A theory of political behavior (pt.4: imagined communities & populist alignment)

Modern society significantly complicates the group-oriented identity framework I’ve been discussing (in parts one, two, and three). Most of us juggle multiple roles in multiple spheres, each of which holds a degree of our individual identity. The temptation is to then look at identity as a predominantly individual matter. But each sphere of an individual’s fragmented life has its own group logic and group processes of constructing values and identity. It is no small development, however, that people in societies like ours now have more individual agency to choose how much of their identities to invest into which groups.

The term group can mean many different things. A group may be proximate, fully definable, and localized, such as one’s village, workplace, or place of worship. It seems logical that, if we do indeed have group-oriented instincts, these would have evolved in some such proximate, localized groups. But today, “group” can mean much more; for example, one’s gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nation, economic class, political ideology, hobby, or sports team. With the label generic given group (introduced in part 3), I am accounting for this broad spectrum of kinds of groups, and I am implying that we tend to project group-oriented instincts onto the full gamut of social aggregations and constructions, to a greater or lesser degree that is proportional to our level of identity with the given group.

In such a context, proximate groups are always competing with each other for their members’ identification and commitment (e.g. workplace vs. family vs. church), while also interacting with larger imagined communities (e.g. working class vs. nation vs. religion) with their different logics, symbols, and narratives. Proximate groups tend to act as intermediaries between the individual and the imagined community, as people come together in-person (e.g. in Sunday school, around the water cooler, or at the dinner table) to make meaning of personal experiences, external events, mass media, etc. Proximate groups themselves tend to internalize values of the dominant abstract constructions they are situated under (but there are always important exceptions to this). The level of a group’s or individual’s identification with any one abstract construction over another (e.g. nationalism over class-consciousness, or religion over both) depends on many factors. Specific events may trigger group-oriented instincts in the service of a given abstract construction. For example, the symbols of a clear external threat from the 9/11 terrorist attacks triggered intense nationalism. Along similar lines, in War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection I discuss how nation-based group solidarity eclipsed class-based group solidarity in industrialized nations in the lead-up to World War I.

Recognizing this basic structure of the complex interplay of small-scale proximate groups, large-scale imagined communities, and individuals with fractured loyalties, we might begin to draw an instructive political map — in order to build winning populist alignments capable of effective engagement in hegemonic struggle.

Populist alignment & hegemonic struggle

To frame a populist alignment is to appeal to group-oriented solidarity instincts on a mass level. I use the term populism neutrally to describe a pattern of mass political alignment that has been used by all sorts of movements across the political spectrum (more discussion of my usage here). Two ingredients are essential to accomplish a populist alignment. First, there must be a common enemy: someone or something that is seen as a threat to the groups that are to align. Second, there must be a catalyzing symbol ambiguous enough for many different kinds of groups to see their values and prospects reflected in. This combination casts the aligned groups as equivalent members of a larger imagined community or public. The capacity of a populist alignment resides mostly in the pre-existing infrastructure of the groups that align. While a populist movement will need to build some movement-specific organizational infrastructure, it does not have to build all of its capacity from scratch. This is how political ideologies that seem impotent one moment can sometimes become remarkably powerful in a relatively short amount of time. The power comes when a hitherto fragmented spectrum of groups aligns its hitherto scattered energies into a coherent force.

Last year when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled state legislature attacked Wisconsin public workers’ right to collectively bargain, a new populist alignment was triggered overnight. Walker became the common threat to the groups that comprised the newly aligned populist movement, which included teachers, students, firefighters, police officers, veterans, farmers, Green Bay Packers players, and many other Wisconsinites. The cause of the teachers and public workers served as the floating signifier that the aligning parties all saw themselves, their prospects, and their values reflected in. This newly conjured commonality created an opportunity to, as Robert Putnam might say, bridge between distinct groups. An equivalential logic emerged, where each group started seeing each other group’s interests as equivalent to its own. A new public was conjured and a new group narrative articulated, with everyday Wisconsinites cast as the protagonists heroically taking back their state capitol. (For a more thorough breakdown of this process in Wisconsin—with sub-amateur illustrations—read Anatomy of populist alignment (part 2).)

A very different populist alignment, content-wise, came into being soon after the inauguration of President Barack Obama. In this case, President Obama occupies the same place Governor Walker did in the example of Wisconsin: the authority figure that a set of identities aligns against. The label “Tea Party” was resurrected to serve as floating signifier, and social conservatives, Libertarians, and free market Republicans were again aligned and emboldened to “take their country back”.

And then on September 17, 2011, a few hundred New Yorkers set up a defiant encampment at the doorstep of Wall Street—thereby naming a common enemy (one that the Tea Party was unwilling to name)—and launched two powerful floating signifiers: Occupy Wall Street and We are the 99%. As in the case of Wisconsin, hitherto fragmented groups (as well as unorganized individuals) aligned into a larger force. Groups did not have to be involved in the physical occupations of public spaces in order to seize the political moment and make use of the framing of a new public (i.e. the 99%). OWS accomplished some major feats in a short amount of time — at least in terms of changing the dominant story. A conservative narrative about budget deficits was still dominating the political discourse as late as early September. Overnight the reality of economic inequality and a rigged political system was elevated to commonsense.

This moment is still unfolding and time will tell how deftly this nascent populist alignment can congeal into a coherent political force. The frame of the 99% fighting for its own political enfranchisement—up against an entrenched power structure—has struck a chord with many and opened the door to the possibility of building a truly mass movement for social and economic justice. However, to repeat my previous assertion, the jump from political grievance to collective action—within a given group, institution, or social network—rarely happens without an element of savvy organizing. This is a moment to organize within—and to reach out and cultivate relationships with—the constituencies and institutions that could and should make up a mass movement. OWS has already named and framed political grievances in a way that has resonance across a broad span of potential allies. Now the leadership within these tentatively interested groups has to provide specific opportunities for action that make sense for their memberships and constituencies.


In Part One, I discussed how identity is a group-oriented and group-constructed process, and how we are constantly signaling belonging in the groups we are part of. In Part Two, I explored how identity may serve an evolved, group-benefiting function and how preconscious group-oriented instincts are triggered and channeled into the service of particularly framed abstract “groups” (e.g. religion, nation, class, union, company, etc.) In Part Three I discussed the political dimension of group identity; how group identities and values can be translated into political grievances and ultimately political action. And here in Part Four I essentially asserted that a key battleground in hegemonic struggle is over the effective framing of the values and parameters of publics (aka imagined communities). My theory of political behavior can be boiled down to a core assertion—arrived at through experience and observation—that humans are highly social beings, and so it behooves us to pay more attention to the group level of behavior, which is, I believe, the main arena of politics.

4 responses to “A theory of political behavior (pt.4: imagined communities & populist alignment)”

  1. I found this whole presentation vaguely useful. I kept waiting for you to get to the punch line: what value do these general theoretical conclusions/insights have for movement-building in the real world? In other words, how does this help us figure out “What Is To Be Done?”

    1. I think it depends on the specifics of your project, effort, campaign, what-have-you. I dig into a little more detail in applying this to framing/contesting in the immigration struggle here. And I’m hoping to do the same soon in an exploration of how to engage the climate crisis. I’m also in the process of developing more training materials (e.g. worksheets, PowerPoints, etc.) that I’ll be introducing here as I go, so I hope you’ll stay tuned. Here I wanted to give broad-stroke outlines of a framework.

  2. […] the idea of the nation is meaningful whether or not we want it to be. In previous posts I have discussed the construction of the nation as a projection of locally/experientially-rooted […]

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