How Progressives Can Build Ethical Coalitions and Alliances

Democracy thrives where human rights are defended and justice is honored as a collective goal of society. The global human rights movement challenges the systems, structures, and institutions that create, defend, and extend oppression and repression in a society.

Building Human Rights is a compelling master frame for movements supporting social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights for all. Progressive coalitions address Race, Gender, Class, Peace, Ecology and more. Any coalition should not harm this matrix.


Strategic Coalitions v. Tactical Alliances

It is a strategic coalition when groups decide to work together over a long period of time because they do share certain fundamental ideological assumptions and see mutual benefit in working together to achieve a common goal.

It is a tactical alliance when groups decide to work together over a short period of time because they do not share certain fundamental ideological assumptions but see mutual benefit in working together to achieve a common goal.

Building a broad-based temporary alliance between Left and Right around a single issue can be really good or really bad. Knowledge of appropriate technique and a concern that no one gets hurt increases the chances of a good outcome. Think porcupines and sex.

Left-Right alliances are not unusual. Progressive ecological activists for decades have been building bridges to relatively conservative groups also concerned with environmental conservation. The civil liberties community of policy wonks and legal workers in Washington DC has been cooperating in resisting repressive legislation and government intelligence abuses in an on-again off-again intricate ballet since the 1970s. This loose network involves arch-conservatives, libertarians, centrists, liberals, progressives, and leftists.

Progressive need to reach out to the same audience of angry white working people being mobilized by the Tea Party and Town Hall leaders, but how we do that is an important factor not only for success but a useful outcome.

Before those of us on the Left jump into bed with folks on the Right there are some time-tested ground rules for building alliances that need to be reviewed.

A coalition is therefore a specific form of alliance with a more durable and important set of “principles of unity.”

Establish Principles of Unity

Principles of Unity are simply a set of statements that outline the common goals, shared assumptions, major frames, and appropriate behaviors of persons who wish to participate in the alliance. Some Examples of Principles of Unity Statements

Investigate Your Potential Allies

White nationalists with a lot of racist baggage continuously make overtures to the environmental movement. They keep creating a variety of front groups and putting forward different spokespeople in an attempt to get environmental groups to back the idea of closing the borders and blocking the migration of people of color into the United States. Their opening gambit is to argue “overpopulation” puts a strain on the environment.  True enough, but peel away the façade and one finds the same noxious network of racist anti-immigrant bullies.  Squeeze the fruit before you buy a bag of rotten apples. Most eco groups have caught on to this ruse and resist the overtures by racists. They did their homework (with a little prodding) and uncovered the actual goals of the racists.

Do No Harm

Progressive movements and groups need to take the time to investigate whether or not their proposed frames and actions will do more harm than good.

Don’t stab your existing or potential allies in the back.


Don’t inadvertently (or intentionally) build the opposition movement.

When the Tea Parties arrived en masse to pummel the Obama administration, some liberals and Democratic Party spin doctors decided to encourage making fun of the movement and antagonizing it so that they would become an anchor pulling the Republican Party under the waves for the 2010 off-year elections. This strategy has been employed historically by people of power, privilege, and entitlement who never suffer the harmful effects of right-wing populist movements that typically make life miserable for people of color, immigrants and others being kicked down the socio-economic ladder.

Don’t go for short-term political or electoral gains that will sabotage long term movement building

In Oregon an anti-gay organization placed a homophobic ballot initiative, Measure Nine, on the ballot. The first plan to mobilize voters to block the initiative focused on urging urban voters in two large cities, Portland and Eugene, to reject Measure Nine. But the original framing of the advertising pitted urban dwellers against rural dwellers in a snarky way that would have undermined the work of rural organizers and put gay people outside the cities at greater risk. Experienced leaders in the LGBTQ community blocked the original plan arguing that it would be better to stand up against Measure Nine in a principled way that built a broader progressive movement in Oregon even if that meant Measure Nine stood a greater chance of passage. In fact, this approach stopped Measure Nine and helped build future alliances across Oregon.

State Differences Clearly and Publicly

The most effective process and principled stand involves stating up front what is not on the table in the discussion of shared interest.

There are progressive Christian activists who reach out to engage centrist and conservative Christians in conversations over shared concerns over issues such as poverty, war, and ecological stewardship; and in opposition to some of the positions of the ideologically-narrow Christian Right (a small but well-organized fraction of U.S. Christians).   Consider the statement of the online network Talk to Action, which includes this admonition:

We are pro-religious equality and pro-separation of church and state. We are prochoice, and we support gay and lesbian civil rights — including marriage equality. Therefore, debates about the validity of abortion and gay rights are off topic. We understand that some people who share our general concern about the politics of the Christian Right may not agree on all of these matters. That’s fine. Anyone who agrees with the purpose of this site is welcome to participate — but bearing this in mind. It is our intention to take the conversation forward, and not let it be held back by debating what, in our view are or should be, settled matters of human, civil and constitutional rights.
The ground rules are clear, yet conversation is invited.

Avoid the Framing Sucker Punch

Framing is a social science concept developed by Erving Goffman, expanded by a number of social scientists over several decades, and then popularized by George Lakoff in a series of excellent books. Skillful framing of issues is crucial to movement success, but as Lakoff observes, if you adopt the frame of your political opposition you probably will get trapped in their game playing by their rules and most likely will lose. That’s also true in building an alliance.  It is important to construct a new frame in which all participants can find a comfort zone.

Here is an example. Libertarian gadfly Ron Paul, a Congressman from Texas, opposes the U.S. spawned wars in the Middle East and the bailout of the financial services sector and large industrial mega-corporations such as the auto industry.  Good for him.  We agree.  Ron Paul, however, has a long history of allowing racist garbage to be circulated in his own newsletter; supporting dead-end conspiracy theories; and promoting “Free Market” solutions that would slice up the social safety net and allow force many of our allies into deeper poverty and despair. So let’s not buy a pig in a poke. Alliances are possible, but on whose terms?

Banksters or Bubble Barons?

Here is an example of adopting a frame that has negative consequences. The Naderites have a long history of building alliances with the political Right, and they serve as a shining example of what not to do, especially with framing.  The Naderites and the Center for Media and Democracy put together a  project called “Banksters, U.S.A.”? Is it really in the long-term interest of working people to target just a few major banks when the goal is economic justice?

And even if this tactic has short-term merit, why pick the term “Bankster” which was popularized by the fascist right and Father Coughlin in the 1930s as a code word for “Jewish Bankers”? The Occupy movement popularized the frame of the 1% v. the 99%. Another reform group is using the phrase “Bubble Barons” which has no such antisemitic baggage. A group of progressive economists have set up Econ4—For People, 4 the Planet, 4 the Future. There are many other examples of clever slogans without conspiracy baggage.
There are many other examples of clever slogans without conspiracy  baggage.

By using the term “Bankster” we inadvertently help build those hard right groups that are built around White supremacy and antisemitism.  If you doubt this is a predictable outcome, just search the web using the term < bankster > and then use < bankster jew > and read a few of the sites that pop up. It is a truly horrifying browsing experience.

Nader himself refused to distance himself from the racist and xenophobic baggage of Pat Buchanan, with whom the Naderites work against “Free Trade” and corporate globalization.  The Naderites have a longstanding cozy relationship with the Milliken family industrial interests, who oppose free trade as part of their overall union-busting anti-worker practices. Someday the Naderites might wake up and realize the problems they have created despite loads of good work on many consumer issues. That would be a step forward.

Framing is not enough

As progressive sociologists William Gamson and Charlotte Ryan point out, the framing process is important, but ideology and resources are necessary components for social change groups to employ. A good slogan cannot alone cure a bad ideology or supply funds to pay the rent for your movement office.

Criticize Behavior Not Intent

This is a framework that works whether you are criticizing your political opponent or a political ally.

Here is an example. A number of antiwar activists have become exasperated with relentless attempts by persons in the 9/11 Truth movement to hijack meetings to discuss the latest report of deception or skullduggery carried on conspiracy theory websites.

A new antiwar group, End U.S. Wars, emerged on the internet and portrayed itself as a “new coalition of antiwar organizations, peace and justice advocates, and citizens of conscience,” The website lists scores of established organizations implying they are part of an actual coalition.  But no such coalition exists, and many individuals and groups have complained that their names are being used in a inappropriate and misleading manner. This is behavior that is appropriate to criticize.

The new organization was built around a small group of people with a history of insisting conspiracy theory analysis is key to a successful antiwar effort. They promote public figures with a history of building Left – Right coalitions in a way that harms the work of many progressive groups and organizers. These are behaviors that are disruptive and have caused and continue to cause divisions and splits in the antiwar movement. That may not be their intent—but it is the predictable outcome based on past observations and experiences.

The antiwar movement should welcome folks in the 9/11 Truth movement as allies, but it has a right to establish ground rules of behavior—part of the principles of unity—to ensure the work moves forward without distractions from people raising issues that are outside the realm of the principles of unity.

Rely on Power Structure Analysis

Real power structure analysis examines the structures, system, and institutions of power. Relying on personality-based analytical systems, especially conspiracy theory, chases shadows rather than clearly framing issues of unfair power and privilege using widely available evidence.
Major figures in progressive power structure research include C. Wright Mills, G. William Domhoff and Holly Sklar.

Any analytical system that is based on studying the structures, system, and institutions of power can produce important and useful information on which to build joint action. This is true for a wide range of models. So a person using Critical Race Theory can compare notes with a person using Marxist Theory, and while they probably will disagree on many points, they at least are playing with a full deck of cards and get a game going that helps activists. Feminist Theory, Ecological Theory, Queer Theory, and many others all play a role in analyzing power.

Use a Race, Gender, Class lens

In the United States the issues of race, economic class, and gender are intricately intertwined. Even if you chose to purse only one line of inquiry, set aside some time to consider the role of the other issues. In the long run this is the most effective approach, and it helps to show where there are bridges between otherwise isolated movements, groups, and people.

Bernice Johnson Reagon

From a presentation about Coalition Building
at a meeting held high up in the mountains

“I feel as if I’m gonna keel over any minute and die. That is often what it feels like if you’re really doing coalition work. Most of the time you feel threatened to the core and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.”

“You don’t go into coalition because you just like it. The only reason you would consider trying to team up with somebody who could possibly kill you, is because that’s the only way you can figure you can stay alive.”

“We’ve pretty much come to the end of a time when you can have a space that is “yours only” – just for the people you want to be there…. To a large extent it’s because we have finished with that kind of isolating. There is no hiding place. There is nowhere you can go and only be with people who are like you. It’s over. Give it up.”

Find the Complete Text of Reagon’s Presentation in:

Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (ed. Barbara Smith, Kitchen Table Press, 1983; Rutgers University Press, 2000) as “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century,”

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Chip Berlet. 2014.
“Public Intellectuals, Scholars, Journalists, & Activism: Wearing Different Hats and Juggling Different Ethical Mandates.”
In RIMCIS: the International and Multidisciplinary Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 3, No.1,

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Frameworks for Understanding the US Political Right and how it Undermines Human Rights