Movemental Politics, Institutional Politics, and Electoral Politics
In making Ryan his running mate, Mitt Romney guaranteed that this election will be about big principles, but he also underscored a little-noted transformation in American politics: Liberals and conservatives have switched sides on the matter of which camp constitutes the party of theory and which is the party of practice. Americans usually reject the party of theory, which is what conservatism has now become.– E.J. Dionne
This is a reflective that resulted from reading Van Jones, Rebuilding the Dream, Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Jimmy Carter, White House Diary and Chris Hayes, The Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy. That I read them doesn’t mean that I am parroting them.
Jones’s book is superficial but provides some points of engaging the conflict between movemental politics and institutional politics.
Hedges and Sacco describe the situation in the US that has made movemental politics necessary and urgent. Unfortunately, Hedges and Sacco after profiling the situation on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in Camden NJ, in the coal country of West Virginia, and in the migrant farmworker hub of Immolakee FL do not follow up with the devastation that has occurred in suburban America that thought itself immune from the struggles of these other places. Finally, he profiles Occupy Wall Street with as much superficiality as Jones does concerning movemental politics. And he relies on the same activists at Occupy Wall Street that showed up on Colbert and other media coverage of the encampment. They are good at expressing their experiences but what comes out is not the whole story even as viewed through the limited lens of livestreams.
Carter’s diary from his White House years is instructive as to the day-by-day unfolding of events in the White House and how a President perceives those events and what decisions are required of the President. Given Carter’s candor, it is as close to an inside description of the “inside game” that we are likely to get.
Finally, Hayes looks at the assumptions about meritocracy that drove the liberal era in America and how the environment of money gradually corrupted them. Also Hayes examines the idea of merit and social mobility itself in a commendably nuanced argument.
Movemental politics is that which shakes up the institutions (and even entire societies) and shifts the terms of political debate. It is the proverbial “street” filled with the opinions of the public and the prodding of activists. It is what institutional politicians want to co-opt or suppress because it is too unpredictable, too critical of institutions, and too dangerous to established interests. It is the barricades of 1848, the secret network of the Underground Railroad, the reformist campaigns of the prohibitionist feminists, the church meetings of the Civil Rights movement, the strikes by the United Mine Workers, the United Farm Workers, and Solidarnosc. It is the hundreds of thousands in the streets opposed to the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. And it is the protests in Mexico City, Spain, Rio+10, #NoNATO, Occupy Wall Street and on and on. It criticizes, it confronts, and it builds alternatives. It is where the left claims to feel comfortable. It is where there are conflicts between various political alternatives. And grassroots debates on grassroots terms.
So what do we know about movemental politics?
Movements appear from nowhere
There might be a sense for decades that there are some serious issues that need to be dealt with and yet not movement appears. There is a common experience among organizers of engaging in endless conversations and persuasion and debates and actions–and nothing happens. All of the discussions about “Where is the revolution?” are the despair of folks who have given much thought and effort and meet with utter indifference to the point that outright opposition would be a step forward. And then, when least expected, a bunch of people rise up and push the issue. And the resonance of their action prompts a cascade of other people to do the same. And the movement ripples out from there. Something happens that is totally unexpected. And catches the guardians of institutional politics flat-footed.
Movements are attractive
When the catalyzing event happens, no one has to motivate people to act or to show up in the street. Sometimes it is spontaneous. Other times a planned event is overwhelmed with a response. The sense of something significant attracts people who might otherwise not leave home or leave their everyday routines. People switch off their TVs and get off their duffs. Like the appearance of a movement, this aspect is also uncontrollable. That is, there is no way that you can market to get the cascading response that occurs. The cascading extends as far and as rapidly as the social media of the time permits communications about the events of the movement.
Movements begin among marginal people and initially represent a minority opinion
Let’s be clear what marginal means in this statement. Movements begin among people who stand in two different worlds that are in conflict. American merchants in the 18th century considered themselves to be English citizens, yet were treated as a foreign colony, like an inhabitant of British India or Hong Kong. Domestic US commerce was colonial commerce. The sit-ins in Greensboro were of African-American college students who were in a segregated society that denied them access to a workers lunch counter. The anti-Vietnam War protests started with college students (especially at elite colleges) who were told that education was important to society but who were being drafted and being killed as soon as they completed that education. The Occupy Wall Street movement started with folks who found that education would not give them a life as good as, let alone better, than that of their parents and who yet were chained to student loans that were forever. When it appeared, the idea of American independence was a minority opinion and remained so until it was gained. The Civil Rights movement was a minority of activists in a sea of people who then and now have to behave according to the notion of white privilege. The labor movement always and still is an minority. The feminist movement remains a minority opinion among women who have gained the right to vote and work in self-motivated proffessional positions. And Occupy Wall Street remains a minority position, especially and surprisingly, among progressives and the left.
Movements have no clear plan but pursue many objectives at once
Everything looks so planned out in hindsight the narrative of the great transformation wrought by the movement is recounted. Large than life figures, grand actions, inevitable victory. When the cascade occurs, it catches the folks who have been working at it for a long time by surprise. The response from the New England countryside to the British occupation of Boston, for example. The many sit-ins that followed Greensboro sit-in. The first draft card burning in the Vietnam War protests. The turnout at Occupy Wall Street on October 1, the day of the Brooklyn Bridge arrests.
And the response to the cascade is the first attempts a real organization. Before there were not enough people to worry about organization; now people are going in all different directions. Correspondence committees were organized across the 13 colonies; a rudimentary postal service was organized for their correspondence; militias were spontaneously organized and began drilling. Or in the 1960s, sit-ins were organized throughout the South to desegregate libraries, swim-in to desegregate public parks, African-American celebrities with a white fan base sat in to desegregate airport restaurants or booked hotel rooms at the “white” hotel. White college students and SNCC joined in Freedom rides on buses; they would insist on being able to eat together at restaurants, wait in the same waiting rooms at bus station. Voter education drives were launched across the South, challenging literacy tests and poll taxes. When the Democratic Party looked the other way, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was organized. Occupy Wall street conducted general assemblies and operated work groups that were self-organized; those dealt with media, sanitation, food, direct action, …..They involved themselves in feeding the homeless, occupying properties about to be foreclosed, conducting street theater at banks and mass rallies in public places–and they camped out 24-7. Now they Walkupy and Chalkupy. Both holding the institutions accountable and converse about the vision for an alternative.
Movements have to be translated into institutions at some point if their objectives of change are to be realized.
The social order, “society”, is institutional. It comprises common habitual patterns of interaction between and among individuals. It defines habitual communication networks that have some hierarchy of privilege of information. It aggregates patterns of status and deference that tend to be lasting. It allows individuals to have expectations of behavior that are generally fulfilled. And for all of history to this point, it has punished extreme deviance (and often much less extreme deviance) from those common expectations. When an Occupy Wall Street encampment debates how to have sanitation, food, safety, and the technological infrastructure taken care of on a continuing basis, a movement is deliberating how to institutionalize its presence in the existing society. When a revolution actually occurs and a movement takes the power of a state, it faces the question of how to institutionalize its principles and prevent the collapse of the social order and a counter-revolution. In order to accomplish this successfully, a movement must have a sufficient understanding of the institutions that they intend to change, ideas about the details of what needs to change, ability to communicate to the folks who understand and work in those institutions, and an understanding of the hazards of institutional capture of the movement. This is an abrupt change in the requirements for success of the movement; few movements make this transition successfully. Some attempt it prematurely and are co-opted; others delay it and finally dissipate as a movement from a perception of failure to have an impact. From the point of view of those within the movement, it is impossible to know with certainty where you are positioned between co-option and dissipation, and this creates a lot of controversy and potential divisions in movements in which everyone acts as if they are certain of their perceptions of the historical moment.
The translation of a movement’s principles into institutions is frequently conflated with a strategy that works inside institutions to accomplish change–the “inside” part of Van Jones’s formulation.
Translation of movement principles into institutions can be from taking over and changing existing institutions or it can be repurposing existing institutions. The strategy of working inside institutions is one of the movement co-opting the institutions instead of the reverse. Because the whole idea of institutions is to have persistent social relationships, a strategy of co-option from the inside runs up against those aspects of the institution that are resistant to change and whose purpose is to maintain the stability of social relationships in the institution. Most inside strategies wilt when movements discover that they are being opposed within the institutions. A signficant remainder find that in maneuvering around this opposition they wind up being co-opted. What appears to be a strategy of less conflict and easy victories turns out to be illusory. That does not mean that it cannot be an effective strategy in some circumstances — as long as the movement is clear about the difficult and maintains awareness of the risks.
Institutional politics comprises the persuasion and power relationships that apply to decisions within persistent social relationships. Its the uncomfortable part of meetings, Occupy general assemblies, family life, office operations, teams and so on. Most frequently it goes by the name “office politics”. It has to do with the strategies and tactics by which individuals and factions seek to direct institutions regardless of the formality or hierarchy of the structure of the institution. It is what people dismiss when they dismiss something as “just politics”. Here are some observations that don’t need much explanation to anyone who has ever tried to get something organized.
Over time, networks of communication tend to evolve into hierarchies in order to simplify the number of communication relationships required to get something done.
Part of this is the trimming of communications links because everyone communicating with everyone is cumbersome. Other times it is because it fits someone’s or some group’s principle of “efficiency”. Other times, it’s a deliberate strategy to establish one group in leadership at the expense of others.
Over time, people tend to ascribe authority to people at nodes in the communication network.
You can see this in the blogosphere in the authority of position ascribed to bloggers who run popular blogs or bloggers who attract a large audience. This ascription of authority becomes a halo effect for the treatment of everything written on the blog. And the media seeks out the most popular bloggers, or at least grants them the authority to speak on behalf of some section of the blogosphere. This is the same way that folks were identified as “leaders” of Occupy Wall Street. The ones at the nodes of communication must be who is driving the direction of Occupy Wall Street — even when they weren’t necessarily.
Division of labor tends to become persistent based on interests or skills, or both.
People like to have competent people do stuff. People also like to do stuff they feel competent at doing.
Persistent groups self-organized by interests or skills, or both, add to the complexity of communication.
Folks with necessary technical specialties have to educate folks into the limitations of those specialties and work to have “normal people” feel comfortable with the considerations of those specialties in order to avoid becoming privileged by the necessity of what one does or to encourage folks to challenge what might be unwarranted technical assertions.
Consensus requires wider and wider inclusiveness of information in setting direction.
That is what consensus is, by definition.
Effectiveness in action requires the exclusion of irrelevant actions.
That point should be self-evident.
Small groups develop boundaries that define what is inside their scope and what is outside.
Without outside information, small groups tend toward self-importance and unwarranted universalization of their positions–and action as a faction in conflict with other factions.
Groups become their own symbols
Over time, people ascribe an identity, a set of motives, a character of thought and behavior, and an enduring purpose to the institution itself and independent of the aggregate of the relationships between people associated with the institution. This has the effect of reifying a set of behavioral expectations in a corporate form. Lewis Mumford called this ascription the “myth of the machine”. The institution is now seen instrumentally by those inside its context and by people outside its context (“society at large”).
Awareness of the details of how institutional politics works in a particular institution is an invaluable resource in creating strategies for change, even from outside the institution.
This is what is normally referred to as getting to know the institutional culture.
Even people with formal authority and perceived absolute power have to operate within the limits of institutional politics.
This is what folks often miss about the highly placed folks in an institution, believed to rule at will. And what hubris collapses.
There are always countervailing institutions in society at large to any institution and countervailing factions within any institution to the current way the institution operates.
All institutions work at cross-purposes; the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. No institution is monolithic.
Strategies in institutional politics frame direct tactics in terms of the prevailing self-understanding of the institution — the conventional understanding of its identity, motives, character, and purpose.
These work over against what the institution pretends to be. Consider how Occupy Sandy exposed the privileged assumptions behind disaster relief by the Red Cross.
Strategies in institutional politics frame indirect tactics as influencing personal social networks of people within the institution either with respect to any hierarchy of relationships or against it depending on the strategic objectives and circumstances.
The chain of command is one social network, but not the only one.
Movemental politics and institutional politics are different in character and the people who are attracted to one or the other have different preferred styles of getting things done, arriving at decisions, and holding accountability. In neither case can a person expect to dictate decisions just because they assert something as necessary or desirable. In movemental politics there is lots of open conflict; institutions suppress conflict and see it emerge over bogus issues.
Electoral politics is a hybrid of movemental politics and institutional politics. It’s intent is to keep institutions from becoming rigid and out of touch with reality or to institutionalize a revolution. It provides an institution within which, in principle, movements can surface and become institutionalized as policy. In practice, it is subject to elaborate strategies to prevent the change presented by movements and the upsetting of the status quo. Here are some observations about electoral politics.
The easiest way to sway elections is to buy votes.
In the early days of US elections, a jug of whiskey at the polling place was sufficient, and most all of the Founding Fathers used this method to gain votes of the folks in their districts. So the competition between candidates was often a matter of who had the better whiskey or who was most generous.
What should be a continuous political conversation between elections has been reduced first to a marketing campaign around elections and then to a continuous marketing campaign.
Marketing campaigns are top-down persuasion strategies that make decisions about platforms of positions, promotional strategy, and direct sales (called canvassing) based on research of demographics and wants. They are one-way communications based on persuading people of a pre-established way of thinking about issues.
Election campaigns following a marketing model are candidate-centric and initiated by candidates or parties that recruit and select candidates for their ability to win a specific election.
Consider how political parties currently operate.
Political parties are institutions, not movements.
The fact that political parties not movements is a fact that political parties try to obscure by astrotufing movemental campaigns. And all, yes all, political campaigns in the US and 2012 were run as astroturfed campaigns, enlisting volunteers in recruitment, promotion, persuasion, and facilitating getting out the vote.
A truly movemental electoral campaign would arrive at a large enough consensus to win first and then recruit and vet the candidates from the bottom up on the basis of their ability to deliver the institutional change.
Note that the movement creates and focuses the constituency beforehand and makes it available to a candidate who pledges certain institutional results. The movement retains enough discipline to select another candidate the next time around — and win. That is the fact that holds an elected official to their pledge.
The critical element of the electoral process under a movemental model is the creation of an authentic consensus from the bottom up.
The implication of this is that the issues cannot be pre-loaded or forced or manipulated in the process of arriving at the consensus. There must be honest two-way communication, something that most involved in politics and political action have forgotten how to do because it is more difficult and time-consuming that adopting the marketing model.
In order to create authentic consensus, we as a society must recapture authentic political communication, involving empathy, persuasion, and compromise.
Politics is about communication and arriving at decisions about how a society operates in the short term and the long term. It is about power to the extent that individual people want to exclusively dictate those decisions. Arriving at a consensus means trading power for solidarity in a way that increases everyone’s power and dignity in social action. How to do this to ensure everyone’s power and dignity is challenge in translating movemental politics into institutional politics and in keeping the institutions open to change.
Elections intend to take the violence out of changes in power. That makes honest-to-goodness elections resulting from movemental politics frightening to the status quo and produces all sorts of institutional constraints to prevent actual change of power from happening or the broadening of the number of people who have actual power through elections. These constraints make institutions rigid and resistent to change so that change, when it comes, tends to be disruptive and violent. What we have seen in the past two years is a global movement to create a political environment in time and space that is of equal importance to the economic environment. And in every country, the authorities defend the tyranny of the economic over time and space. Economic powers define where people can assemble and discuss politics, and economic powers define the time that people have in order to care for civil society. Fixing this imbalance between economic life and political life is an important precondition of fixing all of the problems with electoral politics. There are 168 hours in a week, of which 72 is required individual maintenance time. Balance would imply that of the remaining time, 32 or so hours would be devoted to economic contribution, 32 or so hours would be devoted to cultural contribution, and 32 or so hours would be devoted to political contribution. And enough of the political time must be overlapping across the society to allow the creation of a consensus. Otherwise, “Can we talk.” is met with “I’m too busy.”
And the political contradiction that we face is that the masses of people who must be involved in a global consensus have been forced and manipulated by the current institutions into being “too busy”. It is expected, even if it is neither productive nor healthy.