Building Strategic Alliances

November 2, 2012

“Hang together or hang separately,” was the motto of American patriots trying to forge a nation out of 13 unruly colonies. It’s equally appropriate advice for folks who want to get something done in modern politics.

America’s style of democracy is winner take all. To win, one must obtain 50 percent of the vote — plus one. There’s no silver medal for the side that comes up short. That principle is the same whether you’re advancing a ballot initiative, addressing a city council or pushing a bill through Congress.

The term ‘special interest’ has taken on a pejorative meaning, but the world is made of groups of people who come together over their similar concerns: Protecting their neighborhoods from crime; lowering taxes; improving schools; cleaning up oceans or rivers.

Very few of those interest groups are big enough to work alone. Few of them can muster enough voters to tip the scales alone. That’s why building strategic alliances is one of the fundamental tools of success. Successful politics is largely about the ability to build and hold together alliances.

It’s much easier said than done. But fundamentally, alliances are held together by core values. The first step toward building alliances is listening to others to find people who share similar values.

One great example is at work today in Alaska. Multinational companies are proposing a massive gold-and-copper mine in the remote Bristol Bay. The mine is upstream of the world’s richest, and most treasured, salmon fishery and critics say threatens that ancient food sources. On the surface a tough place to work: remote, obscure and sparsely populated, and salmon don’t vote.

But field organizers have built a truly broad and national alliance to defend Bristol Bay take many shapes: the Alaska Native villages; commercial salmon fishermen and fish-packers; sport fishermen from around the country; hunting and fishing guides; conservationists concerned about wilderness values and wildlife. Chefs in the Pacific Northwest who value salmon as part of the regional cuisine and scientists who are experts on fisheries have also spoken out. Major jewelry companies have pledged not to buy gold from the proposed mine.

Credible business voices are enhancing our work everywhere. In California, infill builders and developers are helping fight sprawl because focusing growth in cities and towns is good for business. This summer, the California Infill Builders Association helped show how investing in San Joaquin Valley’s cities is better for local government finances than building on the periphery.

In Nevada, Arizona and Utah, businesses are making the case to utilities and regulators to invest in energy efficiency because these programs save their companies money as consumers, foster new markets for their products and protect jobs and economic growth. That’s smart business.

Similarly, in Washington State, environmentalists, farmers, the Yakima Nation, the Bureau of Recreation and Washington Department of Ecology are working together to restore salmon fisheries in the Yakima River Basin. They are putting aside past rivalries to focus on solutions.

Elsewhere, groups concerned about global warming have teamed up with pediatricians worried about air pollution’s contribution to childhood asthma, and ranchers concerned about coal mining’s impact on their pastures and water supplies.

All of those efforts have a lot of work before them.  But don’t put money against any of them. They’ve got the basics right:  Find your allies, lock arms around core values, and hold on.

For more about Building Strategic Alliances, check out Resource Media’s document exploring that topic in detail.
Do you see any other emerging alliances making a positive difference?