Building a Cooperation Nation

By Ron Rivers,

American culture is one that defines freedom as autonomy.  That is to say, the sovereignty to be self-governed and to self determine one’s path throughout life.   This central tenet of American ideology has been reinforced through our social, political, and economic arrangements solidifying the dogma of competition as the best method towards progress for centuries. Today, cultural shifts and empirical evidence is demonstrating that a competitive culture struggles to address some of society’s most pressing issues. In our efforts towards transformation we must embrace the task of developing an alternative vision of the future, one building upon cooperation and collaboration as the core beliefs that give rise to our structure.   

There is no denying that applying a competitive ideology to an economic model of production produces innovation, but the progress comes alongside the cost of hyper-concentration of wealth.  Extensive research [1] demonstrates a strong correlation between decreases in trust, mental health, educational performance, social mobility, and many other issues with wealth inequality. Drawing from the perpetuation of historical scarcity, the narrative of limited resources for unlimited needs persists despite technological advances – which if appropriately applied would render the core premise obsolete.  American autonomy and competitive culture have had their place in history, but it is apparent that they are unsustainable in their current organization.

So why is it that so many people who experience harm due to our competitive arrangements are so quick to defend them?  Because so much of our life centers around some form of economic activity, the ideologies infused into our methods permeate almost every aspect of our interactions with each other.  From our educational institutions to our cultural norms, competitive culture reinforces itself by shaping the way we approach interactions. When relationships become transactional, by default competition becomes the underlying theme of communication.  

A competitive culture breeds ideals that influence people to believe that the world is binary: for me to win, you must lose. The theory of life as a constant competition selects tidbits of history and natural observations to command authority, while at the same time ignoring that the broader picture of both negates the argument entirely. Despite its inadequacies, the idea may seem sufficient if it’s the only economic model you’re exposed to. Progressives must develop a strategy to transcend this programming, an alternative vision of the future that is different enough to be feasible but not so distant as to be dismissed as Utopian. In doing to so we recognize an often misunderstood truth, the battle of ideologies presently waging in the United States is not a battle between good and evil. Instead, it’s a battle between good and good. The question facing us now is what type of programs we can develop to foster a shared vision of the good?

Star Trek: An example of an ideal, but Utopian future given present circumstance.


Cooperative Arrangements

Infusing the value of cooperation into our arrangements begins with childhood education.  From a macro perspective, we shift the classroom environment from an individualistic authoritative model of teachers dictating facts to students with the expectation of regurgitation to a collaborative experience where learning occurs through dialogue.  Where possible, we should teach each subject from two perspectives, for example learning about the conquest of North America both from the point of view of the invading Europeans and the original Natives.

Drawing from personal experience in organizing volunteer civics courses for high school seniors, I can share that this model of transformative dialectic education is already occurring at least in some schools in New Jersey.   We began our classes with two questions; “Why don’t people vote?” and “What would take to get more people to vote?” Afterwards the discussion evolved in numerous directions, with me acting as a facilitator for discussion – entering in with new questions and facts where needed.  The two contrasting points of view allowed students to state personal understandings and challenge beliefs that did not align with theirs in a respectful moderated setting. What unfolded was a conversation where the students essentially hit on all the points that we were looking to present in the discussion through their own methods with one another.  Embedding dialect into education is vital in teaching the necessary skills needed to collaborate together in the high-tech automated workforce students will find themselves facing in the very near future.

Teachers facilitate by distinguishing fact from falsehood but in a way that never restricts, constrains, or reprimands the exploration of ideas.  Education is the cornerstone of a thriving democracy. Therefore it is a priority for Progressives to partner with educators to develop curriculums that foster a more collaborative approach to learning and interacting.  In doing so, we prepare our youth the transcend the limitations of meaningless repetitive work that automation can and will replace. In fostering their infinite imagination and creativity, we equip our youth with the necessary tools to do the tasks machines can never do.  

A second precursor to more cooperative economic arrangements is the deepening of democracy.  Compared to the many other advanced democracies, the United States operates at low energy.

The problem with a low energy democracy is apparent in the present moment.  Private corporations have seized control of many aspects of our legislative process through the legalized bribery of our elected officials.  Private lobbyists are first in line to have their concerns heard. Running for office beyond the community level costs a small fortune, and history shows us that entrenched party administrators pick high-level candidates with no care for the popular demand[2].   Public voting data tells that these elected candidates do not align their voting with the popular will of the people.  Progressives can solve this by focusing on increasing access and agency for citizens within the process.  

Access to reliable candidate information is a real problem.  A recent study by OurSociety found that in 77% of 2018 candidates running for local office in New Jersey had no information posted online about their campaign.  Given that the now most significant percentage of potential voters grew up using the internet, it is unacceptable not to have candidates legally required to post candidacy information online – ideally in a non-partisan, non-profit structure, free from advertiser influence.   It is going to be difficult to enhance electoral participation in communities without improving access methods.

Agency is giving citizens more purpose and control in their democratic choices.  We can accomplish increasing personal agency in numerous directions, but, foundationally, Progressives need to speed up the pace of politics.  Constitutional amendments to resolve impasse quickly could be implemented, utilizing public voting days, empowering the public to break stalemates.  Drawing from a present example, we could imagine a citizen organizing of a national vote to address the recent government shutdown, specifically a legally binding popular vote about the fate of wall funding.  No more shutdowns, no more time-wasting meetings, and photo-ops; increasing the public’s ability to use democracy to decide national matters hold every elected representative to higher accountability. Most importantly, engaging citizen participation via more popular vote structures imbues deeper meaning into participating in our democracy for every individual.

Social Solidarity Today and Tomorrow

The values we encode into our institutions are the glue that holds people in society together. Progressives understand that in saying “everything is subject to change” we do not exclude humanity.  

Central to this argument for arrangements designed to increase cooperation within society is the rejection of the present arrangements that facilitate our interactions.  Today, money is the dominant form of social connection and communication. Redistribution supported by the government funds social programs, and we exchange our labor for capital and our capital for resources or goods.  The problem is, as many of us already know and feel, money is weak social glue. The last two decades of globalized labor markets outsourcing tasks to the lowest bidder combined with decades of stagnant wage growth have illustrated just how fragile these arrangements are.  

So what is our option beyond money?  Human connection. We must structure society in a way that provides people with more interaction with others outside of their immediate social circles.  This isn’t a revolutionary idea, in many respects the social services we provide represent this collective democratic action. We want to take the best aspects of these programs and export them to other verticals of society.

The most direct route may be an establishment of the value of social service, either through voluntary or even possibly mandatory efforts.  We can imagine that every person within our society has two responsibilities – contribution to a productive direction of their choice and service to others outside of their immediate family unit.  If we can imagine an America pursuing alternatives to perpetual war we could develop a new branch of our military as a social corps, dedicated to learning the most advanced skills available at present to help address some of the society’s most pressing problems.  It could be mandatory or volunteer but both options would relocate youth to areas outside of their immediate sphere of influence to give our youth the opportunity to experience cultures, values, and problems outside of their immediate sphere of influence but under the umbrella of community support instead of national defense.  While no empirical data exists I would imagine enrollment would be significantly higher than present military numbers due to the fact that recruits would not be focused on fighting a perpetual war that began before they were born.

Time is our primary resource and central to this suggestion, and Progressives must ensure that in whichever direction we manifest this program, it does not allow money to become a substitute for time.  This means that if the program is mandatory you cannot buy or donate your way out of the service requirement. Allowing these options would reinforce class structures and the power of money in social bonds.  

Cooperative efforts increase our collective power as citizens.  The more we understand about the humanity of the other, the better equipped we are to share the reigns of power in our shared democratic destiny.   I believe that a deep sense of who we are, and more importantly who we want to be, can be found in political, social, and economic arrangements.

A cooperative structure of arrangements is a central theme of the Progressive Project.  It is a long-term project that we can create through numerous small innovations, over time.  In working towards this transformative effort, we should not lose sight of the fact that an ideal form of solidarity is one that builds upon our differences.  We do not seek a homogenous culture, besides being boring it’s inherently oppressive. Creating pathways for each of us to interact with people outside of our immediate views of the world and reality is the highest form of cooperation.  Each new relationship and interaction creates degrees of change in who we are and how we perceive the world. A cooperation nation perpetually fuels our transformation and in doing so, our ability to transform the world.


[1]  The Spirit Level by Richard Wlkinson & Kate Pickett, Bloomsberry Press (2010) (p. 52, 67, 106, 160)

[2] Leaked Emails Suggest DNC Was Conspiring Against Bernie Sanders by Hilary Hanson https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/wikileaks-dnc-bernie-sanders_us_579381fbe4b02d5d5ed1d157


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Finance, the Real Economy, and the Progressive

By Ron Rivers,

Improving the economy is a concept that most people are familiar with but likely have different understandings of depending on the circumstances that they find themselves in.  There seems to be no shortage of political pundits, candidates, leaders, and non-specialists provide visions of what’s wrong and how we’re going to fix it.    Strangely one topic that rarely gets any attention is the relationship between finance, that is the management of capital and credit, and the real economy.  Creating the institutional reformation necessary to reorganize society requires Progressives to have a deep understanding of this relationship to better communicate alternative visions of the future within their communities.  I argue that a fundamental objective of the Progressive is to bind financial activity to the real economy.

What is the Real Economy?

The real economy is the productive engine that powers our methods of exchange here in the United States.  A person creates something independently or as part of an organization with the intention of giving the thing to someone else in exchange for compensation.  

Through the structure of our legal arrangements, the privatization of land, resources, and outputs are intended to give people the freedom to help manifest their destiny through exchange with others.  Elements of privatization are part of the constitution, although the definition of property was left vague. [1] The constitutional architects intended for states to act as experiments in ways of living, determining their definitions of what was and was not considered legally ownable.  The Constitution also paved the way for copyright and patent laws and gave Congress the authority to punish piracy. I imagine it would have been difficult to envision the results of their structure through the lens of the present with our ever-increasing wealth concentration [2] further calcifying hard socioeconomic class structures within the United States.

The law allows for profit maximization, obligating firms to maximize value for shareholders.  In many cases, privatization ends up acting as a shield for ill-intentioned actions under the guise of profitability.  For example, Exxon knew about climate change for over 35 years and actively spread misinformation to the public about it. [3]  The CEOs serving during this time have not faced repercussions for actions they were ultimately responsible for. The real economy serves as an engine supporting the innovation of life within United States.  The narrow goal of profit does not serve the larger purpose of social organization outside of the state and restricts our collective potential for innovation. This isn’t a call for the total abolition of privatization, rather a criticism of its limitations and the arrangements that support our singular form of it.

The Value of Finance

In his 2018 Progressive Alternatives lecture series, Roberto Mangabeira Unger discusses research that indicates that over 80% of productive economic activity acquires funding by productivity itself.  This means that instead of investing in new companies, new innovations, and new types of markets that could ultimately produce results that would demonstrate significant value to society the majority of money is risked through techniques whose only intention is to create more capital through financial schemes.  Venture capital is increasingly popular but contributes a statistically insignificant amount towards the total productive agenda. These data points call into question the value of high-finance operations such as stock exchanges, which fail to fund the productive agenda of society as the majority of monies generated is staying within the system.  

When the economy is booming, high finance is invisible to many Americans; in time of crises, it’s destructive.  The 2008 financial crash was caused by the speculative financing activity of for-profit banks which then socialized their losses through government bailouts and the repossession of the very homes that they capitalized on in the first place.   All of these actions were supported and protected by our legal arrangements.

Foreclosure Rate United States – Image Credit:  Statista


We can dismiss arguments that the stock exchange somehow sets a value benchmark for corporations looking to borrow capital from banks, as we know that is just not true.  The biggest firms are stockpiling cash [4] and do not seek loans from banks. We must ask ourselves, how do our laws permitting this storing of cash benefit real economic activity?  The simple answer is that they do not, bringing into question why they still exist.

Redefining the Relationship

We need to break the narrative that markets efficiently allocate capital to the most efficient use.  The statement is only true if you define efficiency as the best returns for the owner of said capital instead of adding tangible value to the real economy.  For those of us who do not share an ownership stake in high finance, the apparent truth is that high finance does not serve the collective public good under its present arrangements.  

Progressive leaders need to be proactive in their market innovations, abandoning historical precedence of reactionary regulations applied after the damage.  This narrative is old, tired, and does not work. Never do we hear visions of alternative arrangements that would prevent the very activity that we seek to regulate in, retrospectively.  A Progressive knows that there is no legal requirement to have markets organized in a specific way and that anything that has been created can and should be improved upon without respect to historical norms.  Change is a universal truth, and no institution is sacred when it comes to innovation for the shared public good. Our purpose is clear: we must focus on changing the relationship between finance and production.  

Pulling again from Professor Unger, we can begin to develop our framework of how to proceed.  First, we create legislation that prohibits financial activities that have no relation to expanding our collective productive efforts such as derivative trading.  We redefine financial speculation, allowing it so long as the purpose is to experiment, innovate, or handle risk. Our goal is not to eliminate instability as some instability can be good, but to ensure that these efforts are towards creating real economic value.  Speculating for the sole purpose of increasing numbers on a balance sheet is akin to gambling and is hindered to reduce dramatic boom/bust cycles.

Beyond restricting, Progressives must begin with imagining how we can better utilize the potential of all of the underutilized capital floating within our economic system.  History and present time provide us examples of how this capital could be used, with the New Deal and the increasingly popular Green New Deal.   The New Deal was the most significant collective investment in the world at the time of its inception and the Green New Deal’s call for national mobilization to create a near-zero marginal cost energy infrastructure could easily surpass historical efforts.   This is a great example of redefining the relationship between finance and the real economy. Imagine if all of the latent capital trading for tradings sake or being held was applied to retrofitting every building in the United States with solar panels, networking those building together, and investing in new storage technologies to maximize the capacity and distribution of the energy created.  The collective benefits of a national infrastructure generating nearly free energy would be immense and widespread in every economic vertical.

The power of the state to should be used to create new directions for asset creation and innovation towards a shared vision of the good.  We can choose to have the state to manage these funds or if we want them independently led by actors under a non-profit structure. Either is acceptable, and the most efficient and effective method should be the primary definer.  Both choices require codifying radical transparency into the process and stricter penalties for potential misuse of resources. Reimagining the relationship between finance and the real economy need not be limited to state controlled programs, we can and should still take advantage of the latent experimental potential of the individual.

This single example of the proposed framework for Progressives proceeding draws from our shared understanding that no natural method exists to connect finance to real economic activity.  It is up to us to create the method. Our design must be consistently scrutinized for new opportunities for innovation in the service of the public. Progressives understand that our clearest pathway towards transformation is addressing systemic deficiencies at their root cause.  By forcing finance to act in the direction of productivity and denying capital holders the ability to speculate for the sole purpose of personal gain, we lay the foundation for a more expansive approach to experimentation and innovation with society.   



[1] The Constitution and Property Rights by Rob Natelson Independence Institute https://i2i.org/the-constitution-and-property-rights/

[2] Inequality gap widens as ‘world’s richest 1% get 82% of the wealth,’ Oxfam says by Sam Meredith CNBC https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/22/wef-18-oxfam-says-worlds-richest-1-percent-get-82-percent-of-the-wealth.html

[3] Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago by Shannon Hall Scientific America https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/exxon-knew-about-climate-change-almost-40-years-ago/

[4] CASH RICH: 10 COMPANIES WITH THE LARGEST CASH PILES Forbes https://www.forbes.com/pictures/mlf45kijd/google/#5abcd38729a8



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Proactive Taxation for Progressives

By Ron Rivers,

Wealth concentration is the central issue to many of the social, political, and economic problems facing the United States in the present day. It negatively impacts our health, happiness, [1] and our shared ability to transform the world. Popular ideas such as a wealth tax [2], a more progressive taxation system[3], and a Universal Basic Income are growing more popular but may fall short of making the genuine systemic change needed to redefine the human experience. To successfully address poverty, we need to approach wealth distribution proactively from a structural perspective.

A central challenge facing the most commonly supported equality agendas is that they attempt to address inequality through reactive redistribution, continuously trying to fix problems perpetually generated by the system itself. The single market structure capitalism the U.S. subscribes to is a method of exchange originated with scarcity in mind and rewards those who own the highest concentrations of capital the most. Reactively approaching inequality via taxation resigns us to dealing with the inequity after-the-fact and limits our ability to create change in real time.

Some argue for radical redistribution, a sudden and dramatic allocation of existing wealth. This idea is not a viable option as it would severely disrupt the entire economic order and is unlikely to ever to be politically feasible given our present circumstances. That isn’t to say that redistribution isn’t a part of the solution, it is. But the methods we choose must be implemented in a long term strategic approach that is applied in a step-by-step manner to maximize both effectiveness and agility of the programs.

Why Should We Pay More?

Successfully transforming society into a more pluralistic set of arrangements requires us to increase our total tax take. Simply put, more resources are needed to fund social investments. The United States has one of the most progressive tax systems in the world, meaning that rates increase as people earn more, yet still suffers from the highest wealth inequality. [4] We need to be careful not to rely too much on progressive taxation as it can also be framed as a class issue. If expressed in the language of propaganda, pitting one class against another, the potential exists to create opposition from sources that would benefit from a more progressive tax organization.

Increasing taxes doesn’t make us Socialists. The United States citizens pay less in taxes than most western democracies. [4] European countries also implement a Value-Added Tax (VAT) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Value_added_tax) Much of that money is spent on redistributive efforts. You can think of a VAT as a fair form of taxation that essentially pulls a little bit from every time something is created. Implementing a VAT here in the United States would allow us to maximize our revenues while minimizing the impact on our economy.

Using taxes to invest in programs to support pluralistic arrangements and services will be an incredible net benefit to all of society. The greatest resource humanity has ever had and will ever have is our imagination. The Progressive project is about giving every person the ability to channel that imagination into experimentation and innovation. If maximizing our individual and shared potential is the goal then it is a primary objective to increase revenue flows to fund projects and pay down debts.

Image Source: TaxLinked.com

Examining Alternatives

All taxation intends to accomplish the same goal in different directions. We use our redistributive programs to enhance our shared standard of living. A Progressive approach to taxation learns from history without dogmatically committing to a specific method. Fortunately for us, history is full of imaginative scholars who created tax structures that could address some of our most systemic problems today.

In 1879 Henry George published Progress & Poverty. It was incredibly popular in its time and is still taught by numerous non-profit organizations. The central theme of Georgism is that land speculation is central to the boom/bust cycle that is a fixture of capitalist economies. Because available land is of fixed supply and needed for all production land values will always rise faster than economic growth, separating much of the people from accessing ownership.

His solution is the Land Value Tax. It’s a tax that considers the value of the land, ignoring improvements. It would remove the incentive from creating a livelihood whose primary income is rent seeking from multiple properties. It’s been implemented in numerous locations across the world including Pennsylvania [5] where it helped communities adapt to the changing economic situations they found themselves in after the 2008 recession. George believes that all people own the land and in many respects he is correct. A Land Value Tax strategy could be a pillar of a more access based society and help to stabilize more people in a permanent residence.

Nicholas Kaldor argued for the tax of individual consumption. “It is only by spending, not by earning or saving, that an individual imposes a burden on the rest of the community in attaining his own ends” [6] His method would tax the difference between a person’s total income (including capital gains) and investment savings, or what a person spends on themselves.

What I appreciate about Kaldor’s method is that we could structure it in such a way to significantly benefit our most disenfranchised while also using it to better redistribute from the top wealth hoarders. We could imagine that those at the bottom of the economic order would pay nothing and likely even be supplemented by a Universal Basic Income. In the middle we could have a progressive tax structure as we do presently, increasing along with income rates. At the top very we can set the number to whatever we want it to be. As an example, a consumption tax on people earning over $10,000,000 a year could be a ratio to $5.00 tax for every $1.00 spent. Because there are few feasible ways for people with such excess capital to spend more than they earn this tax is unlikely to have any impact on their consumption.

In his third lecture in the 2018 Progressive Alternatives series, Roberto Mangabeira Unger supports Kaldor and suggests that the law states that all income that cannot be shown as saved or invested counts as spending — nullifying evasion within the law itself. Unger supports Kaldor’s taxation and suggests that it is the tax most qualified to create wealth distribution for the greater good.

What I like most about these alternative tax structures is that they are a proactive approach towards the necessary redistributive efforts to fund social transformation. Both Land Value Tax and a consumption tax eliminate the burden of taxation from the poor, ensure that the highest earners pay more, and address numerous other issues facing our present tax arrangements.

Thinking about the long term trajectory of society we understand that change is both needed and inevitable. Progressives must answer the question of how we will fuel the growth of a culture that maximizes access and agency for all individuals. Our present arrangements won’t get us there, but a more proactive approach to taxation is a significant step in the right direction.


[1] Inequality and Health Inequality.org https://inequality.org/facts/inequality-and-health/
[2] Elizabeth Warren’s Tax Proposal Aims at Assets of Wealthiest Americans By Sahil Kapurand Laura Davison Bloomberg https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-25/senator-warren-proposes-ultra-millionaire-tax-of-as-much-as-3
[3] For a Real-World Example of Ocasio-Cortez’s Tax Proposal, Look to Sweden By Jonas O Bergmanand Kati Pohjanpalo Bloomberg https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-09/hysteria-around-a-70-tax-rate-gets-a-reality-check-in-sweden
[4] America’s taxes are the most progressive in the world. Its government is among the least. By Dylan Matthews Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/04/05/americas-taxes-are-the-most-progressive-in-the-world-its-government-is-among-the-least/?utm_term=.ca45f238d9d8

[5] Land Value in Pennsylvania: A Practical Application By Patrick Coate, PhD American Institute for Economic Research https://www.aier.org/article/land-value-pennsylvania-practical-application

[6] An Expenditure Tax by Nicholas Kaldor (p. 53) https://www.amazon.com/Expenditure-Tax-Nicholas-Kaldor/dp/0415314003


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Progressives Need to Start Playing Offense

By Ron Rivers,

Progressive projects and social movements today are active in working towards building a more pluralistic future.  It’s never been a better time to be an activist because there are just so many things that we can improve in the world, some more critical than others.  Collective efforts of activists across the U.S. are making great strides in many directions, and yet at the same time, their work is regulated to trying to humanize the perpetual inequities that our present arrangements create.  Maybe it’s time we stopped playing defense with our policy. Together we could build a Progressive offensive offering creative and imaginative policy solutions that address core systemic issues of distribution of access and agency within our society.  A shared vision of a greater good is the first brick in the foundation of a unified population that can democratically choose a future beyond serfdom.


Defense Doesn’t Win Games

Much of the policy activism people are working towards today is about decreasing the inequalities generated in a market economy.  These programs take the form of some distribution of wealth financed via tax and transfer. The underlying idea makes sense because we understand that the growing wealth inequality is the primary driver for a significant number of problems facing America.   

Protecting social entitlements is a necessary action presently, but because of the corporate interests in our legislature, we’re always fighting back an encroaching tide of wealth transfer that hurts the majority of Americans.  Everytime we score a victory we find ourselves defending another offense. We keep moving forward, but it doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere.

If we’re going to have any hope of creating genuine change, then we’ve got to start thinking differently about our focus.  We need to confront the truth that all of our activism assumes that the present order is static. That there are set rules of engagement and establish frameworks for ideas of the possible dictated by what has been instead of what will be.  Even the most “radical” among us advocate for a substitution of structure pulled from history; Capitalism for Socialism, or something of that sort. We focus on creating access to equality and security but lack a real vision of increasing agency within our lives.  

We suffer from a failure of imagination, an ailment that is preventing us from creating a proactive approach to fixing problems of the present.   The Progressive vision of the future will never gain majority support without a break from the past.


Understanding our Offensive Strategy

Protecting access to entitlement programs will not matter if we do not codify the right to change the structure of our established institutions.  The most glaring flaw in our arrangements is that they are resistant to change in a time when change is occurring exponentially. Driven by the growth of information technology[1] change across emerging economic sectors is happening more rapidly than ever before[2].  Embracing and accelerating our ability to adapt to change is a necessary and unavoidable reality we must confront. So how do we incorporate change into our institutions with our activism efforts? The imagination of alternatives and their translation into policy is a great place to start.

Each of us can begin with an of an area of improvement that strikes our passion.  I’ll propose the deepening of democracy here in the United States as it is foundational to all progressive movements. Right now democratic participation in the United States ranks poorly compared to other western democracies[3], highlighting an opportunity for improvement.  At the same time, we observe changes[4] being implemented in states such as New York and New Jersey to move towards a more accessible democracy which provides us momentum that we will build upon.

Image Credit: NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Justice Agenda

Voting rights is an ideal example for our argument as these initiatives illustrate the concept of playing defense instead of offense.  These practices exist in numerous other western democracies, and the implementation here in the U.S. is essentially bringing our institutions up to speed with the rest the democratic world.  They are a step in the right direction but do nothing too innovative within our arrangements. We increase access to the ability to vote but do nothing to address the lack of agency embedded in the process.  It’s a missed opportunity to create real change that pushes the boundaries of how we operate within society.

A Progressive offense focused on voting rights would seek to push the boundaries of how and why people participate in elections.  It would require by law that candidate information for all contests, School Board to President, be accessible online easily and conveniently.  Thinking pluralistically, we would want to make sure that information the candidates provide is available in a variety of mediums so that every person has an opportunity to learn in a format that best resonates with them. Mandated civics education seminars for high school seniors and university students would be implemented to introduce our youth to the process and show them where and how to gather and evaluate information about candidates.  If we created a publically funded and owned centralized candidate information platform we could ensure that the experience of obtaining this information was as easy and convenient as possible, creating a customized user experience to for all individuals. All of these concepts do more than open up access to voting. They open up access to a personal agency within the process. By ensuring the information and communication about candidate options is directly available to the public at all levels, we build the framework for an informed electorate who understands the power within each person.

These examples demonstrate the concept of a Progressive offense, going above and beyond existing methodologies and infusing imagination and creativity into the process. Progressives should work towards becoming the movement that gives every person more stake in the shaping of the world and ourselves.  It is a task that allows for transcendence over the limitations the past projects on the present.    It’s an offensive strategy that opens us up to supporters who will realize that there can be a better way then belittlement through the present arrangements.  A Progressive offense is an embracing of our potential for change in the present unbeholden to the institutions of the past.


[1] https://ourworldindata.org/technological-progress

[2] Human evolution is still happening – possibly faster than ever by Laurence D. Hurst Phys.org https://phys.org/news/2018-11-human-evolution-possibly-faster.html

[3] [5] U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout by Drew DeSilver Pew Research Center http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/15/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/

[4]  The Law That Just Passed In New York Is A Huge Win For Voting Rights by Ari Burman Mother Jones https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/01/new-york-passes-huge-voting-rights-expansion/


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Understanding Our Opportunity – Local Election Reform

By Ron Rivers,

The 2020 Presidential election is already making headlines during this first week of 2019.  Infighting seems to be running rampant with both of the dominant political parties as notable candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and to a lesser extent, Beta O’Rourke have spoken openly about running on the Democratic ticket while Republicans seem to be in disagreement about whether or not someone should challenge Trump in the Republican primaries. [1]  With all of this focus on the national elections it is easy for progressive thinkers, legislators, and activists to lose sight of the opportunity for significant holistic transformation of society in favor of the fervor surrounding Presidential elections and national hot-button issues.

In this essay, I will argue that the most significant opportunity for the long-term progressive change of society is the revising of our local municipal and state elections.  It’s an argument for bottom-up change that enhances the potential of every individual. If we can separate ourselves from the distractions, we will recognize that real change is both possible and within our grasp in the present time.   


Devils in the Details

Recently OurSociety released its 2018 Annual Report detailing their research and efforts to build a prototype for an online local election campaign information platform in New Jersey.  The information presented paints an overlooked but a specific flaw in our political process. In 2018 only 329 of the 1404 candidates running for local offices such as Mayor, Councilperson, or Committee Member had a dedicated online website or Facebook page about their campaign for office.  To put it another way, 77% of candidates running for local office in New Jersey had no online information about why they were running and what they intended to do if elected.

The data presented is a localized sample, but we can imagine that if a coastal, diverse [2], and wealthy [3] state like New Jersey is performing so poorly on transparent local election information, it is possible that other states may be facing the same problem.  This absence of candidate info directly translates to a lack of options for voters. It negates the argument that people don’t participate in local politics because they are lazy or uninterested, instead revealing that the details necessary to facilitate participation are merely unavailable.  

Data breakdown from the OurSociety.org 2018 Impact Report

In 2018 it takes about 30 minutes to set up a proper website via WordPress and even less for a social media page.  Millennials are the largest voting bloc [4], and nearly the entire generation are internet users [5].  Given the facts, I find it difficult to imagine an acceptable reason as to why the vast majority of candidates chose not to make an effort to provide information online regarding their candidacy.   Humans are context driven beings, if we fail to provide pathways for understanding within our political structure we will never succeed in the expansion of democratic participation.


Overlooked, ignored, or misunderstood?

As the data presented on New Jersey local candidate elections primarily focused on access to information, we can only speculate as to why candidates’ online presence was so deficient in 2018.  Solving this problem requires us to be a bit imaginative in our exploration of potential obstacles, but in doing so, we can begin to develop a framework for how to best address this issue.

Using a Bloomberg Cities [6] analysis as a starting point, we find that three-quarters of the 1400+ mayors surveyed were over the age of 50.   According to a 2018 Pew Research study [7], little more than half of the people over 50 engage in the most popular online platforms (Facebook and YouTube) available today.  

If we assume that the age range of U.S. municipality council members is similar to that of U.S. mayors we have our first potential clue as to why information may be so lax.  It’s possible that the lack of sufficient online candidacy information is a generational issue. Simply put, the people running for leadership positions in our local communities are, by in large, not of the internet generation.    This translates to some potential issues ranging from fear of the unknown, lack of understanding of how to use online platforms, the perception of the potential value to be gained from posting campaign information online, and others.  

Assuming age factors into answering why so few of the 2018 candidates posted information online about their candidacy we can implement actions to address these concerns in the future proactively.  Demonstrating the value of having your candidacy information online can be addressed by providing via localized search data and community surveying. Having local candidate information online ensures that candidates can be viewed an understood by all community members, not just those few who can attend in person gatherings.  

OurSociety.org saw local candidate info searches spike nearing election day


To address fears regarding the use of a new communication medium we make sure that every candidate running for office had the opportunity to speak with a support team member who will help onboard them onto the platform.  Via phone, virtual screen-share, or in person we will provide candidates an opportunity to learn the platform as their profile is being set up. By offering a personalized onboarding experience, we remove the barriers associated with learning new technologies.

Beyond possible age-related challenges, we could imagine that local candidates may have thought that posting their candidacy information online was just unnecessary.  Local elections get little if any press compared to larger state and national elections. Mayors and council members focus their time and efforts on solving issues impacting their local community such as traffic and parking, public safety, local economic growth, roads, and affordable housing.  These issues have a high frequency of impact for many community members but lack the excitement and outrage spewed forth from the national political machines. The error in this line of thinking is to confuse a lack of enthusiasm for lack of interest. Community members want to know who their options are, what they stand for, and why they are running for office.  Denying them access to that information in an easy and convenient format by abstaining from the effort to make it available is an undemocratic practice.

Of course, there may be more cynical reasons why candidates may want to avoid having their campaign information online.  The adage, “If it isn’t broke don’t fix it.” rings true in many minds today. There are Mayors in New Jersey who have held the same office since 1991, some of which whom have run unopposed on multiple occasions.  Candidates may believe that is in their best interest to stay under the radar, relying on column placement and the single letter next to their name to win the office. Unfortunately for their constituents, it seems as though their strategy is historically correct.   


Reforming Local Elections

Improving citizen access to local candidate information will require a multi-pronged approach but is an effort well worth pursuing.  At the time of this writing, we observe a renewed passion for election reform being presented from the Democrats [8] which is a positive step but still misses the mark of developing systemic improvement.  Campaign finance reform, voting rights reforms, redistricting, and ethics reforms are all steps in the right direction but will do nothing to raise the temperature of democracy in the United States. Deepening access and agency within the electoral process for all citizens is a core progressive goal of transformation in our democracy.  To do that we must begin foundationally, focusing on communities and local elections.

The legislative solution is that candidates should be required, by law, to have information about their campaign posted in an easily accessible online format. Accurately answering the questions of who they are, their professional history, and their vision for the communities they desire to serve.  This information would be required at the time official candidate registration and would deny candidates the ability to run if they were unwilling to share information about their campaign.

There are numerous options as to how candidates might present this option.  In setting up these options candidates would want to focus on ease of access to their platform of choice, cost (both time and capital), and the ability to connect with community members seeking to engage.

The first is a dedicated website such as www.johndoe2018.com which at the time of this writing costs $8.99.  A site hosted on WordPress with a free template the setup would take about 30 minutes and require a moderate level of technical competency.  The challenge with this option is for people who lack web design experience you’re going to have many websites that organize information poorly, are challenging to navigate, and do not present information consistently across the multiple candidate websites.  The result is a bad user experience, shifting learning about candidate options into a laborious task. Still, a poorly designed website is better than no site when it comes to candidate information.

The second option would be Facebook.  I am loathed to suggest Facebook for reasons  I will outline, but it is the most popular option for users in the standard age demographic of mayors in the U.S. and relatively easy to set up.  Facebook is the worst option for many reasons. First, tying a pay for views model like Facebook’s to local campaigns perpetuates the very problem we are attempting to solve, access.  If you aren’t paying Facebook to advertise your posts are not being seen by your followers. Second, shifting our local elections into the primary control of a for-profit organization will set us back in the fight in removing money from politics.   Third, Facebook has been dishonest for years in regards to Russian interference [9] and have attempted to use public relations firms to deflect from their problems. [10] We cannot trust the organization or its leadership to hold a stake in a vitally important public institution.

The third option that I will argue strongly for is the OurSociety platform or another like it.  There are key elements designed into the platform make it ideal for this exact function.  The organization is structured as a non-partisan 501c3 non-profit. It promotes no political agenda and offers no advantage to any candidate or contest.  It is free for everyone to use as a candidate or citizen.

User experience is central to the design offering tools for people at all interests levels.  Feature suites allow citizen users an experience designed to help them better digest the information in a format that resonates with them.  Candidate users have a professional grade suite of tools to help make accessing volunteers, organizing events, and sharing their ideas with the community.   Information is presented clearly in a concise manner that can expand easily. The entire database of candidates is available, but the default is a localized experience to whom we see on our ballot.


Sustaining Future Progress

In developing innovative solutions we must proactively address the inevitable challenges.  Who will pay for it? The platform can be designed to sustain itself if needed, free of any public investment. I propose a revenue model that creates sustainability through small fees charged to the winning candidates based on the position and length of term.  We can allow the public to decide if the winning candidate should pay this fee or subsidized by public tax dollars.  The latter being a great choice if the community as a whole wants running for office to be completely free of financial influence.  In the public funding scenario, sponsoring the winning candidates in my 2018 hometown elections would have cost every resident slightly less than a penny.   Excess revenues beyond direct costs are used to fund continuous platform improvement as the user base evolves.

The most compelling aspect of this model is that it doesn’t just remove money from politics; it transcends it.  A state-sponsored candidate platform gives candidates more exposure than they could ever get through paid advertisements through traditional media.  Aligned with legislation for the dramatic reduction of money in politics, a non-partisan, non-profit election info portal is a restructuring of how people access democracy at a local level and beyond.    

Citizen awareness can be achieved through multiple channels such as including information about the platform with sample ballots, advertising through popular search engines and social media channels, interviews with the program architects in local news media, and official press conferences announcing the structural reformation.  The state could also mandate an educational requirement for all high school seniors to spend an hour learning about the platform and participating in dialogue about the candidate options in their municipalities. Presenting information in a relevant and concise manner in a format that resonates with the user will ensure quicker adaptation and use.  If we are to engage our youth in the democratic process an online access platform provides the best pathway to do so.

Looking to the future, if we’re willing to get creative with how we structure the organization, we can experiment with developing a public ownership model with a term-limited rotating citizen board.  Scaling this model up to a national level is an achievable goal within a reasonable timeframe and would allow us to generate revenues that would exceed the possible costs of running the organization. Funds made beyond possible platform expansion can divert into new public projects, which the public can choose democratically.   In doing so, the project comes full circle to its core purpose, deepening democracy.

The vision presented in this argument is one that is both necessary and achievable today.  The policies being discussed by current political leaders to help reform our democratic process are a good start but will ultimately fall short of creating the meaningful change that is possible with a bit of imagination and implementation.  If we reject the path of least resistance and demand systemic solutions, we can create significant and lasting change in our democracy. Access to local election information and the increased participation rates that will follow is the cornerstone for a more transformative future. By imbuing access and agency into our political institutions, we lay the foundation for a democracy that genuinely works for the people, not just those who can afford to make it work.


[1] Romney’s attack prompts call to protect Trump from 2020 primary challenger by David M. Drucker Washington Examiner  https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/campaigns/romneys-attack-prompts-call-to-protect-trump-from-2020-primary-challenger

[2] These Are The 10 Most Diverse States In America by Chris Kolmar HomeSnacks https://www.homesnacks.net/most-diverse-states-in-america-128573/

[3] List of U.S. States and Terrtories by Income Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_and_territories_by_income

[4] Millennials projected to overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation by Richard Fry Pew Research  http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/01/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers/

[5] Millennials stand out for their technology use, but older generations also embrace digital life by Jingjing Jiang Pew Research  http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/02/millennials-stand-out-for-their-technology-use-but-older-generations-also-embrace-digital-life/

[6] 7 Millennial mayors to watch by Bloomburg Cities https://medium.com/@BloombergCities/7-millennial-mayors-to-watch-c85e207995d3

[7] Social Media Use in 2018 by Aaron Smith & Monica Anderson Pew Research http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/03/01/social-media-use-in-2018/

[8] Democrats plan ‘aggressive’ oversight of Federal Election Commission by Dave Levinthal & Ashley Balcerzak Public Integrity https://publicintegrity.org/federal-politics/democrats-plan-aggressive-oversight-of-federal-election-commission/

[9] Facebook, Twitter and YouTube Withheld Russia Data, Reports Say by By Sheera Frenkel, Daisuke Wakabayashi and Kate Conger https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/17/technology/tech-companies-russian-interference.html

[10] How Facebook’s PR Firm Used a Conservative News Site to Fiercely Attack Its Rivals by Aaron Mak https://slate.com/technology/2018/11/facebook-definers-ntk-network-conservative-news-site.html


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