When I started at Maine People’s Alliance (MPA), we couldn’t cash our checks on time. Staff meetings were held around a single picnic table. Because of the low pay, long hours, and lack of organizational power, turnover was high. We didn’t win much, but no one questioned our grassroots credentials.

Two decades later, MPA pays people promptly. We have over forty staff, a union, thousands of volunteers, nearly forty thousand members, and real victories. Our basic structure remains unchanged: a member-run board decides our policy positions and candidate endorsements; staff design programs; volunteers bring the people power necessary to win. But are we still “grassroots”? 

For most people, grassroots means small. It means a few dedicated activists overcoming well-financed opposition through sheer cleverness, hard work, and idealism. Let’s call this the romantic version of grassroots community organizing. Importantly, electoral strategies aren’t part of that romance. Small organizations can hold town halls, stage protests, and deliver services, but they will struggle to elect a single city councilor, let alone influence national politics. And if structured as a 501c3, they can’t even legally engage in most electoral activities. That’s one reason why elections and romanticized community organizing typically don’t mix. 

There is a history to this tension. The 1970s through the early 2000s could be called the romantic period of community organizing: groups were small, staff were underpaid, and they won little of national significance (particularly in terms of elections). As Gary Delgado writes, instead, “we won a hell of a lot of stop signs”: non-ideological, lowest common denominator, local, pragmatic, mini-campaigns. Conservatives went in the other direction, becoming hyper-ideological and building elaborate grassroots, communications, policy, and philanthropic infrastructure — all of which allowed them to restructure the global economy, slash taxes, shred the safety net, and put mass incarceration into overdrive. 

After George W. Bush plunged America into two wars and enacted policies that accelerated climate change and precipitated the financial crisis, it became very difficult to maintain that there is no difference between the parties or that elections don’t matter. Small did not add up. Scale matters. Elections matter. 

Over the next decade, community organizations figured out a more realistic strategy for grassroots power building, as Linda Burnham, Max Elbaum, and Maria Poblet argue in their new edited volume, Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections. In twenty-two chapters, the forty-seven contributors lay out in stunning detail the dynamics of this remarkable strategic shift, showing how community organizing became the deciding factor in American electoral politics, culminating in the 2020 elections — and why it matters. They argue for what might be called a realist view of organizing and power building.

The contributors to the volume come from all over the movement, from leaders of local organization (like Art Reyes of We the People in Michigan) to social-movement-famous people (like Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Movement for Black Lives, and Ai-Jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance) to behind-the-scenes players (like Yong Jung Cho, a mover and shaker on the Bernie campaign and the National Green New Deal Network). Together, they show how relational networks became the superpower of modern politics. They also lay out what still must change in the progressive electoral ecosystem, from the role of foundations to how we relate to the two-party system. I cannot even begin to summarize all their insights. Everyone — from radical activists looking to make sense of the midterm elections to voter file nerds hungry for raw field data — will learn something in this volume. 

In stepping back from the individual articles, three themes struck me: scale of infrastructure, scale of victory, and humility of leadership. Through those themes, the authors sketch a portrait of realist, grassroots power.

On the scale of infrastructure necessary to win, contributors in the first and third sections of the book show how a well-organized base is the most effective nucleus for mass voter contact programs and that mass voter contact programs matter far more than television ads or other tactics. In the places (like Arizona) where labor unions and  grassroots organizations built their infrastructure for years, we won; in the places (like Florida) where Democratic candidates did not align with that base, they lost — even when progressive ballot measures saw great success. And if Trump hadn’t bungled his attempt to steal the election, it would have been groups like We the People Michigan — where staff still had jobs and volunteers still had a political home after Election Day — that provided the basic infrastructure necessary to safeguard democracy. 

Importantly, building infrastructure at this scale requires reconciling a tension between mobilizing and organizing — a tension that romantic ideas about organizing can’t resolve. Mobilizing means asking lots of people to do things that have some short-term significance, like turning out to vote or showing up at an event. Organizing, however, involves building deep, long-term relationships that develop people’s skills and give members real power within organizations. Most people have an instinct for one over the other. It takes a lot of self-discipline to do both. But they work better in combination than isolation. Building a permanent group of highly developed volunteers is the best way to do mass outreach; doing mass outreach is also the best way to recruit people into a leadership development pipeline. 

Infrastructure at this scale means that not everyone in the organization will have the title “community organizer.” A realistic appraisal of what effective organizing requires means that we must also develop digital tools, policy experts, membership canvass programs, and administrative support. As far as I can tell, every contributor in this piece comes from an organization that recognizes the importance of all these disciplines.

That leads to the second point: the scale of our victories needs to get bigger. Racial and economic inequality, particularly in combination with accelerating climate change and rising authoritarianism, pose existential threats to our communities. As contributors in the second section of essays point out, communities of color won’t turn out if Democrats don’t deliver. Reparations and immigration reform cannot just be talking points. They must be tied to some kind of tangible progress. Purity politics, ideological signaling, or buzzwords invented by college professors and popularized by consultants don’t interest realist organizers either. Results — concrete improvements in people’s lives — are what we are interested in. Otherwise, voters stay at home or become vulnerable to right-wing populists. 

Realism requires relinquishing both the romance of revolution and incrementalism. Romantic revolutionaries need to get serious about winning real results, not just waiting for the people to rise up in the future. Romantic incrementalists need to give up the idea that anything we win, no matter how small, adds up in the long run — and that articulating our ultimate vision is a threat to short-term progress. The realist organizers in these essays built the power necessary to elect two US Senators in Georgia and win a massive minimum wage increase in Florida. To do so, they had to convince people to expand their idea of what is politically possible. They figured out how to make the small and big go together, without dogmatic fear of either.

Finally, the contributors point to the centrality of humble leadership. Over the last two sections of the book, contributors like Maurice Mitchell, Ryan Greenwood, and Larry Cohen all engage with the complexity of the Democratic presidential primary. They sort through the awkward dynamics of a crowded primary field, and internal conflict within and between movement organizations. All these contributors come from organizations with a legitimate, grassroots base. Yet they came to different strategic conclusions. Clearly, no one person or organization has a monopoly on truth or the magic formula for winning transformative change. Digging in, getting self-righteous, or relying on overly-rigid processes doesn’t work. The skills of humility — listening to each other, trying things, admitting mistakes, learning lessons, and then changing behavior — are what matter most. 

Prioritizing humble leadership pushes against some deeply held romantic ideas about organizing. Particularly when people first start to organize, they think that more deeply centering the leadership of directly affected people or making the organization more formally democratic or adopting a set of more equitable and inclusive internal policies will automatically result in better strategy. Those changes certainly help. But anyone who has been a part of running these processes knows that directly affected people disagree with each other, just like everyone else. In fact, the more inclusive and equitable an organization is, the more it will surface legitimate differences of opinion. Nor is it practical to vote on every little decision; in fact, that kind of micromanagement disempowers the people on the front lines doing the work (staff and volunteers alike) who have the most information about what is going on. There just is no way around the need for people to humbly develop the skills necessary to work through their differences in a forward-looking, strategic manner. 

Ryan Greenwood, former Movement Politics Director at People’s Action, nails this aspect of realist organizing. He believes Sanders lost, not because of Warren or COVID or the Democratic Party establishment, but because he (and the rest of us) failed to build organizations powerful enough to allow him to win. From the planning processes he led to the conference calls he attended, Greenwood is only interested in critiquing himself. When it comes to the work of others, he has only gratitude. Don’t mistake that for Midwestern niceness. Greenwood is just being realistic; the only behavior he can control is his own; saying “I told you so” in a book accomplishes nothing. Rather than waste energy making people defensive, he focuses on how he can change the game. Publicly blaming allies with the expectation they will change is a naive, romantic, and toxic idea. Humility, however, has a way of bringing out the best in everyone, most importantly ourselves. 

Indeed, humility is probably the key to making the shift from romance to realism. Playing small ball is easier on the ego; trying to win big things involves lots of failure. Being content with small organizations that have no power is easier than trying to build sophisticated groups for which we have no blueprint. But, as the contributors to Power Concede Nothing show, in just a decade of humble work, community organizations have fundamentally changed American politics — after forty years of not being in the game. We still need to do more. Thanks to this remarkable book, we have a much better idea of what it takes.


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