Reimagining American Democracy: Community not Chaos

In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge. One may think of political associations as great free schools to which all citizens come to be taught the general theory of association. (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America)

This ugly pandemic has opened up a path to a new world. (Fareed Zakaria, Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World)

The insurrection of January 6th, 2021, finished off Donald Trump’s presidency but it raised up the prospect of a second civil war. The insurrection crystalized the failure of liberal democracy, of electoral-representative democracy, to “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty” (quoting the Constitution’s preamble). Joe Biden’s presidency will do a lot of good, but he is bound to make compromises that further the exploitative capitalist order, fall short of achieving racial justice, and foster renewable energy without really taking on the fossil fuel industry. Not only but especially in extreme crisis, liberal democracy has shown its incapability to resolve systemic problems like slavery and white supremacy, immoral wars such as Vietnam and Iraq, widespread poverty, particularly child poverty, and most astonishing, its absolute failure to address the extreme peril of climate catastrophe.

Let us put aside the January 6th insurrection for the moment and look at our critical situation even without that horrendous stain on American democracy, which compounded the dire predicament we face.                                                         

The jury is out on whether Joe Biden’s New Deal-like (New Deal lite) torrent of presidential action will stem our storm of crises, breaking through congressional deadlock. As public intellectuals we have a responsibility to look at the larger picture and take a longer view. A grim picture for sure, though not without silver linings. The inescapable fact is that American democracy has not “prevailed” as President Biden asserted in his inaugural address and others have parroted. If in fact it has ever prevailed or even existed, despite systemic disfranchisement that has plagued us since the founding, American democracy has been badly wounded, perhaps mortally. Not merely by four years of Trumpism but by forty years of corporate takeover that opened the floodgates to Trump’s attempted dictatorship and the fury of working-class and “formerly middle class” whites royally ripped off by the mega banks and corporations. Of course peoples of color were plundered worse.

In this essay I am advocating that “we the people” rethink the meaning of American democracy and imagine an alternative democratic ecosystem that actually meets human needs, upholds human rights, solves root problems, and can potentially resolve the storm of crises we face. Yet this is not all we need democracy for. The pandemic we are enduring has put in sharp relief people’s need for connections with others who value and respect them, who care about them and for whom they care. We have seen up close the emotional devastation of loneliness, for kids on up to elders. This globe-wide desperation, the barely bearable pain of aloneness, draws some to white nationalist groups that provide belongingness through shared hatred. But most people do not want to make hatred their home, sensing how it may eat them alive. While they suffer the loss of belonging, many of them are galvanizing people of conscience to gather together in mutual aid and collective self-help. 

Generations of political scientists like Harvard’s Danielle Allen have extolled the “genius” of the U.S. Constitution as a force for stability and gradual change.[i] Yet a close look at the founding document and the Federalist Papers justifying its ratification makes clear that the Constitution was crafted to hobble majority rule and to privilege minority rights if not minority rule. (I don’t mean rights of racial minorities.) In famous Federalist #10 James Madison asserts that certain “factions” should be suppressed, especially the majority faction representing non-elite citizens. But the elite factions have been protected and rewarded by congressional committee barons, the antidemocratic Senate, the electoral college, president’s veto power, judicial review, deference as a public virtue, and other “checks and balances” designed to thwart majority rule.

In historian Garry Wills’ take on Madison’s Federalist #10, “Minorities can make use of dispersed and staggered governmental machinery to clog, delay, slow down, hamper, and obstruct the majority”—the alleged “tyranny of the majority” that Madison and Alexander Hamilton most feared. What the Constitution “prevents is not faction, but action,” protecting not the common good but the privileged interests and rule of the dominant elites.[ii]

Madison and his colleagues also made it extremely difficult for citizens to amend the Constitution to make it more democratic and representative. It took the Civil War to bring about the emancipatory postwar amendments. But each of these amendments had a self-negating catch. The 13th abolishing chattel slavery (1865) did not prevent new forms of enslavement like sharecropping, convict-lease system, and actual sale of emancipated Black citizens.[iii] The 14th Amendment giving citizenship rights to African Americans and women (1868) the Supreme Court interpreted to give citizenship and even “personhood” to corporations and in 1896 authorized racial segregation if “separate but equal,” always a fraud. (When the high court overturned the Plessy decision in 1954, its implementation order to desegregate schools explicitly encouraged delay.) For almost a century the 14th Amendment was utilized primarily by corporations to block labor and consumer laws and other regulation in the public interest, and still today. And the 15th Amendment of 1870 giving Black men the right to vote did not prevent restrictions that nullified the amendment until the Black freedom movement secured the Voting Rights Act in 1965, only to be dismantled by the Supreme Court fifty years later (2013).

In short, the United States has never been a democracy—if that hallowed word means rule by the people, by a majority of citizens. Minority rule by wealthy elites, white supremacists, and large corporations was built into the nation’s core by the founders and later constitutional reformers. But it did not become fully consummated until the end of the 20th century.

This emerging reality was smokescreened when the white man’s government and the railroads it paid for enabled white folks to colonize the West as homesteaders and businessmen, uprooting and massacring Native American tribes that got in their way—the white man’s “manifest destiny.” The exploitation and suffering of African Americans (and lower-class immigrants especially of color) was kept veiled from the white majority. The collapse of capitalism in the Great Depression brought about the New Deal, which did not end the depression (World War II did) but saved the capitalist order, providing jobs for white folks while regulating corporate capitalism in its own long-term self-interest.

Massive war spending, expanding global trade, technological advances, and labor unions lifted (white) Americans’ living standards after the war, with middle class income actually growing at a higher rate than the wealthy, making American society more egalitarian in income than at any other time in its history and probably more so than any other country in the world. This relative equity, growth of consumerism, and rapid expansion of higher education helped to catalyze broad, powerful youth movements the likes of which Americans had never beheld. Conservatives like Samuel Huntington wrote hysterically about “the crisis of democracy.” This alleged crisis meant that democracy was actually working. (In the past it had worked for a decade during Reconstruction and a decade of labor militancy during the Great Depression.)

The social upheaval of the 1960s proved too much for corporate leaders and their allies. They decided to strike back—hardball on stilts. They launched a counterrevolution that was as covert as the 1960s’ protests were loud but ultimately more efficacious. Despite all of its constraints, democracy seemed to have gotten out of control. They would have to coopt or squash it. Prominent corporate lawyer and soon-to-be Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell sparked the counterrevolution with a 1971 call for action he sent out to the corporate world entitled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” Blaming white and Black radicals and consumer advocates like Ralph Nader, as well as complacent corporate types, Powell’s battle plan “electrified the Right, prompting a new breed of wealthy ultraconservatives to weaponize their philanthropic giving in order to fight a multifront war of influence over American political thought.”[iv]

The Powell Memo flew under the radar of liberals and progressives enabling its recipients to move with stealth during the 1970s, creating richly endowed think tanks and new media to galvanize a transformation of the American political economy. Big business and wealthy elites mobilized like never before. Not only did they solidify public support for the new capitalist order but they evangelized for the glorification of “free markets” and neo-liberalism, a new gospel of wealth that economic growth favoring the wealthy would “trickle down” to those below, that a rising tide would lift all boats. This was surely make believe.[v]

Corporate leaders “had been trolled and attacked during the late 1960s,” journalist Kurt Andersen writes, “felt besieged, and started imagining or pretending to imagine that some kind of socialist revolution might actually happen.” President Nixon warned about it. They were becoming resolutely class conscious and began organizing and mobilizing for a long-term struggle.[vi] Not only did they secure legislative reforms and judicial relief, Ronald Reagan their champion. In mostly bipartisan fashion corporate leaders with their front groups and PACS defanged federal and state regulation, reformed finance and banking laws (such as eliminating the New Deal’s Glass-Steagall Act under Bill Clinton), freed Wall street investment from tax and other constraints, and encouraged the rise of ungodly financial schemes like leveraged buyouts and mortgage-backed securities.

Thus the relative parity of income growth rates during the first generation after World War II morphed into the most extreme inequality in U.S. history, surpassing even that of the late 19th century Gilded Age. By the turn of the 21st century, less than one percent of the citizenry owned 90% of the nation’s wealth. Since then the disparity has only gotten worse. This all happened well before Donald Trump orchestrated his failed dictatorship but all of which he furthered.

Tis the season for doomsayers, growing in sway while Pollyannas and even cautious optimists are fighting for air. No one can deny that we are living in perilous times. The question is what silver linings we might be able to unthread. Throughout history, certainly U.S. history, positive, forward-looking, breakthrough reforms have only come about in the midst of or aftermath of serious crisis—e.g. the Civil War and the postwar amendments. Or the social legislation that came about because of the Great Depression. I have faith that great changes for good can potentially arise out of our current storm of crises. But we cannot afford to underestimate the severity of our intertwined perils—political, economic, racial, cultural, and above all, the global climate catastrophe.

Respected historian Peter Turchin predicted ten years ago that the 2020s would be an “age of discord.” His specific predictions are coming to fruition, that we will face “civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced,” with civil war a definite possibility. According to Turchin, nothing short of fundamental change will avert “total civilizational collapse.” Transactional leadership and incremental change will not save us.[vii]


These assertions may sound grim but I believe we have potential for hope, for repairment and even redemption. So where do we go from here, as MLK asked Americans before he left us, chaos or community?

The short answer: community. I am setting forth a longer answer in this essay.

Herewith are six assumptions:

  • First, American “democracy” and its governing institutions are broken.
  • Second, we are facing a storm of intersecting crises—chief among them Covid 19, climate change, racial injustice, economic want, nuclear and biological weaponry—crises potentially more catastrophic than ever before in U.S. history.
  • Third, under current conditions our perils show no sign of abating, despite hopes aroused by the new Biden administration.
  • Fourth, as authorized by the Constitution, its amendments, and Supreme Court decisions, the federal government (and the states) does not have the capability or political will to resolve these crises.
  • Fifth, the brokenness and paralysis of the government have been made significantly more intractable by the corporate counterrevolution of the past forty years, which has given corporations and the wealthy class unaccountable control of all three branches of government—near absolute minority rule.
  • Sixth, American citizens do not live in a democracy but a plutocracy.

In my view the only “way out of no way” of our perilous plight demands systemic change achieved through “non-reformist,” transforming reform as building blocks for a fundamentally new, extraconstitutional ecosystem of democracy as countervailing power to the dominance of our corrupt (though constitutionally authorized) electoral-representative system that operates through the two-party infrastructure.

As thinkers like Robert Bellah have pointed out, Americans have always spoken two languages, the dominant language of individualism and the diminished language of community.[viii] The self-interested language of individualism has been incarnated by the Constitution and the nation-state it established. Communitarian language, originating in 17th century Puritan communities, the slave world, Indian tribes, and later among anti-federalists after the American Revolution, has fostered America’s vibrant civil society celebrated by Tocqueville. This language of sharing and common life has threaded its way into a myriad of nongovernmental groups and associations.We need to free ourselves from our one-dimensional thinking about democracy and commit to envisioning the understory of democracy, embedded not in individualistic striving but in the joys and travails of community.

Let us imagine that the anti-federalists who opposed the Constitution for its centralization of power reluctantly accepted it after ratification by three fourths of the sovereign states. Let us imagine that they then decided not to champion states’ rights but rather envisioned a governing structure closer to the people, akin to the concept of “participatory democracy” articulated by white and Black radicals many generations later.

“The article nearest my heart,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend Samuel Kercheval in July 1816, “is the division of counties into wards.” Each “ward republic,” as he named it, would comprise several hundred families—the bottom line being that everyone would know each other and directly govern themselves.[ix] Anti-federalists, now perhaps calling themselves grassroots democrats, might then have explored the internal nature of such mini-republics and designed a structure for federating the multitude of local communities into state, regional, and/or national federations—learning from failures of the Articles of Confederation that coordinated the thirteen ex-colonies for a few years after the Revolution. Jefferson and anti-federalists might have been bold enough to construct their own counter-constitution to set forth the structure and principles of their alternative federalism, faithful to the original meaning of federation.[x]

            They did not do it then, but it may be our task today to construct a new charter not to replace the ruling structure that has guided our nation for 240 years but to complement and supplement it. Our revered Constitution having been written in prose, our new one might need to be written in poetry, or song; but most of all acted out, lived out, practiced every day.

            Our task is creating an alternative not to the government, though that needs to change markedly, but an alternative to the established party system, whether two parties or more. The Democrats and Republicans part company in many ways but they have agreed on fundamentals: upkeep of white supremacy, growth of racially stratified capitalism, and America’s superpower dominance in the world, all intertwined.

What might be key principles of this unconventional people’s charter or manifesto aimed at charting a new path for Americans: our national destiny to manifest not the mere promise, myth, or dream of “liberty and justice for all” but its reality, which I contend can only be attained by the legitimation, institutionalization, and coalescence of grassroots democracy (GRD) as countervailing power and alternative value structure to the reigning system of electoral-representative democracy (ERD)? Grassroots democracy, grounded in citizen activism, moral passion, and community building, has particularly been the expression of social movements (large or small) struggling for substantive moral ends (freedom, justice, equality, human rights) that entail significant social change, preferably structural and systemic. GRD takes place outside of and in creative tension with the party system and formal government, sometimes cooperating, sometimes conflicting—acting in decentralized fashion even if centrally coordinated. Optimally grassroots democracy aims at “structural renewal” of the “cell-tissues” of society (Martin Buber’s metaphor), not only supplementing but supplanting the state or some of its functions—not replacing the state as in traditional revolutions, but transforming it.[xi]

Electoral-representative democracy and its party system are more familiar—encompassing all institutions, policies, and activities run by the government, whether federal, state, or local. It is legitimized and regulated by elections, no matter how few citizens vote. Office holders from president on down claim to represent individual citizens, not groups or organizations, though that claim is belied in practice.

Whether expressed by movements or in other ways, grassroots democracy is always present even if latent, but as a political force it expands and intensifies during periods of crisis, often eclipsing ERD, as in the height of the Black freedom movement in the mid-1960s. The disruptive and cultural power generated by movements engaged in GRD has been the primary agency of both reform and revolution throughout the world. Popular movements in the U.S. have been the driving force behind the American Revolution, abolition of slavery, struggle for women’s rights, empowerment of labor, resistance to white supremacy, ending the Vietnam War, victories for environmental justice, and much more. While GRD has sometimes taken on conservative causes like “right to life” and tax relief, such causes trample on GRD principles when funded by fat cats or violating human rights. So too “progressive” GRD has been known to  violate its principles when it has replaced compassion with certitude, openness and moral sensitivity with self-righteousness and moral absolutism.

At high tide genuine grassroots movements in the U.S. have disrupted or shaken up the dominant political system. Yet an actual revolution or seizure of state power has rarely been the goal. In fact when GRD has been most effective it has paradoxically tended to strengthen the state while altering it, making it more democratic. Most often the goal has been countervailing power leading either to incremental or transforming reform to meet social needs or overcome injustice.

The Populist movement of white and Black farmers vied with the mid-20th century Black freedom movement as the largest social movement in U.S. history. While the Black movement may have had more followers (especially in 2020), the decade-long Populist crusade (1886-1996) marshalled a lot more organizers. Ever since its founding in the 1820s the organized Black freedom struggle has engaged primarily in grassroots democracy, for one reason because African Americans were not enfranchised until 1965. During the antebellum 19th century its creative state and national conventions and later its post-Civil War Union Leagues were models of dynamic non-governmental activism. But no movement till the 1960s came close to the mass participatory democracy built by the Populists to fight crushing exploitation by merchants, banks, railroads, and corporate“trusts” that was facilitated by Washington and the states. Because both Republican and Democratic parties were in bed with the big banks and corporations, dominated by them, midwestern farmers first tried building a third party, the Greenbackers, to no avail.

In the mid-1880s, starting in east Texas, farmers decided that collective self-help was their only recourse, grounded in their rural communities—their goal to free themselves from plutocracy by launching a cooperative crusade nationwide and ultimately evolving the “cooperative commonwealth.” Though segregated, white and Black farmers organized thousands of neighborhood “suballiances” (50 to 100 members each, male and female) that were coordinated by state Alliances and above that the National Farmers Alliance & Industrial Union (NFA&IU), all of whose leaders were elected by the suballiances. Crucial to the movement’s rapid growth were thousands of well-trained “lecturers” in the dual role of organizer and teacher, circuit riding the suballiances and teaching the members farming techniques, political economy, and methods of change. Out of participants’ dialogues came suggestions, recommendations, constructive dissent, and consensus building. The poverty-stricken farmers learned as well from several hundred “reform” weeklies whose mastheads rang out the Alliance watchword: “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none.”

Powerful Populist orator Mary Lease, dubbed the “People’s Joan of Arc,” boomed her cri de coeur across Kansas prairies: “What you farmers need to do is raise less corn and more hell!” She declared that “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master.”[xii]

For the poor farmers white and Black, southern and midwestern, the Alliance was their government. They felt truly represented by the leaders they elected—not by the corrupted politicians in state capitals and Washington. When banks dried up credit and corporations withheld supplies a Texas genius, physician/attorney Charles Macune, put forth his “subtreasury plan” to provide public loans to farmers. Yet though the conglomeration of local, state, and national cooperatives sold cotton, wheat, and corn from coast to coast and overseas, the plutocrats joined forces to sabotage their grand endeavor.                                                                               

The 1890 conventions of the National Farmers Alliance and the southern Colored Farmers Alliance made a fateful decision. They chose to play down the cooperative crusade in favor of going for broke with a new political party. For mutual aid the Alliances had already linked up with the labor movement, especially the Knights of Labor, supporting their strikes, and with the multimillion member temperance movement as well as woman suffragists. They leveraged this unprecedented grand alliance of farmers, workers, and middle-class women to establish the People’s Party, which showed early success in several states and unheard-of biracial electoral coalitions in the South. But the new party’s own entrenched oligarchy doomed it, letting it be swallowed up by the Democratic Party led by William Jennings Bryan. The Populists’ single-minded party building brought about the collapse of the cooperative crusade and the truly democratic mass movement that had created the most extensive alternative to corporate capitalism in the nation’s history. After their demise some Populist demands were realized, such as recall and referendum, senators’ direct election, and in the New Deal subsidies to farmers and a massive public jobs program.

Nonetheless the Populists’ defeat by the corporate powers and their unrelieved poverty planted seeds of resentment among millions of struggling farm families. Those who were Black barreled into the long siege of Jim Crow, many escaping to the North in the Great Migration. White farmers too were forced into penury or off their land, finding factory work in midwestern cities; their descendants lost their unions and their jobs, ripe fruit for the demonic appeal of Donald Trump.  

Fast forward from the late 19th century to the early 1960s. Though sparse in detail and expressed more in action than oratory, “group-centered leadership” articulated and lived out by Ella Baker (1903-1986) emerged as the guiding philosophy of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and movements that it seeded, leading up to Black Lives Matter today. Baker’s mantra: A leader’s purpose was not to highlight their own leadership but to cultivate it in other people. Leadership inhered in the group, collectively, whether small or large. Harvard philosophy doctoral student Bob Moses was entranced by Baker and conveyed group-centered leadership to SNCC organizers in Mississippi and beyond. To his delight he found that the core of group-centered leadership—forming and sustaining personal relationships—was already manifested by the sharecropper families he shared risks with and helped to empower.

“Everywhere we went,” Moses recalled, “we were adopted and nurtured, even protected, as though we were family. That closeness rendered moot the label of ‘outside agitator.’” The most important thing “was to convince the local townspeople that we were people who were responsible,” crucial to create trust.[xiii] Through supportive personal relationships the SNCC teams persuaded folks to attend citizenship classes and seek registration at the courthouse, even though they faced retaliation. Sometimes the determined sharecroppers led the trepidatious SNCC organizers up forbidding courthouse steps, not the other way around. SNCC workers encouraged reciprocal leadership and followership, leaders and followers often trading places.

SNCC organizers were most effective when they fostered personal, trusting, family-like relationships with local folks. In this way they could draw out “untapped sources” of strength, from their hosts and from themselves and maximize indigenous leadership. The longer SNCC cadres stayed around, the more violence they absorbed, the more sacrifices they made—the more committed to them their movement families were.

One could say that SNCC organizers were grounded in “family values,” the watchword of conservatives in the later 20th century. Though the rural Black families had plenty of hierarchy, patriarchy, and dysfunction, the families’ love was plush even if rough edged. As shown by their hospitality, the struggling families extended their love outward into the larger community, making faithful friendship and converting strangers into friends cardinal virtues. Grassroots democracy as lived out by sharecroppers and organizers alike was driven by empathy and caring. Its prime vehicle was compassionate listening, honest sharing, and open-hearted dialogue—group-centered leadership that provided mutual aid and practical communitywide solutions. One activist called it a “personal, deep communication type of politics”; in MLK’s words an “inescapable network of mutuality.”

SNCC organizers came to the “magnolia state” of Mississippi to help free Black sharecroppers from the harshest oppression but realized that the sharecroppers were giving them more in return. The partnership of SNCC organizers, local adults (some active in the NAACP), and feisty teenagers gave white supremacists a tough fight. The movement’s triple whammy saw violence at every turn, but they were not cowed. On one courthouse visit Moses was nearly beaten to death by the sheriff’s cousin. With blood flowing down his face he still accompanied sharecroppers to the registrar’s office. The organizers spent plenty of time in jail for their defiance.

So did the teenagers, led by 16-year-old Brenda Travis, who were less interested in voter registration than desegregating the Woolworth’s, bus station, and movie theater. Jailed for sitting in, Travis was expelled from school and sent to a harsh “Negro reformatory.” Her schoolmates boycotted school, protested at city hall, and were jailed.

After three years of dangerous organizing in the Mississippi Delta, hundreds of assaults and arrests and at least two murders, SNCC leaders decided that federal intervention, always a last resort, was the only way to stop escalating violence by white supremacists. In summer 1964 they brought to Mississippi nearly a thousand northern college students to further voter registration while teaching kids (who didn’t get much schooling) in freedom schools about Black history and culture as well as math, reading, and writing, lifting their self-esteem. Other volunteers helped build community centers for camaraderie and collective self-help.

Barred from the “white only” Democratic Party, local people with SNCC’s support formed an alternative, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), to challenge the white racists for seating at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer was the most celebrated of several thousand local people the SNCC organizers brought into the movement. Her nationally televised testimony at the convention was so gripping and the MFDP challenge so formidable that President Lyndon Johnson considered resigning from the presidency for fear of losing the South.

“Is this America,” she appealed to her nation, “the land of the free and the home of the brave?”[xiv]

Such is the potential power of grassroots democracy with visionary strategy, brilliant organization, and sturdy alliances far and wide.

Here we have seen two compelling instances of grassroots democracy, several decades apart, that not only nurtured local communities but built remarkable national coalitions outside, but on the edges of, the electoral-representative system—both of which ultimately failed when they were coopted by political parties. These broad coalitions were animated by a principle of inclusion that was articulated by MLK in his final book as he criticized his own mode of mobilization in favor of SNCC’s way: that of organizing rather than mobilizing. In his twilight year he envisioned grassroots unions of the poor and disadvantaged coalescing into a bottom-up coalition, a “true alliance.”

A true alliance, he wrote, was “based upon some self-interest of each component group and a common interest into which they merge. For an alliance to have permanence and loyal commitment from its various elements, each of them must have a goal from which it benefits and none must have an outlook in basic conflict with the others.” One would not ally with a group that disagreed on fundamental values or principles, like anti-racism, even if sharing the same goals. Rather than the top-down coalitions he knew well that movement generals jealously guarded, he saw true alliances having participatory decision making built in.

What brought together the historic coalitions of the 1890s and 1960s was not so much the shared suffering of farmers, workers, disfranchised Black people, and oppressed women but consensus on their common goals—in the first instance nationalizing railroads, telegraph, and public utilities, restructuring the monetary system, banning strike injunctions; in the second instance enfranchising Black Mississippians, taking control of Black-majority counties, liberalizing the national Democrats, and realigning the party system. In both cases coalition members disagreed about much else—in the 1890s over the 8-hour day and woman suffrage and in the 1960s over the priority of decentralized organizing versus politics as usual. None of these “secondary” concerns were deal breakers.

Both the Populist and Mississippi movements flourished as they reached out and spread their wings but then suffered defeat after they entered the political party system. While the Farmers Alliance was still pursuing “independent political action” to sway both parties from outside, they expanded the NFA&IU into an even broader national confederation that encompassed labor unions, temperance groups, and woman suffragists. Despite or because of surprising wins electing pro-Alliance politicians in 1890, they gambled on throwing their budding “cooperative commonwealth” lock, stock, and barrel into the electoral system. Within half a decade they lost it all.

Like the Populists the MFDP was not able to preserve its independent stance in relation to the party system and was taken over by it. At the Atlantic City convention Moses pleaded that they were not choosing between morality and party politics—their mission was to inject morality into the political arena. For the electoral-representative system to achieve systemic goals of socioeconomic reform, the electoral process and party politics would have to be transformed by the moral force of the freedom movement. Instead, the MFDP’s defeat in Atlantic City was its death knell though it lasted for a few more years.

One of Ella Baker’s singular contributions to the strategy of GRD was her long experience as an “outsider within”[xv]—one foot testing the waters in top-down organizations like NAACP and SCLC, the other foot embedded in local communities and decentralized “horizontal” groups like SNCC. That creative friction and mastering of ambiguity can hold both insiders and outsiders accountable. Congressman John Lewis played this role in Congress; not long before his death he organized a sit-in on the House floor.

A GRD organization like SNCC or the farmers’ suballiances seems to work better with direct democracy and consensus than majority rule. But a true alliance (local, regional, national, or global) generally requires representation—of the participating groups not individuals. A Texas or Kansas suballiance, for example, chose a delegate to the county Alliance, which in turn sent a delegate to the district or state Alliance councils. All delegates would be mandated, rotated, and recallable by the group or assembly that elected them. Importantly each Alliance member had one vote regardless of how many shares of stock they owned.

In his final months Malcolm X began to create a global alliance of peoples of color in order to conquer global white supremacy—including putting the U.S. on trial for systemic racism before the United Nations or World Court. Difficult questions would need to be worked out, of course. On what moral or pragmatic basis would Black leaders lead multiracial alliances? What about Latinos and low-income whites? Would leaders be elected democratically from below or imposed from above? Certainly true alliances at every level must ensure equal representation of women. In some European parliaments women are guaranteed half the seats.

Many movement activists, especially in our digital world, have not understood that political and moral equality must undergird alliances that respect and value differences, that are built upon their differences. To make this happen we will need to halt practices of patronizing, guilt-tripping, self-righteous moralizing, and the new ill of “canceling” adversaries. Moreover, countering hierarchy, myopic specialization, routinization, inertia, and other bureaucratic impulses goes hand in hand with decentralizing initiative and power.

Populists saw clearly that their demands were tied together by the source of their exploitation, the advent of monopolies both economic and political. Their collective solution—shared by urban workers, southern Blacks, and some middle-class white women—was to replace unaccountable elites with democratic structures of power—a solution at least as vital for movements today. If distinct problems have a common cause—problems such as political corruption, climate catastrophe, and wasteful military spending (all produced by corporate capitalism)—they can’t be resolved isolated from each other. Therefore the unifying goal of the alliances or the federation of movements must encompass solutions not just to symptoms or merely incremental, but systemic reforms pushing toward an alternative political economy.

Hopefully it’s clear by now that these true alliances and federations of movements are fundamentally different than conventional coalition politics based on division not difference as their organizing principle. Philosophers Martin Buber and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon stressed that groups can federate properly only on the same principles of mutuality and solidarity that unify each group. As Buber put it, “the internal authority of a community hangs together with its external authority.” Importantly the process of community building shall run through the relations of groups with one another so that a “deep, organic bond” grows among them. “Only a community of communities merits the title of commonwealth.”[xvi]

These alliances and federations would aim at providing strong united political opposition—countervailing power—to elite power, a constructive alternative to dysfunctional political parties that have decomposed at the grassroots while oligarchizing at the top. (In 2020 the most effective Democratic callers and canvassers worked for non-party organizations like the New Georgia Project and Frontline.) The movement federations would serve as vehicles of fundamental change, foster the reclaiming of community (aided by but autonomous from government), and prefigure a future society, an empathic society decentralized yet interdependent.


As Frederick Douglass hammered home in his own time, no entrenched power, whether slavocracy or plutocracy, will cease predation and release resources without organized mass demand. “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”[xvii]

What today might be the common, focused aims of a true alliance, or network of alliances. outside of but interpenetrating the electoral-representative system? We must shape a consensus around shared goals involving systemic remedies for systemic maladies. No group or alliance would get everything it wants—each must make principled compromises. As activist Bernice Johnson Reagon reminded us, one cannot expect comfort or friendship in an alliance.[xviii] Participants must agree on what is most urgent, most widely shared, most achievable, but still visionary.

I believe we have a good chance to overcome the political, economic, and psychic tyrannies bearing down on us and give birth to an American democracy serving all of us, not just the favored few.Poet Langston Hughes gets the last word.

O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be![xix]

[i] Danielle Allen, “The Constitution Counted My Great-Great Grandfather as Three-Fifths of a Free Person: Here’s Why I Love It Anyway,” Atlantic, Oct. 2020, 58-63.

[ii] Wills, Explaining America (Penguin, 1982), 195.   

[iii] Eric Foner, “Abolition Is Not Complete,” New York Times, Dec. 15, 2020.

[iv] Jane Mayer, New Yorker, quoted in Kurt Andersen, Evil Geniuses (Random House, 2020), 59.

[v] This kind of false consciousness was in fact what Madison referred to as “public virtue,” the generalized values and ideology derived from property ownership, including of slaves, that would help keep the have nots subservient. It was essentially what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called (ideological) hegemony.

[vi] Andersen, Evil Geniuses, 60.

[vii] Graeme Wood, “The Historian Who Sees the Future,” Atlantic, Dec. 2020, 58, 60.

[viii]  Robert N. Bellah et al, Habits of the Heart (Harper & Row, 1985).

[ix]  Thomas Jefferson, Political Writings, ed. Joyce Appleby and Terence Ball (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999), 212.

[x] Madison, Hamilton, and company cleverly changed the meaning of federalism to apply to a unified, top-heavy nation-state whose authority was supreme over the states and localities. The term more accurately refers to a united but decentralized society. The most thoroughgoing tradition of authentic federalism in the West was the decentralized Iroquois Confederacy of seven Indian tribes that prospered for centuries until the American Revolution; some scholars see its influence in the Articles of Confederation and even in the Constitution, though the latter is less likely.

[xi] Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia (London: Routledge, 1949), 27.

[xii] Quoted in “Mary Elizabeth Lease,” Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas.

[xiii]  Robert Moses, “Mississippi: 1961-1962,” Liberation, Jan. 1970.

[xiv] Hamer quoted in “Eyes on the Prize,” episode 5, PBS.

[xv] Scholar activist Patricia Hill Collins coined this term, which Barbara Ransby applied to Baker in her biography, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2005).

[xvi] Buber, Paths in Utopia, 137, 75.

[xvii] Douglass address, “Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies,” Aug. 3, 1857, Canandaigua, N.Y., in Douglass, Papers, ed. John W. Blassingame, vol. 3 (Yale Univ. Press, 1979-), 204.

[xviii] Reagon, “Coalition Politics,” in Barbara Smith, ed., Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1983), 359.  An important task of political education is to learn the art of principled compromise in coalitions and governmental bodies.

[xix]Langston Hughes (1902-1967), “Let America Be America Again,” in Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, eds., Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Knopf, 1994), 189-192.