Outlining a progressive grand strategy, part 1 - goals and assessment


Yesterday's blog post about the Progressive Strategy Brain got me thinking about a problem which the authors of Finding Strategy (PDF) have discussed in the past: what would a grand strategy for progressive power look like?


In addition to giving blog posts like this one a really cool-sounding title, grand strategy is a coherent composition of several different strategies which together address all of the different forms of power relationships in society.  It's quite a tall order, which would explain why no one has really developed a grand strategy for progressive power.  (Full disclosure: As I mentioned yesterday, one of the authors of Finding Strategy is a personal friend.)


I don't pretend to have the answer to this question, but I'd like to piece together some thoughts on what such a strategy might look like. As Finding Strategy argues, strategy consists of six components: goals, assessment, tactics, resources, dynamics, and evaluation.  Today, I'd like to focus on the first two components; I'll delve into the other four in follow-up posts.  Follow me across the jump for more.


Cultural and political goals, and decomposition of each


The first key to forming a grand strategy is categorizing various forms of power relationships, in order to get a good picture of the terrain.  On the whole I think progressives tend to focus on expressly political power relationships, i.e. power relationships engendered directly by the government, and ignore cultural power relationships.


Political goals


Political goals can be neatly decomposed according to the structure of government, for example: winning the presidency; electing a progressive Congress; stocking the judiciary with progressive judges; watching the bureaucracy and persuading it to enact progressive regulations; electing progressive governors and state legislatures; experimenting with progressive reform in the state houses; etc.  When thinking about expressly political forms of power, I would also include the internal machinery of the party apparatuses, even though they're extra-constitutional.


Progressives have strategists who focus on all of these goals, although some goals gain a lot more attention than others; in particular, I would argue that we are far more concerned with the presidency, Congress, and the Democratic Party than we are with the judiciary, the bureaucracy (which I would argue is a different beast than the presidency, though clearly affected by it), and state- and municipal-level goals.  There are some great strategists working to change that, like the Progressive States Network, but there is still plenty of uneven focus.


Cultural goals


Cultural goals can't be decomposed quite as easily, because there is no "constitution" for our culture (and thank goodness for that.)  I think one useful way of looking at cultural goals is to think about the different kinds of ideological institutions which dominate the interaction between culture and politics.  These institutions include religion, the workplace, schools, the media, and family and other personal relationships.


Each of these institutions shapes the worldview of its membership or audience in various ways.  Consequently, any strategy which attempts to expand progressive power in a comprehensive way must address the problem of spreading the progressive worldview through these institutions.  For example, what kind of efforts are needed to spread the progressive worldview through religious institutions?


Of course, this is a very old problem, and various thinkers have already addressed it in a variety of ways already.  The union movement is a massive effort to establish progressive power relationships within the workforce.  Religious institutions have undergone a series of transformations which stretch back to well before this country was founded, many of them attempts to establish more progressive theologies and more progressive intra-church relationships.  And so on.


A savvy grand strategy would address ongoing efforts in each of these institutions and would attempt to bolster or complement them in some way.  Thus, at a minimum, a progressive grand strategy should seek to:


       
  • Strengthen and enlarge the union movement

  •    
  • Enlarge the membership of progressive religious institutions, and address the religious needs of those who are not being served by the religious landscape as it stands today

  •    
  • Expand the availability of college education, and bolster the prevalence of the progressive worldview on college and high school campuses

  •    
  • Create a more progressive media landscape, by reducing the barriers to entry for progressive media makers, and moving conservative and centrist media to the left

  •    
  • Encourage family dynamics and personal relationships which support a progressive worldview, e.g., progressive parenting models



Moreover, a grand strategy should seek out other forms of power relationships and emerging ideological institutions.  For example, is it possible that some online social networks are now taking on the role of forging ideology?  Is it possible that the astronomical rates of incarceration has made prison a kind of ideological institution?  More than that, is it possible that progressives have overlooked longstanding broad-based institutions, like the military, which might have an important role in ideological formation, yet fly below the progressive radar screen?  If that's the case, then what should progressives do to ensure that their worldview is established and nurtured by these institutions?  (Or, in the case of prison, what should progressives do to minimize the number of people who get incarcerated?)


This decomposition provides, I think, a good structure for progressive grand strategy.  Progressive grand strategy has, on one hand, a goal of winning political victories, in all of their various constitution and extra-constitutional forms; and on the other hand, a goal of spreading the progressive worldview through a variety of cultural ideological institutions.


Assessment


A progressive grand strategy must assess the terrain of power relationships in society in order to transform those relationships.  There are a few different pieces to this kind of assessment.


The first is an assessment of the challenges progressives face when they try to spread their worldview through ideological institutions, and the efforts to overcome those challenges.  In my description of cultural goals above, I've implicitly identified some of the ongoing efforts.  I think a full assessment would have to look at the challenges progressives face in more detail.  For example, why is it that conservative religious traditions are not losing adherents as quickly as progressive religious traditions?  What are some of the difficulties unions face when they try to recruit new members, or to retain solidarity within their ranks?  And so forth.  Naturally, many of these assessments have already been undertaken, and perhaps only need to be collated and updated a bit.


The second is an assessment of the challenges progressives face when they try to win political victories.  This is hardly untrodden ground for progressives.  We spend a lot of time assessing these challenges, and to our credit, we have done a good job of overcoming some of them.  There are some pitfalls to beware of, such as our tendency a) to assume that a Democratic victory is a progressive victory (although I do think it's safe to say that almost all progressive victories are Democratic victories) and b) to assess challenges to progressives through the lens of various campaigns, like the 2008 presidential campaign or the 2006 Congressional campaign.  Individual candidates can sometimes overcome certain challenges, but that doesn't mean that the structural problems behind those challenges have disappeared.  Nevertheless, on the whole I think progressives know quite a lot about what they're up against in the realm of political campaigns.  In the past I've tried to compile the assessments I've seen in various progressive publications into one large, master list; see my very old, and perhaps first, post on liberal entrepreneurship (under "So what is liberal entrepreneurship", item 2).  That list is probably due for a major update sometime soon, and I'd certainly love to hear about other attempts to synthesize assessments of challenges to progressive political victories along these lines.


The final area of assessment concerns the effects of cultural institutions on our political landscape.  For example, what would a major increase in union density do to increase progressive electoral fortunes?  How would a gradual demographic trend away from conservative evangelical churches and towards liberal Christian churches or minority religions reshape the framework of our political discourse?  And so on.  Prorgressives tend to view these questions through the lens of specific campaigns and electoral victories, which means that, except for our efforts in media advocacy, we spend a lot of time worrying about the growth of cultural conservatism, and very little time working to expand cultural progressivism.  I believe we need a deeper understanding of cultural progressivism.  A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece on the cultural dimension of transformational politics, which suggests a simplistic, but I think useful, mathematical formula which expresses the relationship between cultural institutions and politics:

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.


This formulation is entirely too neat, and woefully inadequate to fully capture the nuanced interplay between cultural forces and political life.  Any formulation would be.  But I think it's a start, and I'd be very interested to hear critiques or alternative formulations.


What's next


In my next post on progressive grand strategy, I'll discuss tactical plans and resources required for progressive cultural transformation and for progressive political victories.  That will, I think, give a little more perspective to my nearly obsessive focus on liberal entrepreneurship.  I also hope to tie together strands of thought from a variety of disparate realms, including both culturally and politically progressive efforts.


In the meantime, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this emerging outline for progressive grand strategy, and some of the assessments I've compiled above.

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

Comments

5 Comments

An excellent topic ...

... and a thought-provoking start.

Goals are a good place to start.  I'm somewhat skeptical of the distinction between political and cultural goals; it seems to me that they're deeply enough intertwined that separating them is unhelpfully reductionist.  What you're saying is that the long-term goal a sustainable progressive majority in the various branches and levels of government, along with presence in the media and other cultural institutions that has led to and reinforces that.  

I certainly agree with the items on your bullet list under cultural goals; they feel somewhat ad hoc, though, and are stated primarily in terms of individual existing power structures.  What about creating new ones -- and mashing up, remixing, and distributing the interactions between the existing ones?

In your section on assessment, it seems that you're also suggesting coming with underlying models -- here's where concepts like "multiplying effects" come in.  [Since you've mentioned this before, a quick digression: concentrating too much concepts like "multiplying" potentially lead you to mentally modeling power as a single dimension based on the average [or sum] of the power of the participants; and it ignores the positive feedback loops, which are where the biggest gains are possible.  So it's a useful way to think of things; just keep its limitations in mind.]

couple of important points here:

1) It's especially important to look for intersections between organizations and communities;  That's where the biggest opportunities are, both in the short and longer term.  In many cases two communities can cooperate to address or route around some of the forms of oppression that currently affect one or both of them (a good example of the positive feedback loop I was talking about above).

2) Strategy is a continuous process.  At any given point in time, you're taking actions that are simultaneously in aid of your goals -- and of finding out more information (because "assessment" is similarly dynamic).  Each of these actions changes the current situation as well as the probability distribution of possible outcomes looking forward.  

Putting these two things together in a concrete example: your earlier post about a potential labor/consumer partnership is a good example of point #1.  One way to investigate it is to look for an initial project -- not a grand coalition, but something very specific in a situation where it has a good chance of success.  This has strategic value in a couple of ways: the networks of connections that get built up, transferring skills, learning about what does and doesn't work, and (if successful) getting a proof point.

While this sounds like process, my experience is that you need to take this into account while shaping strategy as well: some approaches to strategy support this iterative approach far better than others.

It's certainly worth some more thought ... I'm curious to hear others' perspectives, and looking forward to your next installment!

by JonPincus 2008-03-30 05:09PM | 0 recs
Re: An excellent topic ...

One other thought: when thinking about huge strategic problems, it's often useful to cast them as broadly as possible originally -- it keeps you from unconsciously overlooking entire categories of solutions.  So it might be worth starting by thinking of the general problem of achieving a sustainable progressive majority internationally, not just in the US.  From the standpoint of a US progressive, there are a lot more progressives in the rest of the world than there are in the US, and the vast majority of them see lots of value in having even a somewhat-more-progressive US; in the right situation, they may well be willing to help.  And from the standpoint of international progressives, huge amounts of money are being invested in the US in aid of increasing progressive power; it would be great to leverage a lot more of that in as many countries as possible.

Today's communications have created new opportunities for international influence on politics -- for example the possibilities of international people coordinating on Facebook (or MyBO) to do phonebanking to undecided US multi-lingual voters with the goal of addressing them in their native language.  Intuitively it seems to me that progressives should be better tapping this dynamic, and that thinking about this correctly can potentially have a big impact at the balance of power.  At the very least it opens up significant alliance possibilities ... and so this is something to consider from the very beginning of strategy development.

jon

by JonPincus 2008-03-30 05:30PM | 0 recs
Re: An excellent topic ...

Yes, that's true, and certainly there are some people already thinking in those terms.  Andy Stern is famous for his argument that unions should form multinational alliances in order to properly fight back against globalization and the multinational character of large companies.

I've chosen to focus mainly on domestic cultural and political agents, for a couple of reasons.  First, I don't really know enough about politics and culture outside the US to analyze its influence on us.  Second, our history, Constitution, and the various levels of protection and restrictions afforded to schools, religious groups, labor unions, etc., mean that cultural institutions inside the US are very different than those in other countries.

Neither of these are very good reasons, I know.  It'd be interesting to think about the various ways that foreign religious traditions affect our politics and so on, but really, contemplating that level of complexity just makes my head hurt.

by Shai Sachs 2008-03-31 06:58AM | 0 recs
Re: An excellent topic ...

Thanks for your thoughtful reply!  If I may, I'll try to answer bit-by-bit:

I'm somewhat skeptical of the distinction between political and cultural goals; it seems to me that they're deeply enough intertwined that separating them is unhelpfully reductionist.  What you're saying is that the long-term goal a sustainable progressive majority in the various branches and levels of government, along with presence in the media and other cultural institutions that has led to and reinforces that.

That's true, in a certain sense.  You could say that our goal should be a major or controlling progressive presence across all institutions, political or cultural.  However, I believe that the constitutional nature of government, and the non-constitutional nature of cultural institutions as a whole, is a major dividing line, if only because it means that it's harder to identify the structure of the culture in a way that's politically useful.  The approach taken here - to consider only the cultural institutions which are responsible for creating ideology - is just one possible decomposition, but one which I think is both interesting and useful for a political movement.

What's more, I also think that when progressives look at cultural institutions like unions, churches, and the like, they far too often only consider the expressly political power exerted by each institution.  They don't generally consider the ideological impact that comes with membership in these institutions, and what that means for the political landscape as a whole.  Thus you read a lot about in the progressive blogosphere about union endorsements of various candidates, but not a lot about the challenges of organizing for mutual aid, the meaning of solidarity, etc.  (I know that's an overly broad brush, since there are some, like Tula Connell and Jonathan Tasini, who blog passionately and intelligently about such topics.  But I think on the whole it's a fair generalization.)

The upshot is that progressives tend to look at cultural institutions and think in terms of number of votes generated or dollars raised.  I think that when we do that, we lose sight of a much more important phenomenon - the fact that these institutions have the power to alter their members' worldviews, to create new progressives, in a way which will make the political landscape infinitely more favorable to us in the future.

I certainly agree with the items on your bullet list under cultural goals; they feel somewhat ad hoc, though, and are stated primarily in terms of individual existing power structures.  What about creating new ones -- and mashing up, remixing, and distributing the interactions between the existing ones?

The list I drafted above was written in terms of a fairly classic list of institutions which are responsible for forging ideology.  It's only slightly modified from a similar list drawn up by Louis Althusser, who first coined the term "ideological state apparatus" and its more sinister counterpart, the repressive state apparatus.  While Althusser was writing in mid-20th century France, I think many of the apparatuses he describes are still very important in shaping ideology today.

However, I do think it's worth considering the "edge" of the ideological landscape, as you suggest.  There are a few candidates for ideological institutions which I hadn't mentioned, but which are worth considering: the marketplace, geographic community, online social networks, and the military (not in the sense of its repressive impact on a population, but in the way that it shapes the lives of the people within it.) My guess is that the ideological impact of these institutions is negligible relative to the others I listed, either because of their weak role in creating ideology or because of their limited reach in terms of density in society.  I'd certainly be interested to learn otherwise, though.

There is another possibility which I haven't really considered, and that is that there's a "long tail" of ideological apparatuses, ranging from jogging groups to knitting circles, each of which exert a very small ideological impact but which, taken together, have an impact which could rival that of the "short head" apparatuses.  I'd have to think about that some more, I guess.

Turning to the question of mashups, I gather that you're asking about what happens when ideological institutions "collide".  That happens quite a lot, actually, and the results are very interesting and nuanced, a bit too much so for this piece.  I recently read a fascinating book called Shaking the World for Jesus, for example, which explores how evangelicals are trying to shape various kinds of media.  That's a topic for another day, but essentially Heather Hendershot argues that there is a tension between strengthening evangelical self-identity; converting non-evangelicals through media; pushing the secular media to pay attention to evangelical concerns; and making profits.  The evangelical media landscape contains plenty of examples of artists who negotiate these tensions in very different ways.  Anyway, this is really interesting stuff, but after reading Hendershot's work, I'm not sure that the "two-fer" effect really exists in ideological mashups.

[Since you've mentioned this before, a quick digression: concentrating too much concepts like "multiplying" potentially lead you to mentally modeling power as a single dimension based on the average [or sum] of the power of the participants; and it ignores the positive feedback loops, which are where the biggest gains are possible.  So it's a useful way to think of things; just keep its limitations in mind.]

Yes, this is a very good point.  Power is not one-dimensional, although occasionally, as on Election Day, it really is.  What I think my sum of products model captures nicely is the difference between various types of institutions and between various specific institutions within a given type.  For example, why are unions just as politically potent, if not more so, than evangelical churches?  There are a lot more people going to evangelical churches, but those churches are much more stringently restricted in how they can be politically active.  Arguably, one could also say that the ideology crafted by evangelical churches is less explicitly political than that crafted by unions.  Or to look at another question, how does one compare the ideological impact of non-denominational evangelical churches with, say, the Catholic church?

2) Strategy is a continuous process.  At any given point in time, you're taking actions that are simultaneously in aid of your goals -- and of finding out more information (because "assessment" is similarly dynamic).  Each of these actions changes the current situation as well as the probability distribution of possible outcomes looking forward.

That's true.  I think this will be addressed better in part three of the series, covering dynamics and evaluation.  As a general rule, though, I think from the standpoint of cultural reform, one has to think in fairly long timelines and fairly high-level pictures.  For example, How is the religious landscape of today different than that of the 70's and 80's, and what do we need to do to adapt to that and ensure that the progressive worldview doesn't get lost in those changes?  From the standpoint of political campaigning, the real key is not to refight last year's battles, which for some reason everyone seems to be doing unrelentingly.  Conservatives act like every day is still September 12, 2001 and that all progressives are exact replicas of a group of counter-culturalists whose heyday was maybe thirty years ago; and in 2004, Democrats nominated someone who would have done very well as a candidate in the 1950's.  It's sort of frustrating.

Putting these two things together in a concrete example: your earlier post about a potential labor/consumer partnership is a good example of point #1.  One way to investigate it is to look for an initial project -- not a grand coalition, but something very specific in a situation where it has a good chance of success.  This has strategic value in a couple of ways: the networks of connections that get built up, transferring skills, learning about what does and doesn't work, and (if successful) getting a proof point.

I think I see where you're going with this, and I certainly agree in general about the need for coalition-building that is careful and sensitive to the needs of all groups involved.  That's part of how cultural communities flex their political muscle, and it's important.  I suppose that I'm more focused on the manner in which cultural institutions forge ideology, and that seems to me to be an inherently self-contained process.  

I could be wrong, though.  Pastor Dan at Street Prophets has written before on the importance of service within faith communities as a form of witness, i.e., as a crucial step in ideological formation.  It's easy to see how this extends to ideological mashups.  Let's say that a union local and a church group work together to help the workers get a raise (in fact I believe this sort of thing is happening more and more these days).  I'm sure that such an effort would play a crucial role in the ideological formation of the congregants and the workers.  Given the increasingly participatory nature of media, and the increasing prevalence of service projects on high school and college campuses and the notion of "service learning", it's certainly possible that these kinds of cross-institutional projects could be increasingly important in ideological formation in the future.

by Shai Sachs 2008-03-31 06:50AM | 0 recs
Re: Outlining a progressive grand strategy, part 1

And thanks for the detailed response!  Agreed on the importance on considering the different kinds of power and the effects both on the ideology and more general cultural environment, and breaking things down in a way that emphasizes that makes a lot of sense.

A couple of other quick comments:

However, I do think it's worth considering the "edge" of the ideological landscape, as you suggest.  There are a few candidates for ideological institutions which I hadn't mentioned, but which are worth considering: the marketplace, geographic community, online social networks, and the military (not in the sense of its repressive impact on a population, but in the way that it shapes the lives of the people within it.) My guess is that the ideological impact of these institutions is negligible relative to the others I listed, either because of their weak role in creating ideology or because of their limited reach in terms of density in society.  I'd certainly be interested to learn otherwise, though.

Assume for the same of argument that you're right, and they've been relatively unimportant to date.  Might there be significant potential there which hasn't been leveraged -- perhaps by combining two of these?  For example, coupling online social networks with geographic communities helps get around the limited reach of social networking technologies: the small subset of highly-wired people act as bridges with local community organizers.  

Part of the reason that these new institutions are so important is that existing ones were created at a time where oppression was uncritically accepted in a lot of dimensions, and so (despite best intentions) absorb and recreate a lot of this.  

There is another possibility which I haven't really considered, and that is that there's a "long tail" of ideological apparatuses, ranging from jogging groups to knitting circles, each of which exert a very small ideological impact but which, taken together, have an impact which could rival that of the "short head" apparatuses.  I'd have to think about that some more, I guess.

Something to keep in mind here: the "short head" of institutions is going to reflect societal power vectors, and so tend to be primarily straight white upperclass male dominated.  You have to get out to the tail if you want to want to get more diverse participation.

Also, in many cases people/institutions in the tail may have more unrealized power.  Hardt and Negri's Multitude discusses this using different language.

As a general rule, though, I think from the standpoint of cultural reform, one has to think in fairly long timelines and fairly high-level pictures

In a lot of cases.  I wouldn't take that as a limitation; newer forms are very malleable, and institutions in crisis can sometimes change relatively quickly.  Also, some of these evolutions (I wouldn't necessarily say "reforms") have already been in progress for quite a while -- in the media space, for example -- so the timelines from today may be a lot shorter.

Given the increasingly participatory nature of media, and the increasing prevalence of service projects on high school and college campuses and the notion of "service learning", it's certainly possible that these kinds of cross-institutional projects could be increasingly important in ideological formation in the future.
Indeed.  And since I think it generally serves both society and the progressive cause if this is the case, I'd suggest emphasizing these kinds of projects and focusing on how to make them more impactful on more dimensions of power.

by JonPincus 2008-04-01 06:24PM | 0 recs

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