Populism & Hegemony (series)

The broad political Left in the United States has been plagued for decades now with a culture of reaction, fragmentation, issue silo-ing, and a chasm between insiders and outsiders.  Can the concepts of populism and hegemony help to explain these challenges?  What insights might we gain through an exploration of these ideas?

A series on populism and hegemony may sound nerdy, esoteric, and less-than-fully-practical for on-the-ground organizers, campaigners, and advocates for social justice (my intended audience), but I believe that understanding the patterns and processes of these two related concepts is key to effective long-term political struggle.  

In this series I’m digging in and attempting to work out some useful frameworks. I’m a student, not an expert, on these subjects &#151 and I’d love for other folks to weigh in on these ideas.

This is the landing page for the series.  You can bookmark it and check back for new posts, which I’ll be linking to from this page.

  1. Anatomy of Political Identity
  2. Marx’s error
  3. Bonding & Bridging
  4. Long lefty laundry lists
  5. Wisconsin: How Populism Works

Wisconsin: How Populism Works | Populism & Hegemony pt.5

This is the fifth post in a series.

Teachers, students, firefighters, police officers, veterans, farmers, and even Green Bay Packers players, visibly aligned and defiantly mobilized together in Wisconsin last month, conveyed something very important and powerful. Okay, duh. That’s obvious. If we could orchestrate that kind of line-up all the time, we would, of course. But you can’t just pull that out of a hat.

I concluded Marx’s error saying that “we have some very powerful, very contemporary examples of … populist alignments.”  By which I especially meant Wisconsin.

What are the ingredients of this so-called populism? And how did it come about?

In this post I want to first briefly review a key challenge that makes this kind of alignment so difficult (and therefore, such an important and remarkable accomplishment). Then I’ll take a stab at the original $64 million question: What exactly is populism? What are its elements and processes? And how did it come about in Wisconsin?

The challenge

Our populist mobilization challenge, as I discussed in Marx’s error, is that our society is highly fragmented and heterogeneous. It’s not like a hundred years ago where there was a huge emergent “group” called the industrial working class, whose lifestyles and conditions were similar enough so as to signify similarity to such an extent that “working class consciousness” could emerge (in concert with a lot of remarkable organizing), which meant that a critical mass of people conceptualized themselves as part of a “group” called the working class. Today, even though the same class structures and relationships of exploitation exist, now we all have so many opportunities to express ourselves in such differentiating ways. When we walk down the street, when we get in our cars (or onto public transportation), when we go about our day-to-day lives, in important ways we’re constantly signaling difference:

“I’m a Christian.” “I’m an atheist.” “I’m a punk.” “I’m a golfer.” “I’m a Lady Gaga fan.” “I’m an existentialist.” “I’m an academic.” “I’m a graphic designer.” “I’m a mother.” “I’m an Asian American.” “I’m gay.” “I’m an activist.” “I’m a hunter.” “I’m an environmentalist.” “I’m a southerner.”

By adorning ourselves with distinctions&#151with those things that we feel are meaningful to us as individuals as we construct our particular identities&#151we are a more self-expressive society. And there are many, many positive things about such a shift. The challenge is that it makes the construction of active political solidarity difficult. By not signaling similarity, we’re not triggering those primal, preconscious parts of our brains that evolved to benefit the groups we’re part of (and to secure our individual places within those groups) &#151 those parts that stimulate instincts whose “script” is essentially, “Hey, you’re like me! We’re part of a group! You’re plight is my plight, and my plight is your plight! We’re in this together!” When our expressions indicate difference rather than similarity, we often trigger a negative side of our primal selves &#151 a part whose script is, “OTHER! OTHER!! DANGER!!! ANXIETY!!! FEAR!!!!” or a milder version: “Hey, I can’t really relate to you, so I’d just as soon avoid you and talk to my crew, who I’m far more comfortable around.”

This makes it difficult to mobilize “groups” in solidarity with one another. It’s not always because we don’t care at all about “each other’s issues”. But we all have only so much time and energy, and we tend to orient ourselves toward the things that are most important to the groups with which we primarily identify. So, while I may care about climate change, I may not come out to a rally to stop mountain top removal, because my union has been neck deep trying to pass health care reform legislation. There are only so many hours in a day!

So, back to Wisconsin: Gov. Scott Walker singles out public workers for his attack plan. Hey, maybe we all care about the issue, but we all care about a lot of issues, right? Only so many hours in the day. One can certainly imagine a scenario where only the public workers who are affected make any noise about the attack; them and the “usual suspect” radicals who come out to oppose everything. I can certainly imagine such a scenario. Indeed, this is more or less the scenario I have seen most of the time for most of my life. Sucks that teachers are getting screwed, but hey, what’s new, right? I’m a farmer, and we’re getting screwed too, but I don’t see anyone mobilizing to support me. I’m a firefighter, and I’m glad I’m not getting screwed. I’m with the Green Bay Packers, and we just won the effing Super Bowl! I’m going to Disney Land!!

It could have happened like this, but it didn’t. Instead Gov. Walker’s attacks were met with an overwhelming outpouring of resistance from many sectors, professions, and groups &#151 a populist alignment, if you will.

So, how did it happen?

Message in a bottle

The following series of illustrations is the result of trying to explain Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason to a friend over drinks.  (Thanks and apologies to Laclau, whose insightful work I am about to totally bastardize.)


Figure 1:

The above bottles represent social aggregations (commonly known as “groups”). Now, social aggregations don’t typically have such defined walls around them as these here bottles might suggest, but deal with it; these bottles = social aggregations. Moreover, they represent contemporary social aggregations/groups in Wisconsin. For example, one of these bottles represents Wisconsin public school teachers, another represents university students, then firefighters, police officers, veterans, farmers, Green Bay Packers, and so on. Not all the bottles in all of Wisconsin are included here. The figure leaves out inherently conservative groups (the hard opposition). It does not, however, leave out social aggregations that hold mixed&#151or less than fully defined&#151political dispositions. The above bottles are the groups that could potentially be in alignment. Think of them as potential allies.


Figure 2:

Enter group identity. Each group’s identity is represented by a different color filling each bottle &#151 to illustrate that group identities are indeed particular. As discussed in Bonding & Bridging, groups bond over what is common among group members, and these particular within-group commonalities also make the group distinct from other groups. Firefighters fight fires. Teachers teach. These are obvious defining features, but group identity can come to encompass infinite less obvious particularities, from fashion to rhetoric to organizational structures.

Group members feel at home in their particular bottle. That is to say they identify with their social aggregation, and they concern themselves with the affairs of their group &#151 much more so than with the affairs of other groups. A teacher may be thankful that firefighters exist, and vice versa, but that doesn’t mean either typically has the time or capacity to concern herself with the other’s situation.

To be clear, these bottles can represent all sorts of groups and aggregations &#151 not just professions (or unions representing professions). One bottle could represent Methodists, another could represent the NAACP. (And, to repeat, social identities don’t typically have such neatly defined boundaries as a bottle may suggest.)

So, these groups are each doing their thing. For particular reasons, the NAACP may be focusing on a particular campaign (that, no doubt, grows organically out of the group identity and reflects group-constructed values and priorities), and the Methodist Church may be focusing on other efforts. The AFL-CIO might have some other focus, and, within the AFL-CIO, different trade unions will have different priorities too. Students might be all over the place, clustering by their interests from hobbies and sports to academic disciplines to activist groups that focus on a variety of issues. Of course, any given group would probably love for all the other groups to concern themselves with that group’s issue. But, again, there are only so many hours in a day.

Thus the fragmentation and issue-silos I lamented at the start of this series really seem a pretty inevitable fact of life. We do not have a commander of a centrally coordinated Left who can say, “Hey, everyone, drop what you’re doing and focus your attention right here right now!”


Figure 3:



Enter Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature. What’s happening to those group identities? Something is bubbling up at the top of all those bottles. The groups are processing what radical Republican control of both houses and the governorship might mean for them and their interests. This layer of each group’s particular identity is common among these groups. They each develop a wary attitude toward the power structure, as they perceive how a Republican trifecta might interfere with the realization of group goals. The groups share that wariness in common. (Again, groups that are inherently conservative aren’t featured in this illustration. They’re piled up on some other table.)

This emerging layer of commonality creates a new opportunity to, as Robert Putnam would say, bridge between groups. Ernesto Laclau would say that this common component of each group’s particular identity creates an equivalential logic, which is to say that each group starts seeing each other group’s concerns as equivalent to its own. The ingredients for a new (or at least powerfully refreshed) public start to emerge.


Figure 4:



In this figure Gov. Walker et al single out a target: public workers, represented by the elevated bottle, which Walker wants to break. But that foaming red layer in each bottle&#151in each group’s identity&#151causes each group to see the attack on the teachers and public workers as equivalent to an attack on itself. The equivalential logic becomes an equivalential chain, binding the groups with stronger solidary ties, ultimately resulting in a kind of meta-group &#151 a new (or at least newly refreshed) public. This new public is a projection of proximate group-oriented instincts&#151the group-serving instincts that are a day-to-day part of our experiences with proximate groups&#151onto a more abstract conception of a group (i.e. a public). Thus the proximate group provides a level of commitment and solidarity that only comes through face-to-face, flesh-and-blood, strong tie organization, while the “equivalential chain” between many groups facilitates the projection of this strong within-group solidarity onto a broader public.


Figure 5:



This figure illustrates what I just described playing out. The red line represents the equivalential chain, which connects the freshly politicized&#151now fully adversarial toward Gov. Walker&#151layer of each group’s identity. The public workers “bottle” becomes a symbol that each group sees itself represented by. And almost overnight hundreds of thousands are mobilized in Wisconsin, constituting what we might call a quintessential populist alignment.

Lookin’ a little shaken there, Walker.

The “empty signifier”

The public workers became a catalyzing symbol in which each group in the emerging populist alignment sees a reflection of itself &#151 and to which each group sees its own prospects and future tied. Any populist alignment requires such a catalyzing symbol (or cluster of symbols). The symbol serves to “name”/crystallize the new public. It is the essential focal point that allows groups to extend their strong internal solidarity&#151derived from within-group bonding&#151beyond themselves.

I want to discuss three important things about such a catalyzing symbol: 1) the symbol is necessarily ambiguous, 2) the symbol is not inherently progressive in character or result, and 3) the symbol can take many different forms. I will briefly discuss these in reverse order.

The symbol can take many different forms. Paste George W. Bush’s face over top Scott Walker’s and think back to the waning days of the Bush Administration. The electoral campaign of then-candidate Barack Obama provides another case study of a populist alignment. Obama himself became the “catalyzing symbol in which each group in the emerging populist alignment [saw] a reflection of itself &#151 and to which each group [saw] its own prospects and future tied.” Bush had become such a villain to so many swaths of society by the end of his presidency that that red layer in those bottles&#151the layer of identity that is in opposition, typically to an authority&#151had profoundly shifted most group identities in the whole of US society. Obama the candidate&#151in large part through his brilliant oratory skills&#151emerged as the symbol to which so many social aggregations came to see their hopes tied.

So in the case of Wisconsin, a huge grouping of people served as the catalyzing symbol&#151under the label “public workers”&#151and they were thrown into this role overnight by forces beyond of their control. While in the case of the 2008 election, one person&#151Barack Obama&#151served as the symbol, and he emerged as such over a longer period of time.

The symbol might also be neither a group nor a person. It could be something like a label or a brand. Take Obama out of the catalyzing symbol role and paste his face in the place that Walker and Bush had occupied in the previous examples. He is now the authority figure that another set of identities is aligning against. The label “Tea Party” is constructed/resurrected (/manufactured by Dick Armey et al) to serve the purpose of the catalyzing symbol, which leads to the next point about catalyzing symbols…

The symbol is not inherently progressive in character or result, which should have already been apparent to most readers through my discussion of Barack Obama as a catalyzing symbol. But the Tea Party as catalyzing symbol makes this even clearer. All sorts of populist moments are possible &#151 from the French Revolution, to the New Deal, to the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Populism is a kind of formation; a pattern and process of political alignment between social forces in relation to opposing alignments.  All shades and stripes of political ideologies can and have strategically engaged in populist strategy &#151 sometimes ushering in profound advances in social equality and human welfare; sometimes resulting in the worst horrors of human history.

The symbol is necessarily ambiguous. For a catalyzing symbol to appeal to a lot of different groups at the same time&#151for a diversity of constituencies and interests to see themselves and their hopes reflected in the same symbol&#151it must necessarily be ambiguous. The symbol is more about a general, ambiguous direction than it is about detailed solutions. The more you dig into the details&#151the more you try to nail down the symbol’s precise significance&#151the more the myriad differences between groups’ particular visions and goals come into focus. You risk emphasizing difference in a political moment that demands an emphasis on “universality”. You risk exposing fissures in the tentative populist alignment.

This is why Ernesto Laclau calls this catalyzing symbol the empty signifier. I’m not too fond of that term, but what he’s getting at is this necessary ambiguity. It is conceptually useful to think of the contents of the symbol/signifier as empty, and to focus instead on its function in naming/signifying/crystallizing the new populist alignment. A populist alignment will not crystallize without this necessarily ambiguous symbol. You could try to write a document that spells out all of the concerns of a myriad of groups with diverse interests, but in the writing you will undermine the tentative unity of the groups. You might realistically be able to get some radicals from the edges of multiple issue areas together to write such a document, but it’s not going to unite anyone other than radicals; by trying to spell out everything, you lose nearly everyone. This is one reason why sectarian groups that try to organize “the masses” by first trying to refine everyone’s political analysis are perpetually not getting anywhere (other than in the way).

Consider for a moment candidate Obama as empty signifier. The consistent Republican strategy throughout the campaign was to attempt to overly associate Obama with particular constituencies and concerns&#151to “nail him down” and fill in the contents of the signifier (in very calculated ways)&#151in order to prevent other groups in the emerging populist alignment from being able to see their own identities and hopes in the symbol of Obama. Obama dodged metaphorical bullets like Neo in the Matrix. His steady retort&#151most remarkably demonstrated in responding to his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright&#151was to associate himself with universal elements of multiple identities. This feat was performed with tremendous skill (and self-conscious preparation, utilizing Marshall Ganz’ “story of self, us and now” framework).

All of this is to demonstrate the critical importance of the ambiguity of the catalyzing symbol in the construction of a populist alignment. This idea of positive strategic value in ambiguity may offend some progressive sensibilities. We want clarity. I sure as heck do. There are certainly times when clarity is precisely what is called for. And, to be clear, there can be a tremendous cost to this necessary ambiguity. But effective social change agents must befriend ambiguity; we gotta “get intimate and comfortable” with it. If you can’t turn off your need for clear definitions in some moments, you may well attain your clear definitions. But you’re not likely to build the kind of collective progressive power we need to start turning this thing around.

Understanding Anti-Immigrant America: Mobilizing the Tea Party

A little more than a week ago, The New York Times published an article about John Tanton, the modern architect of the anti-immigrant movement in the US. Highly concerned with the environmental degradation that he was seeing around him, Tanton eventually pegged the problem on immigration. The Times writes,

From the resort town of Petoskey, Mich., Dr. Tanton helped start all three major national groups fighting to reduce immigration, legal and illegal, and molded one of the most powerful grass-roots forces in politics. The immigration-control movement surged to new influence in last fall’s elections and now holds near veto power over efforts to legalize any of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

The article goes on to document power and influence of the Tanton Network.  

One group that Dr. Tanton nurtured, Numbers USA, doomed President George W. Bush’s legalization plan four years ago by overwhelming Congress with protest calls. Another, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, helped draft the Arizona law last year to give the police new power to identify and detain illegal immigrants.

A third organization, the Center for Immigration Studies, joined the others in December in defeating the Dream Act, which sought to legalize some people brought to the United States illegally as children.

Collectively, these organizations are today known as the Tanton Network. Both

Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for New Community have done extensive research revealing the racist and eugenicist foundations of Tanton’s ideas and goals. Moreover, CNC has shown the broad reach of the Tanton Network by mapping out all its various organizations (some of which misleadingly portray themselves as independent and neutral), its sources of financial support and the various institutions with which it partners.

The Tanton Network constitutes a web of organizations in civil society. Moreover, for the purposes of this essay, I will make the claim that they are the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class. Gramsci argued that advanced capitalism spawned intra-class specialization-a division of labor between “mental” and “manual” tasks. The contemporary capitalist class is composed not just of people directly involved in profit making, but also their organic intellectuals, whose function it is to organize the ideas of the class and represent them as in the interest of the general public. In so doing, the capitalist class can build popular support for their class-specific cause, and attract others to their hegemonic project, including other classes’ organic intellectuals.  

This of course begs the following question: why should we assume that this anti-immigrant network constitutes a section of the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class? After all, isn’t their ultimate aim to turn off the spigot of cheap labor by stopping undocumented immigration, deporting undocumented individuals who are already here, and in fact, returning legal immigration rates to the pre-1965 levels? Aren’t these goals in fact against the interests of capital because they reduce the supply of cheap labor?

I will argue that the Tanton Network, despite its racist goal to stop immigration and return to an imagined “Europeanized” past, is ultimately engaged in a project of criminalizing im/migrant workers. Criminalization of im/migrant workers, in the last instance, does serve the interests of capital. In other words, the Network’s “success” should not be judged on the basis of whether or not they ultimately create a US cleansed of brown people. This scenario is both economically unsustainable and politically unrealistic.

Rather the Network’s “success” should be measured by the extent to which they do their job building the ideological buffer around the capitalist class. For example, how widespread is the idea that im/migrants are undeserving and morally suspect? Or, how often does the tacit assumption about the acceptability of the movement of capital across borders and the unacceptability of a similar movement of labor appear in the media, in policy debates highest levels of government and in everyday conversations at the dinner table? These types of commonsensical ideas are the ideological basis for the continued criminalization of im/migrant workers. Those ideas serve as the justification of heightened immigration enforcement both at the border and, more importantly, within the US. How this criminalization of im/migrant workers ultimately serves capitalist interests is the subject of a future post. For the purposes of the current argument, what matters, then, is that we think of the Tanton Network as constituting a section of the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class.

What has the Tanton Network done?



Many on the political left have vigilantly documented the intentional efforts of the John Tanton Network to solicit the support of liberal groups for anti-immigrant causes. Whether it was by “the greening of hate”–exemplified by FAIR’s report that immigration is responsible for the environmental degradation of the Chesapeake Bay–or the promotion of a black-brown divide–by blaming structural poverty and unemployment in black communities to job competition created by immigrants–the Tanton Network is trying to build a wider coalition that includes groups historically associated with the left. But what the left tends to overlook is how the organized anti-immigrant movement is pursuing similar hegemonic projects with the political right–particularly among tea partiers.

This is not surprising. A 2010 New York Times poll showed that tea party supporters were more likely than other Americans to find undocumented immigration “a very serious threat.”  Images of tea party supporters waving signs supporting SB1070 dotted the news media last summer. In the minds of most leftists, the tea party movement was automatically associated with the various agenda items that define the exclusionary politics of the right, including support for anti-immigrant causes.  

However, receptivity to these ideas is not the same as actively mobilizing on behalf of these ideas. Given finite resources and capacity, local tea party organizations (just like progressive groups) have to choose from an array of topics on which to focus their energies. Indeed, in a climate where “Obamacare” has received a lot of the attention from tea partiers, why would “illegal immigration” and “the out-of-control border” solicit any organized anxiety?  

The answer to that question lies with the Tanton Network. (For the purposes of this article, the Tantonites also include local politicians who regularly draw on resources from the Network.) The signing of SB 1070 was a signal to the rest of the nation that Arizona was potential recruiting grounds for a revitalized anti-immigrant movement. But this was going to be a process. The Tea Party Patriots provide a case in point.

The Tea Party Patriots (TPP) is arguably the most grassroots of the six national factions that compose the tea party movement.  While the National Leadership Council of the TPP voted to have members wave signs supporting SB 1070, cofounder Jenny Beth Martin maintained that the organization does not take any official stances on the issue of immigration and the border.

But it was symbolically significant that the annual conference was held in Phoenix, AZ this year. And while the conference was dedicated to many other issues outside of immigration, it did provide a testing ground for ways in which the issue of immigration could be turned into a “tea party issue.”



A Musical Performance at Tea Party Conference, February 2011

Using commonplace tea party rhetoric, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer thanked the conference attendees for choosing Phoenix to host their event: “You didn’t have to choose our home, you could have gone somewhere else…I know you are here because we share a common cause in taking back our country. We want our borders secured. We want the federal government out of our daily lives. We want liberty returned to the people, to the states…”



Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s Welcome Message, February 2011

Joe Arpaio, Maricopa’s infamous sheriff and State Senator Russell Pearce, a sponsor of SB1070, were the conference’s first speakers. Both cast themselves as upholding the law and their oaths to office. For them, DC was a different story. Pearce, feigning to speak to the Obama Administration, exclaimed

You wanna remove that disdain that we have, maybe you oughta keep your oath of office[…] Maybe you oughta secure the border. Maybe when you say you’re going to enforce the law, you enforce it. […]It’s all about cheap labor, cheap votes, while they invade and damage this country. I for one do not apologize for defending the principles of this Republic.



State Senator Russell Pearce Speaking at a Conference Session, February 2011

Speakers aligned popular tea party images and concepts-such as constitutionality, lawfulness, and American exceptionalism-with a nativist framing of immigration and the border. Thus, ICE-police collaboration was construed as simply enforcing the existing laws in service of protecting “the greatest country in the world.” Participants also had opportunities to articulate similar conceptual alignments in other parts of the summit.  During a panel entitled Immigration and Border Security, a middle aged man from Scottsdale, AZ put it very concisely: “1070, like Obamacare, is really a states’ rights battle more than anything else. We apparently don’t have a right to protect citizens of the state of Arizona.” Immigration was also a tea party issue, because it too involved the federal government’s encroachment on state’s rights.

Later, I overheard him telling a woman seated next to him that NumbersUSA was a trustworthy resource if she wanted to learn more.

But this was not an uncontested process. While Pearce spoke, energetic Ron Paul supporters distributed leaflets arguing against SB1070 and measures changing birthright citizenship.



Ron Paul speaking, Feburary 2011

“Internal enforcement is suboptimal and creates costs and regulatory burden for American citizens…contrary to ‘Reagan Republicanism’ which intended to REDUCE government costs and burdens.”  The rest of the leaflet enumerated how the measures would expand intrusion of the Department of Homeland Security, a federal agency, into people’s lives. “Real conservatives don’t yield state powers and put them into the hands of the federal executive.” In a conversation with a representative from the Ayn Rand Institute, I was told that “free markets require that there are no borders.” Later, while waiting in line to purchase a mid-afternoon coffee, a well-dressed man from New York standing next to me confided his discomfort with Pearce’s heavy presence at the conference. For him, scapegoating immigrants was “stupid.” “I wish they’d just focus on the economic issues,” he concluded.  

Chip Berlet asked the left to “[take] the tea partiers seriously.” “With no one appearing to champion their cause, they line up with the anti-Obama crowd, and they stir in some of their social worries about gay marriage and abortion, dark-skinned immigrants, and a black man in the White House.”  The Tantonites are indeed drawing the battle lines. But we have to remember that the pursuit of hegemony is a contested, multivalent process–both on the left and the right.

Tune into future posts that continue to explore the Tantonites, the Tea Party, and hegemonic projects. (This is part three of a series. You can read part one here, and part two here.)

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?

PolitiFacts’ Pants On Fire: Who Will Fact-Check The Fact-Checkers? Part 3: Aiding The Fraudsters

    This is Part 3 in a diary series on ersatz “fact-checking”. Part One dealt with PolitiFact lying about Rachel Maddow about Wisconsin’s ginned-up “budget crisis”.  Part Two dealt with PolitiFact AND Columbia Journalism Review Online lying about the GOP’s attempt to end Medicare. This part recalls the decades-long backstory of fraudulent GOP politics which PolitiFact is now actively supporting.

Ersatz Fact-Checking Aids and Abets Fraudulent Politics

It’s genuinely bizarre.  It’s a time when polls show that a majority of GOP voters do not believe that the President is clearly an American citizen, despite his birth certificate having been posted online for almost three years.  A time when state legislatures across the land are in a panic over the non-existent threat of Sharia law being imposed on them.  A time when ALL of the 31 Republican on the House Energy And Commerce Committee refused to vote for a statement simply acknowledging that climate change exists. A time when fraudulent video “exposés” have become the hottest new technique for destroying progressive organizations and individuals.  A time when a nutcase charlatan is touted as a great historian by leading Republicans. In a word, a time when fraud and delusional fantasy has come to utterly dominate the conservative mindset, which in turn is largely driving the political agenda in America today.

And within this freakshow, we are living through the greatest period of economic suffering in over 70 years. Tens of millions of Americans are out of work; but conservatives have managed to hijack the political narrative, spreading panic about a federal debt that they themselves are primarily responsible for.  They have then promoted a radical “debt reduction” budget plan that does virtually nothing to reduce the debt, while transferring trillions of dollars to the wealthy from low and moderate income Americans over next ten years.  And when outrage about what’s going on finally starts to erupt, framed in terms of a simple, accurate, easily-understood narrative, self-appointed “fact-checkers” cry foul!

This is what the first two parts of this series have focused on–two glaring examples when progressive criticism has torn away the curtain, revealing what the Republicans are really up to, and the so-called “fact-checkers” have cried foul.  This isn’t just ineptitude on their part–it’s de facto collusion with the political fraudsters of the right. The pretense is that of trying to keep “both sides” honest, but the reality is nothing of the sort.  

Fraud Is Vital To The Attack On The Welfare State

With this sort of ersatz fact-checking, the advantage clearly shifts away from truth-telling and in favor of ever-more outrageous deception: not just exaggeration, or lying, but the construction of elaborate frauds.  That is, after all, what Republicans have been involved in for a very, very long time.  This is, in fact, key to their long-term war against the American welfare state, which is not only popular with the American people as a whole, but even with their own voter base, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly over the past five or six years, blogging at various different sites.  In a June 2008 diary at Open Left, for example–“Center-Left America–Vast Support For the Welfare State”–I wrote that since 1984, the first year when the General Social Survey asked the full range of seven questions I refer to,

[a] majority of extreme conservatives (self-identified 7 on a 1-7 scale) said we were spending too little on a combined measure (call it NatWelfComp) of whether people think we’re spending too little, too much or about right on seven different areas-Social Security, welfare, “improving [the] nation’s education system,” “improving & protecting [the] environment,” “improving & protecting [the] nations health,” “improving the conditions of blacks,” and “solving problems of big cities.” The number of extreme conservatives who thought we were spending too little on one or more programs (net: i.e. “too little” on two, but “too much” on one is a net of “too little” on one) was nearly twice the number of extreme conservatives who thought we were spending too much: 59.3% to 30.7%. This can be seen in the last column of the chart below:

Faced with this reality, Ronald Reagan originally promised a fantasy–that taxes could be slashed dramatically while balancing the budget–and then resorted to a fraud–continuing to pretend that he “really” wanted a balanced budget, even though he never submitted a budget to Congress that actually balanced the budget.  The impossibility of his promise became clear within months of passing his massive tax cuts, as made clear in this November 16,  1981 piece from Time magazine. In it, Reagan is quoted casually dismissing his balanced-budget promise:

“I didn’t come here to balance the budget. I was elected to reduce Government intrusion in the economy.”

But, of course, running unheard-of deficits also lead to massive government intrusion in the economy as well-a phenomenon economists call “crowding out”, which makes it harder for businesses to borrow money they need for productive investments.  So his excuse for busting the budget was as bogus as his broken promise. While it’s popular for Reagan apologists to blame Congressional Democrats for Reagan’s broken balanced-budget promise, Brad DeLong recently blog-published a 1993 memo he wrote which squarely lays the blame where it belongs.  The summary reads as follows:

The overwhelming proportion of the deficits of the last decade [i.e., the 1980s] were already proposed in President Reagan’s and President Bush’s original budget submission. There was no explosion of federal spending over and above what the presidents had asked for. More than four-fifths of the 1980s deficits were “presidential.” Less than one-fifth were “congressional.”

DeLong’s memo contained two charts which made this point abundantly clear:

and:

Throughout the 1980s, it finally began to dawn on some that the whole purpose of the massive Reagan deficits was to eventually force even the Democrats to agree to slashing the welfare state-a plan the was eventually dubbed “starving the beast” and identified with conservative activist Grover Norquist.  Thus, Reagan’s fantasy was transformed into a fraud. And, indeed, when Bill Clinton took over in 1993, he immediately began the process of reducing the federal debt as a percentage of GDP, even before the Republicans took over Congress and tried to force a much more drastic approach to slashing government spending.  Clinton actually achieved a balanced budget before he left office, but once Bush took over in 2001, the debt-to-GDP ratio started heading up, up, up once again.  Vice President Cheney even chortled “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter,” and Republicans in Congress repeatedly voted to raise the debt ceiling without the slightest complaint.

The record of what’s happened with the debt since Reagan’s election in 1980 is particularly striking, and easy to grasp when shown in terms of the debt-to-GDP ratio, which measures the amount of the debt in terms of the nation’s ability to pay.  Here is what that chart shows–a record of continued success from the end of WWII, until Reagan took over, and sharply reversed course, until Clinton restored fiscal responsibility, only to have Bush Junior return to Reagan’s profligate ways:

This is, of course, the exact opposite of the dominant narrative built around the ultimate lie of “fiscal conservatism”.  Why don’t the “fact-checkers” ever check that?

Fraud At The Heart Of  Reagan’s Orgy Of American Military Spending

But the underlying fraud of Reagan’s politics was not just limited to tax cuts–which even to this day Republicans continue to claim will magically pay for themselves.  There was also the fraud of needing a massive military buildup-a fraud based on a carefully-manipulated neo-con attack on the CIA’s remarkably solid assessment of Soviet power, carried out under then-CIA chief George H.W. Bush in 1976.  The CIA accurately portrayed the Soviets as well behind the US militarily, struggling with an increasingly failing economy.  The neo-cons who attacked them had no new information at all, only a paranoid worldview that put a wildly impossible spin on intelligence.  The story of what happened was concisely told by Anne Hessing Cahn in “Team B: The trillion-dollar experiment”, a 1993 article in  the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and was later expanded into the 1998 book, Killing Detente: The Right Attacks the CIA.

But long before this inside story was fully known, journalist Robert Scheer found a remarkable number of Reagan Administration figures seemingly eager to fight a nuclear war, as documented in his 1982 book, “With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush, and Nuclear War”.  This gung-ho war-fighting attitude naturally proved deeply unpopular, giving rise to a massive wave of successful state-level initiatives calling for a nuclear freeze in November 2002. It was shortly after this that Reagan turned to yet another fraud–the impossible dream of the Star Wars “missile defense”, a plan so crazy that thousands of physicists signed petitions refusing to work on it. But, of course, Star Wars was never intended to protect the US from Soviet missiles-it was intended to protect Ronald Reagan from a crushing defeat at the polls as a warmongering lunatic, and in that it was enormously successful.

Nowadays, almost no one even remembers that Reagan military buildup was not sold to the American people as a supremely clever to bankrupt the Soviet Union and end the Cold War, but as a desperately-needed measure to catch up with a dangerously dominant “Evil Empire”, and possibly even go to war with it, loosing tens or hundreds of millions of American lives in the process.  And that profound ignorance about our own not-so-distant history is due in large part to the so-called “liberal media”, whose mostly-tacit support for massive conservative political frauds has become increasingly overt of late.  

These are far from being the only frauds perpetrated under the Reagan Administration.  But they’ll do fine for establishing the dominant pattern and the sheer scale of the impact they had.  With such massive frauds driving the big picture of federal tax and spending priorities, their spill-over impacts on the rest of public life were inevitably profound.  We helped to create Al Qaeda, for example, as part of the spillover from the “Team B” fraud.  So it’s not enough that these frauds are massive beyond imagining in and of themselves.  They are frauds that perpetuate incredible new forms of damage, which in turn create new opportunities for promoting an ever-widening arrays of other frauds.

Fighting Back

The outright lies of PolitiFact discussed in detail above can only be understood as the tip of the iceberg, and can only be effectively combated in the long run by creating an equally massive iceberg of truth.  This will not be easily done, but the impressive explosion of the progressive blogosphere from 2003 onwards shows that it’s not impossible.  That earlier growth, however, had very little centralized guidance. What’s needed now is something that can provide enough structure to fulfill an important coherence-enhancing function of centralized guidance, with no central authority imposing that guidance on others.  In short: something mimicking what scientific disciplines do, simply by uncovering fruitful approaches to understanding their subject matter.  

We have very little in the way of hegemonic structure to counter the vast resources of the right.  And we are further hindered by a purported center-left establishment that is indifferent at best and usually openly hostile to even thinking about hegemonic warfare.  So it’s especially important for us to try and focus on building what we can build through self-organizing from below.  A good place to start would be to build up alternative truth-centers of our own.  

NYU’s Jeffrey Rosen, at Press Think, has described the progress of one such approach, that of “explainers” that are devoted to providing robust contextual understanding.  This is an excellent concept, and one that I hope really catches on.  I’d like to propose another:  A centralized website for debunking rightwing lies.  It’s an idea I’ve had for a very long, which I recently tossed out on a discussion list I’m part of.  There are already plenty of resources out there we could draw upon, so it’s a far cry from trying to do everything from scratch.  Plus, there’s actually a chance that it could get the institutional backing it needs to get off the ground.  But the crucial step now is to convene a small group to draft an initial model/proposal.  If this is something you’d be interested in doing, please let me know in comments.

Understanding Anti-Immigrant America: Developing a Gramscian Framework, part II

part two in a 3-part series. Click here to read part one.

Gramsci opened up the Marxist framework to consider the role of civil society in stabilizing advanced capitalism. The presence of a civil society, he argued, complicates the process of social change. An economic crisis is not enough to shake up a social system. Civil society, as the terrain in which hegemony is exercised, serves as a veritable “earthworks” that prevents such structural opportunities from automatically dissolving into massive social change.

But who are the important characters in this story?

For Marx, a class was the important unit of analysis. A class was determined by its relation to the means of production. So under capitalism, do you work for wages? That is, do you only make enough to take care of yourself and your children? OR do you own a factory? Do you make profit that you could reinvest in your factory and eventually open up a second one? In the classical Marxist framework, social change happens through class struggle between the haves and the have-nots as the disparity in wealth inequality becomes more and more acute.  

Gramsci also thought class and class struggle were important. But, just as the superstructure had become more complex under advanced capitalism, so too had the composition of classes. The modern capitalist class is made up of both the factory owners and the group that organizes their ideas.  

Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields. The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organizers of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc (5).

Arguably, for example, the Heritage Foundation houses the organic intellectuals of the capitalist class. As a public policy think tank started under the Nixon Administration, they promote neoliberal ideas about the importance of deregulation and the free market as well as a strong emphasis on national security in the realm of international relations. They regularly publish their research, lobby politicians and work to mold the next generation of conservative thinkers through internship programs. Squarely rooted in civil society, these organic intellectuals articulate the interests of the American capitalist class. But they represent capital’s interests as a general interest, by for example, appealing to vague but powerful concepts such as “freedom, opportunity, [and] prosperity.”

Organic intellectuals aren’t the only intellectuals out there. There are also what Gramsci called the traditional intellectuals, a group that imagines itself to be autonomous and separate from the class struggle driving the historical process. While traditional intellectuals do not see themselves as directly linked to a class, they are in fact allied with the ruling class and its ideas. Examples of traditional intellectuals may include professors, the clergy, artists, and others who think of themselves as “endowed with a character of their own” (8). Organic intellectuals, by contrast, recognize their relationship to the dominant group, and orient their activity to disseminating the ruling class’s ideology.

For Gramsci, then, these intellectuals positioned in the various institutions of civil society, are key to the process of social stability and social change. Marx imagined that the development of capitalism would spawn a certain societal simplicity: people would polarize into one of two classes-the proletariat or the capitalist. Eventually, that disparity would create the momentum for political mobilization and struggle. But Gramsci saw advanced capitalism as creating societal complexity. Rather than class polarization, each class experienced massive specialization within itself. Intellectuals were the product of that intra-class specialization.

Social change, therefore, has to involve these intellectuals.  In Gramsci’s own words,


One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer ‘ideologically’ the traditional intellectuals, but this assimilation and conquest is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals (10).

Both maintaining social stability and fomenting social change requires the pursuit of hegemony in the institutions of civil society. Organic intellectuals of the dominant group are always in the process of trying to bring traditional intellectuals into their circle as well as the organic intellectuals of non-dominant groups. It is an ideological battle, or what Gramsci called a war of position.

At the same time, subordinate groups try to create their own organic intellectuals to push an alternative narrative or set of ideas about what society is and can be. That war of position–the work of building an alternative hegemony through class consciousness-raising and an evaluation of society and history through a revolutionary theoretical lens–has to precede a war of movement, or armed insurrection. Agents of social change need popular backing from the sectors of civil society first. But so do the agents of social stability.

Given Gramsci’s theoretical framework, how can we start to analyze contemporary anti-immigrant sentiment in US? The next post will combine preliminary bits of ethnographic insight with this theoretical framework to begin to understand how anti-immigrant sentiment is perpetuated today.  

Bonding & Bridging | Populism & Hegemony pt.3

This is the third post in a series.

Strong group identity is something of a double-edged sword for social justice movements. On the one hand&#151as discussed in part one of this series&#151it is absolutely essential. There can be no serious social movement&#151the kind that challenges the powerful and privileged&#151without a correspondingly serious group identity that encourages a strong core of members to contribute an exceptional level of commitment, sacrifice and heroics over the course of prolonged struggle.

On the other hand, a group’s identity tends to grow stronger and more cohesive at a cost of becoming more distinct from other group identities. The cost is the barrier that results from the distinction of said group from other groups. While this is true of all groups to some extent, it tends to have particular consequences for political/politicized groups. Take, for example, a sports team that defines its group identity partly in distinction from rival teams. The team is likely to play all the harder against their rivals as a result of the distinction. No problem there. A group engaged in political struggle, on the other hand, has not only to foster a strong within-group identity; it also has to win allies beyond the bounds of that identity &#151 if it is to orchestrate and leverage the power it needs to accomplish its political goals. Add to this that oppositional struggle tends to trigger an oppositional psychology, which can inject “with steroids” the natural tendency of groups to differentiate themselves from outsiders.

I have called this tension (or double-bind) the Political Identity Paradox. Good leaders have to perform an extraordinary balancing act between the conflicting imperatives of building a strong within-group identity and connecting with allies and potential allies beyond the group.

In his remarkable examination of patterns of declining civic engagement in US society in the last third of the 20th Century&#151in his book, Bowling Alone&#151Robert Putnam provides some useful language for thinking about this tension. He talks in terms of bonding and bridging. Bonding involves the kind of within-group identity formation and emphasis I have discussed, which typically includes some degree of differentiation between group members and outsiders. Bridging is about connections among and between groups. Here’s Putnam:

Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). Some forms of social capital are, by choice or necessity, inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups. Examples of bonding social capital include ethnic fraternal organizations, church-based women’s reading groups, and fashionable country clubs. Other networks are outward looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages. Examples of bridging social capital include the civil rights movement, many youth service groups, and ecumenical religious organizations.

Bonding social capital is good for undergirding specific reciprocity and mobilizing solidarity. Dense networks in ethnic enclaves, for example, provide crucial social and psychological support for less fortunate members of the community, while furnishing start-up financing, markets, and reliable labor for local entrepreneurs. Bridging networks, by contrast, are better for linkage to external assets and for information diffusion.

I suggested in part one of this series that:

…a primary function of identity is for group members to signal belonging and commitment to the group, thereby contributing to the health and well-being of the group, while also securing one’s individual place (and therefore survival) in the group.

That, in a nutshell, is what Putnam describes as bonding. I continue:

Group members can signal this [bonding/belonging] by expressing commonality or distinction:

  • Commonality: I am like others in this group.  I share values with this group.  I belong in this group.
  • Distinction . . . from other groups: I belong in this group because I am different from members of other groups &#151 especially groups that my group views as a threat or that the group identifies itself in opposition to…

So, the “double edged sword” of group identity that I described above&#151the Political Identity Paradox&#151speaks to the need for groups engaged in political struggle to develop both strong bonding and strong bridging. Without strong bonding, group members will lack the level of commitment required for serious struggles. But without strong bridging, the group will become too insular and isolated to be able to forge the broad alliances that are even more necessary for achieving big structural changes.

We can talk in terms of within-group vs. between groups, distinction vs. commonality, differentiation vs. universality, or bonding vs. bridging. However we phrase it, what we’re talking about is the tension between the imperative for groups to cultivate internal solidarity and the imperative to connect beyond the boundaries of the group. Understanding this tension is crucial for understanding the emergence of&#151and the obstacles to&#151populist alignments.