Partisan politics in the United States is largely confined to an agenda for state and federal government policy, with a disproportionately heavy dose of federal government policy. These are powerful instruments for social progress. But, they aren't the only tools available to change the world for the better, a lesson that is worth remembering as we are entering a period of divided government where sweeping federal and state government action isn't available as a solution of society's ills.
What are some of the alternatives?
* Movement politics
Unlike electoral politics, where the focus is on getting likeminded people to the polls and finding ways to sway the opinions of the ambivalent, movement politics is about increasing the size of your political base by persauding people to agree with your cause.
Movement politics is virtually impotent to change the general political dispositions of people in a particular place. The states that have tended to be hawks and doves in debates over U.S. foreign policy are virtually unchanged from those that were hawks and doves at the time of the American Revolution. The counties that were liberal or conservative in the late 1800s almost always have the same political leanings today. Shifts in a geographic area's conservatism are almost entirely motivated by rapid demographic change that actually puts people of a different political persausion in new places. Even slow demographic change leads to assimilation of the newcomers.
But, while liberal and conservative tendencies are remarkably stable, particular issues migrate from being considered radical to becoming part of the consensus with regularity. Democracy, the abolition of slavery, non-discrimination on the basis of race, interracial marriage, women's sufferage, opening all professions to women, and the virtue of a Social Security safety net have gone from being radical positions to consensus positions. Prohibition of alcohol went from being a majority view of the nation to an extinct ideology. Birth control pills were once widely banned and are now backed by a strong social consensus.
While the late 19th century, early 20th century Progressive Party never secured great electoral success, its agenda was eventually widely adopted by the major political parties.
Gay right are well on their way to becoming consensus views. Even young Evangelical Christians are far less anti-gay rights than their elders.
Medical marijuana too is well on its way to reaching consensus status. Socially conservative Arizona just passsed a resolution legalizing it, as have a host of other states, and while recreational marijuana use has not yet secured a widespread consensus supporting it, a measure to legalize the recreational use of marijuana secured almost a majority in liberal California, and respectable academics, economists and law enforcement officers are no longer dead set against it.
Movement politics takes time. The process of transforming an idea from a radical one to a consensus idea takes something on the order of twenty to fifty years. But, in the long run, movement politics drives a great deal of social change.
* Local Government
Many European local governments are organized on a partisan basis that with an agenda that is closely integrated with the agendas of their state or provincial, and with the national political party agendas. In the United States, in contrast, a large share of all local governments are non-partisan, and many of the local government posts that are filled by partisan political officials, for example, in county government, aren't routinely very partisan in the agendas that they advance.
In part, this is a product of the scale at which political identity operates. Only a small share of cities and counties and school disticts in United States are competitive along Democatic and Republican party lines. Most local jurisdictions are sufficiently Democratic, or sufficiently Republican in state and federal political contests, that in local partisan contests there is a dominant party.
Indeed, at the local government level, there is generally not just a dominant political party, but a dominant faction of the dominant political party. Commerce City, Colorado Democrats come predominantly from the union wing of the Democratic party. City of Boulder, Colorado Democrats come predominantly from the social liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Douglas County, Colorado Republicans come from the affluent suburbanite part of the Republican coalition. Yuma County, Colorado Republicans come from the farm community wing of the Republican coalition.
Ideological consensus, stable dominant party control, and far lower thresholds for securing public office in which factors like campaign finance are minor considerations make local governments ideal places to make progress on public policy ideas that can't secure a national or state level consensus. Home rule powers, moreover, give local governments considerable more room to experiment than they customarily exercise.
Ideas that work at the local level can quickly spread and become part of a national consensus. Ideas that fail at a local level don't tarnish the larger political movement.
The movement to screen people who are arrested with a pre-trial services agency that clears some individuals for early release on personal recognizance bonds and then provides "nudges" to make it more likely that they will appear at their trial dates started with a liberal local government initiative, but has since secured widespread, bipartisan support because it works.
Local government intiatives have also provided legitimacy and proof of concept to domestic partnership programs before they were adopted statewide, have made recycling a widespread phenomena, and have spurred renewed acceptance on concepts like infill development and mixed use development. The charter school movement has provided a way for innovation and school choice ideas to be implemented at a local government level without embroiling the issues of educational innovation and governance in the politically explosive issue of church and state separation.
Getting people committed to your cause involved in local government isn't only valuable from a policy perspective either. Experienced local government officials gain credibility from having governed well, learn how to campaign, and become a deep bench from which candidates for higher offices can be recruited. Local government exposes potential office holders to the public's real needs, builds networks, and can provide insight into what kinds of solutions at higher levels of government will have the most impact.
* Civil Society
When progressives killed the political machines that grew up in the mostly Catholic European wave of immigration that the United States experienced a century ago, they killed more than corruption in government. They also virtually snuffed out the tradition of direct action through civil society as a way to deal with social ills. Patronage appointments, fiscal corruption in government, bribery, and extortionate methods to influence political outcomes absolutely had serious social costs.
But, those political institutions weren't solely institutions for securing control of governments. Industry based unions operating hiring halls to address unemployment for their members. Ward healers bridged the culture gap between government services and communities disconnected from government, and also recognized and addressed individuals needs from needs for work to needs for recognition to needs for necessities without insisting on pidgeon holing those needs into a particular category. "Fixers" muted abuses by local law enforcement, in addition to helping the machine get away with crimes. Unions improved working conditions and compensation one employer at a time anticipating changes that would ultimately become law.
Direct action via civil society to solve social programs remains a viable way to achieve political goals. Conservatives, mostly through churches, have continued this tradition. The vast majority of private schools are parochial. Conservatives are offering counseling to help people in times of crisis in their paradigm. Megachurches have thrived because they have understood that their mission is to meet the needs of their congregations conceived broadly, rather than narrowly in religious terms.
If the problem is access to affordable clothing, maybe the solution is to open a thift store. If the problem is insufficient support for organic farm products, maybe the solution is to set up a food co-op, or a farmer's market, or natural foods chain. If the problem is police indifference, maybe the neighborhood needs the Guardian Angels. If the problem is making family planning and abortion services available to women, once it is legal, maybe you need a Planned Parenthood to open a storefront across the street from a local high school. If the problem is that illegal drug users lack of reliable information on how to avoid overdosing and dangerously adulterated drugs, maybe you need to open a website that provides that kind of information. If the problem is a shortage of psychiatric hospital beds, maybe a non-profit psychiatric hospital can be established.
Not all problems can be solved with civil society institutions. But, when the problem is one of getting out information, or a question of a failure of collective action, often they can solve the problem.
Also, even where civil society can't solve a problem on its own, civil society institutions can often leverage an incremental piece of legislative action into more substantial results. Greater Denver's Scientific and Cultural Facilities District's grants help organizations provide programs that also generate large volumes of fee for service and donation based contributions to create a flourishing creative section that creates almost nine thousand jobs and makes the region attractive to non-cultural firms considering locating here.
* Responsible business ethics
Businesses have to make a profit. But, businesses make choices every day, that aren't bound by government regulations, that can be more or less socially just. Some business choices are expensive and can't work if the business is to survive. It would be nice to be able to pay employees three times the market rate, but doing that is likely to make a business short lived. But, not all business choices that have a positive social impact have to be expensive ones.
Subtle policy decisions can make a real difference to customers. It doesn't cost much for a software company to design a customer database that accepts hyphenated and double barreled names without hyphens, and thereby embraces the diversity of the American public. It is possible to make a deliberate decision to respect customer privacy by not maintaining databases of sensitive information that the business isn't required to keep. A bike rack or dog hitching post and water bowl outside a business can make it friendly to people who don't drive or have dogs. A restaurant can choose to make options available for people who want to eat healthy or have special dietary concerns, without denying other customers traditional options. It doesn't cost much to put baby changing stations in both men's and women's bathrooms. In businesses where most of the cost of a service is in an overall system, rather than individual transactions, a sliding scale pricing system for low income customers or other forms of price discrimination that aren't expressly means tested (e.g. student and senior discounts at movie theaters) can expand access at little cost.
The same is true with regard to how a business treats its employees. It doesn't cost much to set up an employee benefits system that allows people to cover same sex partners. Indeed, often a business can secure services like health insurance, life insurance and long term care insurance for employees at little or no cost, without a significant employer contribution, that would otherwise have been unavailable at a reasonable price to employees. At workplaces with hourly work forces, offering employees flexibility to take unpaid time off for family demands can be a life saver. Allowing employees to wear shorts and short sleeves on hot days can control air conditioning costs, and improve employee health and happiness.
Businesses can also make a difference in a more fundamental way by simply being willing to consider service the poor, even if the profit margins may be thinner in those communities. A major bank may make $1,000,000 of profits per suburban branch and only $10,000 of profits per inner city branch. But, choosing to service inner city customers, while it makes only a tiny impact on the CEO's paycheck and shareholder's profits may still be the right thing to do. The same considerations apply to services like grocery stores and discount chains. A recent example of a business making those kinds of positive choices has been the decision of Walgreens pharmacies, which are often "pioneer" businesses in "marginal" neighborhoods deciding to offer produce as well a non-perishable groceries at many locations that aren't served by grocery stores.
Businesses can also serve the community by making "slack" or "waste" resources available for others. Unsold perishables at restaurants and grocery stores can be donated to food kitchens. Apartment complexes with high vacancy rates can devote some of their vacant space to providing short term emergency shelter to homeless families. Movie theaters can make their spaces available to churches and other groups at reasonable rates in their unprofitable mornings. Feed lot manure can be used to generate energy. Restaurant grease can be used to make biodiesel. A landscaping company's waste can be composted instead of landfilled.
Civil society organizations can mobilize businesses to make low cost, high reward changes in how they operate.