Image Politics vs Action

It is with growing amount distress that I've observed a certain kind of rigidity settling over sections of the progressive blogosphere, as well as an arrogance that seems entirely insular. The other day, on Daily Kos, in the midst of a rant about NARAL and other women's organizations, Kos referred to his long-held disdain for organizing protests and marches. And then recently here, Chris Bowers went on an extended rant about people who dare to criticize Hillary Clinton in terms that reflect the Republican's slant against her. Suddenly, something crystalized in my head that has been simmering in the background since the 2004 election. There is a kind of circular obsessiveness and close-mindedness bordering on cowardice enveloping the blogsphere, and it is one of the more dangerous developments in progressive politics.

Whether it was the Howard Dean campaign, the MoveOn push to get Kerry elected, or various house and senate races, the netroots have yet to produce a truly satisfying victory. Despite all the certainty and high-level dialogue about changing the national conversation, in actual races on the ground, we've lost again and again. The Rodriguez/Cuellar primary is just the latest example. How is it possible, we think, with all of our enthusiasm and intellect and money that this could happen? Why did Dean crash and burn, why Hackett? Why Kerry? Why are we still having so little impact on actual policy?

It's ironic that Kos's disdain for protest marches centered around their need for publicity and press, when in fact that's all the netroots is, a way to change the tide of media noise. Chris (rather presumptiously, I thought) asserts that we have to be very careful what we say, because the press and important people are always watching. Sounds a lot like the bad kind of protest march meetings I've been to. No matter what the forum is, elections, netroots, marches, speeches--it's not the form but the content that brings real change. All the obsession with taking back the political language is just the same bandage that protest organizers also use to cover their essential lack of vision for the future. We're so obsessed with how things do or don't appear, that we don't address our fundamental beliefs. The Republicans beat us year after year not because they're better at the manipulation of essentially blank people, but because at heart they are mostly true-believers. They believe the markets will solve everything. They are real pro-lifers. They are hawkish, without equivication. Whether or not there are a cabal of greedy cynics using all that belief to their ends is beside the point. As any war will show you, it's always the believers that win. The U.S. had the weaponry, the training, the resources, the sheer population, to defeat North Vietnam, and yet we lost. It's happening again in Iraq.

I bring all this up, because I think we need to be very careful before we start criticizing any methods of expression in favor of some overall strategy. Say what you will about protest marches, the million-plus women who showed up for the rally Kos disdained are real believers. Only the left would quibble about whether it was the right strategy and about wasted resources. The right would embrace them as the core of their movement, and they have. Can you really say that abortion clinic protesters are more reflective of America than those women? And yet they form the core of a Republican party that owns all the institutions of power.

And the fact is, that for all the fire and excitement about the netroots, actual on-the-street activists and civil disobeyers have a couple decades of actual achieved results to point to. You can talk all you want about "outmoded", but perhaps you better get the new-fangled hydrogen car out of the garage before you abandon the Chevy.

If we're not supposed to actually hit the streets, but spend our time in this fantasy world, we'd better at the very least have our intellectual freedom. Cause that's all we have here. Nothing is actually happening, except talk. Very good talk, and valuable, but nothing else.

This tendency towards ignoring "old" ways of politicking and yet shutting down alternative voices in the new feels very much like the various reasons people have fled the left for many decades. That's why what's happening is dangerous. The history of the left is littered with fired-up college students predicting a revolution on their own terms, only to step on the actual streets and find that they were talking to themselves the whole time. The only difference is this time, very few of us are actually getting as far as the street.

We will never win as long as we are afraid of our true power. As long as we obsess about image and voice and strategy, and don't listen to and express without fear or embarassment the anger and sloppiness of true belief. The Republicans seem so ridiculous to us that we can't imagine how they constantly get elected. And yet that's exactly why they're in power. They aren't afraid. We are.

Tags: Blogosphere, civil disobedience, Daily Kos, Politics, protest (all tags)



Re: Image Politics vs Action

Amen brother,

All the high-level talk is great, but we need to accomplish something via this internet activism before we crystalize our thinking about how to use it.  


by PortDork 2006-03-09 12:29AM | 0 recs
OK, about dropping the 'straw men'

I don't think anyone would disagree with your basic point.  But you've set up a 'straw man' argument here that is really counterproductive.

Obviously, we need to worry about both the content and the package.  We clearly need to think about both.    This diary makes it seem like an either or proposition--we're either 'acting' or we're in a 'fanatasy' world.  No in between, no possibility for balance, collaboration, coordination.  Action or fantasty, take your pick.  It's a false choice.  Why not reach for a vision of a co-ordinated effort between multiple sectors of the current poilitical landscape?  A collaboration where sometimes the netroots pushes the traditional machine and sometimes vice versa?  That's obviouisly what we all want.  It's just so logical.

The question is not if the netroots is having an impact, but are we able to understand that impact and exploit it to its full potential.  It's about netroots working with activists on the ground not working in the place of--that's the point.  It's just so obvious to me, I don't see why this is so difficult to digest.

Langauge and image are just key aspects--individual components of a larger picture, not the whole thing.  C'mon...that's such an obvious point.  I just don't get why everyone's feelings need to be so hurt by this conversation.    

Think about it:  We cannot afford for a minute to throw away any tool or resource or approach that has potential. I mean,  if I thought we could gain some ground in local elections using iPods Shuffles--wouldn't you at least give it a try?  Of course you would.  On the other hand, if 100% of Democratic organizing shifted to iPod campaigns--all organizers, volunteers, candidates, voters, donors, etc.--then, yeah.  That would never work.  It would be a big fat waste of time.  But that's not what's happening and that's not what people are calling for.

So just take the 'straw men' and overstatement out of your argument and, yeah, you have a great point.  A really great rallying cry.  Why not make this point in such a way that it moves us forward?  Something like, "Sure, the netroots is a powerful approach, but it's not everything.  Here's how I see it working with more traditional boots-on-the-ground activism...let's work together...let's stay unified...let's get out there and take back every district...etc."

See what I mean?  Just check the 'fantasty' slaps in the face at the door and, suddenly, we all might actually be talking to each other in a productive way.

This is such an easy step to take...

by Jeffrey Feldman 2006-03-09 02:13AM | 0 recs
Re: OK, about dropping the 'straw men'

I'm sorry that it didn't come out clearly in what I wrote, but I agree with you compeletely. I was intending my piece to be a critique of exactly the kind of close-mindedness you're talking about. It was the statements by Kos and Bowers that seemed aimed at limiting the diversity of our action that upset me in the first place. And I think if you look at the other comments here, and at some other diaries (like Hudsons), this isn't an entirely "straw man" argument.

I think the third column, if you will, of the left will always have to be protest marches and the like. That's where you and I may differ a little. I don't think it's just about electoral activists on the ground working with the netroots, but also about civil disobedience, marches, rallies, whatever. Because the Republicans, though never quite putting them front and center, were never afraid of their kooks and radicals, they've managed to tap into an anger at the status quo, and "values" territory that should rightfully be ours.

That's why I also take issue with Chris's anger at those who criticize Hillary incorrectly. It's all part of the same fear/disdain of unfettered and uncalculated expression. Everything can't just be about getting someone elected, and about how we are perceived. Over time, those who are unafraid of their convictions and allow others in their party to express those thoughts in emotional ways will win the national conversation. There has to be multiple levels of action, as you say, but at the heart of a movement has to be the people who are willing to walk all day in the rain with a sign, or put themselves at risk for a cause. Every victory we've ever had has been this way.

by argghh 2006-03-09 08:04AM | 0 recs

I didn't agree entirely with what Bowers wrote, but I could understand why he wrote it. And since I embrace his larger project (e.g., I read/contribute to this site), I figured I'd cut him some slack.

But I appreciate the reactions against what he wrote.  I feel the same way when people tell me to stop navel gazing and get out there and 'do something.' ; )  I mean, even in the Revolutionary War, there were people who staid up all through the night printing the broadsheets.

I saw what Bowers wrote as more of a 'marital spat' that anything else.  I think what we need every once in a while is to just hang it up for the day and go out for a beer.   Maybe we should have mandatory beer night every week?!  It's amazing how productive a little regularly scheduled non-productivity can be.

by Jeffrey Feldman 2006-03-09 08:15AM | 0 recs
Re: Exactly
"straw men" vanish on the fire of the previous regime. I'm not as sure about the "rubber stamp!" feature of our electoral process! We may end up with the same stamps dressed in different
philosphical,kleptocratic threads. I can be sure of one thing. Kleptocracy will not end. The Israli Sharon replied to a journalists questions concerning the Congress.His reply was,"I dont give a damn what they want, I own the Congress!"
For the cost of booze and whores or contributions, he had bought the D.C. public restroom.
by northwest 2006-03-30 10:21AM | 0 recs
Re: Image Politics vs Action

Though I'm a big fan of both Kos and the MyDD folks, I just recommended this diary because I think it's a very important conversation to have.

For example, I was among those initially bowled over by Lakoff's theories of framing and messaging.  But I became disenchanted when I saw how the debate about image, tone and language was becoming a happy substitute for direct action.

An underlying theme of a number of my diaries (click my link, damn it!) is this glut of theory, and dearth of practice, among Democrats -- coupled with a tremendous fear of their own progressive shadows.

Aaargh is on target with his comparison of how Republicans embrace abortion protesters, but Democrats distance themselves from peace and pro-choice protesters. Winning elections in a society where fewer and fewer people vote will become even more about turnout in future years, and that is where the base comes in.

Instead of firing up its base, and courting those who normally don't vote, the Democratic establishment amazingly still has not grokked that you don't win by only trying to trick voters at the (alleged) center into thinking we're more like Republicans than they (supposedly) assume.

(For a brief shining moment there, Dean's campaign was cutting through that dynamic, until he ran into both a media buzzsaw and his own difficulty with campaign discipline.)

Aaargh is also right to point out that grassroots activists routinely win victories when they are properly funded, and when they actually follow-through on their plans. If I have a critique of the left, it is not that the positions are too extreme; I mean, come on, no one agrees with the Wingnuts on abortion, but just look at our Supreme Court now. It is not that marches and protests are a tired form of expression. It is not that the "old" tactics don't work anymore.

Rather, it is just that there needs to be a whole lot more rigor and more commitment to the most basic necessities of politics: making a plan and sticking to it.

Any time we start doubting our "values" and feeling we need to "re-frame" our arguments, we should go back to square one and remember that people have supported the likes of Bush more because of the (illusory) firmness of his stance, not what he stands for. Until Democrats actually stake out firm positions, without equivocation and without fear of "how it's going to look," and couple that clarity of mind with a dedication to hard campaigning, the dynamic won't change.

All I know is that by sticking with it, and not apologizing for our views, we were able to take over our local Democratic committee and install a progressive government in the small city where I live. So it is doubly frustrating to watch the supposed professionals on the State and Federal levels still fail to understand what many of us have found out through direct experience on the local level.

by Hudson 2006-03-09 06:25AM | 0 recs
Re: Image Politics vs Action

You're so right. And I'm recommending this diary as well. Hence, my diary about Gay Rights and my dismay with the Democratic Party's mealy mouthed stance.

by Intrepid Liberal Journal 2006-03-09 04:02PM | 0 recs


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