Big-Picture Power

A few years ago, when I was involved in a project to build broad coalitions of progressive organizations at the state level, there was a fad among these groups to do a ''power analysis'' of the political conditions in their states and create a plan to ''build power'' for their causes and constituencies.

At the time I wondered, wasn't ''building power'' what they were doing? But the answer was that a lot of progressive organizations, especially those structured as nonprofits, had been kind of uncomfortable with the idea of power. They didn't think in those terms. Their theory was that putting persuasive information in front of policy-makers or getting courts to issue injunctions to stop bad things would be sufficient. Their counterparts in electoral politics thought winning elections was the end of the fight.

To the extent they had a theory of power, it was limited to the idea that when there was a public decision to be made -- an election, a ballot initiative, a piece of legislation -- someone should mobilize to affect the decision. This is what sociologist Steven Lukes calls ''one-dimensional power.'' It is centered on the question of who wins a fight. It neglects the second dimension: Who decides which issues are up for decision and which are not? And there’s a third aspect of power, which involves deeper questions about ideology, the definition of problems, and shared assumptions about what's possible. Ideas that go almost unchallenged, such as that government spending is a long-term crisis or that environmental protections cost jobs, can exercise a quiet power that protects certain interests.

The intended audience for Lukes' 1974 book, Power: A Radical View, was not activists, it was academics. Lukes was criticizing the one-dimensional view of power in mainstream political science at the time. But over the decades, a simplified version of his radical view, often known as ''The Three Faces of Power,'' caught on in activist circles. I've seen some organizations go through the revelatory exercise of figuring out not just how to affect decisions but how to put new issues on the agenda and then how to challenge prevailing ideologies and assumptions.

Whether they used Lukes' language or not (and most did not), much of the organizational transformation in the progressive world over the last decade, from the Netroots to the Center for American Progress, has involved understanding the limits of the old approach. Instead of hoping to win elections and lobbying for good bills and against bad ones, progressive organizations are finally becoming more conscious about setting the agenda and fighting for a worldview.

We now face the possibility that a progressive Democrat will win the White House this November, bringing with him a solidly supportive Congress. If that happens, of course, it is a victory in the first dimension—the formal power to make decisions. The last time it happened, 16 years ago, most progressives assumed that good policies would follow automatically. Today, progressives have an infinitely higher level of sophistication about power: Already, tens of millions of dollars are being amassed to mobilize people behind a push for universal health care—a grass-roots effort no one even thought about undertaking in 1993.

It is also possible, as Ezra Klein and Dana Goldstein suggest elsewhere in this issue, that a victory by Barack Obama, built on the foundation of a strong and coherent Democratic Party mobilizing citizens in 50 states, will bring with it the second dimension of power. This would allow progressives to set the terms of debate, not just next year but over the decade to come. Perhaps instead of fighting about tax cuts and tax increases, we'll fight for a broad, positive agenda of economic security for families and a new role for the U.S. in the world, and revenues will become, once again, a consequence of other decisions.

And there's the faintest hope that, as the debacle of recent American foreign policy and the breakdown of our economy come together to melt away the last remnants of conservative ideology, we can even change the third dimension of power. To borrow a phrase from the economist Jared Bernstein, we might move from a ''You’re On Your Own'' society to one in which ''We're In This Together'' becomes the underlying assumption of public policy. The interesting question is not what happens in November but whether progressives can be smart enough about all three dimensions of power to take advantage of the opportunity.

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