The cultural dimension of transformational politics

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.

Tags: cultural growth, Ideology, progressive movement, strategy, Transformational politics (all tags)



Re: Baby Steps

Amen to that.  But also note that Reagan had a lot of help from other spheres - the Moral Majority folks, the right-wing media folks, etc.

by Shai Sachs 2008-03-02 06:53AM | 0 recs
This is important

Understanding the transformational dimension is so critical, I hope many will heed your observations. And thanks for posting this.

I'm not surprised that there is more attention being given to raw primary politics. Tuesday has been framed as the most important primary election day ever, and it's two days away. My own emotions are running high, and my workload is huge because of the proximity of the election.

At Lakoff's Rockridge institute we try to focus almost exclusively on the category you name transformational, and we recognize that cognitive shifts take time. I suppose a foundational transformational value is patience. Another is determination.

by Glenn Smith 2008-03-02 07:26AM | 0 recs
Re: This is important

I really enjoyed reading Don't think of an elephant.  That was a really interesting book.

There is an interesting debate going on over high-level frames, and I'd be curious to get your input on it.  Lakoff argues that the guiding frame of the conservative movement is "Strict Father" morality, and the guiding frame of the progressive movement is "Nurturant Parent" morality.  (Or so I understand the book.)  Chris Bowers has been arguing for some time now that the guiding conservative frame is white Christian hegemony, and the guiding progressive frame is diversity and heterogeneity.  Paul Waldman also has a nice phrase which encapsulates this idea, and which he claims ties together a lot of progressive ideas at once: "we're all in this together".

These two frames are not wholly incompatible, of course, but they are substantively different, I think.  I'm curious to hear what your thoughts are on how those two sets of high-level frames differ and, perhaps, how one might be more or less useful than the other.

... and yeah, I'm fully aware that diaries like this aren't likely to get a lot of attention when there are red phones ringing late at night, and stuff like that.  But it's important to keep the conversation going.

by Shai Sachs 2008-03-02 07:45AM | 0 recs
Re: The cultural dimension of transformational pol

I have worked directly with conservative local elected officials for the last nine years, in my day job.  It has been eye-opening, because although politics is local, there is a definite sense that money is state and federalized, with lots of strings attached.  Except for taxing municipalities, the rest of the country is leading govt on a shoestring.  There are many very good hearted conservatives who are nevertheless rather insensitive to people's lives that may be different than their own.  [I am a moderate democrat].

We need to be aware that the easy direct media messages over the last 30 years have had adverse impact on many people's beliefs.  I am astounded at the number of citizens who repeat simplistic mantras gleaned from the popular press without ever having analyzed the accuracy, source, credibility, usefulness, or long term consequence of the info-bit.  Many have seemingly never learned, or forgotten how, to analyze information independently of the source and context.  This is worrisome far beyond any lack of math or reading skills to a democratic society. I have a job in large part, to facilitate the transformation of individuals elected from a rural lifestyle to better understand the complex constraints acting on local government leaders.  It is eye-opening for them as well.  

I had a dream last night that I went to a political conference, that when I arrived that instead of a general meeting it was an Obama organizing meeting, complete with cheerleading routine classes.   One of them was "Moms for Obama".   When I realized that my being there was a mistake, and my airfare might not be paid by my sponsor, I went to the bathroom, and there I met a lady who looked at my stressed face (I have been having migraines for the past year).  She said, with some hostility, you look like one of those Satmars.  [an orthodox Jewish group known for their cultural isolation] Yes, this was a dream, but it expresses my physiological and emotional state pretty accurately.  

Patient, determined, active, but still feeling a bit isolated.....

by Esya 2008-03-02 07:51AM | 0 recs
sad indeed ...

... although looking at it differently: how can we leverage or convert even 5% of the trolling-related energy towards something positive, even transformational?


by Jon Pincus 2008-03-02 07:52AM | 0 recs
Re: sad indeed ...

I think that the answer to that question is easy and some folks don't want to see it.

We need to all accept that people support their candidate (which ever one) for reasons that are valid.  We need to accept that neither candidate is a horrible human being, or a racist, or a sexist, or unjeffersonian, or a threat to the future existence of our nation.  

In the end one of them will get more votes than the other.  One will have more delegates than the other.  The super delegates will do what they will do.  In between now and that day we will each lobby for what we think makes sense.  When it's all said and done we're all democrats.

On the other hand noecons are horrible human beings and racist and sexist, and unjeffersonian, and a threat to the future of our nation.  

We are all democrats our goals are soo close to identical to a person that the difference is practically insignificant.  100 years from now, when our grandchildren and great grandchildren are looking at the history books it will a whole lot less about whether this next president was the first woman or first black person to hold the office than we think.  It'll be about policy and legislation that gets either moved forward by democrats in congress and signed by a democratic president or policy that a democratic congress passed only to have it vetoed by McCain.  That is all there is to it.  The vitriol is pointless.  In fact, it is destructive.  One of the candidates will lose, but a whoever does get the nomination will be a DEMOCRAT.  

by lockewasright 2008-03-02 09:01AM | 0 recs
Re: sad indeed ...

Unfortunately that may be a difficult sell for some partisans on this site.  I just participated in a rather lengthy discussion with one such partisan, whose entire premise was that the word. "transformational" carried a bad connotation.

She of course was referring to the oft misquoted and misunderstood Obama comment on Reagan's ability to transform the American body politic.

Sadly, it has now become so irrational, that a single word, buried deep in a lengthy comment, uttered by your candidates opponent, takes on a meaning that cannot be justified by any definition other than your partisanship.

I argues my point that 'transformational" could mean nothing other that "quantitative change". I was of course called a sexist and dismissed.  I don't think things around here will change much in the near future.  We can only hope as the year proceeds, people will come to a comfortable understanding.

by Its Like Herding Cats 2008-03-02 09:20AM | 0 recs
transformational politics

My recipe for bringing about transformational politics is to vote for Obama.  Not because I think he has a magic wand that he can wave and make everything wonderful, but because the movement that supports him is producing Democratic voter turnout like we have never seen in this country.  That translates into a lot of wins down the whole ticket, which is what we need to move the progressive agenda forward.  Just getting a Democrat in the White House is not enough; we have to give that person a Congress they can work with.  I think that the case for Obama is widely misunderstood-- it's not that he is so progressive and remarkable in his own ideology--  it's that he is the sparkplug for a wave of populism that can overturn the existing political dynamic.

by global yokel 2008-03-02 08:04AM | 0 recs
Re: transformational politics

I do admire Obama's achievements in turnout.  It is no small feat, and while I think we moved the dial a bit back in the Dean days, he's clearly moved the ball down the field quite a bit.

At the same time, I think we place way too much burden on the shoulders of our candidates.  Politics is a relatively minor part of everyday life, and there are plenty of other influences on the way people vote (and if they vote).  So any one candidate, or even a bumper crop of good candidates, will never do much more than move the dial for a couple of years.  Sustained political transformation has to occur through longstanding cultural institutions.

by Shai Sachs 2008-03-02 08:15AM | 0 recs


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