Introducing Power-sharing Liberalism: A Response to Misha Chellam and Abundance Progressives
August 15, 2022
[Editor’s note: RadicalxChange Foundation is publishing this piece as an analysis of the political and ideological landscape. The opinions are those of the author.]
As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is not democracy.
–Abraham Lincoln, Aug 1, 1858
Introduction: Time for a New Movement
I want to live in a world where my right to shape my own life and to contribute to shaping the life of my community is recognized. Where elites don’t patronize and condescend to me. Where public representatives are responsive to and respectful of me and look to act on the basis of shared values with techniques of no-blame problem-solving. Where getting the health care I need is simple and affordable, and my choices for my health and well-being are respected. Where costs of housing and energy are low. Where good, family-sustaining jobs are abundant, and everyone has access to them. Where the economy is dynamic and inclusive and wealth-building is open to all. Where the air and water are clean, the climate hospitable, and our kids safe. Where I can say I love my country without being called racist or an Uncle Tom. Where my country is strong in the world because we have strong bonds among us at home. And where everyone, regardless of background and identity and despite our oppression-stained history, now has these things.
I don’t see anyone on the national political landscape who is offering me this world.
On the left, I am aware of two movements in electoral politics that are trying to define our future: Movement Progressives and Abundance Progressives. On the right, I see the MAGA Movement.
Movement Progressives want us to overcome our oppression-stained history to deliver racial justice and a Green New Deal. This work has been led by the Justice Democrats, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Sunrise Movement.
Abundance Progressives want to get us abundant housing, cheap and clean energy, clean air and water, and safe streets. They think technocrats can deliver this for us. This work has been brought to us by Silicon Valley success story technologists who would like to see California achieve effective governance along these dimensions.
MAGA advocates want to blow up elite condescension and also want—in a totally distorted through the looking-glass kind of way—to make it ok for people to say they love their country. (I think it’s not accidental that African-American women were the only demographic group to vote almost universally against Trump in 2016; 94% of us did so.) In addition, they want safe streets and an energetic economy, but MAGA members also appear to be ok with leaving a lot of people out of these things and hoarding them for a single cultural tribe. Finally, honest accounting also requires saying plainly that the movement has flowered into full authoritarianism, intersecting with white supremacy, among far too many. This work has, of course, been driven by Donald Trump.
Slightly beyond the frame of electoral politics, there is also a fourth phenomenon seeking to reshape our political world: the energy in the tech world focused on libertarian de-centralization.
In this post, I will lay out my objections to each of the three political movements, periodically weave in comments on the web3 decentralization universe, and introduce a fifth alternative: Power-sharing Liberalism. Liberalism more broadly is the philosophical commitment to a government grounded in rights that protect people in their private lives and empower them to help govern public life. Over the course of U.S. history, both Democrats and Republicans have been liberals of various flavors. There have been classical liberals (the more conservative, pro-market variant), New Deal liberals (the big-state Democratic Party variant), and neoliberals (the economically globalizing, democracy spreading, technocratic variant). Each one has held power at different points in history, shaping U.S. policy in different ways. Each of these variants was also built on intellectual paradigms that led advocates to believe they could advance the rights of all while reserving power to the few. Power-sharing liberalism is instead a reconstructed mode of liberalism based on a principle of full inclusion and non-domination (aka non-monopoly) in politics, economy, and society. It strives for a full-sharing of power and responsibility for all of us, across all three sectors. It also brings with it a commitment to a culture of civic engagement and empowerment.
Power-sharing liberalism captures a political philosophy—one fully articulated in my forthcoming book Justice by Means of Democracy. But it has yet to be developed into a faction within either of our major parties. The best political examples of power-sharing liberalism so far are Governors like Jared Polis of Colorado, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, and Larry Hogan of Maryland, and public intellectuals and think tanks like Future Now, New America, and FairVote. My own campaign for governor as a Democrat in Massachusetts (materials archived here) was also in this mode. While party factions carrying this philosophy forward don’t yet exist, I could imagine their development, whether labeled as Governance Progressives, Freedom Democrats, or Radical Republicans. All of these potential factional labels have a distinguished political history.
Think “Governance Progressives” is a boring name? Well, “governance” is as boring now in 2022 as it was in 1789 when there were Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Governance is the activity through which free and equal citizens get stuff done together in order to live in conditions of self-government, instead of autocracy. Right now, in 2022, nothing works because we don’t know how to govern any more, and we don’t have institutions and cultural habits that support governance for a free and inclusive society toward the accomplishment of urgent objectives. So boring as it is, “governance” is where it’s at for getting us to the future we deserve. And some have made the case that George Washington was the first progressive, because he sought to improve national morality. His “political philosophy—radical for his time—was a commitment to the belief that law can never make just what is in its nature unjust." Of course, political history meanders through many evolutions, and so Good Government Progressives of the early 20th century (or “Goo-goos”) also lurk behind this potential factional label. Sadly, for many the label “progressive” has now become toxic thanks to the name-and-shame morality crusades of too many contemporary progressives. These crusades are leading to real and dangerous constrictions on freedom of speech and inquiry. We achieve real progress by calling in, not calling out, and through the social equivalents of tactics of non-violence.
How about Freedom Democrats? The sacrifices of the Freedom Riders in Mississippi in the summer and fall of 1961 led to the formation of a new organization in Mississippi, the Council of Federated Organizations. This Council pulled together the work of NAACP, CORE, and SNCC in the state. Leadership included figures like Bob Moses. Together they founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the Dixiecrats—Southern Democrats who were maintaining systems of segregation. In the summer of 1964, the MFDP organized an alternative state party convention and sent a slate of delegates to the national Democratic Convention in Atlanta. They failed in their mission to replace the official Dixiecrat delegation, but they did force changes in the Democratic Party.
As to the Radical Republicans, this too is a name from our political history with a powerful lineage and meaning. The Radical Republicans were more actively anti-slavery than the moderate Republicans led by Lincoln. They were more fully committed to Reconstruction. John C. Frémont was their major political figure.
The emergence of any new faction right now will occur against the backdrop of the sound and fury stirred up by the conflicts between, above all, Movement Progressives and the MAGA movement. Like MIsha Chellam, whose blogpost I will engage with below, I admire Movement Progressives for their commitment to justice and climate and for the momentum they’ve built so quickly. I share their desire to overcome our history of racial domination. As to the MAGA movement, putting the Jan. 6th insurrectionists to one side, I otherwise respect how it has connected to a wide swathe of people who have felt alienated from our politics and disrespected by politicians, and re-engaged them. I understand their desire to make space for patriotism because I feel it too.
Abundance Progressives are only now starting to try to form themselves into a movement and have not yet had significant political impact outside of, perhaps, California. I appreciate the commitment they are making to digging deep to articulate a philosophy. I also share their desire to see our governments be effective.
Like Abundance Progressives, power-sharing liberals also are just starting out. Like them, I hope to participate in an iterative debate and dialogue as we all try out ideas and seek innovation. We’ll make mistakes along the way, but I, like Chellam, stand ready to be corrected. We’ve been working quietly below the radar screen for some time and, in important ways, across existing party lines. But the time is here to lay out our case and do our work to build an alternative movement. My own work will be within the Democratic Party. For that reason, I will adopt the label “Freedom Democrats” from here on out to capture the view. But I could imagine fellow-travelers as Governance Progressives or Radical Republicans. I’m for a big tent.
Before I turn to the comparisons with the other movements, I should take a minute to name the core commitments of power-sharing liberalism and of Freedom Democrats. They are as follows:
- Individual autonomy: People want control of their own lives—this requires strong protections of basic rights and also full access to political participation: the right to vote, the right to run for office, and the right to see and shape one’s community.
- Constitutional democracy: Protecting freedom and equality for all requires constitutional democracy, and this means limited and effective government, resting upon responsive, inclusive, and effective representation.
- Performance over regulation: Aspirational federalism will seek to achieve harmonization of effort across jurisdictional levels; Freedom Democrats recognize that change strategies that draw on design-principles and performance standards can bring more just as much power and better outcomes than regulation. In addition to enabling a de-emphasis of regulatory strategies, these strategies also sustain freedom and empowerment and provide much-needed flexibility across context.
- Market-Civil Society-Government Collaboration: We can achieve an inclusive dynamic economy by recognizing that different urgent problems require different combinations of partnerships among the private sector market firms, civil society organizations, and the public sector in different combinations to achieve each urgent goal. The current stalemate among the private sector, civil society advocates, and the public sector can be overcome by political leadership directed at integrating effort across these sectors.
- Supply-Side Progressivism: A political economy that focuses on market-civil society-public sector triadic collaboration will also focus on supply-side progressivism, delivering a good jobs economy, and integration of all in productivity before addressing questions of redistribution.
- Connected, Respectful Society: We should seek to be a connected society, where we recognize the value of social difference, broadly seek toleration, inclusion, and belonging (including for both diverse gender identities and faith commitments), and proactively invest in bridge-building skills, capacities, and organizations.
- Reflective Patriotism: We can love our country and critique it at the same time. We must do this if we are all going to take responsibility for overcoming our historical failings and embracing higher standards for constitutional democracy for the future. The goal of our politics should be to inspire reflective patriotism in all. Achieving that would mean we had succeeded in delivering on core promises while also cultivating a culture of aspiration and responsibility, perpetually open and responsive to the need for improvement.
These constitute the basic tenets of a power-sharing liberalism for Freedom Democrats, where the overarching goal is human flourishing, supported by freedom and equality for all, and made concrete through healthy practices of self-governance as both a private and a public matter.
In what follows, I will lay out some key points of disagreement with the four other approaches and then propose some exemplary policies that Freedom Democrats might advocate.
Compare and Contrast: Five Political Philosophies
To lay out the key points of disagreement, I build on Misha Chellam’s recent essay for Modern Power, called “Movement vs Abundance Progressives.” He focuses on three key distinctions:
- What You Do vs How You Do It (aka Outcomes vs. Process/Symbols)
- More vs. Less Trust in Existing Institutions
- Situational vs Fixed Views on Labor (Unions) vs Capital (Corporations)
Chellam contrasts Movement vs Abundance Progressivism with regard to these three distinctions, but I will include the MAGA movement as well in the comparative exercise. It is hands-down the most intellectually important political movement in the country at this time. In saying this I offer a realist’s assessment, not an evaluation of the substance. They have simply made that much difference in the shape of our world–and we must take the politics of the moment, and their influence on it, utterly seriously. The MAGA movement has placed a forceful set of questions and answers on the table for the American public to consider and has reshaped the agenda and dialog of the country dramatically. In also ultimately providing authoritarian and white supremacist answers to the questions it placed on the table, the MAGA movement has profoundly failed the American people and the project of constitutional democracy. The MAGA movement’s answers must be plainly and clearly rejected. Even more important, other answers must be offered in the specific places where the MAGA movement has put valid questions on the table. My comments on the MAGA movement from here will focus on that effort to offer alternative answers where the questions are valid. And as I proceed, I will also weave in analysis of the web3 decentralization movement where possible.
What You Do vs How You Do It (aka (Outcomes vs. Process/Symbols)
First, Chellam contrasts Abundance Progressivism with Movement Progressivism by claiming the technocratic mantle for his own tribe, the Abundance Progressives. Technocrats, in his view, focus on outcomes, when other people get hung up on process. He writes:
Abundance Progressivism is… technocratic: It focuses on the effective delivery of services, which has less to do with descriptive representation in elected office or in the bureaucracy, and more to do with managing for outcomes.
He contrasts this “technocratic” focus on outcomes with the commitment to Movement Progressives of making sure that “the people closest to the pain are closest to the power.” This means that communities impacted by policy-making should have a seat at the table for all decision-making. Chellam argues that this commitment to descriptive representation in decision-making just causes “vetocracy.” It produces so many veto points as to prevent anything from getting done. He also suggests this approach is to blame for the organizational melt-downs in the progressive landscape stemming from call-out and cancel culture.
He acknowledges that in earlier phases “of the American project, we did not respect the voices of marginalized communities, and did a lot of harm”; and he agrees that the challenge is to move policy forward in “a way that respects everyone’s voice but also leads to decisive action.” But at the end of the day, Chellam proposes that there is a trade-off between modes of decision-making that are responsive and representative, and getting stuff done. And he’ll pick getting stuff done over getting the process right. For instance, “Abundance Progressives … see cheap clean energy as an outcome that should be prioritized over process.”
Yet this blinkered, technocratic self-confidence is the original sin of the American experiment. Movement Progressives, MAGA members, and Freedom Democrats are all in agreement on this. If Movement Progressives make the case that the people closest to the pain need to be closest to the power, MAGA advocates constantly remind us that no one elected the scientists. A lot of how the politics of COVID has played out arose from objections to technocratic assertions that particular questions were matters of “science” when in fact they were matters of judgment about how to weigh different possible choices, given the parameters of possibility made visible by scientific evidence.
Web3 decentralization advocates are similarly interested in re-organizing process to undo power monopolies. However, they often take the take the view that capitalism has already taught us all we need about anti-monopolistic practices and as a result tend to reinforce problematic patterns of financialization of decision-making, rather than taking seriously the work of understanding what is required of truly democratic governance across intersecting spaces of politics, society, and economy. De-centralization can be a powerful tool, but the important question is always what kind of decentralization.
So where do Freedom Democrats stand on this question of outcomes vs process?
First, we stand counter to the wholesale MAGA attack on expertise. But we do think expertise needs to be resituated within the political process. Good governance requires expertise, as I argue in Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus. But that expertise needs to work in an advisory capacity to elected officials who are making judgment calls, weighing the evidence, and doing their best to choose a path that best supports the core values of their society.
Second, we stand counter to Abundance Progressives. There is no necessary trade-off between process and outcome. The entire point of good governance is to design processes that are simultaneously representative and responsive to the will of the people, meaning all of the people, and effective. For the technocratic position to suggest that there is a trade-off between responsive, inclusive representation and effectiveness, is for Abundance Progressives to abandon the project of governance. But the project of governance is all there ever was to make self-government something real in the world.
Freedom Democrats, because of their commitment to the value of self-government for free and equal citizens, recognize that when efforts to achieve responsive, inclusive governance fail to deliver effective decision-making, the next step is not to abandon the commitment to responsive, inclusive governance but to achieve governance reforms that ensure the modes of representation being used are also effective. There is no point in representation if it is not also effective, so effectiveness has to be a necessary criterion for evaluating mechanisms of representation. But there is also no point in representation if it is not fully inclusive. The job is to accelerate the pursuit of decision-making mechanisms and governance structures that align these two criteria. Responsive representation is both fully inclusive and effective.
Thus, we also stand opposed to Movement Progressives simply by virtue of focusing on the mechanics of governance. Simply “getting everyone to the table” is not how you achieve responsive representation. Instead, we need to formally revise some of our approaches to representation and bring the same subtlety of institutional design to bear as the original drafters of the Constitution did.
Governor Jared Polis stands out because he has been willing to experiment with new approaches to decision-making, for instance, quadratic voting, which might also be called priority voting or plural voting. This voting method helps deliberative bodies do a better job of capturing the full spectrum of opinion in a pluralistic society and appropriately weighting the differing degrees of intensity with which particular commitments are held. On this voting method, everyone starts with a certain number of tally points in a process, say 100, and you can choose to vote more than once for what you care about, but each extra vote costs you a squared amount of tally points. So if you place one vote on something, it costs you one tally point. But if you place 2, it costs you 4 tally points. If you place 3 votes, it costs you nine tally points. With this method, you can’t make an extra push for something without meaningfully giving up some of your ability to rally power on another matter. So participants have to do hard work to prioritize what matters most to them.
In addition, the increasing “cost” of votes attenuates extremist voices, while also helping minorities make their priorities heard through the democratic process (that’s because small groups can have a big impact if they focus on a single issue). This mitigates the Tyranny of the Majority, a long-standing weakness of traditional voting systems. And this brings out outcomes that are both much more effective, dynamically tackling polarization; and inclusive, as it creates the conditions for a wide plurality of groups to be “at the table.” Several jurisdictions in Brazil, Taiwan and the United States, such as the Colorado legislature and the Metropolitan Council of Nashville, have found that using this method valuably clarifies priorities. Importantly, this is one of many examples that demonstrate how a focus on governance innovation can contemplate the issues that both Movement Progressives and Abundance Progressives care most deeply about. The so-called tradeoff between effectiveness and inclusion that Chellam mentions in his piece is not a concrete one, but a reflection of our current lack of imagination and investment in new forms of collective deliberation and decision-making, a lack of imagination often reflected also in rigid tech-utopian approaches to decentralization. Finally, this work of institutional redesign being proposed by Freedom Democrats, also invigorates the sense of love for one’s country that is so cherished by MAGA members.
The importance of responsive (i.e. fully inclusive and effective) representation is non-negotiable for achieving effective governance and just outcomes in the 21st century. And we can even all claim an old lineage on this point, should we choose. Not all will want to, but I love my country and its history, and where it has resources for us in the present, I believe we should mine and use this history. So here is the oldest lineage for understanding the importance of fully inclusive representation.
In the spring of 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John Adams to inquire about the progress of the revolution and the place of women in it; politician James Sullivan wrote similarly to Adams to inquire about the place of people without property in the newly forming polity. Adams understood Sullivan to be inquiring about laborers both white and black. To both Abigail and James, John Adams gave a similar answer. He affirmed that the new polity would protect the rights of life and liberty of all. In other words, he asserted that the foundation of principle was meant to embrace everybody.
But then he turned to the question of power, and its organization. Here, he acknowledged, he and his fellow politicians were not willing to give up what he called their “masculine system.” They would insist that white men of property would wield the levers of power but could do so in ways that would protect the rights of all.
Abigail’s letter expressed skepticism of this view and cited the historical failure of husbands to exercise power appropriately in relation to wives. She warned that if the decision to lodge all the power in the hands only of men were to fail once again, and to lead to the abuse of power, women would “foment a rebellion” seeking an end of world where women had “no voice or representation.”
In other words, Abigail was putting her finger on exactly the mistake made by the founding generation. They believed that it was possible to recognize and secure rights for all even while putting power in the hands only of some. Abigail knew the truth. Unchecked power over others leads to abuse. Only with inclusive voice and power would political institutions ever be able to deliver on a foundation of principle committed to the basic human rights of all.
In those early days, then, Abigail could already identify how the foundation of principle would need reform. Alongside the principle of rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, she insisted that all people would also need a right to participate in wielding power through political institutions. Others, like Martin Luther King, Jr., would agree. He wrote: “Integration is meaningless without the sharing of power. When I speak of integration, I don’t mean a romantic mixing of colors, I mean a real sharing of power and responsibility. We will eventually achieve this, but it is going to be much more difficult for us than for any other minority” (1986b, 317, emphasis added).
Political institutions for the 21st century must rest on a principle of participatory inclusion. To this day, we have not yet succeeded in redesigning our political institutions to reflect that additional principle of a right for all to share in power. This principle should have been adopted in full far earlier, but it has fallen to our era to embrace it comprehensively and make it fully real. Here is the fundamental point: It is not possible to manage toward outcomes that are good for all without the inclusion of all in the structures of decision-making used for that management toward outcomes. Assuming this can’t be done is one of the fatal flaws of technocracy. Abundance Progressives replicate that flawed and limited perspective. Movement Progressives see it but don’t have sufficient commitment to governance to address it. MAGA advocates also see the flaw in terms of how expertise currently operates in our politics, but then both abandon expertise and also perpetrate other forms of exclusion that reinscribe the old fatal flaw. Freedom Democrats, however, have a vision for renovating our institutions for responsive representation that is fully inclusive and effective. There is no trade-off here, just work to do. This is job #1 for getting ourselves the politics and outcome we deserve.
More vs. Less Trust in Existing Institutions
Next Chellam takes up the different positions of Abundance Progressives and Movement Progressives on institutions. Basically, Abundance Progressives look on the bright side, and Movement Progressives on the dark side.
Abundance Progressives have seen benefits of the American system, from immigrant success to technological innovation. They believe the American system can be dramatically improved — that’s why they’re engaging politically — but they start from a place of mostly trusting the system. …MPs, on the other hand, see all of the past harms from both markets and government institutions, and so tend to favor more regulation and defensive processes that allow them to block harms from occurring.
The striking thing about Chellam’s position here is how out of sync it is with the majority of American opinion at this particular point in time. If any social phenomenon defines America in the early 21st century, it is the broad loss of faith in our institutions that most people have experienced, as one after another survey or poll reports. As Ethan Zuckerman rightly points out, the 2016 election was something of a referendum on our institutions: institutionalist Hilary Clinton was fatally weakened by Occupy Wall Street-style burn-it-down-ism coming from Bernie Sanders. Institutionalist Jeb Bush went up in flames in front of proto-insurrectionist, burn-it-all-down-ism from Trump. Web3 de-centralizers are yet another community of people who start from the presumption that our existing institutions are failing us.
If immigration and technology are the goods that the Abundance Progressives see providing legitimacy to our institutions, those are exactly the phenomena that MAGA advocates see as proof that our institutions are out of synch with our needs. Movement Progressives see failures in immigration too–not that there is too much of it but rather that we have failed to give 11 million undocumented people a right to participate and have thereby also dramatically reduced the voice of labor in our politics. But they too would agree that our institutions of immigration have failed us.
Freedom Democrats accept the diagnoses from both Movement Progressives, MAGA Acolytes, and Web3 evangelizers of how our institutions have failed us, and therefore, because of the importance of healthy institutions to stabilizing self-government and constitutional democracy, have made democracy renovation priority #1. It’s important to make the point that the job is “renovation,” not “restoration” or “rebuilding.” The simple fact is—as Americans from Abigail Adams to Martin Luther King, Jr. have pointed out—we have not yet learned how to build a constitutional democracy that rests fully on power-sharing liberalism. Moreover, we are attempting to do this in conditions of startling diversity. As I’ve argued for years, “The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved.”
It’s not a question of whether we should start from a position of trusting or distrusting our institutions. In this regard, all three approaches get the question wrong. It’s rather that we need to understand that institutions are the tools that free and equal citizens use to structure self-government and deliver material improvements in their lives as well as a sense of shared national purpose. We have to understand why our tools are failing us, and then we have to reinvent and renovate them, so they can deliver results.
Here’s one example of why and how our institutions are failing us and one important fact to face directly. Put bluntly: Facebook broke democracy, and now the rest of us have to fix it, as I’ve argued recently in the Washington Post.
That’s a big claim. What on earth do I mean? Explaining this requires going back to the early design of our Constitution.
Ours is not the first era brought to its knees by polarization. After the Revolution under the Articles of Confederation, Congress couldn’t get a quorum. It couldn’t secure the revenue needed to pay war debts. Things were grinding to a halt. Government was not effective. Polarization-- or as they called it-- faction brought paralysis.
The whole point of writing the Constitution was to fix this. James Madison made the case that the design of the Constitution would dampen factionalism. He argued this in the Federalist Papers, the op-eds that he, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton wrote advocating for the Constitution.
Robust disagreement would always be part of any constitutional democracy, he argued. It is freedom’s necessary price. But, Madison argued, building a representative instead of a direct democracy would mitigate the problem. Reasonably public-minded representatives would synthesize opinions from around the country. Coming together in Congress, they would refine public opinion and steer the nation with a moderated, filtered version.
The notion that our representatives would serve as national shock absorbers sounds quaint. But even more important, it was only half of Madison’s argument. We typically neglect the other half.
Madison also wanted a “broad republic” because he believed that geographic dispersal of the country’s residents would itself dampen the consequences of those robust disagreements.
Extend the sphere [of the country]…and it will be more difficult for all who feel [unjust, factious sentiments] to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other…. The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.
Our very rivers and mountains would protect against the formation of dangerous factions because it would be hard for people with extreme views to find each other and coordinate. Thanks to geographic dispersal, people would have to go through representatives to get their views into the public sphere. This would mitigate the impact of faction.
In short, geographic dispersal was an actual premise of the Constitution’s original design. It was a pillar undergirding the very viability of our system of representation.
Facebook knocked this pillar out from under us. It made coordination easier for soccer moms but also for extremists from QAnon to Jan. 6 insurrectionists to alienated individuals ready to fall into a culture of idolizing mass shooters. Paradoxically, in removing some of the barriers to coordination, Facebook broke democracy by leaving productive, prosocial coordination far more vulnerable to its antithesis, as well as vulnerable to manipulation by the Cambridge Analytica’s of the world. They didn’t mean to. It’s like when your kid plays with a beachball in the house and breaks your favorite lamp. But break democracy they did. Now the rest of us have to fix it.
Representation as designed cannot work under current conditions. We have no choice but to undertake a significant project of democracy renovation. As geographic dispersion was nullified by our existing social media, we need alternatives to that original supporting wall to restore structural soundness to our institutions, strengthening pro-social coordination while putting brakes on factionalist efforts. Some of those alternatives can and should be digital. While current platforms for public discourse exacerbate polarization by elevating extremist views, new digital public infrastructure can have algorithms that are designed to surface areas of common ground. This would better reflect what we know to be the reality: that we have a lot more in common with each other than separating us. Such platforms exist, but need to be experimented with and adopted at much wider scales. One example is pol.is, a tool for digital conversations that uses machine learning to identify varying spheres of opinion within a community, and indicate which points are supported across lines of difference.
This tool has been successfully used by hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese citizens to “crowdsource legislation” on divisive topics, such as the regulation of Uber and other ride-sharing platforms. For example, in this case pol.is extracted good common sense out of what was before a polarized “Anti-Uber” and “Pro-Uber” conversation: taxi cabs should have their corresponding regulatory framework renewed to be in a better position to compete with cars in the sharing economy; and should no longer have to be orange. This is another example that illustrates how the tradeoff between inclusiveness and effectiveness is false. By focusing on governance innovation, we can have more voices at the table, and better, more effective decision-making.
In the non-digital domain, increasing the size of the House is one recommendation from a recent bipartisan Commission on democracy renovation that I co-chaired. This is linked to a recommendation to transition to multi-member Congressional districts with ranked choice voting. This, too, is a governance strategy that would dampen extremist voices while achieving inclusive voice and choice for all for a diverse citizenry. The report is called Our Common Purpose. Freedom Democrats support its recommendations.
Finally, on the specific question of immigration, Freedom Democrats think that some of the features of the immigration policies that most impact Silicon Valley—for instance, the sponsorship of migrants by hosts (companies in the Silicon Valley case)—could be extended far more broadly through our immigration system to address problems that both Movement Progressives and MAGA members see.
Power-sharing liberalism articulates a view for how the institutions of a constitutional democracy should be reoriented in order to overcome historical patterns of domination and to avoid re-instating new patterns of domination. That re-orientation does require institutional renovation. We have to renovate our political institutions, as described above, but we also have to renovate the managerial practices of civil society organizations. This is the current zone of difficulty being experienced by so many progressive organizations. That renovation has to be centered not only on values of justice but also on recognizing the value of healthy institutions, and the specific things needed to achieve that. In other words, the problems with the “at the table” view of representation are what are also challenging progressive organizations. The job is to align the values of full inclusion and effectiveness. As part of that, this work of renovation has to be carried out without condescension and with a no-blame problem-solving spirit, and with respect for the experience of love of country.
Situational vs Fixed Views on Labor (Unions) vs Capital (Corporations)
Chellam’s final point of contrast relates to questions of political economy. The question is what sort of stance each movement takes toward labor power (in the form of unions) and the power of capital (in the form of corporations). Here Chellam does at last bring more of a governance frame to the analysis, arguing that the important question is whether our economy is organized to support resistance to monopolies of all kinds. As he puts it:
In general, our mental model is that any one narrow / private interest with too much power in a specific policy domain will push for narrowly interested policy that benefits its constituents to the detriment of everyone else. This is true of corporations in certain domains, and it can also be true of unions depending on the power equation.
As he sees it, Movement Progressives have generally operated with too simplistic a view that labor unions are good and corporations are bad. In contrast, Abundance Progressives see private sector unions, that are counterbalancing management and shareholder power as valuable, whereas public sector unions, that over-dominate elected officials, are problematic. He sees an opening in the new willingness of Movement Progressives to critique police unions, and the possibility that a more situational view might emerge on the Movement Progressive side as well.
MAGA advocates, in contrast, have largely withdrawn from the field of debates about balancing economic power or achieving solidaristic power, focusing instead on deregulation of corporations and fire-arms, and support for police unions and the military. The picture coming from the MAGA camp seems to be mainly about pathways for maximizing the direct and personal financial and physical power of those who are members of the MAGA tribe. In other words, the anti-institutionalism is most intense here, with the result that genuinely institutional questions don’t even make it on the radar screen. This is where the alarming progression from Ayn Rand to the extremely dark vision of Peter Thiel is showing up in its most intense form, and where anarcho-libertarianism is shaping the debate. (There is also a lot more that could be said about the role of techno-libertarians in our politics presently and the “dynamist” movement some are trying to form. Some have already offered powerful critiques as here. But I will have to save that for another day.)
The Abundance Progressive mode of analysis—ascertaining where organizational structures yield effective and productive power-sharing—and where instead they are tending toward monopolistic domination of an issue space—is right on target. Here Abundance Progressives are helpfully advancing the same sort of approach that Freedom Democrats embrace. This anti-monopolistic view provides a healthy integration of core aspects of libertarianism with both progressivism and power-sharing liberalism. Anti-monopolistic commitments also lead Freedom Democrats to take a situational view on labor unions and corporations. Moreover, a focus on how power is distributed in the economy can bring into view other categories of people disempowered in the current economy, for instance, “users” of Facebook.
In sum, Freedom Democrats see governance itself as our first problem and most potent solution to deliver results. Only if we address it can we address our other challenges with health, housing, climate, safety, and affordability. Recognizing governance as the first and fundamental project for any system of self-government among free and equal citizens and, recognizing that this is even more important in conditions of pluralism, Freedom Democrats prioritize forms of institutional renovation that can ensure that we have responsive (fully inclusive and effective) representation that also successfully delivers effective problem-solving on the urgent issues that matter across constituencies.
Inclusiveness and effectiveness are values to be aligned, not traded-off. That same commitment leads to approaches to political economy that also analyze where the de facto structures governing the economy are working and where they are not. The goal is a power-sharing market economy that supports power-sharing liberalism. (I discuss this at greater length in my book.)
Freedom Democrats: Exemplary Policies
The core tenets of power-sharing liberalism, when applied to urgent policy domains, yield a set of exemplary policies. I sketch these now.
Health care should be universal, simple, and affordable. The place we need to make the biggest push right now is on simplicity and patient experience of single administration (not single payer); while continuing to expand ACA subsidies to achieve universality and improve affordability, we should above all be focused on streamlining healthcare systems, so that patients get one bill for a medical visit, so that providers have the same information based on a single patient input, and so that patients experience single administration. To focus on simplicity is to drive at the heart of the governance problems in healthcare.
On housing, we say Yay for Yimbyism, and for the governance changes, in areas from zoning to state-wide planning and investment that would dramatically change the trajectory on housing production. Here, too, it is governance changes that will lead to the investments we need and make investment worthwhile.
Safety for all should be the only standard. For this, we need strategies for tackling the epidemic of violence as a public health problem; for defeating global organized crime and its domestic manifestations; for creating systems of sanctions that reduce rather than increase recidivism; for supporting real second chances; and for addressing the challenges of housing, work, substance use disorder, and personal purpose that are often at the root of the personal instability that leads to violence. This requires innovative forms of cross-jurisdictional collaboration (for instance, across criminal justice jurisdictions, health jurisdictions, and housing authorities) and even some reallocation of responsibilities among jurisdictions to achieve a mission critical focus on safety for all. Policing would be a better job, and safety would improve, if we could genuinely and comprehensively build out alternative emergency response capacity to take a subset of human crises off the table for police response.
Cheap Clean Energy
A moonshot for battery storage should be at the center of our energy policy, along with work to master and upgrade our grid infrastructure. Getting this done will take productive collaboration among firms, civil society orgs, and the public sector. It’s a good example of investing in supply via a power-sharing market economy rather than simply subsidizing a scarce good.
For too long we’ve come to accept an economy in which gains of productivity are reaped by an ever smaller number of people, and mitigated with redistributive policies. But this approach simply promises to lock in and increase dependence over time, for instance with universal basic income. It’s time to change the frame. What we need is productive integration where all are integrated into a productive economy, and participating in that productivity, in ways that support family-sustaining jobs and affordable access to safe and healthy housing, comfortable transportation, and good schools. This will take supply-side progressivism and a focus on labor-firm-public sector collaboration to deliver a good jobs economy, among other things. Moreover, while libertarians are in many ways correct that a top-down outcome orientation can go badly wrong, they are very wrong about atomized individualist capitalism working. What works for the economy, instead, is a fairly detached and neutral attempt to bridge gaps, just as in politics. This is the lesson of so much literature on entrepreneurial clusters and on innovation in science. If we really want scientific and business progress to support dynamism, we need to support pluralism and cross-cutting connections in those sectors. This bridge-building for a collaborative economy is another dimension of productive integration. Finally, redistribution will still matter for ensuring that all have a foundation for flourishing—not a safety net to get trapped in but access to the basic necessities of housing, health, food, and school that permit people to stand up on their two feet and thrive. But questions of redistribution should be tackled second—as an analytic matter—after we have done the conceptual work to outline the policy strategies needed to achieve productive integration. And those strategies need to nourish and sustain a dynamic, inclusive economy. While we do need redistributive policies for the economy that we have, those policies should not be permanently locked in but made subject to dynamic, iterative, review, so that they can be modified and reshaped as a healthier economy comes into existence, via work on productive integration.
We live in dizzying times. To meet our moment, we have to bring the same intentionality to redesigning and renovating our institutions now in the 21st century as was brought to bear in the 18th century. We are founders. That is what this dizzying feeling means.
In the 20th century, the U.S. invested in democracy around the globe to defeat the threat of totalitarianism. Now, in the 21st century, the gravest threat to democracy around the globe is the weakening of our democracy here at home in the U.S. Over the last five years, we have watched the MAGA movement flower into a fully authoritarian project. That is by far our worst problem. But we have also watched progressivism take on concerning tyrannical elements—the name-and-shame culture of bullying, a prioritization of organizing for power over organizing for governance, and an excessive predilection to solve problems through big state regulation and planning. And now Abundance Progressives want to double down on the tyranny of rule by experts.
Abundance is a purely material agenda. But what is wanted and needed is as much Empowerment as Abundance. Freedom Democrats recognize this. That’s why the HOW is then different: responsive government (inclusive + effective), not just effective government. Empowerment and Abundance are important overlapping areas but also distinct. In my view, we’ve gone wrong in our politics for the last fifty years by continuously trying to collapse our overarching purpose into something material when in fact our overarching purpose needs to be more broadly human. We can’t get to that big human goal of empowerment without the material foundations. Abundance empowers us. But none of us is living just for the material. It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and Abundance gets stuck before reaching the top of the hierarchy.
We need to make space for freedom, and this time for real freedom, which means equal freedom. This means pushing back against both right and left, and libertarian misconceptions. It is time to bring the same commitment to rebuilding our civic strength here at home as we brought to fighting totalitarianism in the 20th century.
So we need to find compass points—love of family and friends and/or faith. But also, love of country and a commitment to freedom, equality, and justice for all. Call this power-sharing liberalism. Call it, more simply, a commitment to equal freedom. And call me a Freedom Democrat.
Then, make way for freedom.
See the heterodox argument by W. B. Allen in George Washington: America’s First Progressive (Peter Lang, 2008). ↩︎
On how strategies of non-violence could be integrated in contemporary politics, see D. Allen. 2018. “Integration, Freedom, and the Affirmation of Life.” In To Shape a World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ↩︎
More on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) here ↩︎
As it happens, Future Majority released a separate manifesto for “Freedom Democrats” independently, about a week ago. While there was no coordination across these efforts, there is some meaningful alignment. ↩︎
Danielle Allen, Justice by Means of Democracy, University of Chicago, 2023. ↩︎
In his book, Zuckerman refers to both the Sanders camp and the Trump camp as “insurrectionists.” I’ve modified his vocabulary here since the events of January 2021 have changed the meaning of that term. See Ethan Zuckerman, Mistrust: why losing faith in institutions provides the tools to transform them (W.W.Norton, 2021). ↩︎
D. Allen, “Charlottesville is not the continuation of an old fight. It is something new,” Washington Post, Aug 13, 2017. ↩︎