Joshua Glenn at Slate.com has an article, with the pithy hook "What Democrats Can Learn From Grand Theft Auto." The article, which makes reference to a book called Dream by NYU professor Stephen Duncombe, levels a few criticisms of today's progressive and Democratic left:
1. The left is tedious; the Democratic leadership believes that it can win the electorate with the drab weaponry of policies and ideas;Glenn sums up this critique of the left early in the article, when he attends an anti-nuclear rally in 1982, '"This rally is lame—and that's why it's not going to change a thing." I was 14, and I was absolutely correct.'
2. The leadership of the left is separate from and out of touch with the people who constitute the left; "they organize, we come; they talk, we listen;"
3. The left is not fun; the left lacks imagination; the left is not cool;
This critique, and a potential solution, is extended through a review of Dream (a book which I have not read), where Duncombe claims that
[t]oday's progressives fail to tap into America's collective unconscious through spectacle, which Duncombe defines as "a way of making an argument … through story and myth, fears and desire, imagination and fantasy." Republican Party leaders don't hesitate to derive inspiration from Madison Avenue and Hollywood. George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" photo-op may have backfired, but it demonstrated an impressive commitment to spectacle. In this way, Republicans are actually far more populist than the New Democrats.
If progressives ever want to set the national agenda, Duncombe insists, they must embrace what he calls dreampolitik, a politics that "embraces the dreams of people and fashions spectacles which give these fantasies form." With the exception of street activists at the far fringes—he praises Billionaires for Bush, Critical Mass, and Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping—progressives remain convinced that "their sense of superior seriousness will win debates, convince the public, and lead them back into the halls of power."Glenn further quotes Duncombe to argue that this lack of myth-making, of imagination did not exist in other epochs in the history of America's left, citing the story of Rosa Parks, the chicanery of Abbie Hoffman, and, more recently, the commercial success of Michael Moore and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. In each case, the stories and the characters of the left are able to act as symbols for the movement itself, capturing people's hearts and imaginations, immediately creating a sense of inclusion and catalyzing movements.
Duncombe finally argues that the left may have something to gain by studying phenomena like Grand Theft Auto (or presumably, any other popular product, act, or show that has a high cool factor with the 18-35 demographic).
1. Myths, stories, the sorts of cultural phenomena that Duncombe and Glenn argue for all need to resonate at the level of heart and soul. For myths to work, the people who are the audience of the myth need to be able to see themselves in that myth, need to have a deep-seated empathy with the story that is being told, the appeal that is being made. Through all of the impactful movements of the left in the 20th century, from New Deal-era progressives, to the Beat and Hippie counter-culture movements, to the Civil Rights era, to the women's movements in the 80s, there has always been a significant, primary audience who could self-identify with the myths created from each of those political eras. Furthermore, the myths in each of these cases spoke directly to immediate and consequential threats to each audience. The poor, honest, unlucky worker struggling through the Depression; the historically disenfranchised black person; the draft-eligible young person. Does such an audience exist for today's progressive left? Is that audience sufficiently large to support a political party in a two-party system?
2. Let's say we believe that "political cool" can simply be created, marketed, and sold, in the same way that "cool" can be created, marketed, and sold in a video game, or consumer product, or fashion accessory. Let me make a completely fallible assertion, that cool has some intrinsic properties, related to popularity and sexiness, to validating personal identity in the eyes of others, and to, frankly, feeling that you are somehow better than most other people (because, let's face it, if everyone thought everybody else was cool, then cool wouldn't be worth very much). Let me also distinguish between the hip-cool of, let's say, New York, which really strives to set apart a tiny minority of "cool people," on whatever basis, from the popular-cool, which is accessible to a broad enough amount of people to enough people to allow it to sell ideas, clothes, video games, or whatever. Given this complex, but I think valid and essential, premise, do we believe that whatever makes a thing cool today is compatible with the politics and beliefs of the left? Can a politics that cares about poverty, injustice, peace, and equality also be cool? Or is cool, these days, the province of the rich, the leisurely, the beautiful, the powerful, the violent?
3. Let's say we reject, or simply set aside, the questions above, and we believe that (1) there is a sufficiently large audience of people in America who would be receptive to the beliefs, myths, and politics of the left, and that (2) an appeal to this audience can be made through myths, through stories, through a sense of fun, that would engage and energize that audience in their politics. If so, then what are they myths and stories that can capture that audience? Are they stories based on poverty, injustice, or political and cultural disenfranchisement, which have long been the foundation of the left? Are they represented by the irreverence and irony of the Daily Show or Billionaires for Bush? Can they be sustained from an opposition to a specific war? Do they need to be formed on new grounds, say from a growing disenfranchisement from and distrust of globalization (like Michael Douglas in Falling Down)? Or, alternately by an alignment of those interests that tie America to the world at-large (say, a movie like Babel)?