Political Equality First

I just wrote a new essay — “Political Equality First” — for The Progressive Alternative.  I attempt to make the case that the Democratic Party’s revival of the economic message of Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism (the idea that state power should be deployed to ameliorate disparities in economic power) will fail if we do not revive Roosevelt’s political message that political equality — restoring political power to the people and away from the grip of monied interests — must be achieved first:

Although the same sentiments are expressed, President Obama and his fellow “New New Nationalists” have echoed only half of Roosevelt’s program. They have failed to articulate the role political equality plays in achieving economic equality. The progressives of the First Gilded Age understood that if they wanted the New Nationalism to work — if they wanted state power to be able to occasionally counterbalance free-wheeling economic power — they had to ensure that state power was free from the control of economic power. They had to fight for state power to be deployed democratically, in the interest of the public sentiment of equal citizens.

In the Gilded Age that Roosevelt faced, state power was not deployed democratically. In practice, there was not an equal distribution of political power. Worse, the disparity in political power mapped on to the disparity in economic power, so that those with economic power had political power and those without economic power did not have political power. The government was not in the control of the People; rather, it was controlled by those with the economic power. Our nation — conceived as a democracy of citizens with equal political power — suffered a crisis of immeasurable political inequality.

Today, with the crisis of economic inequality in the spotlight, but the crisis of political inequality sidelined, we must finally address this second strand of Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and give the cause of political equality its due. Even more, we should call forPolitical Equality First: the strategic prioritization of equalizing our distribution of political power. If we want to use state power to better achieve income equality, wealth equality, or structural equality — or even gender equality or racial equality — we need political equality first. We need to wrest back control of state power from those with economic power.

Practicing a strategy of Political Equality First comes with important benefits. Whereas a sizable portion of Americans are — rightly or wrongly (in my view, wrongly) — philosophically opposed to efforts to increase economic equality, most Americans believe in the democratic principle of political equality. Political equality takes the relatively popular sentiment of “the rich deserve their economic power” off the table and centers focus on the even more popular sentiment of “the citizens deserve their political power.”  Whereas most efforts to increase economic equality will immediately affect the direct experiences of only a segment of Americans, the 90+% of Americans who have little to no voice in government would — given efforts to increase political equality — immediately experience increased political power.

Read the full essay here.

Getaway Launch Roundup

The first major project out of the Millennial Housing Lab —
Getaway, which builds tiny houses, places them on beautiful rural land and rent them by the night to city folkScreen Shot 2015-07-27 at 10.57.31 AMs looking to escape the digital grind and test-drive tiny house living — had a great launch week. Here’s the press round-up:

  • The Boston Globe: “The first of its 8-by 20-foot homes, located in southern New Hampshire, is ready to rent. The second and third tiny houses are under construction.”
  • Fast Company Article 1: “There’s a huge gap between people who post stories to Facebook about living in tiny houses and people who actually live in one,” Davis says. “We want to add a rung to the ladder so people can ‘test drive’ a tiny house.”
  • Fast Company Article 2“”We’re making tiny houses accessible to people who otherwise can’t experience them,” says Jon Staff, CEO of Getaway, a company launched at Harvard’s Innovation Lab. The company recently opened its first 160-square foot, off-grid tiny house in the woods near Boston, and will soon add more.”
  • Boston.com““We build it all in East Boston,” Staff said. “Then I get in a truck and drive them and we put them on beautiful land out of sight of any house. The first one has been completed and moved to Southern New Hampshire up on a hill.””
  • Treehugger: “The tiny house movement has mostly been ad-hoc, driven by people who for various reasons wanted to break away from the standard routine: get a job, get a mortgage, get a house. It is becoming less ad-hoc all the time as more people look at it as a real alternative model. Many of those are millennials who “trading stability for experience” either through choice or necessity. And now there is the Millenial Housing Lab looking at the problems they face. Founded by Harvard Business School, Harvard Law School and Harvard Design School students it is looking at the problems of housing a generation without stability.”
  • LifeEdited: “Both its modern interior and exterior are clad with attractive rough cut pine. The interior features built in furniture such as a table that doubles as a window cover and two built-in beds, giving the place capacity to sleep four. All electricity is solar, the toilet is composting and water is handled via a 110 gallon water tank that is refilled via the host house the tiny house shares its land with. Bookings also include fresh linens and available “provisions”–a sort of backwoods mini bar with things like coffee, trail mix, pasta, etc (these cost extra).”
  • Curbed: “Another day, another ravishing, eco-friendly, or otherwise fabulous tiny house hits the Internet, and you’re left to wonder: Can I really live in something like this? Without readily-available resources to research and build a micro home or just the sheer willpower to leave behind everything you thought you knew about a “home,” the burgeoning tiny house movement is a tough trend to get in on. But this tricky place between tiny dreamin’ and actual tiny livin’ is where Getaway, a new startup coming out of Harvard University, wants to wedge into.”
  • Boston Business Journal: “Staff said Getaway will build at least three tiny homes in the short-term, but the hope is to build at least 12 over the next year and expand to other places around the country. The homes are all designed by Harvard students and have a composting toilet, solar electricity and propane heat — among other basics.”

If you are Boston area resident interested in booking a Getaway — or hoping to request Getaway to come to your town — check out www.Getaway.house.  As always, if you are interested in getting involved with Getaway or the Millennial Housing Lab generally, please get in touch.  We’ve got many projects cooking — a project to legalize tiny houses, an attempt to build a tiny house village (4-5 houses on one lot) in a city, and an effort to see how tiny houses can help homelessness — so I’m really looking forward to what comes of all this in the coming year.

Getaway.house has launched!

The first project out of Jon Staff and I’s Millennial Housing Lab has launched: Getaway, our new startup that builds tiny houses, places them on beautiful rural land and rents them out by the night to city folks looking to escape the digital grind and test-drive tiny house living. After some late-night idea sessions… a few months of Jon sketching with Harvard Graduate School of Design students Addison Godine, Wyatt Komarin, and Rachel Moranis… Jon wooing investors based on a team and dream… and a harrowing drive of the first tiny house on I-93 North… the first Boston Getaway house has arrived in southern New Hampshire.

Here’s the house, named The Ovida (after Getaway intern Sarah Ruehlow’s grandma), making the move:

Here’s finishing touches in the arrival in southern New Hampshire:


Here’s the finished outside…:


…and the finished inside:


Many thanks to Kataram Studios for the photographs and to the whole Getaway team for launching the Millennial Housing Lab’s first project.  This is the first of (hopefully) many Millennial housing proofs of concept in the coming years.  Learn more and book your getaway at Getaway.house.

The Millennial Housing Lab

Jon Staff and I have been batting around housing ideas for a while now: urban dorms, tiny houses, modern communes, etc.  Since we’re both going to be up at Harvard for the coming years, we decided to formalize this conversation into a real thing: The Millennial Housing Lab, an action lab with the mission of developing and realizing fresh housing ideas for a new generation.

Here’s our founding statement:

Millennials are living different. We are trading stability for experience. We are seeking community more than luxury. We are delaying marriage, career tracks and all other forms of settling down. We are putting in the work to actually realize the graduation cliches: following our dreams, building the future, living an authentic life, and having a purpose greater than ourselves.

If we want to keep living different, though, we’re going to have house different.The rent is too damn high. The community spirit we felt on our college campuses is much harder to find as a twenty-something in the city. Going off grid — let alone moving to a rural area — seems too out of reach. And a McMansion in the exurbs isn’t our style.

Fortunately, this mismatch — between our changing lifestyles and limited, outdated and expensive housing options — has led to a renewed interest in housing innovation.  The tiny house movement has taken the internet by storm.  People are startingurban dorms to keep rent low and community spirit high. Airstreams are making a comeback.  Homeless prevention is beingrethought.  We want to spur and organize such ideas.

The Millennial Housing Lab is an action lab founded 11701154_1605481933056020_6378485290407082923_nby Harvard Business School, Harvard Law School and Harvard Design School students with the mission ofdeveloping and realizing fresh housing ideas for a new generation. Our work focuses on all sides of the housing experience: architecture, neighborhood design, financing,regulation and community-building.

We are a lab devoted to both thought and action.  On the thought side, we aim to host a vibrant conversation about Millennial housing through our blog, email bulletin, events, conferences and publications.  On the action side, we aim to incubate and launch various design-, business- and regulatory-related proofs of concept in the field of Millennial housing.

The first project of the Lab — Getaway.house, which helps grow the tiny house movement by building tiny houses, placing them on rural land and renting them out to city folk looking to unplug and test-drive tiny house living — launches this week.

The Democratic Promise, a Strong People, and an Open Nation: The Philosophy Behind the Progressive Alternative

I just posted my first major essay to ProgressiveAlternative.org, our new initiative to restore the integrity and broaden the vision of the Democratic Party.  It regards the philosophy behind the progressive alternative, examining the ideas of the democratic promisestrong people, and an open world. Here’s an excerpt:

That is what it means to have faith in the democratic promise, in the constructive genius of ordinary men and women. Unlike fundamentalists, we start from a place of political uncertainty. Unlike conservatives, we believe institutional evolution can lead us down bad paths and thus believe present ideas from living humans for institutional reform and replacement are worth considering. Unlike technocrats, we believe those ideas are not the providence of a small set of centralized experts, but rather should be harvested from every ordinary citizen.

This constructive genius has been called creative intelligence by secular thinkers like John Dewey. It has been called divine Grace that works through each of us by religious thinkers. InFalse Necessity, philosopher Roberto Unger describes it as follows:

The infinity of the mind is the model for our relation to all the social and cultural worlds we build and inhabit.  There is always more in us — more in each of us individually as well as more in all of us collectively — than there is in all of them put together, the past and present orders of society and culture.

This inexhaustibility is the most important fact about us.  It is inscribed in the plasticity that characterizes the human brain and makes us into language-speaking and culture-producing organisms.  Its deployment is the most important instrument of practical progress as well as of scientific discovery. (li-lii)

To the Progressive Alternative, our people’s living and constructive genius – our creative intelligence, our experience of divine Grace, the infinity of our mind, our inexhaustibility – is the great tool we have with which to face political uncertainty.

From this belief comes our political mission: to empower and equip this constructive genius of ordinary men and women, while restoring its political supremacy over non-living structures. Wise scripture, inherited institutions, and technical expertise should not be abolished, but they should be the servants, not the masters, of this constructive genius and its stewards, the living citizens and communities of today.

Read the full essay — “The Democratic Promise, a Strong People, and an Open Nation: The Philosophy Behind the Progressive Alternative”here.

Read the original Progressive Alternative intervention, the founding document of the Progressive Alternative initiative, here.


StrongReturns.org Oral Histories

We just finished our StrongReturns.org Spring 2015 tour.  Our proudest byproduct of the tour — excepting the wonderful connections made with a variety of prison reform organizations and student leaders — were six oral histories we made of formerly incarcerated folks we met along the way.  Here’s the six:

William T. Lawson describes growing up in D.C., his time incarcerated, and his work with the National Homecomers Academy:

Bill Smith describes growing up in the drug culture of Waynesboro, VA, his recovery through a Drug Court program, and his work helping fight the meth epidemic in his community:

Carl Route describes growing up in Albany, GA after integration and the “life sentence on the outside” all felons have to face:

Pastor Kenneth Glasgow of Dothan, Alabama talks about the revolving door of prison, the importance of treatment over incarceration, and his work as the co-founder of The Ordinary People Society:

Deborah Daniels describes growing up in Birmingham, her experiences in Alabama’s Tutwiler Prison for Women, her work with Prison Fellowship Ministries, and her plans to form an Offender Alumni Association:

Patrick Young, who spent a decade in the Louisiana prison system, shares stories from growing up just outside of New Orleans, describes how Hurricane Katrina was experienced inside of prison, and explains how education is the key to rehabilitation:

The Progressive Alternative Intervention

A couple of folks and I have spent the past months working to develop a vision for an alternative path for the Democratic Party.

We are worried about:

  1. the loss of integrity within the party: Democratic congresspersons being corrupted by monied interests, failure to prosecute Wall Street malfeasance, Democratic politicians and administrators cashing in their Washington ties for private gain; and
  2. the narrowing of vision of the party: the failure to present a broad, popular economic vision as bold as the New Deal, the failure to open up government and political participation to the people; the ceding of startup dreaming to the other side; and the policy blackout of local community-building.

But instead of quitting the Democratic Party, we hope to initiate a grassroots intervention in the Party to restore its integrity and broaden its vision. In the spirit of the democratic promise – the American belief in the constructive genius of ordinary women and men – we set our sights on an open nation populated by strong people: stronger citizens and communities engaging in a more open economy and democracy.

We are going to launch this website publicly around September, but I wanted to share our opening statement, which we call The Progressive Alternative Intervention. It is located at ProgressiveAlternative.org and copied in full below:

The Progressive Alternative

An Intervention in the Democratic Party
for Strong People and an Open Nation

i. The Dictatorship of No Alternatives

The American political system is failing. It is not narrowing our economic divide, tempering the climate crisis, nor supervising our global might. Our politicians are feeding at the trough of deep-pocketed donors, granting an ever-smaller cabal free reign over elections and policymaking. Our political parties are co-producing a 24-hour theater of fear and cultural resentment, abdicating their responsibility to point the way towards a better future.

We are politically disoriented. Shut out by the system, we are losing our ability to imagine ourselves shaping the economic and political forces that govern our lives. Bewildered by the lack of progress, we are resigning ourselves to the false belief that this must be the way politics is, has been, and will always be. With each passing election, we feel evermore discontent with the bland fruits of mainstream politics, evermore disillusioned with the failure of would-be saviors to realize change, and evermore disenfranchised by the concentration of political power in the hands of a self-interested few. The people of the hour and issues of the day may change, but the dictatorship of no alternatives remains.

And yet, even in these bleak conditions, we have found spaces and occasions to assert ourselves and make our dissatisfaction known. Street protests have rumbled for a globalization from below to displace sprawling corporatism. Rage at growing inequality has echoed from hundreds of city parks to millions of laptop screens. Wide-eyed youth have packed into campaign field offices on the hope that their candidate could change the way Washington works. Waves of un-cuffed hands have lifted to not only affirm their humanity, but also to volunteer to be included in power. Where are those who have not demanded something more than the corruption and minimalism of today’s politics? Where are those who have not demanded an end to the dictatorship of no alternatives?

If there is one thing to be learned from these moments, it is that simply demanding an alternative from those in power is not enough. The powerful may be unable to ignore our fierce discontent. But what they cannot ignore, they will appease; what they cannot appease, they will manage. We must not think they will provide a way out of the fog of today’s politics.

Rather than being ignored by the powerful, we should be engaged in the process of addressing our discontent. Rather than being appeased by the powerful, we should be equipped to develop and realize alternatives ourselves. Rather than being managed by the powerful, we should have power opened up to us, blurring the line between those inside and those out.

We must light our own direction. We must take our own first steps out. We must construct our own progressive alternative.

ii. The Democratic Promise

To move our politics from ignorance to engagement, from appeasement to equipment, and from management to membership is not only our strategy for realizing an alternative—it is our alternative.

Such a politics is based on a democratic promise: the promise of the constructive genius of ordinary women and men. This promise sees us as beings with more life inside of us, in each of us individually and in all of us collectively, than there is or can ever be in the structures and institutions that we build and inhabit. It rejects ideas that give past roles and present circumstances the last word on who someone is or can become.

This democratic promise built America. From it sprang democratic politics, the pursuit of a government that is not only for all people, but more importantly, of all people and by all people. This practice of politics presumes all our neighbors, not just a select few, are capable of participating in the co-creation of our shared world.

Those in power have forsaken the faith in ordinary women and men that underlies this democratic promise. They still preside over the church it built–our democratic government–but they are false priests. The Americans who still aspire for alternatives, who still believe in themselves, who still labor daily for progress in towns across the country—they are the faith’s lost congregation. It is time for them to return home.

iii. The Democratic Deficit: Weakened People and a Closed Nation

To realize this democratic promise, Americans throughout history have labored to build an open nation that broadly engages a strong people. Framers and suffragettes, free-labor abolitionists and unionists, Civil Rights marchers and free software programmers have all taken up this democratic project. We strove to institute reforms that moved us closer to this ideal by strengthening citizens and communities while opening up our economy and politics to more people in more ways. We worked to push ourselves from the consumption, clientelism, and spectatorship of a closed nation to the production, empowerment, and imagination of an open one. Instead of deflating and deflecting the people’s creativity, we welcomed and equipped it. We fueled a virtuous cycle: the more we opened the nation to broad participation, the stronger we became and the more open the nation had to become. Our motto became and continues to be: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Those in power today have abandoned this heritage. They work to preserve a closed nation designed to pacify a weakened people. Rather than helping to develop our constructive capacities, they try to manage us. They close off our economy and politics, limiting our freedom of economic creation and political participation in exchange for unlimited freedom of consumption and biannual ballots. They feed a vicious cycle: the more the nation is closed, the weaker we become and the more closed, they say, the nation must be. Their motto is: “be afraid, be very afraid.”

This democratic deficit is enfeebling contemporary America:

  • Weakened Citizens: Our spirits are strong, but we are not adequately equipped.Despite having generated enough per capita wealth to eliminate economic insecurity nationwide, the innovative potential of tens of millions of Americans is hampered by day-to-day fears for financial survival. A singular focus on ‘creating jobs’ has failed to address the fact that millions with jobs are dis-empowered at their workplaces, resigned to see work as only a paycheck rather than a means to innovate, create, and empower. Furthermore, those who try to improve their prospects through higher education become burdened with immense debt. Our school system is two-tiered: some Americans have access to high-quality education while others are closed out. One tier provides the analytical, problem-solving and imaginative skills that empower individuals to adapt to and reinvent the world. The other emphasizes rote memorization and specific technical skills, which trains children to reproduce a world that has already left them behind. Moreover, despite progress in recent decades, racial and gender stigmas still linger, inhibiting individuals simply for being who they are.
  • Weakened Communities: We desire stronger communities, but are lacking in meaningful connections. Local communities throughout America have eroded as more and more people find the places where they live as spaces devoid of meaning and relationships. As American towns increasingly rely on distant corporate supply chains for their communal survival, a nation whose power grew from its multiple centers now feels centralized and managed from afar. Groups that could benefit from dense, varied, and empowering community networks are herded under corporate, media, and government bullhorns, unable to talk back in significant ways. On the national level, social solidarity is limited to cash transfers, as we pay the government to pay others who are in need, rarely meeting our fellow countrymen in authentic ways, and thus resenting the payments. The once-communal labors of caring, teaching, healing, feeding, sheltering, and serving have been bureaucratized and hidden from view.
  • Closed Economy: We want to be producers and innovators, but our markets are exclusive. Although the internet has inspired startup businesses, most dreamers are still shut out. Access to financial resources, regulatory know-how, technical skills, and industry connections are limited to a few. We have left our farmer and artisan roots to become a nation of employees. For most, becoming one’s own boss remains out of reach. The cutting-edge workplace cultures that blur the line between management and labor through fluid roles, continuous education, and distributed authority are still confined to a few industries. Meanwhile, multinational corporations unceasingly homogenize the economy, not only eradicating regional differences and small businesses, but also crowding out alternative economic forms, such as worker and consumer cooperatives, municipal utilities, and other forms of the commons.
  • Closed Democracy: We want to participate, but our democracy is closed, serving the interests of insiders. Washington’s endemic inertia has made political change dependent on crisis. Even proposals that garner wide support are shackled by partisan politics and industry insiders. As money increasingly corrupts the legislative and administrative process, the capability to make political change becomes evermore limited to those with the money to buy results. Tired of the gridlock and corruption, Americans limit their political participation to the minimal act of voting, or opt out of politics entirely. As popular participation and experimentation declines, the range of acceptable ideas narrows, and elites with special interests define the scope of political thought and debate.

Weakened people and a closed nation: this is the aftermath of the democratic promise forsaken and the democratic project abandoned.

iv. The Democratic Project: Strong People and an Open Nation

By renewing the democratic promise and reviving the democratic project, we can address this deficit and make stronger people and a more open nation:

We seek stronger citizens.

  • Fortify Economic Security: The struggle to satisfy the immediate needs of health care, food, shelter, and safety for oneself and family should not be a barrier to creative participation in our democracy and economy. Economic insecurity should not be a looming threat to an employee against asserting oneself at work or striking out on one’s own. Each individual should be afforded access to basic necessities and educational resources. Taking on insurmountable debt should not be a prerequisite of furthering one’s education.
  • Decentralize Capital for Productive Use: People should have a stake in our common economic resources for experimental and productive use. We should grant easy access to lines of credit and investment funds for the sake of innovation and creation.
  • Increase Revenue Streams for Security and Empowerment: For such security and empowerment, we should experiment with alternative public revenue sources, such assovereign wealth funds and land-value taxes.
  • Broaden Educational Opportunities: Location or age should not determine one’s access to quality education. Educational opportunities should be unlinked from property values, so that each American child, no matter his or her place of residence, has access to high quality public schools. Additionally, each individual should be afforded opportunities for lifelong learning, especially for those who want to make significant mid-life career changes.
  • Promote Empowering Pedagogy: Education should prepare Americans to think for themselves. It should equip us to challenge and change the world rather than simply reproduce it. It should develop the mind to not only navigate the present circumstance, but also to move against and beyond it. Education through rote memorization and training in static, specialized skills should be updated to reflect those skills necessary for entrepreneurship and empowered employment, like creative problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration.
  • Fight Entrenched Discrimination and Stigmatization: The on-going efforts of the past century to fight entrenched discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation should be supported and continued. Entrenched stigmas that have inhibited our neighbors with physical handicaps, mental illnesses, non-traditional families, advanced ages, and minority religions should be confronted and overturned. Special re-examination should be given to stigmas created by the state, such as those which come with felony convictions and incarceration.

We seek stronger communities.

  • Revitalize Local Communities: Efforts should be made to transform meaningless spaces into meaningful places by developing initiatives that strengthen people’s ties to both their neighbors and towns.
  • Increase Communal Self-Reliance: We should work to better distribute industries and opportunities beyond major coastal cities so as to decentralize economic and cultural power throughout the nation. Local self-reliance movements, from community-sponsored agriculture to local green-energy initiatives, should be better funded and proliferated.  Special attention should be given to ensuring that the lives of rural communities suffering under de-industrialization are not wholly dependent on the placement and displacement of factories, stadiums, bases and prisons controlled by distant governments and corporations.
  • Create Participatory Counterbalances to Corporate and State Power: We should work to enable the routine organization of democratic counterbalances to undemocratic corporate and state forces. Through updated legal, funding, web, and media structures, we should fortify and promote the organization of such participatory interest groups, such as veterans organizing into federated societies, fans of sports teams organizing into fan unions, consumers of products organizing into consumer purchasing cooperatives, and tenants of public housing organizing into tenant associations. In addition, we should promote experiments in moving such counterbalances into full-scale alternatives, such as consumer groups moving from a product boycott to launching their own product.
  • Humanize the Caring Economy: We need to return to our heritage of participatory direct care. We should support projects that humanize the support for our sick, imprisoned, young, old, mentally ill, and destitute. The third-party bureaucracies that we currently pay to unburden us from responsibility towards one another should be supplemented with a culture of widespread participation in direct care for each other.
  • Build Programs for National Solidarity: National solidarity should be promoted through broader opportunities and stronger incentives to spend periods of one’s life engaging in American communities different than one’s own. Attempts to address national divides of race, culture, and class through the law and mass media should be supplemented with projects that encourage sustained, authentic in-person interactions in shared missions among individuals from divided groups. Such interracial, intercultural, and cross-class sports, music, conservation, education, worship, and service groups should be promoted and expanded.

We seek an economy open to our ambitions.

  • Ease the path to entrepreneurship: We should lower the barriers to starting a business by broadening access to capital, resources, and regulatory know-how. First, in order to increase aggregate venture capital, we should: (1) enlist finance in service of the real economy, providing incentives and opportunities for more investments to be diverted away from financial markets and towards production and innovation; (2) create public venture funds that will prioritize public objectives while returning profits to government treasuries for reinvestment in people; and (3) enable the broader population to invest in startups. Second, we should work to increase access to resources such as credit, technology, land, equipment, media, and technical skills. Third, governments should help upstarts navigate their relationship with public authorities, ensuring that complex registration requirements, regulations, and tax procedures do not lock out those without access to teams of lawyers, accountants, and government liaisons.
  • Make stable employment resemble entrepreneurship: Within the context of stable and secure employment, we should support and broaden trends that blur the distinction between being an employee and being a boss. Such trends include eliminating fixed roles in the workplace, linking routine production with constant innovation, rotating employees through varied teams, and cultivating cultures of continuous education. Structural trends with this aim include setting up employee stock ownership programs and other forms of profit-sharing, as well as ensuring employee decision-making power either directly, such as in worker cooperatives, or indirectly, through strong, flexible unions.
  • Preserve and encourage economic diversity: We should resist economic entrenchment, stagnation, and homogenization. The state should again take up the task of promoting the experimentation, development and growth of alternative market structures, as it once did at various points in American history. We should encourage experiments in expanding the commons, as well as other alternatives for how governments and markets can interact.
  • Break up monopolies and end cronyism: To ensure that entrenched players do not shut out upstarts, we should revitalize our anti-trust regulatory regime and terminatecrony-capitalist deals between government and industry.
  • Promote conservation and sustainable development. Throughout American history, the diversity and richness of our natural environment has served to stimulate economic and cultural innovation. We should conserve nature to ensure its continued use as a source of inspiration, diversity, and sustainable development.

We seek a democracy open to our ideas

  • Eliminate the corrupting influence of private money in politics: Legislatures and government administrators should be dependent on the people alone, not campaign donors. To achieve this goal, we should develop and expand programs for the public financing of elections, as well as the public provision of other campaign resources, such as media opportunities, to all ballot-qualified candidates.
  • Increase popular engagement in politics: We should invest significant public resources and efforts in ensuring a heightened, sustained, and organized level of popular engagement in politics. Social movements, civic education initiatives, forums for deliberation, and community projects should have broader access to media, funding, public space, and government resources.
  • Develop mechanisms for resolving gridlock: We should establish formal legislative mechanisms to more rapidly resolve Washington gridlock, such as innovative forms of ballot initiatives. We should pursue experiments in combining features of representative and direct democracy in formal decision-making.
  • Empower local and sector experimentation: We should create opportunities for experimental deviation in particular places and sectors. As national initiatives move in one direction, there should be opportunities for pursuing local experimentation and sector autonomy that enable alternatives.

These proposals are not blueprints for a new society: they are a series of first steps in ensuring a greater freedom for each woman and man to realize his and her constructive genius. The goal of The Progressive Alternative is not to create new institutions that will make up another dictatorship of no alternatives. Rather, it is to reopen the American story by empowering us to again participate in the making and remaking of our nation.

v. The Democratic Party

Some might call this project utopian. Some might say that a broad transformation of social, political, and economic institutions, such as those outlined above, is impossible. But such criticism misunderstands how change has happened in American history. Change has occurred through broad visions coupled with realistic first steps. Those reformist projects with realistic steps but lacking in broad vision address minor issues but fail to solve the underlying problems that generate such issues in the first place. Revolutionary projects with broad visions but lacking in realistic first steps acknowledge underlying problems, but fail to see a way forward except through rapid, full-scale replacement of one system with another.

That is why we pursue this progressive alternative as a project of visionary reform. Visionary reform is both the development of a vision about where we should be moving and the vigorous pursuit of accessible first steps in the direction of that vision. The vision outlines the ideal of transformation and the first steps to lead us there.

The democratic project can and should be pursued through many institutions and organizations, such as academia, education, business, media, and civic life. Electoral politics, however, plays a special role. Elections are the routine medium through which both our interests and ideals can be expressed, and by which future laws and policies can be introduced. They provide a regular opportunity for us to engage in a national conversation about both grand public visions and attainable first steps. Furthermore, electoral politics is the dominant focus of the American political media, making political campaigns an effective venue for quickly and easily popularizing a young intervention like The Progressive Alternative.

The political party remains the dominant vehicle of engagement in electoral politics. Whereas the political party in American politics today functions as a visionless fundraising and voter mobilization machine, we see a deeper potential. A party can be the vehicle through which to organize the keepers of the democracy to advance the democratic project in America. It can both articulate a broad, national vision for the project, and push the project into realization through policy development, community organizing, and the acquisition and exercise of formal political power. It can serve as the anchoring agent of the varied arms of this insurgent progressive alternative.

At different points in American history (and in other countries today), a third party has served in the role of visionary instigator. Today, we are less in need of a third party than a second party. If one of the two major parties was open to clearly defining itself as a visionary and publicly-interested alternative to the minimalism and corruption of today’s politics, its organizing structure, funding capabilities, and national stage could serve to jumpstart the revitalization of the democratic project nationwide.

Although both parties in their present form are far from serving the democratic project, the party most capable of again becoming the standard-bearer of stronger people and a more open nation is the Democratic Party. A renewed democratic promise would fit comfortably in the heritage of the party founded by Jefferson and Jackson as the democratic alternative to political insiders. It is the party that took the populist route out of the Great Depression, as well as the party that redeemed its originally-narrow view of who constitutes “the people” to become the eventual home of Civil Rights and women’s movement veterans. In the past century, it has been the party that has best understood the role that the ambitions of immigrants and young people play in enlivening the nation. With Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, it was the last party with a positive, active, and visionary program for American politics.

Over the past decades, the Democratic Party has lost sight of these principles. The democratic promise gave way to the elitism of Washington insiders. Support for ambitious upstarts was ceded to the other side, while an abstract, uninspiring push for “more equality” became the central goal of the party. The structural vision of Roosevelt’s New Deal fractured into the visionless trivialities of Clinton’s New Democrats.

Roosevelt’s particular program only went so far, and yet it continues to define politics today. At best, the Party is recycling his old solutions at the expense of imagining new ones. At worst, they are helping the other side dismantle his legacy without putting forth a new public-minded program. If we are to commune with the Party’s resident ghost, we should ask Mr. Roosevelt less how to revive his policies and more how to revive his will, creativity, and vision.

In that spirit, we call for an intervention into the Democratic Party. We call for an intervention to better align the party with the democratic project outlined above:

  • Our first task is to clarify the agenda of the Progressive Alternative, and to identify practical policies that take steps in support of this agenda.
  • Our second task is to organize supporters, re-engaging with local Democratic committees to redirect the Party at the grassroots.
  • Our third task is to run candidates who support this alternative path, opposing established Democrats in primaries if necessary.

These initiatives can return the Democratic Party to its roots in progressive action and democratic faithfulness. Through vision and action, we can reinvigorate American politics.

vi. The Democratic Moment

Today, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, there is an opportunity. Throughout America, efforts to make people stronger and the nation more open are already under way. These efforts can be harnessed for broader goals. The initiatives to close the gap in educational quality can expand into a larger project of equipping citizens generally. The increasing awareness of civic decline can be a precursor to a national community-building agenda. Themaker-movement and startup culture can grow beyond the internet, revolutionizing more industries in the spirit of an open economy. The renewed push for campaign finance reform coupled with increasing discontent with Washington gridlock lays the groundwork for an integrated movement for a more open democracy.

For these reasons, and echoing the urgency of all movements for progressive alternatives, the moment is now.

RedAlert covers StrongReturns

RedAlert Politics ran a great story on StrongReturns.org, our Millennial Prison Reform organization:

The two men are behind Strong Returns, a project that aims to make prison reform “the” millennial issue in 2016. They are eager to hear about Smith’s experience with his local drug court, an alternative to incarceration. They’re both taking their “gap year” between their college graduation and law school to promote the effort.

So instead of writing white papers and lobbying Congress, they tour colleges and share stories. This time, it’s at Washington and Lee, a small, private university in west-central Virginia with under 2,000 students. As with any other campus they visit, Davis and Johnston begin recruiting student volunteers with the intent of having them help interview people like Smith, a man with first-hand experience of the broken prison system.

They spend hours interviewing these people, unpacking their pasts and picking their brains on how to improve the system. With their volunteers’ help, they later condense it all into short video presentations, which they put on for the school at-large. Storytelling, and its ability to go viral and drive politics, is a crucial aspect of the project’s vision.

“Connecting prisons and campuses. We think that’s where the magic happens,” says Davis.

Why prison reform? According to Davis, there’s both a moral and a political argument for choosing this particular battle.

“The moral side is, if you care about any of the major issues that you’re called upon in most religious and moral systems to care about—poverty, violence, families being ripped apart—you’ll find that the system that touches all of them and that has a hand in all of them…is the prison system.”

As for politics at the national level, Davis argues that the issue bridges the partisan gap. “It’s a left-right issue. Nothing else is going to pass in Washington except for this.”

The video they reference in the article — one we made with Bill Smith of Virginia — is here:

The Voting Apollo Program

Yesterday, I attended the festivities in Selma, Alabama marking the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march for Voting Rights. Almost every speaker spoke of the threats facing voting rights today, referencing the efforts by various state legislatures making it harder to vote. For example, Obama said: “Right now, in 2015, fifty years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor.”

However, no speaker made explicit the two stories of what’s really going on here:


STORY 1: If everyone voted, the Republican Party, as it is organized today, would face an existential threat.

Take this Pew Poll of non-voters linked here:

If you bring non-voters into the fold, support for Republican candidates and Conservative ideologies fall:

  • 47% of likely voters supported Romney in October 2012 while 39% of all adults supported Romney because only 24% of non-voters supported Romney.
  • 51% of likely voters viewed Obama favorably in October 2012 while 56% of all adults viewed him favorably, because 64% of non-voters viewed him favorably.
  • 44% of likely voters consider themselves Ideologically Conservative, while only 38% of all adults do, because only 28% of non-voters view themselves as Conservative.

If you bring non-voters into the fold, demographic groups that generally support Republican candidates wane (and vice versa for demographic groups supporting Democratic candidates):

  • 74% of likely voters are White, while only 68% of all adults are White because only 59% of non-voters are White.
  • 20% of likely voters make less than $30,000 while 32% of all adults make less than $30,000 because 52% of non-voters make less than $30,000.
  • 54% of likely voters are over 50, while 35% of all adults are over 50, because only 28% of non-voters are over 50.
  • 13% of likely voters are under 29, while 21% of all adults are under 29, because 36% of all non-voters are under 21.

As you might expect from the facts above, if you bring non-voters into the fold, support for left-wing economic policy increases:

  • 39% of likely voters believe the government should do more to solve problems, but 44% of all adults do because 52% of non-voters believe the government should do more.
  • 49% of likely voters believe that Obamacare should be repealed, but only 43% of all adults do because only 31% of non-voters believe it should be repealed.

These 5-10% differences seem small, but given that most elections are decided by differences of this small size means that this matters: if all non-voters had been voters in the last 10 elections, American politics would be completely different. Specifically, it would be different in the Democratic coalition’s favor.

I don’t mean to be so partisan, but this seems to be the story that the facts are laying out:

  1. Among likely voters, the party coalitions are roughly balanced, ping-ponging electoral victories back and forth;
  2. Non-voters skew towards the Democratic coalition; and thus
  3. If all potential voters voted, the Democratic coalition would have a solid, more permanent majority in American politics.

Given this, it’s not surprising that Republican Party mega-strategists would, at best, not support efforts to have more non-voters vote, and, at-worst, discourage increased voter turnout.

So, that’s what’s probably happening here: Republican-controlled state legislatures are making it harder to vote based on a puffed-up “voter fraud threat”, Democrats are doing their best to parry such attempts, and serious efforts to dramatically increase voter participation are voted down or blocked because only one party has an interest in voter expansion being achieved.


STORY TWO: “Increasing voting rights” today is a technology question masquerading as a political question.

So what do we do about this voting scuffle between the Republican coalition (which has an interest in limiting voting people) and the Democratic coalition (which has an interest in expanding voting to more people)?

Well, the first thing we have to affirm that it’s not our formal democratic system’s problem that the Republican coalition doesn’t have a popular majority. That’s their problem to figure out. The democratic system’s job is to make sure our government is accountable to the will of the People. The integrity of the democratic system should be preserved and fortified regardless of the present consequences for either party coalition. Attempts to change the rules because you’re losing the Popular will should be called out for what they are: “attempts to change the rules because you’re losing the Popular will.”

The second thing is to remember that the spirit of a democratic electoral process is not the literal act of going to ‘polling places’ and ‘casting ballots’, but rather the general idea of having the People choose their governing officials. Too often, I’ve heard people act as if the literal technological mechanisms of voting are what voting is about: for example, I’ve heard many people say “If you’re too lazy to go to a polling place to vote, then you shouldn’t be able to vote” or “if you don’t have it in you to get an ID, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.” But that’s an arbitrary poll test, one that’s randomly based on the technology we happen to use to transmit People’s wills to be centrally counted. Again, the spirit of electoral democracy is that the People choose their governing officials, not any specific literal task that was necessitated by the technology needed to transmit the public Will to a central counting mechanism.

One way to put it is to say that there are two different concepts that make up elections: (1) The political mission of elections: “Transmit the People’s will for certain candidates into a formal decision of who is elected”; and (2) The electoral technology that is used to achieve that mission: IDs, registration, voting, ballots, counting, election commissions, etc.

We can have a political debate over what the mission of elections should be, over who should be able to vote. For example, I believe every adult citizen should be able to vote. Someone else might believe that the imprisoned shouldn’t be able to vote. Someone else might believe that permanent resident non-citizens should be able to vote. This is a political debate.

But, all this voting rights back and forth — voter ID, same-day registration — is actually discussions about the technology we should use to achieve the mission of voting. It’s masquerading as a political debate, but its actually just those interested in limiting voting using ambiguity around the technological mechanisms of voting to limit voting. It would be the equivalent of a town voting to design a building a certain way and then someone from the losing vote side using ambiguity of brick masonry practices or blueprinting technology to achieve their original intention.

The technology challenge of elections is hard, but simple:

  1. Your technology system needs to transmit choices from people across a geographic area to a centralized counting mechanism and then publish those results.
  2. Your technology system needs to make sure that those who are issuing their choices meet certain criteria (above 18, American citizen, from the proper district).
  3. Your technology system needs to make sure that its counting’s integrity cannot be compromised in an environment where people will have a deep interest in compromising it.
  4. Your technology system needs to be able to be audited to verify 2 & 3.

This is do-able: Banks protect money in an environment where people want to steal money, the government processes tax information from across the country to a centralized source, etc. But this is a technology challenge that engineers should work on, not politicians. Like with all other technology challenges the state faces (the Pentagon building a tank, the IRS running a website) the officials should set a mission, hire people (like engineers) to achieve that mission and then verify if the results achieve that mission. They shouldn’t use the middle engineering process of developing an adequate technology as a political tool to achieve their own private mission counter to the agreed-upon mission.


So, what?

Given these beliefs above, you can think bigger about Voting Rights than the small ball that those at Selma50 were speaking to.

We have had the political debate about elections and decided: most every adult citizen should play a role in our formal democracy, having their preferences counted in our elections regardless the color of their skin, their gender, and their income.

Given this political conclusion we should have election technology that lives up to this mission. If we believe everyone should play a role in elections, our electoral technology should work to ensure that. We should see low voter turnout as a technology problem, not as an apathy problem. We should say: “If the government can get every male over 18 to register for selective service; if it can track all our phones and emails; if it can collect taxes from us every year…then it can get our voting preferences every two years.”

Let’s use the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act to start a VOTING APOLLO PROGRAM that aims to achieve 99% voter participation by the 2020 election.

The government wasted almost $5 billion on a failed replacement of Marine 1 Helicopters for the White House. What if we spent $5 billion on election technology that achieved the following:

  1. Complete integrity: (A) Ensures each voter fits requirements of voting (18, American citizen, proper location); (B) Ensures counting’s integrity is not compromised; (C) Ensures counting is auditable by everyone.
  2. Easy participation: (A) You can vote online anytime 6 weeks leading up to an election; (B) You can vote offline in various places (post-offices, McDonalds, schools, etc.) anytime 6 weeks leading up to an election.
  3. Constant reminders: (A) You are emailed constant reminders to vote with direct links to webpages where you can vote; (B) You are snail-mailed constant reminders to vote with direct return envelopes to vote; (C) You are reminded in public to vote and provided with public kiosks to vote right there.

In short, a Voting Apollo Program would achieve full voter participation and integrity protections through election technology fit for the internet age.

Yes, there are thousands of technological details of achieving this mission that are going to be hard. But, there were also a lot of technological details of achieving the mission of inventing the internet and going to the moon. This is beyond achievable by our country.

Full voter participation through serious investment in the technology of voting expansion can be our Edmund Pettus Bridge. Let’s not play small-ball on the sidelines of full voter participation. Let’s cross the bridge.