Yes, the Democrats, as Robert Reich recently wrote, need to transform from a corporate-powered party to a people-powered party. But what do people-powered institutions, which a people-powered party must fight for, actually look like?
The Democrats, for decades, have supported the social institutions of neoliberalism. They have upheld an economy owned by giant, highly centralized corporations, largely free from antitrust enforcement. And they have supported a government of technocratic managers who see their only legitimate roles as handing the public sector over to the private, corporate sector and tinkering with the rules of the corporate markets to try to create fairness around the edges of the corporate economy. All the while, the corporate economy drives further and further concentration of economic and political wealth and power.
Transforming the Democrats toward people power means abandoning these institutions of neoliberalism — a government that aids and abets corporate economic and political power — in favor of people-powered institutions.
People power means democracy. And democracy must be embedded within all of our society’s institutions, rather than only taking the form of a supposedly representative government that tries to regulate our society’s other non-democratic institutions. We need a new vision for democracy that extends to the economy and provides rights for all of us to participate in making the decisions that drive the institutions that shape our society.
Above all, people power must serve the main goal of creating a world that values the full humanity of people of all races, genders, sexualities, religions and nationalities. And if we are serious about creating a world that values everybody’s full humanity, we must provide material and cultural reparations to those harmed most by the current system — Indigenous people, Black people, women, LGBTQ people — so that everyone can fully participate as equals in a reimagined democratic society.
Pushing for People Power in the Next Infrastructure Bill
Though Democrats lost the presidency and both chambers of Congress, they can start a transformation toward people power right now by designing and organizing around a national infrastructure bill that puts these ideals into practice. They can also organize campaigns in big cities, where Democrats hold power, to reorganize public spending priorities to support people-powered institutions.
President Donald Trump will need to pass an infrastructure bill, despite potentially significant opposition from anti-public-spending Republicans, in order to create a meaningful amount of new jobs. The Democrats should not simply support Trump’s preferred version of the bill, whatever that ends up being. Instead, they should argue for a huge injection of public spending — on a scale larger than even Bernie Sanders’ proposed — $1 trillion over 10 years, and possibly using creative monetary policy, like quantitative easing for the people. The public contracts should go to people-powered institutions — preferably worker cooperatives, community land trusts and community-owned renewable energy cooperatives — rather than to the standard small number of wealthy corporations that typically win public contracts and benefit from government development policies.
Through this kind of infrastructure bill, the Democrats can develop a program to transition to a people-powered renewable energy economy, make our basic infrastructure more ecologically sustainable, begin to create ecologically sustainable transportation infrastructure, such as like electrified high-speed rail, and begin to create affordable and community-controlled housing — all while beginning to transform our economy from one owned by the wealthy elite to one that is owned by as many of us as possible. In short, the Democrats can work toward the goal of aligning themselves with the people, rather than continuing to largely cater to the wealthy and their corporations.
Models for People-Powered Institutions Already Exist
When skeptics try to portray progressive efforts to push for a people-powered infrastructure bill as unrealistic, we must insist on the practicality and feasibility of this transformation. People-powered institutions have already begun to take many different specific forms, thanks to the work of groups like the New Economy Coalition around the country.
People-powered institutions include cooperative businesses, which can replace the current corporations that are owned and controlled by a small number of financial investors. People-powered institutions also include cooperatively owned banks, such as credit unions and community land trusts. People-powered institutions can also include different forms of city ownership. For example, cities can own utilities and thus make decisions about producing renewable energy (like Boulder, Colorado, is trying to do) and provide high-speed, low-cost Internet (like Chattanooga, Tennessee has done). Cities can also own the land under and near transit projects, so that taxpayers can retain the value produced by creating public transit, rather than allowing it to be privatized as corporate property for no economic reason.
People power also means allowing communities and cities to directly decide how to spend all of this public money through participatory budgeting. And where action is needed at the national level, people power can take the form of public ownership of industries where markets fail, like health insurance and education.
And people-power must include rules for fair elections. We need automatic voter registration for everyone, a national Election Day holiday, more voting precincts and anything else needed to remove all practical barriers to voting. And the key to fair elections is public financing of elections, preferably through something like the public voucher system Seattle recently created.
People Power as the Answer to Antiestablishmentism
Over the long run, people power is the only way to truly defeat the kind of authoritarianism that Donald Trump represents. Today, most Americans are disenfranchised politically and economically. This has widely discredited all of our institutions, which so many of us haven’t trusted for a while.
For many, the establishment means all of the dominant institutions of our society — including government, business, media and educational institutions. All of our institutions are all highly centralized and authoritarian in structure. They impact millions of people, while rights to institutional decision-making are reserved for a small number of people. And the opportunity to become one of the privileged decision-makers is heavily biased by race, wealth and social connections.
Trump has rallied support by promising that he personally will smash and reshape the establishment. His authoritarianism will fail all people marginalized by the current system, though he — and Republicans — might be able to retain power for a time by stoking racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and nationalism. Democrats might be able to win elections while remaining committed to neoliberalism, if they can find another charismatic presidential candidate. But authoritarianism will always remain a threat, so long as our society’s core institutions remain distrusted and delegitimized.
Both Democrats and Republicans have systematically avoided for decades confronting head-on the social crises created by the ever-concentrating control of political and economic power.
Instead, politicians of both parties have tried to create coalitions around nationalism, Islamophobia, the so-called culture wars, coded anti-Black and anti-immigrant racism, and the myth of the entrepreneur, which produces a divisive politics that basically nobody feels positive about. Politicians from both parties lionize the entrepreneur, casting poverty and general lack of material success as an individual shortcoming, a narrative that erases the structural privilege corporate elites have erected for themselves, along with the wealth impact of the enslavement of Black people for centuries, and genocidal land theft from Indigenous people. The rhetoric also erases the structurally racist policies that have continued to maintain, in the decades since the World Wars, the giant wealth gap enjoyed by white people compared to people of any other race.
This rhetorical emphasis on the individual, rather than on the structures within which we, as individuals, exist, stokes all forms of xenophobia. It encourages everyone to personalize their own material situations — and to look for other individuals, not systems, that have gotten in their way. Over past decades, it has justified the bipartisan policies that materially oppress the most marginalized people in our society — endless wars on drugs and terror, mass incarceration and mass deportation, which is administered by a dystopian government agency called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that both Democrats and Republicans have legitimized.
Given the lack of control that most of us have over the big structural forces in our lives — and the xenophobic rhetoric both parties have used, though to different degrees, to distract us from this for decades — we shouldn’t be surprised that Trump, who promises to change things, has such significant support. Even when Trump does not remake our institutions — and if we can somehow avoid the mass xenophobic violence authoritarians often employ to distract people from their failures — authoritarian populism will not disappear with Trump. It will remain a powerful political force, capable of being remobilized by the right charismatic leader, so long as our core social institutions continue to disenfranchise us politically and economically.
Of course, the Democratic Party will never be the answer to all of society’s injustices. Progressives of all stripes must begin dreaming of and organizing around real solutions right now. We need to decentralize political and economic power. We need a society that is actually of the people, for the people and by the people. We need people-powered institutions.