agenda-setting and decision-making within an institution. Governing power is the power required to set and advance an agenda in a place. This can happen in a worksite, an apartment building, or in a city council, but most of the pieces in this issue focus on government. In that context, we believe governing power means much more than electing candidates or holding formal power within government; it refers to our ability to use the unique capacities of the state to build the world we want to live in. The aim of governing together is to build and share collective power and to leverage that power to transform the systems, structures, processes, and cultures of governing institutions such that, as Representative Pressley often says, “the people closest to the pain are closest to power.” 

Each of us has focused our careers on building this kind of power. And we each remember key moments of convergence that held the tantalizing promise that we could not only “win” an election or policy reform but also transform the structures, culture, and power balances inside our legislative chambers and bureaucracies.

Sarah remembers the day in 2014 that the New York City Council elected Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito as Speaker. The vote was the culmination of two years of organizing by unions and community organizations — coordinated by the New York Working Families Party — to break open the way the Speaker is elected. Our coalition wrested power from Democratic Party bosses by organizing a group of progressive members animated by a desire to enact a set of reforms to make the Council more equitable and to move a bold, progressive legislative agenda.

Elianne looks back on the day when a veto-proof majority of Minneapolis City Councilmembers publicly announced their commitment to restructure the city’s relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department. This was a major win on demands led by groups like Black Visions and Reclaim the Block to divest from failed police strategies and invest in proven public safety programs. More exciting, though, it was a moment when we started down the path to restructuring city government in service of people, not the police federation or wealthy landowners. In November, residents will vote on a ballot question to change the city charter and create a new department charged with implementing a holistic, public health approach to safety. 

These are powerful memories because they begin to illustrate what governing power might look like in practice. They are also — like the Progressive Caucus story we started with — not an end point or step in a trajectory of linear progress. In New York, the coalition we built in opposition struggled to maintain solidarity as it transitioned into power; four years later, Democratic Party bosses once again picked the next Speaker. In Minneapolis, bureaucratic intransigence and undemocratic structures have created an endless barrage of barriers to progress: city staff have refused to advance council direction, an unelected Charter Commission blocked charter changes, a Republican-appointed judge attempted to bar us from the ballot. Getting to this moment has felt like surviving death by a thousand paper cuts, and it has stretched and tested the capacity of our coalition. The challenges we faced after those hope-filled moments show us the strength of our opposition and the extent of our governing power. 

These experiences leave us wrestling with questions like: how do we build durable inside/outside coalitions in which allies in elected office are not the targets of our demands but co-conspirators taking risks to build and leverage power together? What containers must we create to sustain these coalitions beyond a single fight for long-term governing power? What knowledge do we need to gain and what power do we need to build to transform the entire structure of our government — even and especially the parts of it, like police departments, that are strenuously shielded from direct lines of accountability to our communities?

We are optimists who know there are answers to these questions. And we are realists who know that the progressive movement is relatively young in its exploration of these concepts, that in most places we have not built the power necessary to achieve this vision, and that there will be no shortcuts. 

Over the last half century, conservatives have advanced a patient, decentralized, and clear agenda to weaken the structures and practices of democratic institutions and consolidate corporate power. Their playbook has been: get control of government — from local school boards to the Supreme Court— deregulate the economy, privatize government, undermine public programs, erode public trust, consolidate wealth via tax policy, and weaken democratic centers of power (e.g., labor unions, communities of color, and organizing groups). They use explicit and implicit racial and gender appeals to build popular support for these deeply harmful endeavors and conspire with law enforcement and the military to enforce and advance their profits-over-people world order. 

The right’s level of governing organization and discipline is impressive. Conservative reforms operate as building blocks, with each deregulation, privatization, and legal victory paving the way for further wealth accumulation and erosion of government serving the common good. They use cultural, legal, and electoral strategies as well as threats of capital strikes to advance their agenda. 

This is a winning playbook, and it has had a significant impact on both the Republican and Democratic Parties. Today, we are a society governed by corporations and the wealthy, who have amassed unprecedented levels of economic, cultural, and political power. We may be winning public opinion, and we have had some energizing policy and electoral victories. But we are still failing to institutionalize this power at a scale to match theirs. 

In order to start winning real governing power, our movement must balance short-term gains with the long-term project of building infrastructure that can contest with and beat conservative organization. For this issue of The Forge, we have invited organizers, elected officials, bureaucrats, academics, and political strategists to share stories of what it looks like to build, wield, and sustain governing power. Within the daunting landscape we just described, we asked contributors to focus on experiences and examples that offer a path toward governing power and that illuminate the challenges we face in its pursuit. Here are a few broad themes that emerged.

How we win matters. Winning elections, passing legislation, or starting new government programs are necessary to build the muscle of governing together, but they are not sufficient. The real question is, are we winning in a way that deepens relationships and trust and enhances our shared power — both within our institutions and communities and between those on the inside and those on the outside of government? One model is the deep coalition building between community organizers and progressive legislators in New York that made possible new legislation taxing corporations and the wealthy while laying the groundwork for co-governance in the years to come. Sochie Nnaemeka and Nina Luo of the New York Working Families Party tell the story of how the coalition came together, what made their victory possible, and what challenges they faced, including the need to shift the culture of organizations used to acting only through oppositional tactics.

What we win matters. Many of our contributors focus on the need to advance structural changes that enhance organizing power. Deepak Bhargava, Jamila Michener, and Connie Razza challenge the left to focus on policy feedback loops — the ways different policies create new political conditions and lay the groundwork for future political action — and to reconceptualize how we think about progress in governing. Diane Thompson, Lorelei Salas, and Ady Barkan push us to focus on the powers of regulatory and bureaucratic structures, arguing that rulemaking, comment periods, and budget allocations for government agencies are as crucial as legislative votes. There is a long list of unglamorous but critical processes — such as participatory budgeting, co-enforcement of worker protection policies, and political rule changes like fusion voting — through which we can build power for people.  

Governing is hard(er). St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones quotes Hamilton to remind us that “winning is easy, governing is harder.” Nearly all of the elected officials who contributed to this issue — particularly BIPOC elected officials and women — echoed that sentiment. Some shared stories of threats to their safety; others discussed the sometimes insurmountable challenges of governing from the minority. Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym, Durham Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, Minnesota State Representative Liz Olson, and Phoenix Vice Mayor Carlos Garcia reflect on the long time horizon needed to transform and dismantle systems shaped by racism and misogyny from the inside. Garcia reminds us that this work is a complicated dance between long-term vision and incremental change — between “holding the line and actually trying to move something forward.”

It will take all of us. Most people conceptualize politics as an individualistic and ego-driven endeavor in which there is one winner. The contributors to this issue challenge us to develop a more collaborative way of thinking about building power through a robust ecosystem of interconnected leaders, where, as Texas Organizing Project’s Crystal Zermeno puts it, “we’re sharing the vision of where we need to be and carrying the load of that work together.” We also must continue the work of building connections between social movements and governing: many of our most exciting elected officials come out of movement work, and — as we saw so clearly during the uprisings last summer — mass movements create the space for legislative, political, and structural change. 

We must build governing power everywhere. Government is not the only place to build governing power, as Roberto de la Riva shows us in his article on tenant organizing. In fact, as we seek to tear down systems designed to privilege the rich over the rest of us, we must also build democratic structures to replace them. Building robust democratic practices within our organizations, workplaces, and apartment buildings teaches us how to govern, proves we can do it, and prefigures ways to govern that advance our values.

It is easy to be cynical and hopeless about government and governing — most Americans are. For too long, government has been a tool for advancing corporate interests rather than a vehicle for popular participation. Our government is designed to serve the rich and wealthy few; too many of our hopes, dreams, and ambitions face a dead-end when brought there. On the heels of the largest protests in U.S. history, when millions took to the streets in defense of Black lives, demanding racial justice and reinvestment in communities, the federal government couldn’t even pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda is currently being hollowed out by two senators more interested in money from Big Pharma and coal than in our collective future.  

But the state is not a thing that exists separate from any of us — it is an arena that is shaped, formed, and put into action by people, money, and ideas. Those of us who strive to use government as a tool for change too often lose that clarity and treat it as a target to beat rather than an essential arena in which to contest for power. Protest and accountability politics are crucial tactics for building power, and they are not enough. As we elect more and more authentic allies into public office, strategies of collaboration and co-creation will become as important as strategies of opposition. This must start by bringing people inside and outside of government together to leverage our collective power, whether that’s in moments of opposition — as we saw so powerfully when Representative Cori Bush slept on the steps of the Capitol to protest the end of the eviction moratorium — or in moments of co-creation within the institution of government.  

The stakes are as high as they have ever been for our people and our planet. We can no longer afford a narrow focus on winning incremental policies, elections, and public opinion. The cost of such shortsightedness is the world we live in now, in which we nibble on some crumbs while the rich feast on the whole pie. We aspire for something more and better: a vibrant, multiracial, feminist democracy where we each have agency, joy, care, and safety in our lives and where government is a vehicle for making that real. Together, we must take responsibility for remaking our government and putting control back into the hands of people. Success will require us to make an honest assessment of the power we have and  develop a long-term agenda for building real governing power. We believe success is possible. All around us we see glimmers of our growing power and clarity about our path forward. By focusing our movement on winning the levers of power in our government, we can move beyond winning some rounds and take the match. 


Inside the Issue 

Ady Barkan, Lorelei Salas, and Dianne Thompson on why regulatory enforcement and implementation matter; Deepak Bhargava, Jamila Michener, Connie Razza, and Kevin Simowitz on why the left needs to take policy feedback loops seriously; Jessica Byrd, Mike Elliot, Gail Johnson, and Tishaura Jones on what co-governance looks like in practice; Greg Casar, Ana Gonzalez, Krissy O’Brien, and Crystal Zermeno on building governing power in Texas; Cindy Chavez, Lauren Jacobs, and Derecka Mehrens on co-governance during the pandemic; Roberto de la Riva on organizing tenants as a model of collective governance; Carlos Garcia Helen Gym, Jillian Johnson, Liz Olson, and Jessie Ulibarri on the transition from organizing to governing; Irene Goldínez, Danielle Walker, and Karundi Williams on being the first BIPOC women in their positions; Nina Luo and Sochie Nnaemeka on the inside-outside strategy to tax the rich in New York; and Anand Subramanian on the role of task forces in reimagining public safety.


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