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Playing the Long Game

While the pundits gnaw the bones of Election 2014, Gar Alperovitz looks at the positive possibilities.

The 2014 midterms did not change the dominant reality we face – one of substantial ongoing political stalemate and decay – and this sets the terms of reference for those serious about long-term fundamental change.

There have been endless post-mortems on the 2014 midterm elections, complete with explanations proffered as to why Democrats and their allies failed so spectacularly, and projections of doom and gloom lasting until the next election cycle. However, in a profound sense this election changes very little. The dominant reality we face is one of substantial ongoing political stalemate and decay, and this sets the terms of reference for those serious about long term, more fundamental change.

First things first: There is little indication that, even when elected, Democrats employing traditional liberal strategies will have the capacity to change most of the deteriorating or stagnating economic, social, and environmental trends – including, among others: rising inequality, high levels of poverty and child poverty, continued discrimination against women and minorities, declining corporate taxation, staggering levels of incarceration, increasing corruption of the political system and a rapidly changing climate.

Nonetheless, holding the line nationally and in state legislatures whenever possible is an obvious necessity. Progressive “victories” will likely most often be limited to resisting Republican efforts to roll back the limited successes of the Obama era – including Obamacare and financial reform – and protecting important Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and food assistance from further attack.

The real action must inevitably be at the local level. “The mayoral and council class of 2013,” Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson writes, “is one of the most progressive cohorts of elected officials in recent American history.” In cities like New York (de Blasio), Boston (Walsh), Pittsburgh (Peduto), Minneapolis (Hodges), Seattle (Murray) and Santa Fe (Gonzales), opportunities for advances on minimum wage, universal Pre-K, paid sick leave, unionization of low-income workers and other issues are opening up.

In a sense, however, even this is still mainly about modest efforts around the long decaying trends. In a much larger sense, it is clear that we no longer face a political problem that can be solved by electing the right people in the next local, state or national election. The deeper trends indicate that we face systemic problems – problems that can be solved only by building a movement that embraces a long-term vision of alternative systemic arrangements in addition to achievable short-term goals.

Importantly – and precisely because of the stagnation and stalemate now endemic to the system­­­­­­­­­­ – we are beginning to see the emergence of elements that begin to suggest such a long-term vision. Over the last several years – since the 2008/2009 financial crisis in particular – new departures suggest possibilities in many potential areas.

Some cities, for instance, are beginning to look beyond traditional progressive policies to experiment with ways to democratize wealth and ownership in order to help stabilize the local economy. Recently, Santa Fe mayor Javier Gonzales announced that the city was moving forward with a study on how to create a public bank, explaining that the city’s existing provider of financial services, Wells Fargo, “take[s] city revenues, taxpayer dollars, and [uses] those dollars as part of a loan portfolio for folks outside of Santa Fe and New Mexico.”

The Boulder, Colorado city council – with repeated support from local residents at the ballot box and in the teeth of tremendous opposition from the existing provider, Xcel Energy – has pressed forward with efforts to form a publicly-owned utility in order to increase environmental sustainability and the use of renewable energy. In Richmond, California – under the leadership of former Green Party Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and with support from local community groups – the city council voted twice in recent years to use eminent domain to force major banks to stop foreclosures and provide relief for struggling homeowners with underwater mortgages. (Notably, in one of the few bright spots in the recent election, McLaughlin’s progressive “Team Richmond” slate defeated Chevron’s extremely well-funded corporate challenge.)

Other cities are also beginning to take a more fundamental wealth-shifting systemic approach. In Jackson, Mississippi, the late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba intended to rebuild the city’s crumbling economy through a variety of cooperative enterprises and initiatives. While his untimely death limited some policy options, his supporters are continuing to pursue the agenda at the local level. In Jacksonville, Florida, Mayor Alvin Brown is moving ahead with efforts to develop a more equitable economy in several traditionally disenfranchised neighborhoods. And in Richmond, Virginia, Mayor Dwight Jones has created an “Office of Community Wealth Building” to coordinate multiple efforts to address critical issues such as housing, education, transportation, jobs, and economic development.

There is also ongoing development and experimentation around a variety of other strategies designed to democratize ownership, stabilize communities economically and geographically, and build institutional power. Even as labor union membership has steadily declined from 34.5 percent of the labor force in the early 1950s to just 11.3 percent today, the number of people working in worker-owned or partly worker-owned companies that “democratize capital” (commonly organized as Employee Stock Ownership Plans) has increased from 250,000 in 1975 to more than 10 million now. There is also steadily developing experimentation with worker-co-ops, and, in recent years, growing support for this form from labor unions.

The Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative (CUCI) is a union backed effort in Ohio that includes Our Harvest Co-op (an urban farm and food hub), Sustainergy (an energy retrofitting cooperative), a jewelry makers co-op, Yuki Cookies (a bakery cooperative), Renting Partnerships (a non-profit focused on housing rights), and Apple Street Market (a worker-community owned grocery store). Other important new directions include community wind and solar projects like the “Seattle City Light Community Solar” initiative which allows community members to invest in local solar arrays in public areas; and the Cashton Greens Wind Farm in Wisconsin – a community wind partnership between the Organic Valley Cooperative and the Gunderson Health System.

More complex models have also emerged in various parts of the country. In Cleveland, there is an impressive group of ecologically sustainable worker-owned companies, linked together with a community-building nonprofit corporation and a revolving fund designed to help create more and more such linked, community-building cooperative businesses as time goes on. Part of the design involves getting big hospitals and universities (local “anchors”) to agree to purchase some part of their needs from the worker-owned companies with the goal of not simply worker ownership, but worker ownership linked to a community-building strategy.

Further innovative wealth-democratizing strategies that begin to suggest possible elements of a longer-term systemic vision include community land trusts, social enterprises, benefit corporations, municipal ownership of land and utilities, community development financial institutions, local food systems and currencies, local investing, community development corporations and many more.

Nor should we forget the likelihood of further banking crises, given the loopholes lobbyists have left in the regulatory apparatus and the continued prevalence of Too-Big-To-Fail financial institutions. It is time to be prepared not only with proposals to break up the big banks in the event of another crisis, but for new attempts at public ownership along lines suggested by various analysts (including, notably, Lawrence Summers who, it has been recently revealed, argued in favor of bank nationalizations in 2008/2009).

There is also the prospect down the line that the auto industry or other systemically important large-scale sectors will again go into crisis – opening up possibilities to begin to put forth proposals for joint public and worker-owned companies instead of the kinds of nationalizations that return everything to the corporations that created the problems in the first place.

The history of the progressive era, the New Deal and the civil rights movement suggests that it is well within the range of possibility that a movement with a long-term vision based on innovative experimentation can successfully lay the groundwork for far-reaching national change. Such a movement could ensure that successful local developments become commonplace, thus disrupting current institutional economic and political arrangements and building constituencies and institutions as a base for a longer term transformation. Serious engagement with this challenge – rather than listening to endless, repetitive commentary on the election – is where a real response to the growing crisis is to be found.

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