This toolkit has been designed to provide people with the tools to conduct power research and develop a research pod, or crew of folks, that have the skills to investigate local corporate bodies and organize against them. You can use this toolkit as a starting point for organizing around a common target with your neighbors and friends, or to strengthen the work of your organization!
Before you move into the content of the toolkit, check out some of the ways people are already starting to organize and challenge the Trump agenda by challenging the network of Trump beneficiaries, collaborators, and enablers in their cities:
The Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) is a nonprofit watchdog research organization focused on corporate and government accountability. We conduct and facilitate “power research” – public interest research on how power relationships shape policy in the United States. Our research brings transparency to the influence of big money and corporate power in our democracy. We frequently work in partnership with organizers and journalists to support challenges to this influence, and we also work to make power research more participatory, through trainings and workshops.
PAI also oversees LittleSis.org, a wiki database and platform for power research. LittleSis is like the opposite of Big Brother – instead of surveilling the people, we track the people and organizations in the power structure, from CEOs and major investors to politicians and lobbyists. Data on LittleSis is drawn from a diverse array of online sources, and maintained through a combination of automated scripts and user edits. Activists, journalists, and researchers use the site to conduct research, analyze data, and create visual network maps with Oligrapher, the LittleSis power mapping tool.
“Power research” is investigative research that follows the money and connects the dots between key players in the power structure. It is typically practiced by activists, academic researchers, and journalists who have an interest in mapping, challenging, and understanding systems of power.
Power research focuses on networks – people, organizations, and their various business, political, and personal relationships. It also recognizes that the power structure is not contained within the institutions and individuals that we’re often told have power in a democracy – elected officials, for instance. Instead, we take a broader view, going up the food chain to look at major corporations and billionaires and other organizations and individuals who wield extraordinary amounts of influence and control in our society.
Who benefits? Who wins? Who governs? Who has a reputation for power? These “power indicators” are drawn from the work of UC Santa Cruz professor William Domhoff, whose 1967 book Who Rules America? is still a landmark study of power in America. They help guide power research in its analysis of where to focus, and who to study. Domhoff’s definition of the “power elite,” and really all of his work, is worth reading, as is the work of other power structure researchers like Floyd Hunter.
There are many reasons to do power research. If you’re an activist or organizer, it can help shape your strategy and identify who or what you are really up against, or show you how to gain leverage in your fights. Within social movements, it can also assist in political education efforts, helping build collective knowledge and analysis of the power structure so that it can be effectively challenged. Journalists frequently practice power research to expose conflicts of interest and follow the money. It can also help point journalists towards the topics, people, and institutions they need to be reporting on: not the small-time crook, but the billionaire bandit.
And some people do power research for intellectual reasons, because it helps explain how the world really works in ways that your civics or political science classes do not.
Power research, whether it is practiced by activists, journalists, or other researchers, often plays an important role in movements for social change, though the history of this is somewhat submerged and untold. To read more about one example of this, check out this article on SNCC’s research arm, which played an integral role in shaping and strengthening its organizing strategies.
More recently, power research has played a role in some very important campaigns and organizing efforts. The Justice for Janitors campaign traced the relationships between building service contractors and their clients, real estate billionaires, to develop a winning strategy and organize tens of thousands of janitors in cities around the country. More recently, #PhillyWeRise has put together a Trump Collaborators of Philly website to point organizers towards local corporations and business executives who are collaborating with the Trump agenda.
The extreme concentration of wealth and power in monopolistic corporations and billionaires represents an existential threat for not just the United States, but the world. This has become even more evident since the election of Donald Trump, who rode a wave of anti-establishment fervor only to install a horde of billionaire puppet masters and Wall Street swamp-dwellers in his administration, including enough Goldman Sachs executives to fill a Learjet.
Trump’s extreme racism and xenophobia, which facilitated his rise to power, is now paving the way for a corporate wealth grab of historic proportions. For corporations, there is the direct form of hate profiteering, such as border wall contracts, and the indirect form of hate profiteering, such as deregulation, tax cuts, privatization, and lax oversight. Despite his extreme policies, even corporations with liberal profiles continue to support Trump because of the profits coming their way.
This political moment should be clarifying for us: corporations and the power elite are so obsessed with short-term profits that they are perfectly willing to tolerate obviously dangerous, wrong-headed, and immoral policies and political stances, some of which would seem to threaten their brands and long-term profits.
There is a danger with Trump that we focus too much on his volatile personality and his erratic Twitter posts, and view his racism and xenophobia as some kind of deep psychological flaw, rather than a systemic issue. But power research can help us focus on connecting the dots between Trump and his collaborators and beneficiaries in corporate America. And this can lay the groundwork for strategic action that targets these sources of support. This is already happening, with campaigns like DeleteUber and Backers of Hate.
Trump will not be able to enact his most extreme and destructive policies without the support of corporate America, and power research can help us uncover how corporate America is tied to and benefiting from Trump’s policies. It can give us the information and targets we need to be smarter about how we organize resistance in the Trump era.
Moreover, our problems won’t be over once Trump is out of office. Power research -- by putting a focus on the deep ties and networks that sustain systemic corporate power in our society -- will help provide us a road map as we fight for a more just society under a Trump presidency, and after it.
Below are a few definitions to help make this toolkit as clear as possible:
Oligarchy: a small network of people who exert power over society through their wealth and their ownership of and influence over basic institutions, such as: the media, school system, culture, and law.
Power: the ability an individual or entity has to get what it wants, even against opposition, and to shape politics and society along their interests and priorities.
Corporate Beneficiaries: corporations and corporate owners, managers, stakeholders, and creditors that profit or otherwise gain status through certain policies and developments.
Corporate Elite: the set of individuals who run the nation’s major corporations and use their wealth and positions of ownership and power to exert influence over politics and society.
Trump Agenda: the set of politics, policies, and priorities that Donald Trump and his administration want to implement. For example, corporate tax cuts and deregulation, xenophobic and racist measures like a border wall, the ban on refugees and Muslim immigrants, and expanding police power, and attacks on environmental regulations.
Indicator of Power: when analyzing a certain situation, there are questions we can pose that point us to who has power, such as: Who benefits? Who wins? Who governs? Who has a reputation for power? Answering these questions, which are indicators of power, help identify who holds power.
Corporate Agenda: the general set priorities and measures that the corporate elite seeks to advance in the interest of their own profit maximization. These include things like: tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations, privatization and deregulation, and crushing unions and attacking wages and benefits.BACK TO TABLE OF CONTENTS