The cataclysmic nature of 2020 suggests a window of possibility for previously unimaginable leaps toward (or away from) our goals. Indeed, there is no shortage of policies that need enacting, enforcing, reforming, or repealing to better the lives of Black people, immigrants, and people with low incomes, and all of us. We should do all that we can to win as many of those changes as possible, particularly in the case of a Biden presidency when the chances are significantly greater that they could be realized.
But as we consider what to advocate for, we need to prioritize winning power not just policy, and we must understand our campaigns, policy solutions, litigation, research–all of our work–not as demands on powerful people, but as building blocks of power for marginalized constituencies. As we aim to address the symptoms of deliberate and self-reinforcing imbalances of power, we must also address the root causes–those very imbalances of power themselves. We must stay doggedly focused on winning power that is equitably distributed, justly enacted, and democratically governed.
Running policy campaigns consumes a lot of power, whether we win or not. Indeed, we build power through organizing in part to expend it in these vital fights, which meaningfully improve the lives of people who have been harmed by the policies and politics of wealth-and-power concentration. Particularly when our power is limited by the policies and practices of interests against our own, we demonstrate its depths in order to leverage it for these gains. But this kind of issue-by-issue campaigning too often depletes our power (leaving us with less for winning other necessary measures) and puts us into the kind of trade-offs sweepstakes during which we negotiate against ourselves over what we get and when, with the assumption that we have one bite at the apple. Furthermore, this approach keeps us from thinking across our issues to the kinds of changes that could boost the power of the movement as a whole.
So what if we plant an orchard, rather than bite an apple?
In collaboration with Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Deepak Bhargava over the past several months, I have been in conversations with progressive organizations that develop and fight for policy change about increasing our power–our ability to enact our vision of an equitable, just, democratic nation–while meeting the immediate needs of their members, particularly in Black and brown communities.
Crucially, this approach of leveraging our current power to enact policies that themselves generate power–“policy feedback loops” in the political science parlance–can create experiences of government of, by, and for the people most targeted by the extractive and exclusive racial capitalist policies that undergird the nation’s history and its recent neoliberal valence. While neoliberals aim to liberate corporations and the wealthy from the regulation of government, they have constrained communities of Black people, immigrants, and low-income and low-wealth folks. And they’ve carried out both parts of this Bizarro-World liberation project (for corporations and the wealthy, at the expense of our communities) through their own policy feedback loops.
Through a progressive approach to designing policy feedback loops with communities and their organizations, we can create and win policies that both meet the immediate material needs and redistribute political and economic power more equitably.
Unemployment insurance in the time of COVID provides an example of how we can think about buttressing policies that meet immediate needs with power generating features. The federal boost to unemployment insurance benefits in the COVID relief packages was an important and necessary intervention for both working people and for our economy at large, and it is a policy we need to renew. But this crisis presents an opportunity to address how our unemployment insurance system concentrates power in the hands of employers.
For instance, the common implementation of unemployment insurance allows employers to deny the claims of workers who would receive benefits. The current crisis has led many more people to understand that employees should be able to receive benefits even if they need to refuse available but unsafe work, as is permissible, for instance, in Michigan. Political circumstances are ripe for aiming for a deeper restructuring. As we dilute power held by employers, we can also build power for workers’ organizations through how we implement unemployment insurance. One way would be to provide subsidies to worker organizations to serve as “unemployment navigators,” connecting jobless workers to benefits, while also creating opportunities for membership in powerful organizations. Additionally, the subsidies provide resources to organizations that advance and protect the lives and rights of workers.
Over the years, I have participated in many conversations about the crucial role renewing faith in government plays in being able to move the agenda we need to better the lives of those most targeted by racial capitalism and neoliberalism. Indeed, in the past 55 years, public trust in government has dropped from nearly 80 percent at the beginning of the Johnson administration to 20 percent in summer 2020, according to Pew Research Center. Often we couch the solution as a narrative shift and, certainly, we need to tell a more coherent and simpler story about our relationship to government. But we must also face the fact that many people have reason to feel that the government does not work for them. Centuries into a political economy designed to strip power, resources, and personhood from Black, indigenous, another non-white and non-propertied people and decades into the conservative plan to further derange the role of government in people’s lives, we also need to undertake the work of recreating our government as the vehicle through which we together can accomplish what we alone could not–whether that is building bridges, educating citizens (most broadly defined), or recovering from a global health crisis.