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Long lefty laundry lists | Populism & Hegemony pt.4

This is the fourth post in a series.

Let’s say that I care a lot about the war in Iraq, and I start planning with some other folks in my town to put together a public rally to call for an end to the war and occupation. Well, what if we made the rally about the economy too? Everyone cares about the economy, right? Surely more people will come out if we link these two issues. Hey, while we’re at it, immigration is a big issue for a lot of people in our community, and I think we can get this one local immigrant rights organization onboard for our rally. We should at least be able to get someone to speak. And that makes sense. Immigrants are impacted by both the war and the economy. Also, there have been some folks working locally to stop a proposed waste incinerator. We should definitely have someone from that group speak at the rally. Wow, if we list all of these issues on one flyer, then we can attract a lot more people than the folks who would come out just because of the war or any one of the issues on its own.

There are several important flaws to this kind of explicit connect-the-dots approach. It’s not that we shouldn’t be connecting the dots. And it’s not that we shouldn’t have strong moral narratives that can help people make sense of a platform of issues. But a strong moral narrative is different than just throwing a bunch of seemingly disparate issues onto the same flyer and assuming that we’ll be able to connect with anything other than an already highly politicized&#151and particularly politicized&#151audience (aka “the usual suspects”). What this kind of approach tends to do is to attract self-selecting individuals who come to the event as individuals. They may come as individuals from many different social backgrounds, with relationships to different social blocs. But these social blocs are not bought in, which means small numbers and few resources for the effort. Rallies are supposed to be demonstrations of grassroots organization and power (in order to leverage pressure to affect political change). But they can all too easily accomplish the opposite of this intention; they can be demonstrations of disorganization, powerlessness, and even incoherence (i.e. disconnection from any organized social base).

It’s fully understandable why activists might tend toward some version of this flawed approach. Activists are very political people. They tend to have much more developed political ideologies than that of the average person, because they tend to focus more of their attention toward political issues. They see the connections, and they want others to see the connections too &#151 and to take action!

Unfortunately, the more issues you name explicitly, the less your appeal tends to resonate with any of the constituencies you’re hoping to attract. The more we spell out how each issue is explicitly connected, the less it becomes about a particular issue (i.e. entry/identity point) that any particular person, group, or social bloc is concerned about.

I started this series lamenting how the political Left in the United States is plagued with a culture of fragmentation and issue silo-ing. Am I now also lamenting when activists make connections between issues? No… at least not inherently. The question is not whether or not we should burst out of our “issue silos”. The answer to that question is unequivocally yes, we should. Our question, rather, is about how. How do we do so in a way that will work? Our purpose in “connecting the dots” is not just to get an insufficient fringe of radicals to understand the connections. Our purpose is to break whole constituencies out of self-segregating “silos” &#151 to facilitate a bridging process; to build a populist alignment.

A “long lefty laundry list” of issues is not going to get us to where we need to go. What, then, is the alternative? I’ve been leading up to it all week, and tomorrow I’ll borrow from Ernesto Laclau&#151and second-hand-borrow from Antonio Gramsci&#151to sloppily attempt to describe not a formula for how, but an observable pattern that can be found at the heart of every populist alignment, I believe.

If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll stick with me for tomorrow’s post. Full disclosure: I’m trying to figure this shit out, and I would love to hear your thoughts about these ideas. Let’s banter in the comments section, how about it?

7 Comments

  1. Ellie-Xolo says

    …hear you on the long-lefty-laundry-list syndrome!!! I’ve heard you speak about this, but seeing it again in writing is refreshing. The problem here is not only who ends up coming to the rallies. I sometimes doubt that the folks who sat down and wrote the fliers in the first place can analytically connect the dots between different issues. Sometimes it seems that people simply appeal to the usual suspects: “capitalism,” “the state,” “neoliberalism,” “globalization,” “colonialism” to explain the current state of affairs, but don’t necessarily break down a) what these terms mean and b) why they’re connected to a very specific local event or series of events that people may care about.
    Also, its interesting that the way you’ve set up the argument so far. Am I understanding you correcting that  this laundry list syndrome is partly if not wholly a result of the fragmentation/differentiation experienced by capitalist societies? So presumably back in the Fordist day, folks trying to organize workers and their allies weren’t falling into this trap because there was a more homogenous set of concerns that appealed universally? Was it easier back in the day to start from someone’s direct material experience (my wages are low, my boss is harassing me, I’m suffering from a workplace related injury, I don’t get enough time off, my job is insecure) and build up to a compelling narrative about the necessity for class struggle?
    Whereas today my concerns have multiplied and they don’t only stem directly from my material conditions. That is, I’m not only concerned about job insecurity, but also being a good member of the voluntary associations I’m a part of, being a good parent, spiritual fulfillment, and I have pet issues that I think are just important – like capital punishment etc.
    So the tendency is for organizers to construct laundry lists. Am I understanding you correctly?  

  2. clenchner says

    Say more please. And include a good theoretical takedown of the most irritating of all lefty knee jerk communication behaviors: to link by name random issues and geographies that don’t actually share an intrinsic connection.
    I’m a supporter of Palestinian rights. But when I see ‘from Palestine to New Orleans’ or ‘from Brooklyn to Palestine’ etc. I can’t help but think: one of those two sides is just playing a walk on role for the other. How demeaning. Though I’m not sure, I think this kind of headline graphic geographic trivia game is a particularly US phenomenon, as we aren’t quite sure that social change in our country, for our own darn sake, is good enough, and we don’t trust the rubes to care about foreign policy issues on the merits without faking a link to library closures or something ridiculous like that.
    It feels as though newly radicalized youngsters have an affinity for the memes of yesteryear, recycling how folks did it oldschool, as though mobilizing communications was a long form version of a ‘hey hey, ho ho’ chant with a new something or other that truly must go.
    As a communications professional, I’m always scratching my head and wondering: has anyone tested any of this for effect? Some A/B testing on a subject line, a focus group on particular kinds of activists, some connection to cause marketing research? Anything? Is it a phase one must go through to get to the other side?
    Help me figure it out!

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