Make America Great: The Answer is Us


We the People

By coincidence, not design, I spent the two weeks after the election in the Bay Area, Sacramento and Washington, D.C., engaging with over 100 groups and leaders about the future of our country— bipartisan leaders in media, foundations, think tanks, NGOs, businesses, labor, technology, the academy, public service and the faith community. What I discussed with them is what we do now to move the United States forward. Is the American Dream dead? As we move beyond shock (and for many of us grieving), is there a constructive path out? Can it be bi-partisan? I believe so — it is called Progressive Federalism (a term coined by Andrei Cherny in the Democracy Journal and Joel Rogers and Richard Freeman in an important book on inequality).

The Original Progressive

Together with Dr. Laura Tyson, I spent the last 18 months telling a series of stories about the success of Progressive Federalism. Progressive as in Teddy Roosevelt and Hiram Johnson of 100 years ago, not Bernie Sanders. Federalism as in Alexander Hamilton combined with Louis Brandeis’ Laboratories of Democracy, not Ronald Reagan block grants. It is an offensive strategy that should be bipartisan, not a defensive strategy to just reframe states rights for an unpredictable GOP President-elect. It is a new triangulation of private, public, non-profit and philanthropic innovators who are showing the way — moving away from an era of big federal government programs, regulated-business lobbying government, and small nonprofit gap filling, to a new cross-sector problem solving approach. In areas from healthcare, job creation, breaking the prison-industrial complex, poverty reduction, preschool, college access and higher education, job training, worker protection in the new economy, leadership development, political reform, paying for success,and impact investing, pockets of America are innovating their way to a new model. The big opportunity is to innovate from the ground up in a more cohesive way. It is possible that the Trump administration will find bipartisan common ground on solutions to our nation’s problems, but it is equally possible that Washington will continue to seethe in its dysfunctional swamp. We don’t need to wait for that outcome to be determined.

A few leading edge writers are starting to tell the stories of bottom-up innovation from Peter Sims and his Blacksheep Foundation, Greg Behrmann at Nationswell, The Atlantic’s CityLab, and Jim and Debra Fallows at American Futures. Marci Harris at Pop Vox is working to bring those voices to our elected representatives. Unfortunately, the mainstream media has ignored them — obsessing on Washington, D.C., the Presidential election, and who is winning that day’s twitter wars.

As Dr. Tyson and I shared our thinking, we got a common response. Polite interest, combined with dismissal. That’s nice of you to tell isolated stories about what works across the country; after Clinton wins the election we may use some of that after we implement a series of new top-down policies from Washington, D.C. Well guess what: our approach is now Plan A since no one had a Plan B. It’s time to stop navel-gazing and start acting. Progressive Federalism is the only viable path for those of us who want to move the country forward and ensure we don’t go backward.

The Republic of California

California can be a model, building on what Governor Jerry Brown calls, “subsidiarity”. John Myers of the LA Times calls California “District 13” (as in Hunger Games). Far away from the capitol fighting the evil District 1. I love the image, but prefer Return of the Jedi (For those of you who don’t remember, it was the 1983 Star Wars, Episode VI, when the rebel alliance struck back against the Galactic Empire’s Death Star). California is the opposite of a poor, isolated, helpless state (although we still have our share of challenges from housing costs to education to water, we’re working on them — not waiting for answers from Washington, D.C.). It is the 6th largest economy of the world, home of innovation from Silicon Valley, entertainment from Hollywood, food from the nation’s breadbasket in the Central Valley (and wine and craft beer production and soon marijuana production). The Golden State is leading the country in job creation since the Great Recession. It has led the way in expansion of rights from farm workers to immigrants to gay rights. It has also shown the way in environmental protection and fighting climate change — from emission standards for cars and energy conumption for appliances to cap and trade on carbon production. And its citizens look more like the future of the US .

Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader

Nor are all the Jedi Knights on a far away planet of Tython (the Republic of California) regrouping while the Empire strikes back with abandon. Groups like the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), New Leaders Council, and Run for America are supporting innovative state level policies while encouraging and training the next generation of state and local legislators. Anne-Marie Slaughter and New America are rethinking the role of think tanks in civic leadership. Mayors across the country are pushing innovation in the way we deliver services to citizens. FUSE Corps, Code for America, Bloomberg Innovation Teams, Presidio Institute and Echoing Green Fellows and Third Sector Capital Partners and many others are showing that change can happen quickly when high quality leaders are supported by innovators from the outside. Mayors know that good governing is good politics. As it should be. Citizens expect no less.

80% of the U.S. lives in cities, and 85% of the GDP is there — and all of the growth is there. Indeed, nearly 2/3 of the U.S. GDP is in counties carried by Hillary Clinton. The red-blue divide seems stark, the only way out is to pick a new leader to ride in on a white horse and save us. Our way or the highway. I think not.

We coastal elites, need to be especially sensitive to assuming we have the answers. On my listening tour, with the single exception of the Partnership for Public Service who was helping advise both the Clinton and Trump transition teams, not one had a plan for what do we do when Donald Trump wins. (In fairness, I didn’t meet with defense, tobacco or pharma companies or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce). Most of them, like me, believed the polling consensus, ignored weak signals from outside our own filter bubbles, and had thought deeply about what a Hillary Clinton administration would mean. We were wrong. Throw all that work away, a new sheriff is in town.

Pick one — winner take all

There will be books written about why we elites all got it wrong (I even ignored my own Alection sales at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company where Trump was out-selling the prior two GOP candidates (McCain and Romney) and while winning, Clinton was underselling Obama — I chalked it up to novelty), but I’ll leave that to others.

What is clear is that we are NOT neutered — captive to an all powerful Washington, D.C. and a newly elected President with a mandate. Last time I checked, we are a federal republic with a representative democracy, not a parliamentary system or a monarchy. We the people have the resources (human, social, innovation, and financial) — we need to use them. Not to trample on the disaffected Trump voters, but to empower us all to move forward. Collectively.

Rebuilding Social Capital

We Jedi Knights now need to organize and fight for progress. Not top down — bottom up. When Teddy Roosevelt said the White House was a “bully pulpit” he wasn’t envisioning today’s definition of bully. We need more pulpit, less bully. The answers are in our communities, our churches, our town halls, our community foundations. And problem solving isn’t partisan. Jeb Bush recently said, “Washington is broken, so let’s send power back to the people and back to the states”. The answer is us. All of us.

Social capital is strongest among those we know and trust. Trust is the grease that moves us to action instead of pointing blame at each other. Reach out and (re)build that trust. We are all humans, not GOTV targets. We are not uneducated bigots from red flyover states, or latte sipping out-of-touch coastal liberals. I live on the Half Moon Bay Coast in the heart of blue Silicon Valley (the most wealthy region in the country). I grew up in Turlock in the heart of the red Central Valley, 100 miles away (the poorest region in the country). All my siblings and my wife’s family are still there. My parents (my father a second generation Azores immigrant, my mother a dust bowl refugee from Nebraska) are buried there. I’d like to bring those valleys closer together, not build a wall between them. I am a Progressive Federalist. If you are too, don’t retreat to blue cities, mock those not there and wait for the next election. Don’t do a Colin Kaepernick (from Turlock): fail to even register to vote and take a knee before the game even starts. Democracy is a participatory endeavor not a spectator sport. Engage. Now.

As someone who led the campaign nearly a decade ago for a Constitutional Convention initiative in California, I can tell you it is a great organizing and galvanizing device to imagine seceding or radically blowing up the system, but it won’t happen — in California or nationally. #CalExit is a great rallying cry — in mindset, but not as a legal construct. Think as though we all control our own future. We do.

Think Wrong (Credit Future Partners)

A few provocative thoughts to start the conversation. Let me start with several from-to’s that can and should be bipartisan:

From repeal Obamacare — to making the health economy more efficient and accessible to all. Ensure Medicaid waiver demonstrations scale not just experiment, for example.

From the top-down war on poverty — to a bipartisan push for family-up opportunity creation and pathways to self-sufficient living wages.

From case load plus inflation public funding (or fee-for-service in healthcare or seat-time-based payments in education) to — paying for what works (or what we want like health outcomes or learning competencies).

From underfunded, pork-barred prioritized, crumbling infrastructure — to an apolitical infrastructure bank with projects prioritized regionally (including transparency around approval process and speed to shovel, not the fantasy of shovel ready) and match funded by federal dollars (ideally coming from repatriated and lower-taxed corporate profits)

From crony capitalism to sustainability is good business — when enabled by transparency

From bureaucrats are the problem — to a new era of cross-sector leadership and public service

From obsessing on congressional dsyfunction to a 50 state solution, scaling state reforms that work and electing problem-solvers who can, do and are held accountable for doing so

From elite thinking and detailed regulation from Washington, D.C. — to principled leadership and deliberative representative democracy — listening and empathy (how novel). It actually works.

Other provocative ideas that will drive crazy those who have “rigged” the system through obstructionism, gerrymandering and voter supression include:

From Sanctuary Cities — to Citizens of California (or Texas and Florida for that matter), with a comprehensive plan that includes a pathway to legalization

From cap and trade in California — to a coalition of the willing climate-change-fighting juristictions implementing carbon import standards and a carbon tax for not meeting standards.

From overturning Citizens United to states asserting the Voters’ Right to Know where and from whom campaign and lobbying spending comes

From ending the outdated Electoral College — to a National Public Vote Compact

From Fight for 15 done city by city on minimum wage — to a National Coordinated Initiative Campaign to put the same initiatives for the 2/3 of the US population that has the initiative on the ballot in 2018 (imagine the same #AuditTheVote energy applied prospectively for solutions, not in retrospective protest)

And finally, the most important provocative idea:

From I know everything, shut up and do as I say to “your idea here”, I’m listening. Less screaming talk radio, fake news, propoganda and blaming the other. More sharing stories that work, getting out of our filter bubbles and engaging.

Share your constructive comments, ideas and examples with others (and in the comments section below if you like). Share them on twitter with the hashtag #ProgressiveFederalism. Paraphrasing League of Their Own, “There is no crying in politics”. And POTUS, “don’t boo, vote”: with your power, not just your ballot. As Yoda said, “Do or do not, there is no try”. Progressive Federalists Unite. We are the new Jedi Knights. Who is ready to join the Rebel Alliance?


Yoda is here to help. Win, we must.

#ProgressiveFederalism May the Force Be With You.

Leave a Reply