Outlining a progressive grand strategy, part 1 - goals and assessment
by Shai Sachs, Sun Mar 30, 2008 at 07:40:23 AM EDT
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 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 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.
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.
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.