Power Precedes Programs

While people who care about the future of America must be technologically literate and capable, they must also relearn the art of politics, which is connected to the local institutions that Alexis de Tocqueville believed would enable our nation to thrive. De Tocqueville was impressed that while people took a strong interest in national political elections, the politics that really mattered were not those of the nation but of the state, the township, and the school board. What he saw in these local politics was people’s capacity to engage in direct deliberations around all the issues important to the neighborhood and the community. Through these various associations, people with differences would come together to bargain, negotiate, and even engage in reciprocal activities such as raising barns and homes and building schools and roads. Local politics can be translated into action at the state level, which can then generate change nationally.

The Affordable Care Act, imperfect though it may be, did not arise in a vacuum; it arose out of a model, from Massachusetts, that emerged from this kind of local and state politics.

De Tocqueville also thought that our culture of enterprise, while valuable for the opportunities it provided, had the potential for engendering greed and producing high levels of inequality. It would create concentrations of wealth and power that undermined the political process. But de Tocqueville also believed that America’s intermediate institutions, the groups to which we belonged, curbed this inclination by connecting us and helping us understand the social nature of our existence and development. They enlarged our understanding of our self-interest (or as he put it “self interest, properly understood”). He believed these institutions would challenge us to think beyond that which is immediate and narrowly individual.

This is not a realization people can normally arrive at while watching cable news or surfing the Internet. It is less about Facebook than face-to-face engagement with other people who happen to have, not coincidentally, their own interests.

Further, we can translate the accomplishments of local organizing into agendas that enable people to become active citizens and voters. In the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) organizations built a massive political infrastructure that brought water, sewer services, and active citizenship to hundreds of thousands of low-income citizens. In San Antonio, the IAF organizations pioneered a poverty-ending workforce development strategy that has spread to five other communities in Texas as well as to three other states and counting. I could point to more examples, all of which are the beginnings of statewide initiatives, K-12 education reform, and access to effective and affordable health care and living wages. Many of the reforms of the New Deal were incubated at the state level. Change comes from the ground up—out of local politics connected to and practiced inside institutions.

Power precedes programs. Through the power of organized people within their institutions, we can all create and realize an agenda that betters people’s lives.

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