Beyond Bottom-Up Politics: The Potential, the Limitations, and the Unknown

By Clarence N. Stone and Gregory D. Squires, George Washington University

Editor’s Note: This post is a follow-up on the Bottom-Up symposium held at the Woodrow Wilson Center in April 2018. You can read about last year’s symposium here.

By many accounts, the nation’s politics have turned dysfunctional. Multiple problems go unaddressed. Numerous people feel strongly that their concerns are unheard. Evidence abounds that large segments of the population are underserved. Gridlock, declining civility, and hyper-partisanship stand out on the worry list for national politics.

Against this backdrop, reports of local civic vitality offer a glimmer of a possible turn for the better—but only if we can find the needed levers of change and learn how they might be strengthened.  A small group of D.C. area scholars embarked on such an effort a few years back, deciding on “Bottom-up Politics” as the label for our effort. Bottom-up emphasizes that understanding, energy, and problem solving can be found locally. By no means, though, does “bottom-up” mean that the local is broadly self sufficient or operates in isolation.

Under a George Washington University grant for a University Seminar, enhanced by support from the American University’s Metropolitan Policy Center and the hosting of the Urban Sustainability Laboratory of the Woodrow Wilson Center, the D.C. area group organized an initial symposium on bottom-up politics, held in April 2018.  The aim of this previous symposium was to hear grassroots voices spanning multiple policy arenas.  In that session we learned about instances of local policy action that indeed have yielded significant results in health care, community reinvestment, and criminal justice reform, but also found that “grass tops” actors in the intergovernmental system could add in highly useful forms of support.

With many questions still pending, the D.C. group organized a second symposium, “Bottom-Up Politics: What Do We Know and Where Do We Need to Go?” In short, what can bottom-up deliver and how? As inquiry goes deeper, what kind of rethinking might be in order?   To respond to these questions, the D.C. group enlisted a stellar panel, featuring Manuel Pastor of the University of Southern California, Theda Skocpol of Harvard University, William Spriggs of Howard University and the AFL-CIO, and Margaret Weir of Brown University.

Held on March 6, 2019, at the Woodrow Wilson Center, the symposium quickly adjusted the boundaries of the conversation to move to a broader scale of thinking. Important as local action may be as a contributor to a new day, symposium presenters pushed for thinking more broadly about political change and called for a more modest view of what the local can contribute. Discussion called specifically for caution against romanticizing the local, and wide agreement formed that coalitions, alliances, and networks as middle-ground connections between top and bottom offer the most promise for a productive political effort.

Working the Middle Ground

In a presentation on California’s experience, Manuel Pastor offered telling examples of mid-terrain work and how to go about it. In pursuing political change in California, building electoral strength was central—not, however, as a stand-alone strategy but instead as part of something long term, intentional, and strategic. The aim was about building power for governing. After all, losing elections is costly. In this vein Skocpol’s presentation underscored how consequential Democratic inattention to state legislative races had been in the Obama years. For bringing political change to the Golden State, pragmatic thinking about power thus stood as a vital starting point.

California’s political shift came about by organizing at the metropolitan level and going beyond single issues to encompass multiple policy concerns. Expansive thinking was important in several regards, geography being one. In a point reinforced by Skocpol, Pastor urged that campaigning and voter contact should occur widely (and not just the few months before elections), neglecting no area and being widely inclusive of all groups. In California new and occasional voters (namely the young and marginal) received special attention, but significantly not in regard to a single issue or campaign. Multi-issue coalitions and alliances played a large part. Moreover, enlisting support behind these groups was pursued in depth by intensive voter engagement (IVE), an approach that treats voting as one step toward deeper engagement. In this approach, post-election involvement leads to political education and opens a way to sustained civic activism.

While appealing to young and infrequent voters is strategically important, Skocpol added a valuable reminder. Drawing on her earlier research on the Tea Party as well as her current research on resistance groups sparked by Trump’s 2016 election, she spotlighted older women as especially important in organizing civic efforts. They have abundant experience and highly useful skills. They also possess valuable local knowledge.


Much of the popular writing on emerging civic vitality focuses on the development of consensus. Mobilizing and enlarging support often calls for framing issues in terms of wide public benefit. However, the theme of power and elections also brings conflict into the picture.   In his presentation, William Spriggs gave special attention to conflict by moving to a macro level. He reminded the audience that the South has a long history of rule by wealthy oligarchs, who regained and maintained power by entwining race and an anti-government rhetoric to fend off change. The region remains the fount of a narrative of Southern White victimhood, which discourages any unified push for basic political change.

Spriggs made a case that slavery imprinted in the American experience a cleavage more profound than the mere matter of electoral competition. He offered that the long arc of American political history has displayed a pattern of exclusion and protected privilege, followed by challenge, compromise, and modest advance, then later another round of incrementally moving toward expanded inclusion. But opposition to change is ongoing, and the contested ground is over expanding the public sector. For Spriggs, this basic scenario is at the heart of the struggle for progressive change.

This narrative is closely linked to an anti-government rhetoric, and blends easily with a neoliberal mindset, which Spriggs regards as another impairment to democracy. Technological factors, he argued, have also contributed to a diminished push for inclusion by weakening the position of labor unions. Technology also feeds a decreasing oversight by local newspapers. As Spriggs sees it, an assortment of factors makes it unlikely that local action will do much on behalf of a California-like agenda. In a point, voiced also by Skocpol, he reminded that grassroots organization can take the Tea Party form and need not be progressive. For Spriggs, all things considered, top-down remains as the most promising path for improving the lot of the less advantaged.

Spriggs, however, takes some solace from signs of disenchantment with neo-liberalism.  He also sees a positive turn in the African-American community’s increased determination to be heard on matters ranging from police behavior to persisting and growing wealth inequality. An increasing awareness of systemic factors provides him an additional source of encouragement about the future

Spriggs offered a strong case for restoring a prominent role for labor unions. He sees them as uniquely based in diversity and as a self-funded force that nonprofit groups, for example, don’t possess. In a discussion of hospital closings and medical-service deserts, Spriggs lamented a failure to use the Affordable Care Act to address community needs in employment and in an expanded scope of health service. This is an arena in which unionized workers could play a vital role.

The Ongoing Challenge of a Middle Landscape

As the above discussion shows, the subtopic of regions ran throughout the Wilson Center symposium. Margaret Weir brought to the session her research on new patterns of inequality in metropolitan areas, giving the topic of regions special depth. She targeted Atlanta and Houston as important places of Sunbelt change, with Chicago providing a contrasting civic and political history. Her research finds that across cities suburban poverty is growing and, among other things, regions differ in making resources accessible to disadvantaged populations. With a complicated geographic picture in view, Weir finds the flat concept of bottom-up not especially useful.

Although there is much that is locally rooted, upper-level players sometimes prove necessary in overcoming local blockages—a role Weir believes should be encouraged. States, however, often play a contrary part, imposing many and varied preemptions. Culture war polarization has aggravated the problem. Since there are now few rural Democrats, the urban-rural divide has become much harder to navigate. Top-down interactions between levels provides an alternative in overcoming the breach. National nonprofits, for instance, sometimes find themselves in an intermediary role to overcome blockages. To overcome them, Weir urged flexibility rather than bottom up.

Instead of simply putting aside top-down efforts, Weir advocates using upper levels to provide regulations and other incentives to strategically tilt lower-level playing fields to make them more favorable for the less advantaged. Weir’s recommended rethinking fits easily into the discussion theme of focusing on the middle, a middle exemplified in Pastor’s account of California, particularly as a place that sparked a fresh and energetic body of alliances and coalitions.

Facing the Big Picture

The multifaceted embrace of a middle ground of networks came face-to-face with a challenge in the Q&A portion of the symposium. Audience member Royce Hanson posed the “mornin’ glories” question about reform sustainability. While California’s narrative suggests that reform can take a durable form, this leaves open whether such an effort can be maintained beyond the state level.

Discussion then turned to institutionalization. What would hold together a disparate collection of networks and alliances? Skocpol offered that only a changed and revitalized Democratic party seems able to fill that bill, and then only if newly enlisted action-oriented members have the space and position to reshape the party. Further, tax and spend liberals are needed to provide resources to respond to a variety of neglected problems. Pastor’s account of California’s experience underscored the point.

In stressing the great importance of direct and personal contacts and relationships, Skocpol further observed that the political right has long understood this point and has created a complex and durable network built around such bodies as White evangelicals, American for Prosperity, the NRA, the Federalist Society, the Fraternal Order of Police, and a Tea Party/Trump infused Republican Party. Still, it remains to be seen as to what extent a Democratic party containing many nodes of tradition-minded officeholders and a major-donor orientation can transform itself.

The Q&A period also included continuing debate about top-down versus bottom-up. In expressing skepticism about the ability of local organizing to bring about policy change, William Spriggs pointed out that southern conservatives have consistently embraced an anti-federal position as a way of protecting the power of regional oligarchs. Skocpol observed that a Koch network runs West Virginia. Spriggs added that for systemic issues such as wealth inequality, top-down action is essential. As Richard Schragger concluded in his recent book City Power, “No doubt, the national government is still the main site for income redistribution.”

Top-down efforts did not escape criticism, both for far-reaching destructive consequences and for failures to reach some of the most severely underserved. Clarence Stone held up three major failures of top-down policy: urban redevelopment in the post World War II decades; President Reagan’s War on Drugs; and neoliberal school reform. Manuel Pastor added that all three had race as a core factor, in many cases targeting communities of color for displacement and in a variety of ways widely disrupting neighborhood institutions.  Stone also cited “Medicare for All” as the kind of top-down campaign slogan that leaves untouched what arguably are the most urgent needs—such issues as hospital closings, remote places lacking sometimes even the most basic most medical facilities and services, and the spreading medical deserts in older, less well-off urban communities. Spriggs reinforced the point about hospitals and medical services, and how closings cause job losses as well as deficient services. Neoliberal thinking, he noted, has transformed hospitals into profit-oriented enterprises, with regrettable community consequences.  In Spriggs’s view the Affordable Care Act could have addressed these issues but fell short.

Both Skocpol and Pastor made the point that the newly activated Democratic supporters do not constitute a decidedly ideological swing to the left. Such an assumed shift may have more to do with the mass media’s tendency toward simple narratives than anything else. Many newly activated Democrats, Skocpol noted, are grounded in policy concerns, and also worry about a decline in thinking in public-regarding terms. As variously noted, however, there are significant changes in viewpoint that could contribute to political change if networked together. The underlying point of the California experience is not that change comes through ideological suasion, but instead by piecing together the actions that can, through their immediate impacts, replace the anti-government disposition long cultivated by the political right.

There were several signs of openness to such a change and add to a cumulative counter to long-standing pessimism. At the very least, fluidity is discernible. As Spriggs noted, Black Lives Matter marked a shift in expectations evidenced in the election of a new wave of states attorneys supported by African-American voters. Blacks and Whites, Pastor observed, seem more willing to talk about race than has been the case in past times. Black-brown coalitions have served to head off a division over employment concerns. After a period of strong pessimism about the public sector, immigrants and their supporters provide a growing voice quite open to a government engaged in active opportunity expansion. A multi-issue orientation combined with a “don’t sweat the small stuff” attitude can bring coalitions together.

What Next

One purpose of the symposium was to address the usefulness of the concept of bottom-up for promoting an alternative mode of politics, especially one attentive to disadvantaged and underserved populations. In the proceedings, much discussion pushed back against the idea of an unadorned bottom-up politics. Manuel Pastor, for example, called for letting go of the duality of top/bottom. Discussion gravitated toward a view that without substantial revision and enhancement through middle-range and even selective top-level connections, bottom-up holds little prospect of advancing political change. In addition, local decision-makers have an indisputable history of favoring the interest of the investor class. Hence, without close links to a wider body of ideas and resources, any “localist revolution” risks being short-lived. Is skepticism, then, the final word on localism?

While little discussion went into what might be lost by giving minimal attention to the local, there is an alternative perspective to consider. New York Times columnist David Brooks has written about community problem-solving as a way to restore the social fabric of a society beset by alienation, cynicism, and rampant feelings of isolation (10-8-2018). In another Times article, Thomas Friedman offered the term “complex adaptive coalition” in celebration of a broad civic turnaround in Lancaster, PA (7-3-2018). Examples of such phenomena abound, not only in Our Towns (2018) by James and Deborah Fallows but in a number of Lancaster-like reports in places ranging from Knoxville, TN, through Oklahoma City to St. Paul MN and beyond. Katz and Nowak’s The New Localism and Building Equitable Cities by Janis Bowdler, Henry Cisneros, and Jeffrey Lubell, among others, provide compelling sets of case studies as well.

These cases are not part of an intentional wider movement, but they are numerous and varied enough to claim significance. In this era of what David Brooks calls a mass media circus, is there a place for a thriving local civic life? This question seems worth considering on its own merits aside from any pursuit of political change in a writ-large form. Lisa Miller’s The Peril of Federalism (2008) makes a case that moving up the ladder of governance from the local to the state and federal can mean a constrained form of policy understanding and a lost opportunity for engagement. As further evidence of the potential of local initiatives, at the March 6 forum, Gregory Squires pointed to the growing number of local actors who are engaged in the public, private, and non-profit sectors, the increasing role of social media which facilitates dissemination of good ideas among local communities around the world, and simply the greater urgency of issues (like climate change) that are energizing local actors at a time of federal gridlock and state pre-emption.

Approaches need not be mutually exclusive; they can co-exist. The March 6 symposium makes a case for fostering connections and building networks that advance political change on a large scale, but restoring social fabric through locally based problem-solving remains a topic worth further examination. The choice can reach beyond either/or. In Los Angeles, LAANE (Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy) is part of a state wide mobilization, but is also notable for the part that it plays as a regional actor, pursuing a local agenda and undergirding engagement opportunities. Even though an arena may be local, the topic of local problem-solving could be widened geographically by bringing to bear cross-national experiences for examination. Much remains to be learned about rebuilding social fabrics place by place. Future inquiry may inform us about how far such efforts can go.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Author Biographies

Clarence Stone is a research professor of political science and public policy at George Washington University. His research interests have long centered on city politics. Most recently he has coauthored a book on urban neighborhoods titled Urban Neighborhoods in a New Era: Revitalization Politics in the Postindustrial City (University of Chicago Press).

Gregory D. Squires is a Professor of Sociology, and Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University.

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