The fault lines of class, race, geography and party played out dramatically in the 2016 election, demonstrating how polarized and dysfunctional our politics has become. Our political system seems unable to address the long litany of crises facing us from climate change to extreme inequality to perpetual wars to gun violence. Politics is being fought as a zero sum game in which we are forced to choose between competing goods like growing the economy vs. fighting climate change, or immigrant rights versus the rule of law. These seemingly unresolvable policy fights reflect a deeper failure of our political system to realize the promise of democracy, where people from different points of view and persuasions are forced to recognize and negotiate their differences through public dialogue and debate. While segmented media bubbles and segregated social circles feed this kind of polarization and paralysis, organizing and coalition building especially across diverse social and class lines can reinvigorate our democratic process and develop more sophisticated policy agendas that integrate social and economic goods. This is the promise of cross-class and multi-sector coalition building that has been successful at the local level and that needs to be brought into our national politics.
The cross-class, multi-racial coalitions I have helped to organize over the past three decades came together out of necessity, with each side recognizing that it can’t accomplish its goals without the others. This includes a faith-based organizing project in Springfield Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley Project, which involves poor, working-class and middle-class union and congregational members from the city and suburbs. More recently I helped to organize a cooperative business development organization, Wellspring, that is creating jobs and wealth with underemployed city residents. Members include professionals representing area hospitals and colleges as well as formerly unemployed and underemployed members of our cooperative businesses. Participants in these coalitions are pragmatic, agreeing to disagree about many issues so they can work together around shared goals. Participants are also drawn by the opportunity to get to know and work with others from different social and class backgrounds given high levels of workplace and residential segregation. These are long-term coalitions, not just reactions to the polarization and politics of the moment but organized to build power to redistribute resources and achieve systemic change.
These coalitions teach some important lessons about cross-class coalition building. Working-class participants bring immediate interests such as for employment, safety, affordable housing and improved education, while middle-class partners bring their values to work for social justice, their ideas about social change, and their professional roles in their organizations. Class differences are expressed as well in assumptions about how to achieve change, and particularly in differing attitudes about conflict versus education-based change. Accountability sessions with officials, where they are asked to answer yes or no to specific policy proposals, inevitably highlighted these differences. Where working-class and marginalized people found this accountability empowering, middle-class participants inevitably found them too confrontational and wanted a more negotiated process. This reflects both the different levels of urgency groups feel about issues, but also class-cultural differences. For the middle-class, especially the professional middle-class, ideas have efficacy in carrying out their work and operating in orderly suburban or similarly well-served neighborhoods. By contrast working-class and marginalized groups often confront arbitrary authority at work and in their communities that they are glad to confront. These experiences translate into assumptions about how change happens. See Coalitions Across the Class Divide.
Class differences bring strengths that contribute to more effective and integrated agendas and social change strategies. This is illustrated by the Pioneer Valley Project’s education organizing in Springfield which brought together middle-class teachers with working-class parents who are often divided in low-income communities where parents blame teachers for underperforming schools. At the time the city was in receivership and the state had taken control of contract negotiations for city employees. Governor Romney was trying to end teacher seniority in the contract and was publicly blaming teachers for low performing schools. But because teachers and parents were in the same coalition in the Pioneer Valley Project the issue was framed differently, and parents supported a fair contract for teachers because they understood that improving conditions for teachers would improve the quality of education for their children. Teachers then agreed to participate in a home visit program to bridge the racial and class divisions between teachers and parents, something teachers had resisted prior to the contract campaign. But through that fight teachers recognized the value of parent support. Home visits would build relationships and educate teachers and families about each other, recognizing that this could provide the basis for further organizing in the future. Participation in this cross-class coalition lead to the development of a shared agenda and a more integrated organizing strategy.
These local cross-class and multi-cultural coalitions are effective because they are built on long-term relationships, they provide direct experiences where participants learn from each other and integrate agendas, and they respond to opportunities and events in their communities. They serve as schools for democracy that bring people into a meaningful political process where they can improve their quality of life and expand their sense of community to include others not like them. In a similar way, Wellspring is engaging working and middle-class members and their organizations in economic change, something that participants generally feel powerless to impact. In both cases, organization is key – organizations create the power to act and to learn together. Individuals acting alone have far fewer options and face choices framed by others rather than shaping these choices themselves.
These processes are difficult to replicate at the national level, especially within electoral campaigns where relationships are superficial and generally not sustained after the campaign is done. Voters are rightly cynical about candidates showing up every four years to promise great things, and then not being heard from again until the next election. This leads to unstable electoral coalitions driven by money, media, and personalities in contrast with the stable, long-term experience of local coalitions. Ideally, national campaigns can bring together strong local coalitions in a meaningful process where issues are negotiated based on local experiences. However building this kind of base is a long process and doesn’t respond to the urgent immediate need for political change.
While long-term base building needs to continue, what is needed at the national level is a permanent campaign that draws on the lessons of local coalition building. This permanent campaign can’t go home between elections but needs to sustain relationships, and needs to create a bottom up learning process to draw agendas and strategies from the grass-roots. A permanent campaign must be intentionally cross-class and cannot shy away from controversial issues. It can’t ignore, for instance, the plight of working-class communities that will lose jobs from the shift away from the petroleum economy or towards a peace economy. If ignored, these groups will make common cause with corporate interests, as the Trump campaign succeeded in doing with white working-class communities. A permanent cross-class campaign needs to identify and reach out to impacted communities and organize with them. Local cross-class and multi-cultural coalitions can show the way here. They can teach a national campaign about the power of a reinvigorated democracy where working across differences is a source of strength, and participants are willing to learn to go beyond their entrenched positions to build a more inclusive politics.