Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Progressive Grand Strategy: Goals - A Response to Shai Sachs

This is a preliminary response to Shai Sachs' Outlining a Progressive Grand Strategy, Part I - Goals and Assessment (full disclosure: Shai is a personal friend). We are very happy about his response, which is in part inspired by our report, Finding Strategy, which he also reviewed, because one of our goals is to stimulate discussion of grand strategy, which unfortunately we have not been able to find much of so far. Our basic premise is that a more systematic and sophisticated approach to progressive strategy can contribute towards making it more effective in building power over the long-term, in a cumulative and comprehensive way.

Shai differentiates between political and cultural goals, and begins to analyze both of them. The distinction between these two types of goals is useful - more on that later. Indeed, as Shai points out, most progressive focus on political goals. This is very important, because strategies are very much goal-driven, and as goals diverge - as they do significantly between different types of progressives (centrists/moderates, liberals, left-liberals, leftists) - so do strategies: Neoliberalism, for instance, is very different from social democracy, and everything that comes and goes with these two, in many ways diverging traditions.

We have begun to address this in our report by differentiating between three major types of strategy: Electoral, movement, and movement-electoral. It seems to me that these types of strategy tend to correlate somewhat with the ideological orientation of their proponents, though this is by no means a hard and fast rule: Centrists/moderates seem to be primarily interested in winning elections, and tend to focus on methods and tactics that they think are most likely to achieve this goal (polling, sociodemographic analyses, framing, messaging, voter mobilization, etc.). On the other end of the progressive spectrum, as it were, those primarily if not exclusively interested in building movements, if not the movement, essentially through grassroots organizing, tend to be further to the left. Finally, there seems to be a growing number of progressives who increasingly focus on how best to combine movement and electoral strategies, and how to articulate their relationship most effectively. Here, progressives seem to be coming from both ends of the spectrum, and it seems that this offers the greatest potential.

Paul Wellstone used to emphasize what might be called a 'progressive trinity:'
There are three critical ingredients to democratic renewal and progressive change in America: good public policy, grassroots organizing and electoral politics. [...] Electoral politics without grassroots community organizing is a politics without a base, community organizing without electoral politics is a marginal politics, and electoral politics and community organizing without good, sound public policy is a politics without a head.
I'd be tempted to develop this metaphor further, hopefully without pushing it too far, into a kind of progressive body politic, as it were. Thus, movement and infrastructure are the legs that move politics (and culture) in a progressive direction. Elected officials and politicians at the local, state, and national level are the arms and the hands that change policies at that level. And there already is an abundance of excellent progressive thinking on public policy. So the head of the progressive movement, the collective intelligence, as it were, with the vision and the ideas, already exists (The Progressive Strategy Brain understands itself as a contribution to this.). The main challenge is to integrate these three components into a functioning body of strategy, so to speak. And again, this is a very hard challenge for progressives, because on all three levels - grassroots, elections, and policy - there are significant differences between and among progressives. Grand strategy requires a lot of coordination, cooperation, and ultimately integration.

Closely related to this progressive trinity is another trinity, the differentiation of power developed by Steven Lukes, and known as the three faces (or levels, dimensions) of power, which has strongly influenced the strategic work of the Grassroots Policy Project, among others:
  1. Decision-making power, i.e. the visible, highly institutionalized and organized governing and ruling power of governments
  2. Non-decision-making power, referring to agenda-setting and the closely related infrastructural level
  3. Ideological power, arguably the most important level, since the ability to influence the self-understanding of people, their ideas, attitudes, interests, and desires of people is the most effective way of exercising power
These three levels of power identify another set of key challenges progressives are facing, and that progressive strategy needs to address systematically. The relative weakness of progressives on all three levels is well known. Given scarce resources, including time, attention and energy - and not only money and personnel - a key question in strategy always concerns prioritizing and sequencing, in other words: Where should progressives start, and what aspect should they privilege, necessarily at the expense of others - and which ones? Especially in strategy, there is always a very significant opportunity cost, and in a very fundamental way: Not only that one can spend every dollar only once, but also that one can effectively only pursue one progressive grand strategy, and not two; and which one should it be? In any case, it doesn't exist yet. What we have are fragments, but it is increasingly urgent to begin to put them together. Who is going to do that important work? Someone once told me that the reason that so few progressives concentrate on grand strategy, because hardly anyone considers it to be his or her job - and in a very literal sense: They don't get paid for it. Why isn't there more funding for progressive strategy?

Lukes emphasizes that ideology/worldview is the most important dimension of power; it is also the hardest to change. But the increasing difficulties faced by conservatism provides a good opportunity for progressives to restore their values, principles and priorities in society. Shai rightly emphasizes the crucial connection between politics and culture. In fact, a good starting point might be to slightly paraphrase a famous motto: The political is cultural, and the cultural is political. Indeed, many progressives understand themselves as 'culture workers.' While culture is very important, it is much harder to operationalize it for the purposes of progressive strategy, a challenge Shai clearly addresses.

Indeed, lots of work need to be done in this highly contested terrain. How do you change a culture? What even is culture? One fruitful, and probably rather unfamiliar approach would be to conceive of culture as a form of second-order observation. Inspired by second-order cybernetics, the key idea is to understand culture not only as a structure of cognitive and normative expectations that shape perceptions, communication, and behavior, but also always as a form of observation that not only observes what social actors do, but also observes how they observe, and how the way they observe any phenomenon determines what they observe, how they relate to it (or not) and how they deal with it (or not) - and always with respect to the contingency of any observation, i.e. the fact any observation is a social construct: One can observe and behave that way, but one does not have to do so. In short, it is always selective, depending on one's perspective, if not to say: ideology/worldview, which is where we come full circle! I know, this all sounds terribly abstract, if not irrelevant; but my hope is that this constructivist approach opens up new ways of thinking about and changing culture. Although I do have to admit that I am somewhat skeptical when it comes to changing a whole culture, given how hard it is for progressives to transform a comparatively simple organization such as the Democratic Party into a more progressive organization ...

In the next installment, I will address strategic assessment. I very much hope others will join us in this important conversation.

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