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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Building New Majorities

From the Civic Engagement Working Group of the Right To The City Alliance

The new majority is up for grabs in United States. In fact, though leaders on both the right and left are developing strategies on how best to harness the shifting demography and ideology of the “American People”.

Since the 2000 presidential election, there has been a surge of reflection, exploration and innovation with regard to voter work. Books and essays across the country surfaced about “red states and blue states” and an impending rift within the nation. New organizations formed, distinct from the traditional non-profit 501(c)3 formation, in the form of 501(c)4s, 501(c)5s, 527s and PACs that expanded (and sometimes exploited) new voting blocks and ideological groups. Until recently, these were largely explored by the political parties or specific candidates running for office.

Simultaneously, there were dramatic demographic shifts in U.S. cities. Cities began shifting to majority people of color. And, cities were recognized as representing the majority of the country’s population. The U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2008 cited that 85% of the U.S. population resides in metropolitan areas. As a result, some organizations contemplated how to recognize new ideological rifts, harness new forms of organization, and articulate new strategies for organizing.

Indeed, the 1960s birthed a civil rights movement couched in an analysis of an entitled and equal racial minority. Things have since changed. Though the country as a whole is still majority white, cities are
approaching majority people of color.

Cities consist of large low-middle income populations. And, increasingly, cities have a high percentage of immigrants. The tide is turning.

In that vein, community organizations are considering how to meet this changing tide. In the last few years, some began experimenting with new organizations and new strategies for public education and mass mobilization. Recently, we witnessed the emergence of urban-centered voter mobilization projects – termed “New Majority” projects.

These projects are slow to emerge, require significant resources, and necessitate a steep learning curve. But, already, they are delivering dramatic results. Below, Tenant and Workers United Director and founding member of RTTC, Jon Liss, shares his intentions and insights behind a flagship New Majority project: Virginia New Majority. (Graphics courtesy of New World Foundation: Building the New Ma- jority: Fighting for the Future of American Politics, 2005).

‘New Majority’ is a strategic approach to power building that links micro-targeted electoral organizing with the ideological approach to community organizing, developed over the last 20 years. On a basic level, it reflects the political maturation of the wave of immigrants who entered USA over the last 25 years. When combined with established African American residents, progressive unionists and the most progressive sectors of white working people, it reflects a numerical and voting majority in most urban regions.

We view Virginia New Majority (VNM) and our emerging model as a power building strategy. The project seeks to expand democracy in terms of who participates and maximize what democracy can look like. We hold no illusions that elections alone can create the society we want. However, we view elections as a critical area of engagement which we ignored throughout our first two decades of organizing (TWU). In part, this was because the wave of immigration now creating a new electoral majority was just arriving. Additionally, we avoided electoral work because of our own political immaturity. We believed (or acted as if) elections were futile, reformist, not ‘real organizing’ or even part of our power building strategy.

In practice, ‘new majority’ is the political project actively building a new common sense or understanding about politics, policies, culture, and the role of government. Ultimately, we are building unity around these strategic beliefs at a scale that moves hundreds of thousands, of people. Elections are the primary arena of contestation - initially including voter registration, issue identification (what issues voters agree on), member identification (generally a very low bar to formal membership), and canvasser (paid and volunteer) recruitment, training and, over time, cadre development. The emerging ‘new majority’ model consists of an initial period (about 3 months) of intensive outreach and canvassing into a second period (6-9 months) of legislative work, precinct leader development, and policy campaigns.

In Virginia, Tenants and Workers United has been organizing for over 20 years. TWU generally has between 600 and 1200 members and knocks on 10-15,000 doors a year. TWU invests thousands of hours a year developing the political consciousness and leadership of several hundred project leaders. By contrast, Virginia New Majority already visited over 300,000 households in the last two years. VNM has at best only three dozen activist members. In other words, the outreach capacity of the New Majority project is working on a scale ten times greater than TWU. Conversely, TWU is developing grassroots leaders at ten times the scale of VNM. The point is not to criticize either approach. Rather, we can see the value added of each approach: one in terms of scale and the other in terms of leadership development.

On a broad level, we now hope the New Majority (NM) projects will challenge the dominant ideas or common sense of society. In Virginia, both parties present a orthodoxy that is focused on keeping Virginia “business friendly”. Neither has ever talked about making Virginia “worker friendly”. Virginia has focused on keeping taxes low, providing few services, building highways rather than mass transit, and actively discouraging the enfranchisement of people of color.

Changing conceptions about the role of government, the redistributive role of taxes, and the understanding of race, class and gender are all part of a broad counter-hegemonic frame that we seek to develop, build support for and ultimately achieve.

Civic Engagement Workgroup is made up of the following member organizations: 
Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, Make The Road New York, Tenants Workers United/Virginia New Majority, Miami Workers Center, Union de Vecinos, People Organized to Demand Ecological and Economic Rights, Causa Justa / Just Cause, People Organized to Win Employment Rights, Community Voices Heard 

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