Experimenting With the Future in America


by Gabriel Metcalf

Things aren't right in America today, and we all know it. From extreme income inequality to intensifying climate change to the imprisonment of so many people, we are at a moment in our history when many people are looking for new approaches.

But if there is so much sclerosis in our political system that apparently nothing big can get done, what do we do instead?

Dear reader, please consider a different approach, not as a replacement for building political power in the traditional sense, but as a supplement: let's try building new institutions that can offer alternatives to the existing ones, one piece at a time.

There is a long and rich tradition in American progressivism of making change by creating alternative institutions. From workers' co-ops to organic farms, from community banks to free clinics and alternative schools, this strain of activism has often argued that small-scale, piecemeal change is both more realistic and more democratic than dreams of more totalizing political transformation.

Here are some examples...

The Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland are an example of bottom-up approaches to taking on the problems of poverty and joblessness in cities still coping with de-industrialization. A group of universities and hospitals agreed to use their purchasing power and lend startup funding to a group of worker owned cooperatives—a laundry, a rooftop solar company and a greenhouse.

The key innovation in what people now refer to as the "Cleveland model" is that by aggregating the purchasing power of mission driven organizations, a truly socially responsible economy can grow up within our communities. Hospitals and universities, along with energy utilities, local governments, labor unions, consumer co-operatives, and churches—the entire set of mission-driven organizations—could direct their purchasing power in support of these broader public purposes without hindering their own effectiveness.

The Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, Vermont is another model of alternative institution called a community land trust. Founded in 1984, the Champlain Housing Trust has pioneered a new model of housing, existing on a continuum in between traditional ownership and renting. The idea is that the non-profit organization owns and manages the land for the long-term benefit of the community. But individual families have the opportunity to own the buildings that sit on the land. Households who would never be able to afford home ownership are able to build wealth and long term financial security, and the whole community benefits from housing that stays affordable for the next generation of owners. The Champlain Housing Trust now oversees more than 2,500 units of ownership and rental housing, and is part of a network of many other land trusts. This is a strategy that can be replicated around the country.

City CarShare was started in the late 1990s by a group of environmental activists (including me) with the goal of providing an alternative to private car ownership. We reasoned that, because cars sit idle most of the time, people could save a lot of money if we created an easy way for people to have access to a car, only as needed and pay just for the increments of time spent using them. Enabling a shift away from ownership to car-sharing has also had huge benefits for cities, by reducing the need to tie up valuable space for storing cars, while also reducing the environmental impact of manufacturing so many vehicles. Fifteen years later, what started as a crazy experiment by a group of radicals has grown into a mainstream movement, with car-sharing and related services available in every city in America.

While alternative institutions usually start out small, the goal is not to remain marginal. Rather the idea is to test out concepts, and then scale them up if they are successful. These projects can be seen, studied, improved on and replicated. Eventually some of them may out-compete the mainstream institutions they stand alongside.

As I have spent the past few years researching the history of alternative institutions for my new book, Democratic by Design, I have been struck by their variety and innovation. Alternative institutions exist in every part of the country, and they are experimenting with ideas that can open up new paths for the way America will evolve over time.

I would never argue that the Left should abandon its other tactics, from electoral strategies to boycotts to cultural agitation. But if people had more ways to live out their values through every day life choices—what kind of housing they live in, how they get around, where they save their money, and even where they do their laundry—it would support and sustain a progressive movement. Alternative institutions can be an important part of a revitalized progressive movement in America.


Gabriel Metcalf is one of the founders of the North American car-sharing movement. His new book, Democratic by Design, is a history of alternative institutions within the American progressive tradition.