Select Page

Power Concedes Nothing—How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections

Edited by Linda Burnham, Max Elbaum, and Maria Poblet (OR Books)
by Peter Olney

Aug 31, 2022 | Books


My wife stood aghast as I rapped on the passenger-side window of the late model sedan exiting a driveway in Salem, New Hampshire, in the fall of 2016. The car stopped, and a woman rolled down her window and listened patiently to my pitch on why she should vote for Hillary Clinton for president. As she replied that she was indeed planning to vote for Hillary, her husband said “Harrumph” and bent over the steering wheel.

This was our lot in Rockingham County, across the border from Massachusetts. Dueling lawn signs in the same yard: Trump and Hillary—husband and wife. We carried New Hampshire for Hillary and elected Maggie Hassan to the Senate but lost Rockingham County, which was heavily populated by white working-class refugees from the Greater Boston area. I had worked passionately for Bernie in the primary and knew that many of those voters supporting Trump had earlier voted for Bernie.

For me, from the moment that Trump launched his campaign announcing his white supremacist, anti-immigrant agenda, it was clear that he presented a danger to democracy and was an avatar for all the evils that have plagued our republic since its founding. 2016 was not a moment for equivocation or support for quixotic candidates like Dr. Jill Stein. History has absolved this viewpoint. The reversal of Roe v. Wade is only the most stunning result of a failure to pivot to support for Clinton in the general election (as candidate Sanders did that year).

Power Concedes Nothing is a consolidated anthem from the unions and immigrant rights, civil rights, and community groups that learned the lessons of 2016 and went all out in 2020 to defeat Trump and his minions up and down the ballot. There are 22 individual chapters written by over 40 organizer-authors. They have grasped that as a serious left, we do not stand on the sidelines and make excuses for our inaction by critiquing the obvious and enduring campaign and policy defects of corporate Democrats. We enter the fray eyes wide open, understanding that we are bound together in common purpose, which requires clarity about our enemy and sobriety about the weaknesses and duplicity of our temporary allies. The Trump years have schooled a lot of folks about the necessity of this united front.

Many of the groups in this anthology took a pass in 2016 but, to their great and enduring credit, were on the front lines in 2020. Seed the Vote, for example, reflected on the Trump danger the day after the election in 2016: “On November 9th, a few people got together and started discussing what was to be done. We realized that we needed to pay attention to national work in a way that we had not prioritized before, because Trump and his politics were an existential threat to the communities and issues important to all of us.”

My son, Nelson, and I were on the ground with Seed the Vote in Maricopa County, Arizona, in 2020, living in a motel yards away from Scottsdale Stadium, the spring-training home of the San Francisco Giants. In my youth it had been the spring-training site of my beloved Boston Red Sox. Ted Williams, the “splendid splinter,” used to thrill the Bo Sox fans who had come down for spring training in that Cactus League park. Maybe that is why his family chose the Phoenix area when they decided to freeze his brain cryogenically after his death.

Pretty kooky stuff, but remember that Arizona produced the ultraright 1964 Republican nominee for president, Barry Goldwater. Goldwater carried only his home state and five others in 1964, as Lyndon Baines Johnson got 61 percent of the popular vote. Goldwater’s slogan was, “In your heart you know he’s right,” and Johnson responded with, “In your guts you know he’s nuts.” Compared with today’s MAGA fanatics, Goldwater was a portrait of civility.

Our work in Maricopa County was made possible by the efforts of community groups like Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA, which has labored for years to rid Arizona of the anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio and State Senator Russell Pierce. Power Concedes Nothing presents a whole chapter written by Cesar Fierros Mendoza on this 10-year struggle that electorally transformed Goldwater’s home state from “red” to a battleground “purple.”

The authors of most of the chapters acknowledge that 2022 and 2024 will pose equally dangerous challenges to democracy and that we face an uphill climb given the present configuration of minority rule in the Senate, the math of the Electoral College, and the increasingly rabid state legislatures in red states that may soon benefit from a Supreme Court decision codifying their ability to deny the outcome of the popular vote and send their own partisan electors to the Congress.

Several excellent chapters detail the mechanics of the “ground” game: knocking on doors and motivating people to vote. This critical feature of rubber-meets-the-road democracy of course has been a difficult challenge during the Covid era, and many organizations declined to do the doors—a huge error that may have cost us one to two percentage points in many states.

Heroically, however, the Unite Here union of hotel workers did the doors, and their work, coupled with that of other actors who write chapters for this collection, saved us from four more years of Trump. In Maricopa County, working the doors was no picnic. Strict Covid protocols dictated that we wear a mask covered by a plastic visor and that we maintain a six-foot distance from the doors and our fellow canvassers. Our daily quota for house calls was 80 doors, and all of this in 95-degree desert heat. But the Trumpers were certainly on the doors, and we ran into them in gated communities where we faced down often angry neighbors and rent-a- cop security. These door-knocking warriors were critical factors in the razor-thin margins in battleground states: Arizona—10,457 votes; Georgia—11,779 votes; and Nevada—17,217 votes.

All the contributors of course grapple with the challenge of building a unified opposition to defeat Trump and fascism, while advancing at the same time a positive progressive program to fight for and support. The chapter by Working Families Party Chair Maurice Mitchell does an excellent job of describing his organization’s endorsement process in the primaries. He outlines the controversial decision to support Senator Elizabeth Warren over Sanders, then the pivot to working for Biden and, at the same time, pushing a solid progressive agenda into the planks of the Democratic Party platform. Mitchell summed up the WFP stance as follows: “Neither of the progressive candidates won the Democratic presidential primary, but we were clear-eyed going into the general election. Joe Biden became the standard-bearer and the pick to take on Trump, and progressives knew we had to push the Democratic nominee as far to the left as possible. Donald Trump was an existential threat, a global leader of the far right, and we had to defeat him at all costs.”

The chapters all share a common theme, in that they attempt to balance their immediate and essential electoral work with long-term power building. This analysis requires deeper examination and will involve a clearer exposition in the future of what constitutes membership in such organizations, how they are funded, and what their leadership structures are. We can answer these questions for the labor organizations, Unite Here, or the Gulf Coast Labor Federation, who are funded by membership dues and have leadership structures that reflect internal elections. It is important to note however that 90 percent of the members of Here lost their employment because of the pandemic and the crash of the hospitality industry, and their fabulous efforts in the field were made possible in part by generous funding from other labor organizations and foundations.

Longtime organizer and strategist Deepak Pateriya articulates the challenge clearly in his chapter: “It is ‘united front’ time right now for leftists, progressives and liberals, and will be for a number of years and elections to come. Much of our collective energy and power has to be aligned in the short and medium term toward beating white supremacist authoritarianism and the hegemony of capitalist economics and consciousness (rather than arguing among ourselves over our relatively smaller differences). For the long term we have to organize and grow our power.”

Today there is much hand-wringing and doomsaying about the coming midterms. Pundits point to voter suppression and extreme gerrymandering, the economy and inflation, Joe Biden’s approval ratings, and the historic trend in which the party in the White House usually gets shellacked. But remember that we have factors in our favor: anger over Roe v. Wade; the revelatory January 6 hearings so masterfully constructed by the bipartisan leadership with an unwitting assist from Trump himself. We lose if we don’t engage. The recent vote in Kansas should give us all positive inspiration.

On July 10, Michael Podhorzer, an assistant to the president for political affairs at AFL-CIO, wrote about the midterms and our prospects:

Against the usual headwinds facing presidents’ parties in their first midterm, Democrats have on their side the historic reservoir of voters who joined the electorate in 2018 and 2020 to reject Trump and MAGA. To barely oversimplify—81 million people voted against Trump less than two years ago. How we Democrats do depends on how many of their supporters who had not been voting in the midterms come back, and how many of the independents and Republicans who pulled the lever for Trump decide they can’t again.

Read Power Concedes Nothing. The authors are all combatants who will be out in the field again in the fall. Choose a state, choose some key races, reach out to the organizations in the book, and get cracking.

I’ll be on the ground in Orange County, California, this October working to elect Democrat Jay Chen to Congress against the incumbent Michele Steel. This is one of two Republican seats in Orange County that we can flip back into the Democratic column. It is home to more Vietnamese people than anywhere in the world outside Vietnam. Democrats out-register Republicans by 4 percent. It will all be determined by the enthusiasm of our voters and our ability to get them to the polls. The population is 33 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, 25 percent Latinx. Not your father’s John Birch Society Orange County. The midterms are not a foregone conclusion. It was the work of the contributors to Power Concedes Nothing that helped save us from four more years of Trump. It is our calling to take inspiration from them and get on the phone, send the texts, and knock on the doors again.

Peter Olney is the retired organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the West Coast dockworkers union based in San Francisco.

Share This Story:


We collect email addresses for the sole purpose of communicating more efficiently with our Washington Spectator readers and Public Concern Foundation supporters.  We will never sell or give your email address to any 3rd party.  We will always give you a chance to opt out of receiving future emails, but if you’d like to control what emails you get, just click here.