We envision a society in which responsible global capitalism creates strong, dynamic economies and works in concert with civil society toward a more secure and sustainable future, with better living standards, advancement of human rights, civil liberties, participatory democracy, justice, and strong and caring communities. We consider these to be shared American values, fundamental to continuance of our democracy.
In keeping with this vision, we believe in policies for the common good, which perform the basic functions of government of protecting and empowering individuals, enabling them to reach their highest potential, striving on an even playing field in a secure and environmentally sound world.
Theory of Change
As social creatures, humans exist in society; society emerges from and reflects our actions as individuals, and we as individuals depend upon and thrive only in a supportive social context. These elements – individual and society - work in concert.
There is currently a serious distortion in our society’s thinking about the relationship between private interests and the common good. This distortion of thinking has two components: one, an emphasis on the dichotomy between the individual and society, and two, a devaluation of the common good. This devaluation of the common good has been exacerbated, if not created, and certainly exploited by conservative political forces. For decades, conservatives have had a permanent political infrastructure – a financial base, think tanks, media outlets – which was created to change our culture and our politics in order to enact a series of radical policy overhauls that diminish our collective investment in the common good.
Undoing the policy damage of the past three decades and setting a new policy agenda that elevates the common good and creates a new harmony between private and common interests will require political leaders and effective electoral work, but politicians and parties cannot do this work alone. Politicians always look to see where the people are—what they want, what they will support. Even politicians who are fairly progressive will check to be sure they are not getting too far out ahead of the citizenry, because if they do, they will not be (re)elected. Therefore, we cannot depend upon politicians or parties to do the work of culture change.
Progressives therefore have a double challenge: In order to bring about policy change, they must also bring about culture change. Only when the general public’s understanding has changed and is reflected in demand for corresponding policy action, will politicians feel secure in taking such action. To accomplish these changes across multiple issues, evolving over years or even decades, will require an organized political movement with stable institutional infrastructure.
Solution: A Progressive Social Movement
A large political and social movement, progressive but independent of any political party, is needed to change the culture, and push, encourage, and support our elected officials between elections. The overall political goal of today’s progressive movement is the elevation of the common good as a policy priority. The parallel social goal is to promote an alternative worldview, a new understanding of the relationship between private interests and the common good.
Since its founding in 2001, the Commonweal Institute, a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) organization, has encouraged the development of this movement. Awareness of the need for a progressive movement has developed gradually among grassroots activists and bloggers (the “netroots”). Historically, the Commonweal Institute played a significant part in raising this awareness through its writings and online activism. At this point, however, as the movement has grown and advanced, its need for coordination and strategic planning has become more salient, if it is to be able to achieve lasting governing power. Accordingly, we have now shifted our effort to the area of greatest need: internal integration of the movement.
Commonweal Institute’s Current Role
As an agent of change acting to advance this new progressive movement, the Commonweal Institute’s primary role at this stage is integrator. That means that we build connections among progressive organizations, we convene them in order to foster strategic conversations, and we catalyze collaborations. We believe these steps will lead to the goal of a more connected, more cooperative, and more effective progressive movement.
We are focused particularly on improving coordination across three key functions of the movement:
• The development of ideas and policies by think tanks, activists, academics, and some political leaders;
• Building the grassroots base by elevating community needs, tracking policy impacts, and mobilizing citizens to action; and
• The dissemination of progressive ideas and values through all forms of media.
Assumptions and Justifications
The value of a well-coordinated and strategic political movement with strong infrastructure organizations has been amply demonstrated by the conservative movement in the United States. Familiar institutions like the Heritage Foundation are part of a vast, interwoven network of think tanks, advocacy organizations, and media that share values, develop common strategies, and plan for the long-term.
We assume that the conservative movement and most of its component parts will continue to exist, despite Republicans having lost control of the executive and legislative branches of the Federal government. The ongoing resistance to progressive initiatives, the ability of conservatives to mobilize supporters, and growing conservative attention to state politics indicate that it will continue to be a powerful force in American politics for some time to come.
The total size of the progressive infrastructure has grown substantially during the past 20 years, with the rate of growth accelerating after 2000. When we compare the progressive infrastructure to its conservative counterpart, however, we see that progressives face formidable opposition, especially when it comes to their ability to influence the public and the media, and the influence of campaign and lobbying money in the political system.
In order to make any consistent headway against the conservative forces, we believe that progressives will not only have to create new institutions, but will also have to coordinate their activities so they are not constantly competing for media attention, public mindshare, and funding. Indeed, networking together the thousands of separate progressive organizations promises to be a faster way of building movement infrastructure than emulating the conservatives’ strategy of building a gigantic edifice step-by-step.
Further, progressives will have to start doing long-term, cross-sectoral strategic planning if they are to accomplish any substantial change in how our society and government function. They cannot afford to continue lurching from one political campaign season to the next, without continuity of purpose over time.
Since 2004, there has been a notable increase in coordination efforts with the progressive movement, especially within sectors: The Media Consortium serves as a hub for progressive media outlets, and State Voices establishes state-level centers of civic engagement work. ProgressNow works across multiple sectors, and its proliferation is an example of the Commonweal Institute’s movement building work in action. Their leadership reports that plans to replicate their single-state model into a franchise of affiliates around the country were first developed at our first Progressive Roundtable in 2006.
The processes we use for movement building--connecting, convening, and catalyzing--are based on our belief that, in order to be able to work together, develop joint strategies, and carry out long-term efforts, individuals need to:
• Become acquainted with each other and the work they do
• Know each others’ capabilities—strengths and weaknesses
• Develop mutual trust, which is often related to shared vision and values
• Agree on specific shared goals
• Develop strategic plans for achieving those goals
• Develop ways of coordinating and communicating with each other over time.
• Identify resources needed to implement the plans.
As described above, the Commonweal Institute’s primary role at this time is integrator, building connections among progressive organizations, convening them in order to foster strategic conversations, and catalyzing collaborations. These are the primary forms of intervention we use to increase the level of integration within the progressive movement:
Connector. Through the Commonweal Institute’s central role in the Progressive Ideas Network, we are building connections between organizations in the Ideas sector—introducing people to each other in contexts in which they can learn about each others’ work and capabilities, creating communications conduits, and fostering joint projects. The result of these connections is a greater degree of alignment – it happens organically. Connected organizations develop shared strategy across multiple issues, and coordinated tactics. We have begun a process of mapping the interpersonal connections of individuals within the Ideas sector and between those in the Ideas sector and other sectors, to identify areas in which greater connectivity is needed and to make it possible for sector members to establish connections more readily.
Convener. The Commonweal Institute uses its Progressive Roundtable program to convene groups across sector lines. For example, we bring leaders of the Ideas sector network together with those from networks of grassroots groups, networks of elected officials, and media networks. We structure the Roundtables to have multi-sector groups of participants spend time working on specific tasks, so they begin to develop an understanding of each others’ communication styles, values, and perspectives. These convenings build greater alignment through identifying shared values and goals, by facilitating conversations about strategy, and by sparking collaborations. Evaluation of the Progressive Roundtables has shown that participants especially value the networking opportunities provided.
Catalyst. In addition, the Commonweal Institute uses process and money to catalyze collaborations. We have developed a regranting process that requires applicants to submit mini-proposals , typically, in the $5,000 to $30,000 range... Each project must involve action by at least three organizations, who are encouraged to work together by the prospect of funding for the joint project. The mini-proposals are posted online for a one-month period of review and comment by all Progressive Ideas Network partners and others participating in the granting round. This review process sharpens the focus of the proposals and at times brings in additional collaborators. The same group of reviewers then gets to vote on how they would disburse a limited total amount of money among the proposed projects, with each participating organization getting one vote. This regranting process provides a platform for collective action—in program design, proposal development, and decision-making--that we believe will have maximal impact on base-building, on increasing public support for progressive policies, and ultimately on policymakers.
Do you want progressives to have long-term governing power? Do you share our vision of a society in which the advancement of human rights, civil liberties, participatory democracy, justice, strong and caring communities, and a more secure and sustainable future coexist with responsible global capitalism?
Make a long-term investment in advancing the progressive vision and laying the foundation for progressive governance. Help us build the strong, well-coordinated infrastructure that the progressive movement needs by supporting our work as an integrator, building connections among progressive organizations, convening them in order to foster strategic conversations, and catalyzing the collaborations needed to build a strong movement.
Non-profit dollars are essential for supporting the growing progressive movement. The work that is needed goes beyond political donations to candidates or political parties. Remember, politicians will not act unless they feel the public wants them to do so, and that means having a strong, independent progressive movement that can move the public as well as addressing policy.
The Commonweal Institute is a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) nonprofit public charity, so your donations are even tax-deductible.
To learn more about the strategy that informs our work, contact Barry Kendall, Executive Director.