Progressive Strategy Brain

Last summer I highlighted a report on the state of progressive strategy called Finding Strategy: A Survey of Contemporary Contributions to Progressive Strategy (PDF).  At the time I didn't do much more beyond summarize the report and promise follow-up at a later point, which, I grudgingly admit, I didn't really do.

However, the  Progressive Strategy Studies Project (PSSP) has recently released a new companion tool for the report, so I thought I'd revisit this discussion.  The tool is called the Progressive Strategy Brain, and it's explained in an introductory blog post at the Progressive Strategy Blog.  The brain is a visualization tool which allows users to navigate a library of about 4,100 articles or entries related to progressive strategy.  The screen is split in two vertically, with the top half depicting an interconnected web of concepts centered on a single, active concept, and the bottom half providing text and description of that concept.  You can click on any concept in the top half to make it active.  While some entries have very sparse text and merely exist to depict a relationship between other concepts, others include a full report's worth of HTML.  The tool is still evolving, and PSSP hopes to update it every week.  The software which runs the whole show is called The Brain.  (Full disclosure: Wolfgang Brauner, one of the authors of the original report, and of the Progressive Strategy Brain, is a personal friend.)

Clicking around inside the Progressive Strategy Brain is quite fun, as you can navigate between all sorts of interesting topics, individuals, organizations, and even abstract ideas.  There are a few interesting jumping off points, though, such as Finding Strategy (2006) strategists (a list of strategists listed in the original report), Progressive Challenges (challenges which face the prorgressive movement), Progressive Strategy Types, and Progressive Strategy Literature.

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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.

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Identity, Ideology, and Cultural Institutions

On Monday, Chris Bowers at OpenLeft wrote about the importance of a long-term trend of growing racial, ethnic and religious diversity in the demise of the conservative movement.  Chris's main thesis are that identity and ideology are one and the same, in the sense that the cultural institutions which produce one's identity are the same as those which produce one's ideology, and that Democrats should stop thinking about political positioning in terms of classic left/center/right ideological terms.  The upshot: Democrats must eschew Republican tactics, messaging and policies in favor of embracing pluralism and diversity.

There's a lot to agree with in his post, although I do think he misses a few key points.  First and foremost, I believe he's only partially correct in claiming that the ideological self-identification is essentially meaningless.  While it is true that a clever ad campaign can move ideological self-identification numbers tremendously, it's also true that self-identification numbers have been remarkably stable in exit polls for many years: about 20% of voters self-identify as liberals, while about 33% of voters self-identify as conservatives.  It would appear that about half of the country self-identifies ideologically in a very stable way, meaning that ideology is not quite dead - it's just dead for about half of the electorate, and probably a pretty good share of the non-voting adult population.

Second and perhaps more importantly, while it's true that "all of the major institutions that produce someone's cultural identity ... are the same
institutions that produce someone's ideology", each institution pulls the identity and ideology levers in different ways.  For example, while it's almost certainly true that educational institutions play a role in ideological formation, do they really do much for identity creation?  Contra-wise, the role of family life in ideological formation is murky at best, while family life plays a central role in identity creation.

At the end of the day, I think while Chris is largely right, there is a clearer line between ideology and identity than he supposes.  Probably, what this means is that there are many people who vote an identity, a pretty sizable group that votes both an identity and an ideology, and a small number who vote against an identity/ideology.  That obviously has implications for electoral strategy, but I think it also has implications for what I'd call (for lack of a better term) our cultural strategy - our strategy for engaging and shaping cultural institutions in order to keep our base growing and strong.  In particular, this means that our cultural strategy should not only include efforts to strengthen and create cultural institutions which form the progressive ideology/identity, it also means that the strategy should draw clear lines between cultural movements and progressivism.

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Funding the Progressive Movement

On Monday, the New Progressive Coalition released its signature product, the Political Mutual Fund.  The mutual fund provides progressives with an easy way to donate intelligently to organizations which are pursuing a sound strategy towards a larger goal identified by NPC.  For starters, NPC has identified three large-scale goals which progressives can "invest" in: Victory in 2008 and Beyond, Health Care, and Energy Independence and the Environment.  To be selected for investment within a mutual fund, an organization must meet a variety of criteria. 
It must have a strategy consistent with NPC's goals; it must be effective; it must fill a gap in the political landscape; it must be innovative; it must provide a good "return", according to quantifiable metrics; it must have potential for growth and for changing the landscape; and it should have a good track record and a high-caliber staff.  Individual investors should not plan on getting their money back, except in progress made towards political goals.

The launch of the political mutual funds has been successful, with coverage at the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, DailyKos, ABC, CBS, Time, USA Today, CNN and Forbes.  In terms of real dollars, the three funds combined have so far pulled in just north of $100,000.  The mutual funds together include 37 progressive organizations, including Energize America, the energy legislation group begun on Daily Kos.  There is a relatively low barrier to entry; to join in the fun, progressive investors should chip in a minimum of $50, plus a 2% administrative fee.

The political mutual funds are the culmination of about two years of organizational soul-searching, market research, and some fairly intense grappling with the progressive political landscape.  When it first began, NPC's mission was to serve both progressive organizations (by providing them with resources, both monetary and otherwise, to help them succeed) and progressive investors (by giving them a chance to invest in effective organizations, and to participate in more meaningful ways as well.)  NPC devoted considerable resources towards studying the progressive political landscape.  It divided the alphabet soup of progressive organizations into six sectors: Advocacy, Electoral, Idea Generation,  Infrastructure & Capacity, Leadership Development, and Media.  Inspired by the use of return on investing metrics in the world of financial investments, NPC developed the theoretical framework of a "Political Return on Investment" metric within each sector, measuring things like legislation passed per dollar invested.  Along the way, NPC shifted its focus; instead of creating a marketplace where investors would invest in, partner with, and mentor progressive organizations, NPC decided to create a pseudo-financial instrument for investors to "consume".  The political mutual fund is that instrument.

With the launch of the political mutual fund finally upon us, the progressive movement now has a broad-based mechanism which will allow individual investors of relatively modest means to participate in meaningful and intelligent movement-funding.  But what does the rest of the landscape for funding the progressive movement look like, and what is missing?

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Making Progressivism Real

On Monday, Chris Bowers wrote about a fascinating Lear/Zogby study on entertainment choices and ideological orientation.  The study is interesting because in addition to asking respondents to self-identify as liberal, conservative, or moderate, the study asks respondents a flurry of questions and then assigns ideological markers ("Blue", "Red", and "Purple") to respondents post-hoc.

Bowers argues that the most significant way to produce political change is to support cultural institutions which produce progressive ideological change will make a much larger difference in electoral and legislative outcomes than anything that is done in the political world.  I think it's a very wise point.  Clever campaign ads and better voter targeting will only take a progressive candidate so far in a world where progressives are vastly outnumbered by conservatives.  Contra-wise, even a very poorly run campaign for a progressive candidate can succeed in a world awash with progressives.  That's why labor unions, progressive news and opinion media, and liberal religious organizations are so important: they are cultural institutions which make progressivism real for people who may not be tuned into politics actively, and thereby make people more progressive.  The first-order political impacts of these organizations, like church voter registration drives and campaign donations from unions, are just gravy.

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