George Goehl is the executive director of National People’s Action Campaign, a network of metropolitan and statewide organizations that are building independent political power to advance racial and economic justice.
In Democratic Promise, his landmark account of the populist movement, historian Lawrence Goodwyn describes achieving collective self-confidence as a critical benchmark for powerful democratic movements. He rightly argues that reaching this psychological tipping point allows social movements to grow exponentially.
Congressional gridlock and austerity have not just expanded inequality in our nation; they have constrained people’s sense of possibility, undermining faith in politics as a means for creating change and in the idea of government as an equalizer in our society.
As a result, these days progressives can build collective self-confidence by starting where we have the most leverage: in the cities. Twenty-seven of the nation’s thirty largest cities voted blue in 2012. In itself, this does not constitute transformative change, but it does present a battlefield for creating next-generation policies and for recruiting candidates to run on a “people and planet first” agenda. And as citizens benefit from this agenda, their faith in politics and in good government will grow.
Our work in cities needs to be part of a plan to shift the politics of state governments, which control too much money and too many rules to ignore. If we can energize a sizable base in a state’s major cities, we are positioned to flip the politics of that entire state.
The focus on cities as a central arena of struggle is already under way. But it’s unclear whether we can move from approaches designed to patch up the old economy toward ones that reorganize it altogether.
Two of the more game-changing and inspirational structural reforms in US history grew out of local struggle: the National Labor Relations Act and the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). By providing the laws necessary for workers to bargain successfully with their employers and communities to bargain with their banks, these reforms improved people’s lives and codified systemic changes in power relations between everyday people and the owners of capital. With investment reform, for example, local laws first forced banks to disclose which communities they were taking deposits from and making (or not making) loans to. These ordinances then allowed communities to pressure banks to move credit into redlined neighborhoods, providing the framework for the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (1975). This paved the way in turn for passage of the CRA two years later.
Now that inequality is squarely in the national conversation, we must call for reforms that shift control of the economy away from corporate giants. Here are two examples that will move us in that direction:
§ Corporations currently pass along the costs of their employees’ suppressed wages to the taxpayer. Soon, activists with National People’s Action and Jobs With Justice will be introducing “Bad Business Fee” legislation in cities and states. This would require corporations providing poverty wages and substandard benefits either to increase those wages or pay a hefty penalty to a local fund controlled by a board of workers and community members. Wherever it’s passed, the fee would provide new leverage for workers—whether unionized or not—negotiating with their corporate employers.