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Movement vs. Abundance Progressives
Similar goals, different approaches.
Close your eyes and imagine the California you want to live in. Would it have a lower cost of housing and energy? More opportunity for people to earn middle class wages and have stable jobs? Better quality of life, including cleaner air and safer streets?
Most Californians want this. So why don’t they get it? Why are most Californians’ vision for California not realized through our political system?
It’s not because Democrats and Republicans are bickering — in political power terms, Republicans are basically irrelevant in California. It’s because of the conflict between private interests and public interests (8 min).
To overcome private interests, you need a movement. Whereas private interests typically cooperate around narrow economic self-interest, a movement activates a sense of identity beyond material interests. Movements fight for public interest causes.
The most powerful movement in left politics today is Movement Progressivism (MP). At Modern Power, we are part of a much more nascent movement called Abundance Progressivism.
Abundance Progressives admire how much momentum MPs have built in a relatively short period of time. We desperately need new energy in our political system to power the sorts of governmental reforms we need to undertake over the next 1-2 decades (10 min). But Abundance Progressives (or at least this author) are also somewhat skeptical of the approach MPs take in driving toward their deeply appealing vision, and the budding Abundance Progressive movement aims to take a different approach to reach similar end goals.
This post attempts to compare and contrast the two movements. A couple caveats up front: (1) We are not MPs, so this is an outsider’s perspective on what MP stands for (2) As in all groups, there is obviously not homogeneity of views across all issues. For the sake of clarity — and due to our own blind spots — we’re going to oversimplify the descriptions of both sides. Experts are encouraged to add nuance as needed in the comments.
First we’ll describe each movement. Then we’ll look at key differences in approach and how they translate to specific issues such as housing and clean energy. Finally, we’ll imagine how these two movements might fuse together in the future.
Defining Movement and Abundance Progressivism
What are some of the markers of Movement Progressivism (MP)? The vibe is young, hip, intellectual, and multi-racial. There is an emphasis on identity. Under-represented groups (women, black & brown people, LGBTQ+) are front and center. AOC and Ilhan Omar, among others, are the face of MP. Bold, sweeping change — such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — is envisioned to create a working-class multi-racial egalitarian democracy.
There is a significant funding ecosystem for MP, mainly coming from wealthy white liberals, major foundations such as Open Society Foundations and Ford Foundation, and donor networks such as Way to Win. Substantial MP funding has created a diverse ecosystem of MP organizations including Color of Change, Movement for Black Lives, Run for Something, Sunrise Movement, and Center for Popular Democracy.
MPs have been extremely successful in getting both wealthy individuals and small dollar donors to contribute resources to fund broad-based advocacy efforts. On a yearly basis, somewhere on the order of $850 million flows through the MP ecosystem.
Abundance Progressivism is a nascent movement. Derek Thompson, Jerusalem Demsas, and Ezra Klein are Abundance Progressivism’s headliners (at least thus far), and mini-Abundance Progressivism communities have sprouted up around ideas such as State Capacity, Effective Government, Progress Studies, and YIMBYism.
At this point Abundance Progressivism is better known among policy wonks than the mass public. There are highly regarded politicians we consider at the forefront of Abundance Progressivism — Governor Jared Polis in Colorado and California state legislators like Isaac Bryan, Buffy Wicks, Scott Wiener, Nancy Skinner, and Rob Rivas — and we hope to see them personally identify as Abundance Progressives in the future. Abundance Progressivism is centered around issues like housing affordability via more housing production and climate change; these are areas where recent anti-abundance public policy has induced scarcity. Abundant Progressivism’s focus is more economic than cultural, with the underlying belief that, given heavy correlation between socioeconomic status and race, solving economic issues can also help address racial and socioeconomic inequality.
Abundance Progressivism is also 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.
The Abundance Progressivism ecosystem doesn’t yet exist, with little funding and no high-profile national organizations. Here at Modern Power we’re working to change that!
Differences Between Movement and Abundance Progressivism
MPs have successfully constructed a post-material, identity-based reason for people to care about political involvement.
They’ve done this via a compelling moral vision: an egalitarian, multi-racial democracy, where one’s life prospects are not gated by the circumstances of one’s birth. This is a deeply American ideal to strive for.
Powered by this moral vision, MPs have attracted lots of money, talent, and energy to their cause. Thus far they have achieved relatively less in terms of public policy outcomes.
Abundance Progressives aspire to the same egalitarian, multi-racial democracy. But Abundance Progressives work backwards from target outcomes, and that leads to distinctly different points of emphasis, both in general and on specific policy issues.
Let’s dive into those differences further.
What You Do vs. How You Do It (aka Outcome vs. Process/Symbols Orientation)
Abundance Progressives are laser-focused on policy outcomes. What policies will result in median home prices being no more than 3x median household income? What policies will drop the cost of clean energy to <2c per kilowatt hour?
While these outcome goals are likely shared by MPs, MPs seem to care in equal measure about how you get to those outcomes, to a degree that the How (process/symbols) often trumps the What (outcomes).
We imagine the basis of this difference in emphasis comes from historical experience — as discussed below, the MP worldview is grounded in real historical harms by government institutions against marginalized groups (e.g. federally subsidized homeownership, interstate highway system, great society public housing). This leads to an insistence that these marginalized groups have a seat at the table / power in the process as a necessary precondition for change.
To be clear, it’s hard to argue against this. But setting the appropriate and just table gets lots of energy, and if inaction is the result, that’s ok? To build an egalitarian society, we actually need lots of new action!
While Abundance Progressives value working for “justice at the table,” we ultimately think outcomes matter most. And per the recent Ryan Grim article, an overly narrow focus on how you do things can hobble organization and movement effectiveness.
More vs. Less Trust in Existing Institutions
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.
Per above, 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.
This is problematic because one of the key issues Abundance Progressives have identified in government underperformance is elevating process over outcomes. Did we do 20 public hearings and get input from all parties? Then it doesn’t matter what the outcome was, because the process was legitimate. Did we make a completely neutral and fair interview process for a government role, which in the meantime led to the best candidates churning out because it took so long and was so onerous? Oh well, at least the process was fair.
Abundance Progressives believe we’ve swung way too far in the direction of process and symbols over outcomes. Are we actually helping to stabilize housing costs for residents? Are we actually building enough new clean energy generation to make the transition to our electric future? On this spectrum, Abundance Progressives advocate for more streamlined processes when they lead to better outcomes. It’s less clear where MPs would be.
A related theme is the MP worldview seems to center on zero-sum tradeoffs, whereas Abundance Progressives believe you can grow the pie in positive-sum ways. So MPs worry a new luxury apartment building will benefit the rich people who move in and hurt people who are already in the neighborhood, whereas Abundance Progressives see the development in housing starved-cities as win-win.
Situational vs. Fixed Views on Labor vs. Capital
Another difference is how MPs and Abundance Progressives view organized labor (unions) and organized capital (corporations).
MPs typically lionize unionsand distrust corporations.
MPs’ support of unions makes sense — unions represent working people, are assumed to be fighting capitalists, and correlate with a time in America when there was a much stronger middle class. Based on research, unions also do a whole lot of other good things in our democratic system.
Abundance Progressives have a more situational assessment of unions and corporations. 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 shorthand, Abundance Progressives make a distinction between unions whose members primarily derive their income from private dollars vs. unions who primarily make their money (either directly or indirectly) from public dollars.
For example, union members with the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) are employed by capitalists who own grocery stores, whereas union members with the Building Trades do almost all their work on public sector projects.
This leads to a very different power equation. UFCW members are bargaining against management which represent shareholders. Management and shareholders have aligned interests, which make them the more powerful player in the negotiation. Anything that boosts worker power in this equation leads to a more balanced outcome.
The Building Trades, on the other hand, are negotiating against elected officials who represent citizens. But in practice elected officials are more responsive to narrow interests like the Building Trades than they are to citizens, because the Building Trades pay attention to and participate in day-to-day politics, and citizens don’t.
Examples of How This Plays Out in California
How do these differences between MPs and Abundance Progressives on outcomes, institutional trust, and labor vs. capital play out on particular issues? Let’s look briefly at housing and clean energy, which comprise 50%+ of household spending in California, and thus place a huge burden on low and middle-income Californians.
Most Abundance Progressives think housing is the #1 issue in California. Unfortunately, MPs do little to help here, and probably do harm. This is partly due to their deference to labor — specifically the Building Trades, a key blocker to more housing production in the state— and partly due to their skepticism of capitalism.
The notion of market rate housing, and of developers making money, is troubling to MPs. This leads to problematic left-NIMBYism in many Californian cities, despite ample evidence that filtering works and the solution to our affordability problems is to build more housing.
Clean energy is another area of tension between APs and MPs. Again MP allyship with labor is problematic — the California oil & gas industry unionized ten years ago, so labor is a drag on the transition to a clean energy economy.
In addition, well-warranted sensitivity to Environmental Justice means more stakeholders and a slower building process. The “defense first” approach means lack of appetite from MPs to modernize CEQA, the California environmental law that many observers argue is overly hostile to building in an era when we need to build our way out of the climate mess.
Abundance Progressives, on the other hand, see cheap clean energy as an outcome that should be prioritized over process. Life for the average Californian at 2 cents per kilowatt hour, as opposed to the 25 cents people currently pay, would be so much better. Abundance Progressives would make that our North Star and be willing to compromise along the way both in our deference to process and unions.
What Happens Next
Movement Progressives and Abundance Progressives want similar things, but take divergent approaches.
We think there is value in both approaches — Abundance Progressivism is too wonky, whereas MP has captured mindshare and heart strings. Abundance Progressives would also do well to adopt at least a dose of skepticism towards governmental processes that favor the rich and powerful over the poor and marginalized.
Conversely, MP has not grappled with the details and realities of driving public policy outcomes. It will have to get more pragmatic if it wants to realize its potential. Over time, we expect MP funders will demand the shift to an outcome orientation.
It’s also worth noting that both movements represent new power — they are about millennials, genZers, and their issues gaining prominence
An ideology and movement fit within a broader historical context. In the last “building” phase of the American project, we did not respect the voices of marginalized communities, and did a lot of harm. But our current vetocracy locks in those inequities. Abundance Progressives believe that to get to a more egalitarian society, we need to build again. Doing so justly, in a way that respects everyone’s voice but also leads to decisive action, is the key challenge.
It’s likely national politics will get worse before it gets better, so MPs will shift more efforts to blue states, which is also where Abundance Progressives will operate. The divergence of approaches will likely lead to higher contrast and conflict in the coming years as blue states implement housing and clean energy fixes. There will be messiness to grapple with.
But there are important opportunities for bridge-building and even movement-fusing. On housing, national MP leaders like AOC seem to be shifting from left-NIMBYism to YIMBYism.
Finding more of these crossover leaders and shared projects will give us the best shot at building the egalitarian future that so many of us want.
Call to action: If you’re a Movement Progressive reading this post, what have we gotten wrong or misunderstood about MP? And how can we find ways to make common cause on particular projects in California?
Also: If you liked this post, please share and subscribe.
I assume the MP response is they don’t have sufficient political power to implement their popular vision for society. While I’m skeptical — I think that there would be substantive clashes with unions on issues like climate change if MPs had power — I’m rooting for folks like the Rhode Island Political Cooperative to win governing power in Rhode Island so we can put the theory to the test.
An interesting recent MP development is the move away from police and prison guard unions. This might open up a lane for a more situational view of unions by MPs going forward.
Because of previously mentioned socioeconomic correlation, this disproportionately hurts black & brown Californians.
To be clear, this is an entirely reasonable position. Just like manufacturing workers in the Midwest got the raw end of the deal on globalization, so too would unionized oil & gas workers feel the brunt of the pain with a transition away from oil and gas. Solar jobs located in different parts of the state, and that pay half as much, are not good substitutes for oil & gas jobs. So this is a legitimately tricky problem to navigate.