It’s time to bring some lucidity to our messy culture of politics. For all of us wrestling with the idea of social systems and personal liability for the state of the union, the whole culture of political ideas – from The Republic all the way up to the Ken Starr Report – seems impossibly disarrayed.
The truth is, there are probably a thousand ways to bring order to it and make sense of it, on a thousand different levels, but even finding ONE that’s effective has become an insurmountable challenge.
But I think I’ve got something.
Here’s where I’m coming from: I have no direct political training, but I subscribe to the idea that every person has both a right and an obligation to form a political opinion. Thus, I’ve read some political articles, browsed some Wikipedia write-ups, and dug through hundreds of reader comments attached to newspapers and blog posts. My background is in philosophy and media studies, and as committed as I am to the liberal cause, I’ve struggled incessantly to keep from being a narrow-minded partisan fanatic.
What follows is a political program that finally makes sense to me, a reasonably educated citizen who’s tried very hard to make sense of his own place in politics. It’s a three-tiered concept, a triad of "levels" of effectiveness that works as both a way of critiquing current politics, and as a guide to creating one’s own political life. It’s generally abstract, "meta-political," and some of it might seem ridiculously obvious. Nonetheless, it has its fair share of insight for anyone who needs some clarity, whether they’re radical, idealistic, realistic, or cynical.
Now, remember, these are levels of political effectiveness. None of them are "ineffective," so even if you’ve only got the time and energy to reach the first one, you’re still doing your part to improve a political culture that’s grown increasingly schizophrenic in the age of mediation and contradiction. Thus I commend thee.
Without further ado, here is Jesse’s Program for Political Effectiveness.
LEVEL 1: Stop bitching
If you read through comment posts, listen to political conversations, watch national news, or read almost ANYTHING in the political sphere, you’ll discover that we’re a culture that’s addicted to denial and complaint. It’s a neurotic side-effect of democratic media: we’re all critics, and in a world of critics, we tend to lose the energy to say anything constructive, EVER, because there’s little ground left to stand on.
So the right complains about the immorality and indecision of the left, and the left complains about the intolerance and militarism of the right, and (even worse now) the left complains incessantly about ITSELF. This is why we all think the world is going to shit: nobody can stop sniping, critiquing, and complaining.
For instance, take this smart, but generally negative and unconstructive take on feminism, written by Naomi Wolf of The Beauty Myth fame: Society Prefers Weak Women. It’s an insightful piece of criticism, worthy of some exploration, finally defeated by its own finger-wagging disapproval of our mass culture. Wolf is deeply committed to her cause, but that won’t help her fight the whole bucking beast of the mass media. All she’ll do is demonstrate the ineffectiveness of reprimand and renunciation.
This Mythbusters article is an even more perfect example, and one of the primary reasons I’m writing this essay: The American Left's Silly Guilt Complex.
Matt Taibbi actually makes some reasonable points, but they’re so buried in angst-like self-loathing that they fail to come across as constructive. He’s discovered some of the outlying absurdities of liberal culture… avant-garde guerilla theater protestors, Marxists working at Starbucks… and he generalizes them to the entire left wing so that he can blame it for destroying itself.
Almost immediately, he buries a critical point: democratic ideas aren’t dead in this country, there are still politicians running on platforms that make sense, and of course college kids are a little ridiculous in their approaches to politics. After all, we all spent college negotiating the relationship between our utopian ideals and the real possibilities for living on the planet earth. When placed in the context of a diverse party, the cases Matt is talking about (the exceptional, stereotype-defining cases) are actually an asset, rather than a liability. Essentially, this essay is an excuse to rant, and for Matt Taibbi blame a handful of political outliers for what he perceives as his party’s failures.
Then read the comments. Almost every comment is a complaint, either objecting to "failed liberal culture," or objecting to Taibbi’s own ranting. Even those readers who correctly identify the issue here…the fact that Taibbi is essentially just venting frustration…are repeating the same mistake. Only a few commentators step up and outline a constructive idea. These are the ones who are helping dilute the American Tradition of Bitching.
They’re the ones who have reached LEVEL 1 of political effectiveness.
LEVEL 2: Figure out what your principles are
Once you’ve fought down the urge to disapprove, critique, and complain, you can move on to a new phase of consciousness (yay theory cred). The first step was a pathway to becoming politically aware… this second step is a way to establish a political identity. To do this, you have to figure out what you believe, and you have to defend it in conversation and vote on it at the booth.
Granted, this is tough. It requires listening to both sides of each hot-button issue (information and perspectives are plentiful), and possibly doing some research on the less sensational issues. It requires that you take a moment of your Internet time… whether it’s in the evening, or during your lunch break, or at a friend’s house… and do some reading. It also requires you to drop your preconceptions and stop taking your political impulses for granted. It may require you to ask yourself, "Do I think homosexuality is (im)moral just because my parents told me that when I was five?" It requires that you ask where your beliefs come from, and that you set some standards of legitimacy for yourself.
I hate to keep dividing by party, but there’s something to be said here about the left versus the right. The right wing has made a strong showing of unity at LEVEL 2… security, traditionalism, and economic liberalism have become their core principles, and the public has responded well to this cohesion. The left has struggled with this a bit in the last decade or so, losing track of their common ground in favor of a good deal of special-interest pandering and media sniping, both across the bipartisan divide and within their own territory. Arguably, the schizophrenic left has a stronger philosophical base for its commitments, but it’s hard to see that foundation when there doesn’t seem to be any consensus built on it.
But note: the left never lost its principles completely, and at the tail end of the Bush dynasty, we’re starting to find them again. Check out the candidate pages on MySpace: MySpace Democrats (scroll to the bottom for the individual candidates). Believe it or not, even on a forum as fluffy as MySpace, there are lists of issues on each candidate’s page, and they’re described in reasonable detail. These candidates are aware that to make their politics work, they have to make affirmative statements and productive commitments.
Even in more radical circles, the "find a principle" position makes a critical difference. Fighting for a pet cause… gay rights, religion in schools, workplace feminism… is a positive political side-effect of reaching LEVEL 2 and discovering a political principle you can take personally.
For instance, here’s a fascinating letter in Salon magazine, an explosive response to a rather silly advice letter, demonstrating a commitment to a principle. As radical as it reads, it also resonates with certainty and commitment: Is It Okay to Wear a Sexy Tank-Top to Work?
Whether it’s "Transparency" (one of Barack Obama’s noblest battles, in my opinion) or social liberty in the modern workplace, you’ve got to believe in something to be a political agent.
And that’s how you reach LEVEL 2.
LEVEL 3: Find an engaging way to communicate those principles
Okay, so in LEVEL 1, you cleared some ground. In LEVEL 2, you built a tower. Now, in LEVEL 3, it’s time to build a road.
Like, to other towers. Or maybe it’s time to have a party in your tower. Whatever. At any rate, it’s time for some outreach. And this is a big, difficult job, not something I’d demand of every citizen, by any means.
In fact, this is such a difficult job that I’m hesitant to give any but a few people credit for achieving it. Contemporary politicians certainly aren’t creating any "engaging communication," which is why this whole country has lost interest in politics. The right is trying, at least… setting up media spectacles to appeal to the hearts and human emotions of its constituency. If it didn’t look so artificial, and didn’t alienate so many moderates, I would call it good political marketing, almost LEVEL 3 material.
Leftists? Not doing so well at engaging the public with communication. Obama’s podcasts are heartfelt and media-conscious, but they’ll only appeal to the already-convinced. The articles I’ve cited above? Great fodder for debate, but not the type of thing you’d want to give to someone tottering on the partisan divide, because there's no hook for anyone but already-converted leftists with too much free time. And I certainly wouldn’t give this essay credit for being an "engaging communication of principles," either, since I’ve probably already lost most people who started reading it, 1,400 words ago.
But there are shining examples of engaging political communication throughout history, and lots of them are on the left. So much political progress has been driven by LEVEL 3’s: Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, George Orwell, and Michael Moore. These were communicators who could move people and give ideas the authenticity and polish they needed to take hold in the public sphere. Though you may not even know his name, Tony Schwartz is the epitome of a successful principled communicator working for the left. He was one of the most effective marketing geniuses in modern media, and he was a man who worked with real political and social principles: non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the influence of glamorized smoking, in particular.
I’ll skip all my other minor accolades for political communication…Ayn Rand, MoveOn.org, the Situationists, and people like that. You don’t have to hear about this from me, because it’s been said before. If you want a worthy text for reshaping the American left in the memetic age, read Dream: Re-Imagining Leftist Politics in an Age of Fantasy, by Stephen Duncombe.
At some point, the most accomplished go from political identity to political efficacy. Will Bush’s aircraft carrier spectacle have the same reach as FDR’s Fireside Chats? It remains for history to decide…but regardless, it's a history made by the political passions of principled people with exceptional inspiration… the people who have reached LEVEL 3.
This would be a good time (as good a time as any) to cut through the residue of cynicism and denial that’s building up on our political culture. In pursuit of this lofty goal, I offer this political program, designed to shut out self-destructive disapproval and encourage strength of principle and commitment. It’s a rubric for evaluating the political effects of one’s own approach, and of the approaches of the myriad political agents in the public sphere.
It’s also a political program that works sort of like a manifesto, and this is okay, because this political program doesn’t look askance at manifestos as ideological tools. After all, even if they’re a little preachy and boring (i.e., not quite LEVEL 3), manifestos at least require the establishment of some principles and commitments.
This is my idea (formed as I walked to the corner store for an evening snack), and it’s more than that…until something better comes along, this is how I’m going to look at politics, both in the world and in myself.