Friday, July 06, 2007

Mark Schmitt on How People Can Organize and Aggregate Power

Yesterday, Mark Schmitt commented at TPMCafe on two other posts, one by Nathan Newman on campaign finance reform, and another by Dan Cantor of the Working Families Party on fusion voting (The Working Families Party is also included in our report on contributions to progressive strategy, "Finding Strategy").

He is not just agreeing with both of them, but uses his commentary to argue that they represent an important and new way of
thinking about the political process, and steps toward reform, that puts people back in -- people, and the possibilities of organized power.
His emphasis on how to enhance the capacity of people to organize and aggregate power is very relevant for our project. The question of how to aggregate power is of particular interest for our project, because most strategies rarely address it. How can progressives accumulate power over time?

I have included the below excerpts to illustrate his approach, and have annotated them from the perspective of our project:

Money, organization, collective debate and action is not bad for democracy but precisely what makes it work:
It's the fundamental hostility to politics that reformers of democracy are prone to. They tend to hold an implicit view of democracy as a process of isolated rational decision-making that must be shielded from bad influences -- money, organized groups, passion.

But those are the very things that make democracy work: participation, and the ability of people to exercise power collectively, to debate and act together. If you see the question in those terms, then things that enhance people's ability to organize and aggregate their power -- whether it is the Wisconsin Right to Life committee or ACORN or a union or the Sierra Club or a political party or moveon.org -- become the solution, not the problem.
Schmitt hopes that progressives will manage to build broader coalitions to move beyond "single-issue politics." But he cautions that such coalitions are fragile, whereas a party is "the ultimate coalition," with the ballot line being a key asset. Fusion voting appears to be an effective way of using that asset:
There will be issue groups, of course, on the right and left, trying desperately to use money and/or membership to be heard, and sometimes being effective. And there will be attempts at broader coalitions, like moveon.org and USAction, and I think (hope) the trend is toward broader progressive coalitions and away from single-issue politics. That's long overdue. But such coalitions, especially at the state level, are fragile, they demand continued energy and there are always as many forces pulling people away as pulling them together. But over time it becomes apparent that the ultimate coalition is a political party. A party is not a letterhead alliance; it's a substantive ongoing operation with a significant asset: a line on the ballot. With fusion, it can share that line or use it for its own purposes. The party can exist both within and outside of the other major parties, as the Working Families Party does in New York. It is a way of organizing people's political passion and power that, for a change, does not depend completely on money.
At the end, he makes a very important suggestion:
The first thing we should ask about any reform is, does it help or hurt the ability of citizens to organize themselves in a political context?
So the challenge for progressive strategy is to generate reforms that not only achieve their substantive goals, but do so in a way that enhances peoples' collective capacity for political organization. Strategy in this sense is as much about process as it is about objectives. This indeed appears to be crucial when it comes to aggregating power in the long run.

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