Understanding Power Dynamics in Cross-Class Coalitions

By Hahrie Han

As the daughter of Korean immigrants in Texas, I grew up knowing that to get what I wanted, I often had to find a way to translate across difference. Cultural, racial, linguistic, and socio-economic differences distinguished my family from the families of most of my classmates. Although I did not have the words to articulate it at the time, I implicitly recognized that the meanings and sensibilities I had were not always legible to my peers. Although I studied their world, they did not study mine. To fit in and negotiate the social dynamics of high school, I had to find ways to either make my world legible to them, or assimilate into theirs. In most cases, because they were many and I was one, because they were the norm and I was the outsider, because they had the weight of history behind them and I was a callow teenager, I assimilated.

Low-income constituencies seeking to work in coalition with professional, middle-class and elite activists face a related challenge. Like I did in high school, low-income constituencies often face the pressure to assimilate when they work in coalition with their more privileged counterparts. In the context of movement work, these pressures for assimilation can manifest themselves as repertoires of behavior and action within the coalition, understandings of power, and implicit or explicit metrics used to develop strategy and evaluate success. Can cross-class coalitions create conditions that make it possible to work across class lines in ways that do not diminish or ignore the interests of low-income and other intersectionally disadvantaged constituencies?

I am currently working with Elizabeth McKenna, Michelle Oyakawa, and other students in my P3 lab to collect data on a set of observational case studies that examine (among other things) the way these dynamics unfold in a set of local and state-based movements for change in the United States. Based on those cases, I offer a few reflections on the patterns we are seeing. Doing field research, however, means that things get messy before they get clean. Because we are still in the messy phase, the reflections offered here are necessarily preliminary.

Understanding power dynamics in cross-class coalitions

The first thing to understand about creating these cross-class coalitions is that the middle and high-income activists can be conceptualized as organizing targets for the low-income constituencies, just as opponents might be. In 1960, E.E. Schattschneider famously argued in The Semisovereign People that politics could be understood as the “socialization of conflict” (38), or an effort by those with less power to broaden the scope of conflict to ensure that those with more power do not necessarily prevail. While private interests who hold institutional power might prefer back room deals, organized groups of ordinary people who lacked such power needed to socialize conflict to tip the scales in their favor.

Although Schattschneider’s analysis focused primarily on the asymmetric power relationship of business interests relative to public interests, his insights are also relevant to cross-class coalitions (or at least who focus their efforts on the state as a source of change; not all movements do). In these coalitions, low-income constituencies are constantly working in a position of asymmetric power disadvantage not only with respect to their opposition, but also with respect to the more socioeconomically advantaged constituencies they may ally with. As Schattschneider argued, those without power need those allies to broaden the scope of conflict and build power.

Thus, low-income constituencies often have to work in coalition with socioeconomically more advantaged activists to build the power they need for the changes they want (naturally, these socioeconomic dynamics are only exacerbated for communities of color or intersectionally marginalized constituencies). Working with middle-class and elite activists can bring a stream of material resources low-income movements need, but perhaps more importantly, they bring recognition and legitimacy. Consider the important role northern white allies played in the Civil Rights Movement, the role that the Parkland students are playing in legitimating the call for action on gun violence prevention that communities of color have been advocating for years, or the research on the disproportionate influence of wealthy interests over poor ones.

Low-income constituencies thus have to strategically organize the middle and high-income activists just as they would organize around opponents. In doing so, they have to be clear that their power within those coalitions comes from their constituency. As one of our interviewees said, “[Our organization] does not get power from proximity to elites. Our power comes from our people.” Instead of building “power over,” they are building “power with” these allies. The question is whether low-income constituencies can broaden the scope of conflict and create power with these allies without unstrategically diluting their own interests (sometimes it is strategic to compromise). History is not optimistic. As Dara Strolovitch argues in her excellent book, even in progressive organizations, those with structural power are more likely to see their interests represented in the choices of that organization.

Can cross-class coalitions work?

In preliminary reflections on our case studies, we are seeing that managing class tensions within coalitions is a struggle for all of our organizations. All of the organizations we are studying value the range of backgrounds constituents bring. Even with that intention, however, more professional, middle-class perspectives can get prioritized. Nonetheless, all of the organizations grapple with it, and we are seeing three characteristics that are shared across our cases that seem to enable these organizations to work more effectively in coalition and uphold the interests of low-income constituencies than they otherwise might.

First, the low-income constituency in the organization has a strong sense of its own collective consciousness. Too often, fearful of asking too much of low-income people, organizations shy away from entering into deep relationship with these constituencies, stymieing hope of creating the kind of collective bonds that build an authentic constituency. Without these bonds or this collective consciousness, the low-income constituents become props instead of agents of change. The organizations that we are studying all worked to create deep relational commitments amongst low-income constituencies in a way that created collective consciousness that enabled strategic imagination about a different world.

Second, the leaders of the organization are strongly accountable to their constituencies. In some cases, leaders are grounded because they came from the constituency itself. In other cases, however, even leaders who do not come from the constituency are grounded by lines of accountability that ensure they keep the constituencies’ interests at the center. As one of our interviewees put it,  “We were not going to cut a deal and inform our people of the deal we cut. We’re wielding our base and demonstrating an accountability to it.” In most cases, these lines of accountability are not formalized; they often operate through informal peer networks, and horizontal lines of accountability to other leaders.

Third, in negotiating to keep the interests of the low-income constituents at the center of the coalitions with which they were working, the organizational leaders all use repertoires of action that simultaneously mimic and challenge behaviors of professional political organizations. Similar to the organizations Lis Clemens describes in her book, they borrow tropes and tactics around electoral behavior and protest that are common to twenty-first century political organizations, but also recreate those tactics on their own terms.

We are seeing that organizations with these characteristics—a low-income constituency with a strong collective identity, accountable leaders, and the creativity to borrow but recreate familiar organizational repertoires—are better able to build cross-class coalitions in which they dynamically negotiate to keep interests of their low-income constituents at the center. The key, however, is to recognize that the deal is never done. Instead, just as it was for me in high school, it is a constant and unending negotiation to avoid the pressures toward assimilation.



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