The cultural dimension of transformational politics
by Shai Sachs, Sun Mar 02, 2008 at 05:03:20 AM EST
On Thursday Digby wrote a fascinating post at Campaign for America's Future on the difference between transactional and transformational politics. The post pointed out the difference between "transactional" politics (what can I get in the political marketplace?) and "transformational" politics (how can I change the marketplace?). Digby argues that elected officials should be doing two jobs at once - getting the best reforms they can in the current environment, while working to change that environment so that it is more favorable to progressives.
I think it's important that we recognize the difference between these two forms of politics, and also that we push our elected officials to strive for political transformations even as they try to get the best "deal" on each political "transaction" they make. Indeed, that is perhaps the central purpose of the progressive blogosphere.
However, I think we should also think more broadly about political transformation and the other forces, besides the machinations of Democratic politicians, which might create political transformation. In particular, we need to be aware of the cultural institutions which frequently shape our political environment, and we need to push those institutions to create political transformation as well. Follow me across the flip for more details on how, in my opinion, cultural institutions shape our political environment, and what (in somewhat high-level terms) needs to be done about those institutions to create the kind of progressive political transformation we seek.
There are a number of cultural institutions which shape the broad strokes of our political ideology. These include the media (including both news media and entertainment media), educational institutions, the workplace and labor unions, religious institutions, and our familial and other personal relationships. In the past, I've referred to these kinds of institutions as "ideological conversion machines", and that term has its origins in some theories advanced over the past couple of years by Chris Bowers, and originally by Louis Althusser, who coined the term ideological state apparatus. Regardless, all of these institutions shape our ideology in a number of different ways, ranging from overtly political messages (sermons about feeding the poor, say), to more subtle values-based messages (like a steady stream of workshops on diversity at college, say), to experiential learning (like learning the importance of solidarity by participating in a strike), and so forth.
Interaction with these sorts of institutions shapes a person's political ideology. Some institutions tend to make their members more liberal (many labor unions, for instance), while some institutions tend to make their members more conservative (like many evangelical churches.) In fact, this relationship is also somewhat circular, as many people gravitate towards the institutions which tend to reinforce their own ideologies.
The ideological forces at work in any given cultural institution can also be variably granular. That is to say, while some cultural institutions will push their members towards a generally liberal worldview and impart in their members progressive values, others will push their members to take sides and become active in a particular issue or electoral campaign. While it's hard to paint such a large and abstract a group of institutions with a single brush, I think it's fair to say that most cultural institutions have an ideological impact which is less fine-grained but more long-lasting than the impact exerted by politicians, pundits, and others whose job it is to actively participate in political discourse.
Moreover, ideological forces across cultural institutions are not uniformly emphatic. Thus we might imagine two different union locals, both theoretically tied together by the ideology of solidarity, but one considerably more strident in fighting workplace policies and therefore, perhaps more likely to make the notion of solidarity real to its members. Or we might imagine two different colleges, both on paper as supporting diversity, but one considerably more aggressive in recruiting and accepting a diverse student body, pushing its students to socialize across racial and ethnic lines, etc.
In fact, you might think of the ideological landscape designed by cultural institutions as a kind of sum of products. Take the number of members an institution has, multiply by the granularity of its ideological impact, and then multiply again by the emphasis that institution places on ideological transformation. Add that number up for all cultural institutions, and you have the total amount of ideological impact exerted by cultural institutions.
Of course, our political environment is far too complex and nuanced to be expressed by such a clean and crisp mathematical equation. Real life gets messy. Cultural leaders claim to hold certain values, only to undermine them through their actions. Or cultural leaders hold views which don't cleanly fit into any neatly-defined political ideological category (for example, a vast number of clergy.) More than that, many institutions have an internal tension between the "official" ideology of their leaders, and that of their members, and these tensions create countervailing ideological forces. And so on.
But I think this conceptual mathematical formula is valuable to us, because it points us towards pressure points where we can imagine changing the cultural forces which create our political ideological environment. In particular, it suggests that we can do any of the following things to create a more progressive political environment:
- Bring more people into progressive cultural institutions, like the labor movement, liberal religious groups, etc.
- Make progressive cultural institutions more engaged in fine-grained political fights over concrete issues
- Make ideological transformation and higher priority for more progressive cultural institutions
Actually, that's only haf the equation. The flip side of promoting progressivism is demoting conservatism, by doing some or all of the following:
- "Steal" members from conservative cultural institutions
- Encourage conservative cultural institutions not to engage in fine-grain political debate
- Reduce the emphasis on ideological transformation within conservative cultural institutions
I don't particularly like this second half of the equation, since it can get pretty ugly. To see what this looks like in practice, consider the conservative movement's long-term effort to bust unions, or consider that nasty little group, the Institue for Religion and Democracy, which works to destabilize mainline Protestant denomination and to "pick off" congregations from denominational bodies. It's remarkably odious stuff. There are ways to demote conservatism that are not quite as ugly though - for example, encouraging evangelicals to focus less on political action, or encouraging them to break ties with the Republican party.
Regardless, the larger point is that there's a cultural dimension to political transformation, and that therefore, political transformation requires cultural transformation, including at least some of the steps I've outlined above. This is not the kind of thing that politicians should be doing, nor do I think they'd do it particularly well. (Although Jimmy Carter has been busily proving me wrong with his pan-Baptist reform group.) Rather, it is the kind of thing which ordinary people, grassroots cultural activists and leaders, must be involved in. I also think (and this has been a central assertion of my blogging and, recently, my paid professional work) that it's the kind of thing entrepreneurs and activist businesspeople can and should take part in, by using market forces to create cultural change. I also think there is an important role for the blogosphere to play in this project, by cultivating and nurturing ideas for cultural growth and by critiquing cultural institutions and pushing them to be more progressive.
This kind of cultural transformational work is massive, complex, difficult, and not the stuff of overnight revolutions. Conservatives discovered that it took decades to weaken the hand of center-left mainline Protestant denominations and labor unions, to build up an orchestrated massive media machine, and to win the trust of a growing group of religious conservatives. We will no doubt find that organizing religious liberals, rebuilding the labor movement, and increasing the impact of our own nascent media machine will take a very long time. Fortunately, some of this work is already being done; colleges are creating a new generation of very progressive Millenials, labor unions have undertaken a massive program of political mobilization that is very successful, and religious liberals are starting to organize themselves (more on that later.) But we have really just begun, and there's plenty left to do.