Under the radar across the United States, organizers have been testing a political strategy to save, expand, and recast our multi-racial multi-gendered democracy.
Consider three scenes that have brightened the dark times of the 2020s:
- Two years ago, a new coalition called Invest in Our New York—including organizations such as the Working Families Party, Citizen Action New York, Strong Economy For All, and NYC-Democratic Socialists of America—won a state budget that raised taxes on the wealthy and thereby allocated billions of dollars to fund public schools, rental assistance and eviction protections for tenants, and pandemic relief for undocumented immigrants.
- Earlier this year, Brandon Johnson won the mayoralty of Chicago after pledging to topple the reign of austerity. Many credited the victory of this former Chicago Teachers Union leader to the work of United Working Families, founded in 2014 by his union alongside SEIU Health Care Illinois Indiana, Action Now, and Grassroots Illinois Action and now consisting of many more labor and community organizations. According to its constitution, “United Working Families believes that working people and people of color need our own independent political organization in order to achieve self-evident, progressive political change.”
- In August, Tennessee State Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson won reelection after the Republican supermajority had voted to expel them from their seats. This shocking episode not only underscored the horror of right-wing rule but also instilled hope for an alternative future, as elected officials like the Tennessee Three and embryonic organizations like Memphis for All and Tennessee for All have emerged to overcome that rule and transform the South. “We’re building a multi-racial fusion movement,” said Rep. Jones. “We’re in the midst of a Third Reconstruction here in Tennessee that hopefully will have national implications.”
These events, unfolding in different contexts nationwide, aren’t simply anomalies. Rather, all are proof of a coherent trend: the rise of independent political organizations (IPOs).
Sometimes dubbed party-like structures, IPOs are organizations that build the political power and ultimately the governing power of a mass base by leading fights inside and outside the electoral and legislative arenas.
While the growth of IPOs poses one of the most significant developments on the Left over the last decade, it hasn’t yet received widespread attention. This piece offers an overview of where IPOs come from, what they do, and how they might evolve in the coming years.
Those who build IPOs today follow in the footsteps of many ancestors. Throughout the history of racial capitalism in the US, emancipatory movements have confronted the limits of this country’s particular configuration of state and society: namely, a winner-takes-all two-party system warped by racial, gender, and class oppression. To contest for political power on such hostile terrain, movements invented new organizational forms.
A cursory look at the last hundred years highlights numerous examples, though more appear earlier in the American past.
Labor radicals in the twentieth century forged a whole range of proto-IPOs. Organizations such as the Nonpartisan League in the Midwest, the American Labor Party in New York, the End Poverty in California Leagues, and the Washington Commonwealth Federation galvanized a mass base, elected candidates using the major party ballot lines, and passed breakthrough redistributive policies. In its heyday, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) set up a constellation of organizations to channel the political action of millions of newly unionized workers toward a vision of racially integrated social democracy.
Movements for racial liberation, most prominently the Black freedom struggle, created perhaps the most instructive precursors to IPOs. The architects of the Second Reconstruction resisted white supremacy inside the electoral and legislative arenas by registering, recruiting, and activating Black and white voters through countless mass organizations and connecting this work to direct action outside these arenas. For instance, legendary organizers like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Bob Moses enlisted tens of thousands of residents to join the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, dedicated to opposing and displacing the prevailing segregationist state party.
Yet all these cases are forerunners. IPOs as we know them today are specific to the last half-century. Which is to say, this strategy crystallized during the neoliberal social order that’s predominated from the 1970s until its current phase of disarray.
Over the course of this era, the New Right funneled billions of dollars from wealthy corporations and individuals into organizations that built political power over the long haul, eventually capturing the Republican Party and fashioning it into a potent anti-democratic instrument. This same age of reaction altered the balance of forces shaping the Democratic Party. Devastating attacks on the labor movement and social movements for racial and gender liberation weakened their influence, while neoliberal adherents and their donors increasingly gained control over the party apparatus.
The Rainbow Left
In response to this rightward shift, organizers searching for a path forward began to pioneer the IPO strategy.
The earliest attempts surfaced through the work of the Rainbow Left in the 1980s. The electrifying mayoral races of Harold Washington in Chicago and Mel King in Boston relied on ward-level organization to mobilize multi-racial working-class constituencies. The National Rainbow Coalition, emerging in tandem with Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988, pulled together a diverse body of activists and established dynamic chapters in the states. Its dissolution amid the global crisis of the Left by the end of the decade foreclosed the possibility of a permanent national membership organization ready to compete for political power beyond individual elections, as many participants had dreamed.
Still, other remarkable IPOs formed at the state and local levels in the 1980s and ‘90s. In my home state of Connecticut, two dozen unions and community organizations founded the Legislative Electoral Action Program (LEAP), which fielded members from their own ranks to unseat centrist Democrats, helped institute a Progressive Caucus, and notched a series of bold legislative victories before it eventually disbanded.
Among IPOs that endure today, the first were born around the turn of the millennium. In 1998, a group of unions and community organizations founded the Working Families Party to push politics leftward in and beyond New York State. Shortly after, on the other side of the country, a group of community organizations formed a statewide alliance named California Calls to end the cycle of destructive austerity budgets in the world’s largest subnational economy. By the time of the Great Recession, the leaders of these organizations were proclaiming that the single most valuable strategy for the Left would be to build IPOs in every state and knit them together into a national network.
Now this strategy is taking off. Drawing on the legacy of previous efforts, IPOs have multiplied rapidly at the state and local levels over the last decade.
As the neoliberal social order has cracked and crumbled, several factors are compelling the Left to take seriously the imperative of building political power once again. The ascendancy of the Right (which reached a high point in 2017, when the Republican Party controlled a federal trifecta and 25 state trifectas versus the Democratic Party’s six) has elevated the necessity of defeating the assault on our democracy. Meanwhile, the success of progressive and socialist candidates, from Bernie Sanders’s presidential bids to the arrival of the Squad in Congress to the myriad victories at the state and local levels, has opened opportunities for the Left at the ballot box that seemed hard to imagine not long ago. Finally, the crises overwhelming humanity and our planet are raising the fierce urgency of finding an effective political strategy now.
Many IPOs are launching at the state level due to its outsized political weight in America’s federalist system. While state governments have mattered since the country’s founding, they’ve become more significant under the neoliberal social order as authority has devolved from the federal level and as the Right has homed in on the state level to entrench governing power. With the federal government mired in gridlock, the growth of one-party control in the states has renewed their role as laboratories of democracy or anti-democracy. Today the Republican Party commands 22 state trifectas and the Democratic Party commands 17—the highest number in decades.
Although IPOs follow the same basic strategy in all states, the focus of their work depends on the context. IPOs in blue trifecta states are challenging centrists within the Democratic Party by electing candidates, agitating around legislative reforms, and vying for governing power under the banner of a distinguishable and compelling progressive vision. IPOs in red trifecta and divided government states are taking on direct combat with the Right by organizing an unorganized electorate. To name a few IPOs at the state level, think of New Virginia Majority, Carolina Federation, Raise Up Massachusetts, One Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Stands Up, and Florida Rising.
IPOs are also thriving at the local level, where they’ve proliferated mainly in large and medium-size blue cities. Organizations like the New Lynn Coalition in Massachusetts, New Haven Rising in Connecticut, and Reclaim Philadelphia are resisting neoliberal urban development and calling for the expansion and democratization of public investment to meet people’s needs.
These nascent formations at the state and local levels have linked up through a patchwork of formations at the national level like the State Power Caucus, the State Revenue Alliance, and the Grassroots Power Project. Some IPOs are affiliated with national organizing networks including the Center for Popular Democracy, People’s Action, and PowerSwitch Action (which also encompass other kinds of entities such as community organizations, worker centers, think tanks, and nonprofit advocacy organizations). The Working Families Party held its first-ever national convention in October. In the 25 years since its founding, WFP has extended its reach from its headquarters in New York to more than a dozen states and counting. And the Bargaining for the Common Good network is made up of Left-led unions and community organizations that have played a crucial role in the rise of IPOs.
Defining the IPO strategy
It’s clear this trend is accelerating. Very few of the formations thriving today existed 25 years ago. But on what grounds should we classify them as IPOs?
Some organizers explain the term by breaking it down:
- Independent = maintaining autonomy from the apparatus of the Democratic Party and from the centrist wing that controls it.
- Political = leading fights centered on the state as a principal site of struggle for power.
- Organization = marshaling resources, crafting lasting infrastructure, and defining leadership to make decisions as well as a division of labor to execute program.
That’s a useful starting point, though abstract, to analyze IPOs. But organizers have been experimenting with this strategy through trial and error for a little while now. Since IPOs have grown and spread, we can assess these concrete efforts and identify traits in common.
Most IPOs share or aim for the following characteristics:
- Lead fights inside and outside the electoral and/or legislative arenas. Inside, IPOs identify and recruit candidates from the base, mobilize voters to elect those candidates in primary and general elections, cohere elected officials into a bloc, and lead fights that weld the bloc and the base together to win legislative reforms. Ideally, IPOs synchronize mass action inside these arenas with mass action outside: all in motion are labor union members at the workplace, tenant union members in apartments, people of faith in their congregations, community residents in neighborhoods, everyone in the streets. How exactly the two pieces fit together in each short-term campaign and as part of a long-term strategy presents one of the key puzzles that organizers are wrestling with today.
- Build independent political power inside and outside the Democratic Party. IPOs circumvent the Scylla and Charybdis that have haunted debate on the Left: realignment (this marks the way to cooptation) and abstention (this marks the way to irrelevance). At the same time, they accept the necessity of engaging with the party and reject subservience to the centrists who occupy a leading position within it. IPOs apply this orientation by keeping separate from the party apparatus while battling Democratic incumbents in primary elections, electing candidates on the Democratic ballot line, organizing caucuses of allied Democratic elected officials, and tactically working with any Democratic elected officials whenever required to stave off the Right or win progressive legislative reforms.
- Unite and align base-building organizations around long-term strategy. IPOs are often coalitional. The most sophisticated are anchored by a core set of labor unions, tenant unions, faith organizations, and community organizations which already integrate people from all walks of life through struggles waged where they work and live and worship. Base-building organizations contribute leadership, material support, and member energy. Their participation also generates unique possibilities for weaving together inside and outside tactics. In this key sense, where an IPO acts as an organization of organizations, it helps remedy the fragmentation of the Left by facilitating alignment and motivating affiliates to exercise political power as a united front in every state.
- Organize and develop a multi-racial multi-gendered working-class base. The foundational source of power for IPOs is their capacity to lead collective actions of increasing scale and militancy in and across multiple arenas. Ratcheting up this capacity relies on an organized membership, which in turn relies on an organized layer of member leadership. Through a combination of education and actions-as-structure-tests, IPOs work toward assembling a mass base rooted in the most oppressed sectors of the working class and broadening out to include others who have suffered under the neoliberal social order, like downwardly mobile professionals. Most important, IPOs are committed to mending the racial and gender divisions which have historically impeded the construction of a durable mass base in the United States and which the Right skillfully manipulates today. While all IPOs aspire to foster a member-driven culture, some are further along than others in creating successful structures and processes that do so by engaging in participatory decision-making and practicing shared political education.
- Promote multi-issue agendas rooted in racial, economic, and gender equality. IPOs advance platforms to strengthen and deepen democracy based on a comprehensive vision of social justice. Whereas the Right bolsters white supremacy, worker exploitation, and cisheteropatriarchy, whereas centrists leading the Democratic Party offer a thin defense of democracy plus superficial fixes to the version of capitalism that’s squeezed our communities for fifty years, IPOs envision a society that will elevate the public good and nurture dignity, prosperity, and care for all. Their platforms usually tie broad ambitious goals to specific immediate reforms championed during elections and legislative sessions.
IPOs pursue these guidelines in varying ways and to varying degrees. They don’t have a prototype. Their forms appear in all shapes and sizes, distinctive to the balance of political forces and the contours of the progressive movement ecosystem within the places they inhabit.
To offer one example based on my own experience: at the height of the pandemic, after years of fragmentation, nearly 70 labor, community, and faith organizations created a statewide coalition named Connecticut For All (originally Recovery For All) to carry out several functions. First, this IPO regularly convenes top local leaders to deliberate on long-term strategy. Second, it brings the combined power of the coalition to bear on the state budget process by fighting for a multi-issue agenda through mass action inside and outside the legislative arena. Third, Connecticut For All boosts organizing capacity movement-wide through programs including the Democracy School: an ongoing series of working people’s assemblies that coalesce rank-and-file leaders across affiliated organizations to form relationships, participate in political education, and practice organizing skills together.
This is just one sample. In fact, IPOs nationwide are trying out different approaches to a host of questions. Some questions relate to strategy: How should we define and develop a strong and active member base? To enact co-governance, what should the relationship between our bloc of allied elected officials and our base actually look like? How can we further coordinate our demands and actions inside the electoral and legislative arenas with those that base-building organizations are advancing outside in other arenas—say, unions that practice Bargaining for the Common Good? Some questions are technical but no less pressing: How should IPOs be structured? How do we secure stable self-funding? To what extent should IPOs carry out work through their own staff, in-kind staff from affiliated organizations, and member volunteers?
We have a lot to learn from each other about the contrasting choices we’re making to put this strategy into practice. But the first step is to recognize the phenomenon and evaluate its fundamental features.
Imagining the near future of IPOs
Independent political organizations constitute the potential vehicle to build a diverse working-class majority powerful enough to win and wield governance in cities and states across America.
Of course, the future of this strategy hinges on the 2024 elections. If Trumpism retakes the White House, moves ahead in Congress, and preserves its grip at the state level, IPOs everywhere will be thrown on the defensive as our democracy itself will face existential danger.
But if we avert such a harrowing prospect, organizers will have the breathing space to sharpen the IPO strategy and go on offense. We will have the opportunity to take existing organizations to the next level, establish new ones, and above all, bind these elements into a more self-conscious and interconnected force within each state and across state lines. That might provide a plausible basis for a party-like structure on a national scale.
Amid the gathering storm on the Right, the seeds that organizers on the Left have planted are budding and blooming. For everyone who believes in cultivating democracy—for everyone who yearns for a less oppressive, more loving society to weather the crises of the 21st century—our task in this moment is to turn these sprouts into a garden.
Featured image: Rally outside the governor’s mansion in Hartford, CT demanding a state budget that would tax the wealthy and fund public investments to meet people’s needs at the height of the pandemic. Recovery For All organized the May 2021 event. Photo by Neal Thomassen.