Taeku Lee, Lisa García Bedolla, Marshall Ganz, Dr. Ravi K. Perry

The Art & Science of Building Power

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By: Sybil Lewis

Understanding the demographic changes, public narratives, and campaign strategies that led us first to Barack Obama and then to Donald Trump is critical to building an electorate across race, class, gender, generational, and geographic lines that can guide the US political order into one that is firmly rooted in an ethos of belonging. In an attempt to address the precarious political situation we find ourselves in today, four scholars and political activists at the Othering & Belonging conference sought to deconstruct the 2016 presidential election and strategize new ways to energize voters of color and create new narratives on what politics can do for the people.

Taeku Lee, Professor of Political Science and Law at UC Berkeley and Associate Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, moderated the contentious-at-times panel discussion, entitled “Participation, Politics, and the Progressive Project: Where Do We Go From Here?” The panel featured Ravi K. Perry, Associate Professor of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University, Marshall Ganz, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and Lisa García Bedolla, Chancellor’s Professor in UC Berkeley’s School of Education and Travers Department of Political Science.

Ganz, who created an agency-based framework for organizing and is credited with developing the grassroots organizing model for Barack Obama’s winning 2008 presidential campaign, noted that there are three elements critical to a political campaign: a compelling story, a strategy to gain power, and a structure that organizes people. The interplay of these three items manifested remarkably differently in the 2008 and 2016 presidential election.

"Trump, unlike Obama, was organizing out of fear and anger," Ganz said. "When people are mobilized on fear, they come to depend on you—you are the savior, you rob people of their agency and turn them against everybody else because you are going to save our group."

Obama, on the other hand, mobilized out of hope. “which enhances people’s agencies.”

Participation, Politics, and the Progressive Project: Where Do We Go From Here?, a Keynote Panel Address by Taeku Lee, Lisa García Bedolla, Marshall Ganz, and Dr. Ravi K. Perry

“It is ‘yes, we can’ and not ‘yes, I can,’ and together we engage with the problems that we have to face,” he said. “We didn’t have that counter-narrative in any effective way in 2016, so Trump carried the day.”

Lee asked the panelists if the way forward for progressive movements is to build on the current structures, or to radically break from the past and create a new movement. Perry, an expert on Black politics and minority representation, argued that the question presumed one could not have both.

“I believe in a dual strategy,” Perry said. “I believe that we can and should be in street corner as loud as we can and all the metaphors that that inspires and engenders. But also that we have to engage in institutions of politics because if we are not engaged in institutions, which is where power is located in the US, then you already have set yourself to lose.”

Progressives have to deal with the “real world,” he said, and despite many Progressives’ unease with the Democrats,  “the reality is...the only locus of opportunity for African Americans to solve short-term problems today is the Democratic Party.”

All panelists agreed that the Democratic Party had failed to mobilize and engage voters in a collective agenda during the 2016 presidential campaign. García Bedolla, who is also a co-founder of the American Majority Project Research Institute, argued that the party made the mistake of assuming that people of color would be mobilized by fear and anger alone, thus, focusing on individual pathology, rather than engaging with voters to understand nuances within communities of color and to understand larger structures, such as voter suppression and disenfranchisement, that influence voter turnout.

The final question of the evening urged panelists to discuss the roles of identity politics in the Progressive Left. Perry stated that voting by group interests can produce positive results as it requires people to think beyond individual gain. García Bedolla challenged the audience to move beyond the term "identity politics" as it can trivialize structural positions and experiences and that many successful campaigns form coalitions while continuing to do community-driven work. The goal, Ganz stated, should not be to negate identity politics or issue-specific efforts but to further include them into a larger idea of progressive politics.   

While the panel addressed setbacks in the progressive Left’s movement, the tone of the conversation remained hopeful as past experiences were used as lessons for future organizing.  

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