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. Continue reading

Sunday afternoon rough notes on messaging for populist alignment

Messaging (/symbolic contestation) for populist alignment: very rough notes, pieces of the puzzle, for future exploration…

  • Messages and memes (i.e. carriers of messages) must be potent enough to penetrate the meaning-making processes of existing social aggregations (aka “groups”).
  • Proximate groups are the primary spaces where meanings are processed, judged, opinions shaped, etc. (A “proximate” group is an immediately-experiencable, graspable in size, often-local group. Proximate, as opposed to abstract or imagined, the latter referring to a society, nation, class, religion, etc.)
  • Explicate the modern dis-integration/dispersal of proximate groups; a society of divided selves; identities dispersed across several circles / groups of identity, etc.
  • Explore the “script” and pressure within groups to avoid internal friction, especially subversive challenge; to extricate the political into a distinct group unto itself (e.g. “activism”), and thus to minimize antagonisms within the proximate group, its life and functions.
  • In eras of identity dispersal and unrootedness—and the shrinking of the “tradition-directed” groups and character structures—the opening to frame more potent abstract “groups” (aka imagined communities). The technologies of the mass media (first print, through the novel and national newspapers) enabled these new publics to emerge. The idea of society itself became more imaginable. (See Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities)
  • The imagined public is still processed, understood, and judged within proximate groups, whose identities are also shaped by their understanding and interaction to the larger social abstraction. The way it seems to look and the way it should look are a projection of values, rituals, understandings, experiences, etc. derived from proximate group experiences and culture.
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Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment (part 2)

I concluded Part 1 by summarizing three mistakes progressive change agents often make in trying to build a broad alignment: 1) Building from scratch, 2) Purism, and 3) Long lefty laundry lists.

Summarizing the latter, it’s tempting to think that the way to attract a broad base is to name lots and lots of issues (e.g. at a rally or protest) — so that there will be “something for everyone”. Perhaps counter-intuitively, “…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.” [Long lefty laundry lists].

I concluded by asking, “If it doesn’t work to explicitly spell out how all our issues and all the fragmented aggregations of heterogeneous society are connected—if that only aligns the highly analytical and the fringe radicals, and doesn’t activate broader bases—what about linking these issues and aggregations non-explicitly / ambiguously?”

In this post, I’ll argue that populist alignments in our heterogeneous society depend on this ambiguous linkage, which equally depends on the strategic use of floating signifiers.1 Continue reading

Yes, populism

In my last post two posts (What is hegemonic struggle? and Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment, pt.1), I argued essentially that we should not view hegemony as a monopoly of our formidably powerful opponents; that we ourselves must in some ways be hegemonic; that our ability to make large-scale political change depends on our ability to engage in hegemonic alignments; and that our hegemonic struggle requires a contestation of popular meanings, powerful symbols, and commonsense.

I also used the word populism and briefly defined what I mean by the term populist alignment: “a hegemonic alignment that is framed as a challenger/underdog force or movement. Its raison d’etre is to challenge some formidable power, whether it be an oppressive government, corporation, policy, or status quo social system.”

And I contrasted this with faux-populism, where elites style their alignments—and disguise their interests—as populist, “by charming genuinely disenfranchised groups (e.g. poor white people in rural areas) into the alignment. Fascism is the quintessential example…”

Why am I using the term populism? Am I aware of pejorative usages of the word, including within parts of the left. Of course. Some populist formations have not only been linked with misogyny and racism, but they have been misogynistic and racist populist alignments — i.e. misogyny and racism were essential contents of the populism. But are these essential features of populism, consistent in all of its historical incarnations? No. These are particular contents of a form, and are not inherent to the form itself. Continue reading

Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment (part 1)

Building upon the basic idea of hegemonic contestation discussed in my last post, I want to now move into an exploration of the mechanics of this process. Specifically I want to examine a structural pattern found in hegemonic alignments — and, even more specifically, in hegemonic alignments that can also be described as populist.

First, I want to define a few terms for purposes of this post:

A hegemonic alignment is an aligning, however temporary or ephemeral, of different social groups, blocs, identities, aggregations, organizations, etc. into a tenuously unified force that intervenes in social reality (enters a hegemonic contest). The alignment, because of its broad social bases and combined capacity, can pack a much more powerful punch than any of its component parts could on their own. Such an alignment is not necessarily clearly defined, delineated or formally coordinated — usually it is none of these things. In addition to the alignment’s engaging in a hegemonic contest in relation to the remainder of society (i.e. groups outside of the alignment, both opposition and “neutrals”), typically some particular group also exercises a form of hegemony (i.e. predominance, leadership) within the alignment itself.

A populist alignment is a hegemonic alignment that is framed as a challenger/underdog force or movement. Its raison d’etre is to challenge some formidable power, whether it be an oppressive government, corporation, policy, or status quo social system. In other words, elite interests can and do align into hegemonic alignments, but these do not constitute populist alignments.

A faux-populist alignment is a hegemonic alignment dominated by elite interests that styles itself as populist. It accomplishes this most effectively by charming genuinely disenfranchised groups (e.g. poor white people in rural areas) into the alignment. Fascism is the quintessential example of a faux-populist alignment. The so-called “Tea Party” is another example. The use of faux- is admittedly something of a value judgment; both faux-populist alignments and genuine populist alignments have to engage the same mechanics of hegemonic contestation.

A floating signifier (also called an empty signifier) is a catalyzing symbol whose meaning is ambiguous. Floating signifiers are essential for catalyzing broad hegemonic alignments in a heterogeneous society. The signifier frames the alignment itself, and is necessarily ambiguous—its meaning is floating, its content “empty”—as all of the groups that comprise the alignment must see their values and hopes reflected in the symbol. The signifier can be a politician (quintessentially Juan Perón), a group (e.g. public school teachers in Wisconsin), a slogan (e.g. “We are the 99%!”), or a brand (e.g. the “Tea Party”), among other possibilities. (More on floating signifiers here.)

I believe that hegemonic populist alignments are “the only game in town” if we want to accomplish big social, economic and political changes. The powers we are up against—especially when it comes to Wall Street, corporate power, and capitalism—are so entrenched, have so consolidated their control of the economic and political spheres, we have no option except to organize a truly broad-based counter-force.

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