02/08/2011 09:24 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A New Movement for Equal Opportunity

Among political activists in the United States it has long been an article of faith that movements generally are built on identifiable self-interest. Social structures change only to the extent that groups mobilize, demanding an end to the unfair treatment, discrimination or exploitation that they experience. This is the fundamental premise of the Alinsky model, the paradigm of community organizing. Movements can be built over perceived individual or group needs. In contrast, what are called process issues are almost always written off as untenable - too remote, too abstract, too removed from personal experience - around which to mobilize. Principles, it is argued, do not create movements; victimized people do.

American social movements built on the self-interest of marginalized or exploited groups - African-Americans, Native Americans, women, and gay, lesbian or transgendered individuals - have achieved a great deal. Because of them the United States has become a more fair and open-minded country. But there is an important weakness associated with identity as the foundation for social movements. The politics and policies that affect the whole society rather than those that have an impact on specific groups escape attention. Most specifically, macro-economic policy - the policies that determine the unemployment rate, the inflation rate, the size and pattern of government consumption, and the distribution of income - is treated by identity-based social movements as peripheral to their core concerns. The subject is acknowledged as important. But it is left for someone else or some other groups to address.

As a result, there has not yet been created a powerful social movement that pushes back against the policies that have created growing income and wealth inequality, our deteriorating infra-structure, America's excessively high level of military expenditures, the failure to adopt policies to reduce greenhouse emissions, and the increased economic instability caused by the ascendancy of the financial sector.

There is nothing inevitable about these destructive outcomes. They result from legislation and policies elaborated in the political sphere; from a political process that consistently produces laws favoring the privileged wealthy at the expense of everyone else. That bias to wealth is inevitable in a political system in which candidates for office depend on the contributions of wealthy individuals and corporations.

With this the case, the reversal of recent economic trends will occur only if the power of private wealth in politics is substantially reduced. But the corporate and other interests that benefit from the "play to pay" system will not concede their privileges easily. We need a strong social movement to push for candidates to have the option of paying for their campaigns with public funds rather than private donations. With that option candidates would be freed from their dependence on wealthy patrons. This in turn will result in a more egalitarian political system.

However such a social movement will have to be motivated differently than those of the recent past. The identity-based model of social movements is not sufficient to reconstruct our political system on an egalitarian basis. The deep set of problems we face does not involve overt discrimination against sub-groups in the population. What is at issue is the disproportionate agenda-setting political power of a small minority of the population at the expense of the majority. What we need therefore is a movement whose composition corresponds to the extensive nature of victimization - experienced by everyone. We need a movement that has a majoritarian potential - a new type of multi-constituency movement.

The American belief in equality of opportunity presents us with a real opening. It does not take much to convince Americans that the political system is rigged in favor of the rich. Polling data consistently reveal that majorities are angry that special interests dominate and that ordinary citizens lack an equal voice in policy-making. At least in part this is the reason that large numbers of Americans are deeply distrustful of their government. What will have to be done - and what will be difficult to do - is to convince people that such a lop-sided pattern of influence is not inevitable. There could be no better tool of persuasion than a movement whose composition reflects, in its entirety, the diversity of the American population.

A movement that speaks in the name of providing each citizen with an equal opportunity to influence politics is consistent with deep American cultural values. Our message would be that equality of political influence is possible only with the public financing of election campaigns. If we make that case well enough, we will not only have the glue that can hold a coalition of activists together, but a chance to win over a majority of the American electorate as well.