Wednesday, April 4, 2007

What's Wrong With the Left? Part 1 of Infinity

Is this the solution?

Joshua Glenn at 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;
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;
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.'

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).

I summarize this at length neither to dismiss it, nor to selectively critique it. I think it is a fairly interesting premise. There are, however, a few deep, underlying questions that should trouble progressives, that these questions fail to address. I will only try to frame my questions, and return to explore them in further detail in later posts (parts 2 to infinity...)

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)?


Stephen Duncombe said...

Hi Ritik,

It's probably extremely uncool for the author of a book being discussed to post a comment about his own book but since your questions/concerns were so thoughtful I thought I'd risk it.

First off, please read Dream (and you can read more about it at ). I'm trying to make a complex argument and it gets -- necessarily -- simplified in a short review article. But the crux of my argument regarding progressive politics and pop culture goes something like this:

With all "cool" pop culture there are two things that progressives should pay attention to. 1) That it is popular, for in a democracy anyone seriously interested in the political power to change policy always has to be interested in what has popular appeal. But 2), and more important, that these pop culture expressions are merely particular (and often unsavory) manifestations of much more ambiguous (and sometimes potentially progressive) desires and dreams. As we all know, advertisements don't sell a product they sell a dream. Sometimes these dreams are things we want nothing to do with -- but sometimes they are. It's all about redirecting those dreams back to a progressive political expression and not allowing them to be captured in commodity purchase, celebrity spectatorship, video game playing and so on.

I also have ideas about how to create our own "ethical spectacles" instead of merely hijacking what's already out there but you'll have to read the book for that. I hope you do.

All best,
Stephen Duncombe

Stockton Hercules said...

The idea of Stephen's book (a book I also have not read, which puts it in very good company) seems totally on target. When people say the Left "needs to stand for something", this is one of the things they mean. Style without substance is bad, but substance without style isn't much better: "Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion".

Edwards's "Two America" speech and Obama's "Red State, Blue State" speech both are electric because they embrace certain foundational myths about the Left, about American generally. They are definitely "cool"; I get fired up when I hear Edwards talk and I don't think I even agree with him.

I don't think the left needs to become more manipulative or more base with its marketing (Bikini Team for Obama), but does need to understand that pure wonkishness (and its partner, dwelling on nuances) is not a virtue the public is too "uneducated" to appreciate, but is a fault in and of itself.

People don't go to church for the theology, they go for the cross. Similarly, people don't become progressives because they logically deduce something - they become progressives because they believe in something.

I think the Stephen Colbert frenzy evinces the hunger leftists feel for an identity - but an ironic identity isn't good enough.

Anonymous said...

What's absolutely bang on about your post is the call for care not to make the sense of cool so limited. In fact, to me, Billionaires for Bush and the like seem to deeply turn a whole portion of the electorate off the left's agenda, because its sense of irony and carnival seems incredibly fun and clever to about 0.5% of the population, who definitely are cool. But while they impress their cool friends they make no appeal to the deeply uncool. What am i to do if i feel nervous about hanging out with a bunch of extroverts in George Bush masks? The cool thing about the coolness of the Selma march, was that it didn't require any charisma on the part of its participants to pull it off. You could be the dullest person on the planet, yet send a powerful message simply by walking quietly in a quiet suit in the hot sun.

Eli said...

the idea of redirecting people's desires and dreams into progressive political expression is indeed fascinating, and I'm intrigued enough to have a look at the book, but it's hard to imagine as a guiding philosophy of the left.

First, because not all politics are "cool," and people are motivated by feelings of justice and compassion in a different, deeper way than they are by spectacles. Rosa Parks wasn't just a spectacle, but actual civil disobedience. It wasn't "cool" (and wasn't addressed at beats who might write a poem about it)-- it was calling an existing order unjust, directly disobeying its rules, and calling upon others to do so en masse. It did so by mobilizing many elements in our collective unconscious, but it didn't need that many symbols to make its point. The issue -- explicit racism -- was morally unambiguous and there were clear good guys and bad guys.

This type of politics is very different from critical mass or the no-shopping preacher who are calling for radical lifestyle changes. By their nature these are a type of political and cultural avant-garde composed of the middle (and upper) class who are calling upon their fellows to reject different parts of mainstream culture (cars, consumerism). I think the use of spectacle is probably best placed in this context: illustrating an abstract, "large" problem and showing a way that things could be different. But this is a different from the politics of the poor and disenfranchised, whose existence is symbol enough, and who represent their self-interest in opposition to forces or rules that limit their power.

Another dissonant/interesting part about this idea is to mobilize those who seem most captured by consumerist and mainstream culture -- the reality-TV show watching, Vegas vacationing video-game fanatics -- with the same opiates that keep them in their current state. This is hard to imagine, because each of these pop cultural elements seem premised on passivity and conformity. But I have a feeling that Duncombe is going for something that is in fact participatory and not at all conformist -- and not just radical chic. I guess I have to read the book.

How do we create ethical spectacle's about health-care, "illegal" immigrants (whose members are a growing political movement), and the environment (please, no more Al Gore)?

I look forward to posts 2 to infinity.

Ritik Dholakia said...

Stephen -

Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting. I will certainly read Dream, as I think the fundamental question that you are addressing -- how can the Left create a deeper, broader, and more resonant connection with Americans, is an interesting one.

Before adding further comments, I will definitely acknowledge that my initial post was very much in response to Joshua Glenn's Slate review, and his response to your ideas. I'd also probably set aside the notion of "cool" that I've introduced into the conversation, and focus more closely on what I believe to be one of your underlying arguments: that the Left can learn from the marketing of POPULAR products, in terms of the ideals/stories/myths that those products represent. I.e., let's not conflate "cool" and popular.

Of the comments that followed yours, I think a couple of interesting points are made. Stockton reflects the idea that the Left is fundamentally lacking in some of the visceral elements, let's call it style, that make your average, non-committed person standup and take notice, and I think most people I know agree.

Stockton also draws out Edwards and Obama as Democrats who are perhaps represent a new vision -- and specifically, identifies them as communicating visions that are fundamentally American. I think this is massively important: can the left frame its values and vision as something that is "American," which, in America, automatically makes it popular. Like the Chevy ad says, This is Ouuuuur Country!

Anon makes the point, and I'd be interested on your take on this, given your emphasis on spectacle, that groups like Billionaires for Bush, while clever and fun to all of us post-ironists (if I can invent a bullshit term), probably turn off most Americans -- they are too clever, too cool, too weird. Maybe the demographics are shifting, maybe that's what the Daily Show, and the Office, and Conan demonstrate. But that's just not my feelilng. I think, for most "average" Americans (my snobbery unveiled) very much separate their consumption of ironic things from their consumption of political things, and the mixing of the two leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Eli, my personal touchstone for progressive politics, hones in on I think what my contention, based on a cursory and second-hand understanding of your premise. Specifically, that the strength of the progressive movement, through so many of its incarnations in America in the 20th century, were fundamentally aligned with causes and movements where there was an unambiguous, fundamental wrong to right, and while the message could be framed in more effective ways, the message itself was resonant - firstly, to a large constituency who was directly affected, and secondly, to a broader constituency who could be made sympathetic. So while Rosa Parks on the bus in Montgomery (which, Eli, I agree with Stephen, was every bit a manufactured protest, where the point wasn't the civil disobedience act itself, but the impact that the story could deliver, its potential to become myth) was an ethical spectacle, it was a spectacle with two large, receptive communities.

I question if this is true with the current Left, or more concretely defined, the Democrats. If you take out the anti-war sentiment (which does not sustain a political culture for much longer than the war itself), what is the appeal of the left? Edwards' "Two Americas" appeal is very progressive, and to me, should be resonant. But I'm not sure how effective it is. As I once wrote to a friend of mine, today, in America (or more generally, in a consumer culture), no one wants to think of themselves as a Have Not.

When Obama made his Red State, Blue State speech, I loved it. But not because of his all-inclusive centrism (I don't think that is a fundamentally powerful meme) but because Obama, by no choice of his own, embodies two powerful stories that are very fundamental to America, and that can be aligned with progressive politics. The first, very simply, is electing the first Black President, fundamentally changing our nation's racial understanding. The second, is the success of the son of an immigrant in mainstrea America. Both massively powerful, and I think, influential narratives. But both of them are too closely tied to the candidate, and not the movement, or its tactics.

Well, Stephen, Stockton, Eli, and Anon -- a rambling response.

I've got two posts coming in the next week or so that will pick up themes from this conversation, so maybe there is a place to jump from: one will be about Adbusters and what used to be called culture-jamming -- a magazine I love, but with absolutely limited cross-over appeal, in my mind; and secondly, a vague notion that I'm kicking around about what I call "the post-exceptional president."

Chris said...

Wow. So many threads to pick up on. I like the vitality of all of the posts.

You are correct to note that the Republicans have been better at co-opting popular imagery to further their interests. And, as Stockton Hercules points out eloquently, intellectual wonkishness isn't a popular, cool, effecive, etc. response. Many of the more spectacular progressive responses seem to me to be about reinforcing the feelings of belonging within the group "performing" than about drawing in new members. Their performances seem to be about distancing themselves rather than drawing in new members. Now I'm all for street theater and creating Hitchcockian/Lacanian stain and whatnot. Sometimes it's an effective way to get people to look up from their shoes. But what we're talking about is getting people to march in those shoes. For that, you need a leader or a coordinating committee that is wholy different from those that seem to exist today.

Progressive politics at its core is about returning control to people. Therefore, its leader and voice has to come from the people. We don't just need a better symbol or a better rhetorical mouth, we need a passion that comes from experience. It can't come from millionaires (Edwards, Obama, Clinton) dreaming of reform, it has to come from a working person dreaming of decency. Reform dreams get co-opted by entrenched interests. Dreams of decency have the chance of touching those rusting strings of conscience.

jglenn said...

I just saw this post about my review of Duncombe's "Dream" for the first time -- I know it's too late to post a comment, but what the heck. All I wanted to add was: I never used the word "cool" in my review. And I agree with Duncombe's comment: Read the book! It's fascinating, and useful.

Ritik Dholakia said...

Agreed, cool was my short-hand for a piece of what I thought you (or Duncombe) was describing, and perhaps inaccurate. Dream is still on my reading list, looking forward to reading it. Thanks for posting.