Finding strategy for the progressive movement

Late last year, the Progressive Strategy Studies Project (PSSP) published a report called Finding Strategy: A Survey of Contemporary Contributions to Progressive Strategy (PDF).  The survey looks at the state of progressive strategic discourse, segments and evaluates a number of progressive strategies; it doesn't draw any conclusions about the relative merits of one strategy as opposed to the other, but it is still a very instructive look at the structure and status of discussion about progressive strategy.  Anyone who's interested in making the progressive movement as a whole more effective should give it a read.

Full disclosure: one of the authors, Wolfgang Brauner, is a personal friend.

I'm going to spend some time in this post looking at the report in greater detail; in the next few weeks, I hope to use it as a jumping-off point for more detailed discussion of progressive strategy in a variety of areas.

The first part of the report is concerned with structuring progressive strategic discourse, in a couple of ways.  First, by defining the components of a "fully-articulated" strategy:

Goals or objectives ... [incldue] values, visions, worldview, and ideology.

Assessment refers to the analysis and interpretation of a priori reality, of the terrain, as it were, shaping judgments as to what is realistic and possible through purposeful human agency employing strategy. ...

Tactics refer to the techniques employed to achieve objectives. In politics they include various forms of organizing, campaigning, framing, messaging, etc. ... Tactics tend to be focused on details of action and engagement. Operations, in turn, are the coordinated activities that groups and organizations engage in to further the strategic plan. ...

Dynamics is the interplay of one strategic actor against another and the actors with their environment. ...

Resources are about institutions, organizations, money and people. ... Closely related is the concept of infrastructure, but resources and infrastructure are not identical. ...

Evaluation is a critical component of strategy in which operations are systematically studied as the strategy is pursued and ongoing assessments provide feedback guidance to all levels on how to improve strategic plans and achieve strategic ends.
(pages 5 - 6)

A secondary value of the report is the way it segments progressive strategies, by the institutions they are intended to affect.  The divisions chosen in the report are electoral, movement, and movement-electoral.

Electoral strategies are those which seek to win elections - usually, a series of elections, at national, state and local levels, and over a long period of time.

Movement strategies seek to organize a group of people defined by demographics (e.g., the women's movement, the labor movement), or defined by their support for a particular issue (e.g., the environmental movement, the civil rights movement, etc.)  Movement strategies are frequently not fully-articulated, with a significant exception being strategies for organizing the labor movement.  Lately, there has also been some discussion of cross-sectoral strategy, i.e. strategies for combining the efforts of two or more sectors (e.g., The Apollo Alliance, the USW/Sierra Club "Blue/Green" Alliance, a variety of alliances between labor unions, ACORN, and community organizations like Industrial Areas Foundation, etc.)

Movement-electoral strategies are inside/outside strategies which seek to make electoral gains while building the more informal power of an outside movement.

Most of the report is concerned with cataloging a variety of electoral, movement-electoral, and movement strategies - 20 in all.  Each strategy is evaluated in terms of the strategic components articulated, and the most striking conclusion is that of the strategies listed, not one articulates all six components.  While nearly all strategies discuss objectives, assessments, and tactics, and about half discuss resources, very few are concerned with dynamics or evaluation.

The authors make no claims that the report is comprehensive, that it is fair to each strategy, or even that it represents each strategy completely; so take the conclusions with a grain of salt.  In part, these short-comings are just a product of the mechanics of progressive strategic discourse.  Progressive strategies tend to be laid out in a piecemeal fashion, or they tend to be articulated implicitly (as a series of critiques of existing institutions) rather than explicitly (as a series of positive statements about what should be done.)  There are certainly exceptions to the rule, but these factors make progressive strategic evaluation a very tricky game.

This is a fascinating report, because it gives us a lens through which we can view a wide variety of strategic discussions about the progressive movement, and it gives us a metric against which we can evaluate strategies.  Progressive strategic discourse is entirely too muddled and incomplete at this point.  Where our strategy is well-refined and robust, as in the case of Congressional electoral strategy, we frequently find ourselves putting together a strategy as we go along, rather than planning it out in advance.  We would be well-served by a more deliberate, comprehensive strategic discussion.

I want to keep this discussion going, but I don't want to go into overwhelming detail and entirely new tangents just yet.  What I'd like to do is use this report as a jumping-off point for evaluating the progressive strategic discussion in other areas.  For starters, I'd like to consider progressive strategies for influencing the traditional media, as well as strategies for building up the religious left.  I'll probably write up some thoughts on that in the next few weeks.  But I'd invite you to chime in with your own thoughts on what you'd like to see; feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Tags: progressive movement, strategy (all tags)



Re: Finding strategy for the progressive movement

I'm printing it out.  Interesting.

by Matt Stoller 2007-07-08 05:18PM | 0 recs
Re: Finding strategy for the progressive movement

A few weeks ago Democrats debated what was the best national healthcare plan and Republicans debated which method of torture would be best employed if they could bring in Jack Bauer. - Katrina Vanden Heuvel

by dearreader 2007-07-09 02:54AM | 0 recs
Re: Finding strategy for the progressive movement

Not only a great starting point for more conversation, but a really great resource for activists who want to understand the various assets of the movement.  A relatively quick read, too. Everyone should check it out.  I hope the authors will publish an even more detailed report in the future.

by TJ Helm 2007-07-08 05:55PM | 0 recs
Another Strategy

This study looks very interesting. Thanks for bringing to our attention this great resource.

Naturally, I noticed a strategy missing from this report: the one described in the book Inciting Democracy: A Practical Proposal for Creating a Good Society by Randy Schutt (me). Its ommission is understandable: Inciting Democracy was officially released in 2001 the day before the 9/11 terrorist attacks so it did not receive much attention.

I wrote the book because I was frustrated that progressives did not seem to have a long-range strategy for transforming society (especially one consistent with our values), but we had developed most of the pieces necessary to do so -- the pieces just needed to be acknowledged and considered as a whole. Note that the book was written before the power of blogs and other forms of internet organizing were apparent, so it is weak in addressing this aspect of organizing (but internet organizing can easily be added/adapted to the strategy).

The entire book can be freely downloaded and there are copies in 49 libraries. Check it out.

by RandomNonviolence 2007-07-08 07:59PM | 0 recs
Where we're at and where we can go.

Where we are: the report reflects the three major innovations in the current new progressive movement which have already revolutionized progressive organizing since say 2004.

  1. Organizing across issues and constituencies.
  2. Linking electoral and extra-electoral organizing. I.e. neither ignoring the Dem Party nor assuming the only thing electoral campaigns are for is to elect individuals and then hope they do what we want. Instead, tying electoral work into building lasting power bases.
  3. The emergence of the blogosphere. Not only new media here, I think, but: (a) a new mode of organizing paralleling traditional membership organizations which reaches a different and in some ways broader sector of an educated and relatively technology-savvy part of the middle class. This is important because this group is left of current politics and currently under-organized. It can make a powerful partner for existing organizations of other groups, like labor (and has already begun to). (b) it also challenges the self-referentiality of the mainstream media, which is of course key to reaching real mass numbers of current non-activists.

Note that #2 helps make #1 possible, since it allows a common focus (on changing the balance of power within the Dem Party, and its success v. the GOP) which can make a real difference in moving diverse issue goals across constituencies. It is very hard to organize say environmentalists and labor together in effective pressure campaigns without some organizational vehicle like this; after all, that's why parties were invented in the first place - to make governing coalitions possible and stable.

These three points mean we are already in a different political world than before 2004, and they open up a world of new opportunities.

The report doesn't do a lot of analysis, but gives a brief survey of existing efforts, which is useful for boning up on what's already out there.

It seems to me that the key is to see how these new factors -- and the current political situation brought about by the Bush Admin -- open a "political opportunity" (in the language of sociological social movements theory) for new interventions that will tip the balance of power among existing forces.

This is a long conversation to open up, but I think a couple of suggestions are worth putting out:
1. We need to update the discourse of "participatory democracy". This is still close to the idea that does genuinely link all these progressive struggles, but it is poorly framed. It suggests images of naive 1960s radicals hoping to replace congress with consensus-meetings -- at least, it certainly suggests this to the currently underpoliticized, which matters for framing! Democracy is right, but the problem is not that it isn't participatory per se, but that most of us (especially the middle and working classes) are insufficiently represented, which leads to unaccountable government doing stupid-ass things. We need a democracy of equal representation. (Or something like that). In which we have effective, organized representation of our own, mediated through the Dem Party. That's what a party is for.

2. We need to figure out how to build an enduring, permanent, and effective progressive faction within the democratic party. In principle, we can organize the democratic base better than DLC types, so we would  come out ahead by doing this. Significant strides have been made by MoveOn and the blogosphere, perhaps also DFA (though I've seen less concrete payoff here unless one counts Dean's DNC chair). SIEU & co. also seem open.

Challenges here seem to me:
A. How to link new blogosphere methods with traditional membership-based ones? (Which is also the question of how to organize across constituencies, since labor is going to continue to represent workers more than the blogosphere will, which is fine as long as we work together effectively).
B. How to splice the effectiveness of professional-directed orgs. like MoveOn with the opportunities for amateur involvement in a group like DFA?
C. How to think ahead to be sure we can shift all this emerging energy over from an anti-Bush, anti-war, etc. movement into an enduring, permanent organized bloc in the left wing of the Dem Party? While we activists get the longterm picture, the mainstream public won't and so we need to prep them now on substantive issues to carry through on even after Dems win the white house and eventually stop this damned war.
D. And, of course, there's the perennial central Q of how we can mobilize strategically to force a win soon on a crucial issue that will boost our credibility and visibility in the mainstream and help future recruitment. Given the news these days, ending the war seems a no-brainer to me here; the Q is just the tactics that will work, and making sure the progressive bloc shares credit for any success. This runs into the problem, also of how to relate to the 2008 campaign, but I think it's becoming increasingly clear that we should run ahead of them on this (not just in principle, but I mean actually putting into practice a strategic endgame here).

Cheers, and always good to see a quote from Marshall Ganz!

by troubleshooter 2007-07-09 02:22AM | 0 recs
Re: Where we're at and where we can go.

Great post troubleshooter. But I would modify your comments five ways:

1. I agree we first need to achieve reasonably equal representation but then later we need to expand this to participatory democracy. For most of the last 30 years monied interests and organized rightwing fanatics have dominated our country; progressives and poor people have been ignored and liberal working class and middle class folks have had little sway. We need to change that so that everyone has equal power, but that would still give organized rightwing fanatics a lot of power. We also need to change the dialog so that reasonable solutions to our conflicts can be proposed, discussed, and chosen and most of the rightwing fanatics can be persuaded to change to more reasonable perspectives.

Also, participatory democracy encourages true citizenship -- learning about issues, discussing them with others, and then acting. If people just vote every couple of years or even if they send money to a party, that is not nearly enough participation to sustain a true democracy -- we need active understanding and participation by most of the people much of the time.

2. We must reduce the influence of money on our political processes (and increase the influence of ideas/discussion). As long as money carries so much power, monied interests will dominate and progressives will be marginalized. So high on my list of early victories are passing Clean Money election laws, vastly decreasing income inequality (repealing Bush's tax cuts, raising the minimum wage, instituting higher taxes on high incomes, instituting a wealth tax, etc.), and instituting a tax on advertising.

3. We have to change the way most people get their information. Right now, the mainstream media feeds people so much rightwing propaganda that most people are completely confused (believing such nonsense as "war will lead us to peace," "dominating and torturing other people will enhance our security," "secrecy is important to democracy," "corporate interests are the same as national interests," "business is always more efficient and less corrupt than government," "markets are better at helping people than government," "our healthcare system is the best in the world," etc.). We need to either take over the mainstream media or build up progressive alternative media (including blogs) to the extent that the alternatives become the main source of information for most people.

4. The Iraq war seems like a good place for progressives to have victory, but right now the mainstream narrative has Lugar and Dominici ending the war. Cindy Sheehan is the only person from the peace movement who has been allowed to speak on our behalf. Every other peace activist has been pretty much ignored. It will be difficult in this environment for the peace movement or progressives (or even Representative Pelosi and Senator Reid) to take much credit for ending the war. Also, when the US finally withdraws, Iraq is likely to be an utter disaster, so It will be hard to claim much victory from that.

Universal, single-payer healthcare may actually serve as a better early victory that can show what we are really for: taking care of all people, encouraging/forcing business to serve peope instead of just enriching their CEOs and shareholders, etc.

5. An additional challenge: how do we sustain the progressive movement once we've won a few victories and the world is not so obviously being destroyed by Bush/Cheney? Volunteers burn out after a few years, so we need to provide more lucrative and empowering structures to sustain us. We need to have early victories that will shift government money to social services, education, environmental cleanup, and other venues where liberals thrive and we need other social and economic structures that will continuously mobilize and support progressive activists.

by RandomNonviolence 2007-07-09 06:51AM | 0 recs


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