Delivering the (Common) Goods

Democracy is about much more than casting a vote. A response to Deepak Bhargava, Shahrzad Shams, and Harry Hanbury.

By Lauren Jacobs Stephen Lerner Joseph A. McCartin

Tagged LaborOrganizingpolitics

We’re pleased to join the debate between “deliverists” David Dayen and Matt Stoller and their critics, Deepak Bhargava, Shahrzad Shams, and Harry Hanbury. This debate pushes us all to think more clearly about democracy’s crisis and what must be done if we are to build the kind of democratic future we need. We’d like to share our thinking based on our experience wrestling with the issues central to this debate through Lauren’s leadership at PowerSwitch Action and more than two decades organizing with unions and worker centers, Stephen’s long history in union organizing, Joe’s work as a historian, and our shared work on Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG), a national network of unions and community organizations trying to build forms of worker power that can meet the challenges of twenty-first-century capitalism.

Let’s first appreciate Stoller and Dayen’s insights. We believe that their idea of “deliverism” is a significant and useful intervention. They developed deliverism as a counterpoint to the electoral strategy of “popularism” championed by David Shor, the data guru from the progressive polling analysis and strategy shop Blue Rose Research, whose ideas have had a strong grip on the minds of Democratic Party strategists in recent years. Shor argues that the Democratic Party has become too unrepresentative at its elite levels, both ideologically and demographically, to retain mass popular support. If it hopes to continue to win elections, its leaders must “cater to the preference” of its key demographic constituencies as revealed by polling and modeling, specifically avoiding the kinds of discussions of race, immigration, and climate issues that might alienate moderates. Stoller and Dayen wisely resist the short-termism of popularism. While Shor is right that parties exist to win elections, to accomplish significant things they have to do more than win; they have to deliver the goods to their constituencies. In that respect, we agree with Stoller and Dayen that “moving past neoliberalism” must be a “policy project” that delivers.

Yet how policies are shaped and achieved, and who shapes and achieves them, matters in ways that Stoller and Dayen don’t address. While crafting policies that deliver enough to voters to win elections is a necessary goal, it is not sufficient, as Bhargava, Shams, and Hanbury make clear in their critique. As they observe, there is rarely a straightforward cause-and-effect relationship between delivering the goods and winning the political support of those who’ve received those goods. Because Stoller and Dayen focus on Shor’s question—how can Democrats win more elections?—deliverism ends up being just as technocratic on the how/who question as popularism, and just as narrowly focused on election victories as its measure of success.

The how/who question is vital, and not only because people are “fully capable of supporting progressive economic policies while voting for authoritarians,” as Bhargava et al. argue. The two most important periods of twentieth-century policy delivery, the New Deal and the Great Society, suggest that once relatively secure constituents begin to win what they want from government, they are tempted to believe that any further expansion of goods-delivery (say, to those whose needs haven’t yet been met) will come at their expense. It is no coincidence that the midterm elections of 1938 and 1966, which brought the expansion of the New Deal and the Great Society respectively to a halt, came after culminating policy breakthroughs like the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 and Medicare in 1965.

Like the rhesus monkeys in Harry Harlow’s experiment, the brilliant metaphor employed by Bhargava et al., once people are temporarily sated, they are tempted by the warm embrace of the milkless “cloth mother.” In American history that cloth mother has often assumed the form of a backlash politics, providing the semblance of a refuge for those who fear that their whiteness or manhood is losing its value, those who worry that what little they have might be taken away by those with power or given to those with less, and those who resent depending for their milk on a fickle mechanism they don’t control.

On that point, we think Dayen and Stoller miss something important about our opponents in the current struggle. They do not resemble traditional conservatives; they are far more extreme, and their appeals are much less aimed at material concerns like taxes and regulation. They appeal to deep emotions, offer a compelling worldview and a movement culture, and are working to create a powerful sense of “we” among their followers that they can weaponize against democracy itself. Policy gains delivered in a vacuum, even profound ones, offer no culture, no “we.”

Bhargava et al. are right that combating the siren call of that antidemocratic “we” requires “a progressive program and organizing strategy that speak directly and persuasively” to these fears and anxieties, offering tangible, consciousness-shifting experiences of the truly sustaining warmth of real solidarity, not its cloth-mother imitation. Such experiences can’t be created in the context of political campaigns; they require a longer timeline and bigger goals. They require thinking about democracy as not just casting a vote, but as developing a voice—not the harsh voice of reactionary populism, but one woven from the harmony of many vocal registers.

Both history and experience have taught us that people struggling for justice need two things above all. They need a North Star, a vision of the Promised Land that inspires and sustains them through the inevitable setbacks they will encounter organizing workplaces, fighting for the schools their children deserve in safe neighborhoods with affordable housing, and resisting white supremacy, misogyny, and climate disaster. While movements need short-term, concrete gains, these must connect to a broader vision, one that members feel directly involved in achieving. We have repeatedly seen that unless people are actively engaged in winning the goods that are delivered to them, not only are they unable to build enough power to take the next step, but their short-term gains remain tenuous. This is often the case in minimum wage and other policy fights: When few of the impacted workers are actively involved in winning, they don’t credit the unions or allies or politicians who delivered the wins, and the significance of those wins quickly dims.

Stephen experienced this as a young organizer in North Carolina in the 1970s, where he saw the members of a unionized brewing company with the best local wages turn on their leaders and attempt a decertification after the negotiation of what appeared on the outside to be a good contract. The problem was that the contract had been negotiated by a small committee in secret. Those who hadn’t been involved in the bargaining assumed that because the deal was made behind closed doors, it was a sellout that left money on the table. Meanwhile, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) was able to maintain 100 percent membership in that “right-to-work” state’s lower-paying unionized garment shops because workers were deeply involved in the union’s negotiations and internal life—and because they felt their collective power every time they took a paid vacation. Brilliantly, the ILGWU won a union-administered vacation fund so that whenever workers took a vacation, the union, not the company, delivered their vacation pay, reminding them of what they had achieved through their solidarity.

Lauren and Stephen saw this same phenomenon in the Justice for Janitors (J4J) campaign, where hundreds of thousands of workers organized and won citywide master contracts that raised and standardized wages, preventing contractors from competing for jobs by paying their workers less. But J4J was never just a higher-wage-delivery mechanism; it was a fight by workers to be seen and heard, to have their human dignity acknowledged. Janitors organized around how they were treated as immigrants (documented and undocumented), women, and people of color in the United States, using strikes, mass civil disobedience, and corporate campaigns to tap the transformative power of militant action. Because they believed it was their movement, they brought their whole selves and their communities into the struggle.

During the 2002 strike of New England janitors that took workers off the job in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, Lauren also saw firsthand the role that a movement can play in developing enough resiliency in its participants to sustain them through short-term setbacks. Among the most dedicated and militant participants in that four-week strike were janitors from the suburban Merrimack Valley. Because their area lacked sufficient union density, they were unable to move the needle on their wages. Naturally, many of them were bitterly disappointed. But standing shoulder to shoulder with the local’s elected leadership on pickets that ran from 5 a.m. or even 1 a.m., and seeing other members and staff there, was transformative for them. Post-strike these workers remained among the most active and militant. They celebrated small victories in which they could begin to see a shift in power—like finally holding union meetings inside the large pharmaceutical campuses where they worked. They had learned to prepare themselves for a long struggle, and they were ready to fight on.

Our work through BCG, a network of unions and community organizations committed to transforming collective bargaining into a tool broad and flexible enough to confront the rapacious character of twenty-first-century capitalism, draws on experiences like these. BCG takes all of what unions are at their best—schools of democracy, training grounds for grassroots leaders, mechanisms for delivering goods and forging unity from diversity—and opens them up to community participation and partnership. The fights that BCG participants engage in connect workplace and community demands, and they are planned and waged together. Through these campaigns BCG is working to create an inclusive “we” strong enough to resist authoritarianism’s pull and expansive enough to inspire a vision of society in which our neighbors are not left to the whims of climate change, of avaricious employers, or of the private equity firms driving the housing crisis in their cities.

Two places that have embraced the BCG model—Chicago and Minnesota—have recently seen real political, policy, and legislative victories that show what is possible with a common good approach. This year, Chicago elected Brandon Johnson, a former teacher and American Federation of Teachers member, as the city’s first common good mayor. In Minnesota, with only a one-vote Democratic majority, the state legislature passed 23 significant bills that have made the state into a national laboratory of progressive change. In neither place did progressives begin by saying “Let’s build a movement to elect Democrats” or to win any single policy goal, nor did Democratic politicians lead the fight from the top down. Rather, in both cases, the electoral and policy victories resulted from years of common-good organizing, labor-community alliance-building, and the development of a shared analysis of racialized neoliberal capitalism and how to fight it.

The Chicago and Minnesota cases make clear that we live in a moment of incredible opportunity. The climate crisis, continuing racial injustice, and growing economic inequality make the need for change increasingly obvious for many. We will miss this moment if our vision is too small, our goal too narrow, and our approach too technocratic. It’s time to build mass multiracial organizations that organize and fight for democracy at people’s workplaces, greater democratic control of their communities and cities, and democratic redistribution of wealth and power. That is how we will finally transform our country into one that serves the many and not the few.

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Lauren Jacobs is the Chair of the Partnership for Working Families Action Fund and the Executive Director of PowerSwitch Action.

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Stephen Lerner is the Bargaining for the Common Good Fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

Joseph A. McCartin teaches labor history at Georgetown University and directs Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

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