When your chapter starts a campaign to pressure a congressperson to sign on to Medicare for All, it’s important to realistically assess your capacity and power. Very few DSA chapters are large enough or have enough clout to swing a congressional election on their own and, as such, cannot expect to move a congressperson to sign onto Medicare for All without the assistance of other organized groups. Even if you could get every member of your chapter involved in your campaign (and you likely can’t do that), you’re still going to need the help of other organized groups to win the reforms you want.
To build an effective coalition, your chapter needs to be able to identify good potential coalition partners, create specific agreed-upon shared goals, and develop an overarching strategy to achieve those goals that all coalition partners agree on. This is easier said than done, and it can be tempting to simply identify a few potential partners, jump into action, and figure everything out as you go. This can work in some situations, but it can also open the door to dysfunction, conflict, and other serious obstacles for your campaign. So it’s probably worth planning out your coalition strategy ahead of time before launching your campaign.
What isn’t a coalition?
A coalition is sometimes conflated with a community or with a collaboration. A community's dominant feature is shared values. A collaboration's dominant feature is shared tactics. A coalition, on the other hand, has a shared goal and strategy. Often times, coalitions build and encompass community and collaboration, but a defined goal and affirmed strategy are what set coalitions apart.
Entering into a coalition is not entering into a life-long partnership. It's pulling power together to achieve something concrete. Relationships built in coalition can facilitate further work, but there is no formal expectation to continue in coalition after the strategy has been executed. Coalitions are in it to win it.
What is a coalition?
A coalition is a group of organizations and individuals who are invested in and equipped to pursue a specific demand. These groups may be organizations whose work naturally encompasses this goal, or they may be formed to address that goal specifically. They may be generally like-minded, or their politics outside of the specific issue may differ wildly. Because the make-up of a coalition may vary so broadly, it is important to define and respect the boundaries established by the coalition from the start.
What are the benefits of coalition work?
Campaigns run in coalition have more access to power and influence. Some of this is direct, some is by association. Who do the members of your coalition have relationships with or power over that you, as an organization, do not? Certain coalition partners may be better at mobilizing particular demographic groups (people of color, retired people).
Relationships built within and through coalition reveal potential overlaps in values and build the groundwork for future collaborative action and other coalitions. For example, when we leverage the stake unions have in Medicare for All through coalition work, we may be able to revisit those bases of power in the future to do work around fair labor practices or building new unions.
Coalition work also brings multiple levels of experience to our still-young organization. For example, working with coalition members who have strong media relationships gives us exposure to writing effective press releases and op-eds, and giving moving interviews. Working alongside research-focused groups can develop our power mapping and policy-writing skills.
What can DSA bring to coalition work?
People! More than anything else, DSA is willing and able to reach out to mass numbers of community members. As a membership-based organization with no board or donors to appease, DSA can activate any affected portion of the community.
Additionally, DSA can be intentional about framing issues in terms of class consciousness. Most activist groups are tied to a liberal vision of society in which people get together to pursue specific reforms within capitalism. DSA can look past this view of society and frame work around individual reforms as part of a broader struggle for sweeping change. This framing can motivate people to work for an issue that may not otherwise resonate. Speaking in terms of power can move people into thinking about the underlying systems that govern society and bring those people into action against those powers.
The outreach and consciousness generated by DSA are invaluable contributions that we make to coalition work. We have the adaptability to find tactics that are effective and utilize them to rouse people who are not typically accustomed to political action. We bring the "rabble."
What does DSA risk in coalition work?
Without a clear and closely followed strategy, DSA risks our reputation in coalition work. If certain partners act out of turn, other members and potential allies may end up having a negative association with all coalition members, including DSA. When identifying partners, it’s worth thinking about how associating with a given coalition partner might affect your chapter’s reputation and whether it’s worth the risk. A police union might be a powerful ally in a given campaign, but working with a police union would seriously affect your chapter’s ability to engage in criminal justice reform work in the future.
Internally, DSA risks cultural conflict with partners. With communication and healthy feedback loops, some of this conflict can be amended. But some coalitions will find themselves at internal odds if their values do not align enough to generate agreeable tactics. If your chapter wants to engage in tactics like disrupting events held by political figures, you might come into conflict with your coalition partners who rely on a close relationship with those figures to pursue their other work.
Finally, if coalitions are not carefully developed, DSA can risk winning; groups that are not fully committed to a strategic demand can end up limiting or obstructing the goal, especially if you rely on those groups for key contributions. And groups that aren’t committed to following a shared strategy can engage in counterproductive actions that move you further from your goal.
What are behaviors that build trust in coalition work?
Trust is achieved through repeated activity and work. Trusted coalition members show up for the strategic, value-adding role that they've accepted. Coalitions are effective when they consistently hold each other accountable for the work that they've accepted and within the timeline agreed upon. But coalitions can also create space for feedback and for asking for one other's help, growth opportunities that also generate further trust.
What are behaviors that destroy trust in coalition work?
Since coalition trust is built within the parameters of agreed-upon demands and tactics, destroying trust often happens by acting outside of agreed-upon parameters. When a coalition partner does this, it can cause serious problems within the coalition. If DSA is in a coalition to pressure a specific congressperson and a coalition partner unexpectedly announces their support for that congressperson’s opponent, it would likely leave DSA’s organizers upset and distrustful of their coalition partners. Likewise, assuming consensus in actions such as bringing in new partners and sending out press releases can diminish a coalition. The goals and strategies of a coalition should not shift without the explicit confirmation of everyone working within it.
Within the parameters of a campaign, coalition trust can be destroyed by work that is not timely or of the expected quality. And, when a particular group takes a turn away, disassociation should be formalized and communicated, not left up to hearsay and speculation.
Who should be in your coalition?
If you’re familiar with power mapping, you should try to build coalitions with groups and individuals on the top left of your power map. That means you should target potential coalition partners who strongly agree with your objective and have the power to help win that objective. This is important: it can be tempting to want to reach out to every activist group in the area to buttress your coalition, but it’s worthwhile trying to figure out how they would play into your coalition.
A powerful group that isn’t committed to Medicare for All could crowd out DSA and compromise on your stated goals. For example, a local Democratic Party might have a lot of sway over a congressperson but might be willing to declare victory if that congressperson were to come out in favor of a public option. Other groups may share your goal of Medicare for All but might not have much in the way of resources to offer and can make reaching shared tactics complicated or challenging. For example, you may be able to get an activist group to sign on in support in exchange for a seat at the table, but if that group isn’t able to contribute anything in terms of people power, access to the media, or financial resources, you might not want to go to the trouble of adding another seat at the table. You should try to identify potential coalition partners who are committed to your goal and have something concrete to contribute.
When considering potential coalition partners, it’s important to think about what your campaign needs are that other groups may be better-equipped to fulfill. Policy developers and researchers fall into this category. As do organizations with access to specific people (ie, labor, medical workers, a target's constituency). Does your coalition have any groups who have a high level of knowledge of the medical field? Does your coalition reflect the demographics of the congressperson’s district? Have any of your potential partners demonstrated an ability to influence your target in the past?
How do you get your coalition off the ground?
Once you’ve identified your potential coalition partners, reach out to them with the basics of the campaign you’re proposing. Ask to have a conference call or an in-person meeting to discuss the parameters of the coalition (goal, strategy, tactics, timeline). Is there anyone in your chapter with a natural connection to a potential partner? For example, a member of a union you want to partner with? It’s usually easier to go through existing connections rather than contacting someone out of the blue.
If you’re not sure how best to get in touch with your coalition partners, is there someone you know who might know the lay of the land a little better? If your chapter doesn’t have the know-how to take a sole leadership role in a coalition effort, you might be able to find a coalition partner more suited to that role who lacks your chapter’s energy, enthusiasm, and membership numbers. Groups like National Nurses United are putting a lot of resources into this campaign but can’t always turn out activists in the same number that DSA can.
Once you’ve identified coalition partners and arranged an initial meeting or call, it’s important to set specific parameters for your coalition. This could mean coming to an agreement on some of the following questions:
- What is the goal of this coalition?
- What is this coalition’s strategy towards winning that goal? This can be as basic as “an escalating pressure campaign on the congressperson” or include a detailed timeline with specific tactics tied to specific dates.
- What tactics will you use to win your coalition’s goals? What tactics are off limits?
- How much coordination should your coalition expect? For example, when DSA holds a canvass, should we expect every coalition partner to turn out members, or will coalition partners hold heir own events with limited coordination?
- Who handles communication for the coalition? Can coalition partners release their own statements, or does everything need to go through the coalition before going out to the public?
- How will you announce your coalition to the world? Will you hold a town hall? A press conference? A rally?
- How long do you expect the coalition to last? How often will representatives from coalition partners meet?
Building a strong, well-defined coalition can make your pressure campaign a lot more powerful, but it takes deliberate preparatory work and clear, honest communication. Once your coalition is together, make sure to keep the lines of communication open, and make sure everyone in the coalition is contributing as expected. Try to make sure your campaign is not too reliant on any single coalition partner. Partners can always drop out unexpectedly, and you should try to make your coalition robust enough to make adjustments on the fly. Keep talking to your partners, check in regularly to make sure everyone is on the same page, and you’ll have the foundation for a strong campaign.