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Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics: Styles of Engagement among Grassroots Activists

Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics: Styles of Engagement among Grassroots Activists

by Stephen M. Hart
Why have conservatives fared so much better than progressives in recent decades, even though polls show no significant move to the right in public opinion? Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics highlights one reason: that progressives often adopt impoverished modes of discourse, ceding the moral high ground to their conservative rivals. Stephen Hart also


Why have conservatives fared so much better than progressives in recent decades, even though polls show no significant move to the right in public opinion? Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics highlights one reason: that progressives often adopt impoverished modes of discourse, ceding the moral high ground to their conservative rivals. Stephen Hart also shows that some progressive groups are pioneering more robust ways of talking about their issues and values, providing examples other progressives could emulate.

Through case studies of grassroots movements—particularly the economic justice work carried on by congregation-based community organizing and the pursuit of human rights by local members of Amnesty International—Hart shows how these groups develop distinctive ways of talking about politics and create characteristic stories, ceremonies, and practices. According to Hart, the way people engage in politics matters just as much as the content of their ideas: when activists make the moral basis for their activism clear, engage issues with passion, and articulate a unified social vision, they challenge the recent ascendancy of conservative discourse.

On the basis of these case studies, Hart addresses currently debated topics such as individualism in America and whether strains of political thought strongly informed by religion and moral values are compatible with tolerance and liberty.

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University of Chicago Press
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Morality and Society Series
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Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics

Styles of Engagement among Grassroots Activists
By Stephen Hart

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-31817-6

Chapter One

Varying Styles of Political Activity

When we become involved in politics, we often disagree on the issues of the day or adopt differing political philosophies. But in addition to these substantive differences, there are differences in how we do politics. Some of these have to do with how we talk. Political talk can be full of moral commitment and passion or it can be cool in tone and tightly focused on specific tasks to achieve immediate objectives. Sometimes we relate varied issues to an overall social vision, but at other times issues remain discrete. Within a group with common political objectives, the moral basis of politics can be shared and explicit or private and invisible. Sometimes we link civil-societal cultural traditions-religions and other sources of ethical values and commitment-to the social and political world, while at other times we disconnect them. In addition to these differences in modes of public discourse, there are differences in the cultural dimension of political conduct. Some groups and movements develop a strong expressive life-ceremonies, stories, and practices that are valued for themselves, provide sustenance toparticipants, and communicate their values to outsiders-while others do not.

Political talk and action, in short, can attend carefully to cultural traditions and the expressive dimension of politics or deal with cultural factors more superficially. This difference crosscuts the divide between progressives and conservatives. In each political camp, one can find groups that pay a great deal of attention to the cultural dimension of their work and others that do not.

Furthermore, styles of discourse and the expressive dimension of political work are not accidental; nor are they merely subjects of aesthetics, public relations, or manipulation. On the contrary, the way we do politics manifests our identity and moral convictions as much as our assessment of what strategy is most likely to result in concrete political victories. Within political and social movements, choices about modes of discourse become deeply ingrained, respected customs.

My purpose in this book is to examine such differences in the cultural dimension of politics-and especially progressive politics. The reason for doing so is that these differences are fateful. A key question about contemporary American political life is why the right has fared so much better in Washington than the left since the 1960s and what potential there is for this to change. Some of the problems of progressive politics, I believe, lie in its cultural work. To diagnose or address these problems one needs to examine the modes of discourse progressives use, the cultural bases they implicitly or explicitly draw upon, and how these can be claimed more effectively. I intend to show how progressive politics often uses modes of discourse that are cautious and constrained to the point of being anemic, and argue that recovering the capacity to express moral outrage, universal claims of justice, and visions of a better society is essential if progressive political initiatives are to prosper-or deserve to prosper.

In addition, a focus on the cultural dimension of politics can clarify topics that frequently arise in social criticism, such as the nature and extent of individualism in America, the state of civil society, and the impact of religion, morality, and cultural movements on American politics. Social critics such as Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin, Robert Bellah, and Robert Putnam reflect on how American politics has gone wrong and what might be done, particularly by progressives, to remedy the situation. While I share many of the concerns of these authors, my diagnosis and suggestions diverge from theirs. Compared with Rorty and Gitlin, I am less persuaded of the dangers, and more of the advantages, of robustly cultural forms of politics, of moralism and even religious language within public discourse. With regard to individualism, as discussed by Bellah and a slew of critics, in my view the problem is not so much individualism in itself as weakness in the connections between public discourse and the strongly nonindividualistic ways of thinking, speaking, and acting that are still very much alive in America. Therefore, by contrast with thinkers such as Robert Putnam who see our basic problems in terms of weakness in civil society, I believe that what hurts our country the most is the decoupling of a reasonably healthy civil-societal sector from politics. In this book, I ground these arguments in an assessment of the actual state of grassroots public discourse.

Although it has a formal ring to it, the term public discourse does not refer only to what politicians, professors, and journalists do. Rather, it is found wherever people talk about our society and the problems and issues we face. Family dinners, office water coolers, churches, and taverns can all be sites for public discourse. The major focus of this book is on the discourse and cultural practices that are found in grassroots social and political action groups. These are where ordinary Americans become personally involved in efforts to improve our society, and they provide an important means by which nonelite Americans can have an impact on public life. Unlike national advocacy groups to which people relate only as contributors, local groups bring participants into interaction with others and provide opportunities to become public actors by organizing other people, speaking in front of the media, writing public statements, and so forth. They have the potential to connect the life of American civil society with politics. Compared with public opinion polls, the political discussions found in grassroots groups provide a more interesting, if less systematic and representative, sense of what is going on outside the Beltway. When responding to a poll, one is talking to a passive listener, what one says makes little practical difference, and the issues under discussion typically have only an indirect impact on one's life; it is rare that one has taken action personally on these issues. By contrast, in local action groups the issues often concern one directly and the group faces practical decisions about what to do. Furthermore, the people one is speaking to are far from passive: they respond to what one says and express their own views. Thus a forum for democratic deliberation takes shape. Furthermore, local groups have been a source of political creativity and change throughout American history-as in civil rights struggles during the 1950s-and may perform the same service again in the future. For all these reasons, the discourse and cultural practices of grassroots activist groups-even though many of them are small-deserve serious study. In examining these groups, the focus in this book is not on their often exciting actions and confrontations, but on their cultural work and their contributions to American political culture.

To provide a first glimpse of how styles of discourse vary, in the section that follows I recount my observations of three groups concerned, respectively, with the Gulf War, pornography, and local economic justice issues. These sketches are not intended to portray what is typical of political work in these three issue areas. In each area there are other groups that operate quite differently from the one reported here. Rather, these groups serve as examples of variation in modes of discourse. The first two, observed at the same time and in the same city, are examples of two dramatically different discursive styles that I term constrained and expansive. The group with constrained discourse, the one that was working against the Gulf War, was politically progressive, while the antipornography group, which had a more expansive style, was conservative. I observed the third group, which works on economic justice issues, one year later in a similar city. It was progressive but manifested relatively expansive discourse. Thus this set of examples allows us to see how styles of discourse vary independently of the political content of the discourse.

After these examples, I examine the nature of variations in modes of discourse and argue briefly that such variations are important for understanding American politics and the problems of progressive politics.

Thumbnails: Styles of Discourse in Three Grassroots Activist Organizations

The Cincinnati Area Coalition against U.S. Intervention

After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and continuing after the start of active U.S. military operations in January 1991, a peace movement around the country worked to oppose U.S. policy. In Cincinnati, a loosely structured group with a few dozen active members but no staff met during that period and fielded a few antiwar actions. (It was affiliated with one of the two national anti-Gulf War groups, but was on its own locally. It was not really a coalition but a membership organization.)

At coalition meetings, discussion was entirely on nuts-and-bolts subjects. At a meeting in February 1991, when the ground phase of the war was already underway and it was clear that the war would end within a few days, this became manifest as an explicit choice. Early in the meeting, a draft political statement was brought up but immediately put aside without discussion. In making this choice, the group decided not to try to take a public position beyond the demand that the war end. In addition, it eschewed discussion of the topics that would have arisen while considering the draft statement.

A little later in the meeting, a college student who was a regular participant tried to raise broader questions: What are we as an organization fundamentally about? How do we want to change the United States so that the country will make fewer wars? He argued that the goal of stopping the war made little sense at that time because it was going to be over soon anyway and evidently we weren't going to stop it. So maybe, he said, we should think more about our broader purposes. He was, in a friendly way, immediately ruled out of order. The chair of the meeting told him, without giving any reason, that the group couldn't get into that. And indeed, no such discussion as he proposed took place at that or any other meeting of the organization I observed.

What explains what happened at this meeting? Certainly not lack of time. The remainder of the evening was spent talking about every detail of two elaborate proposals for the group's organizational structure-exactly how many at-large steering committee members to have, for instance. (All this for a structure destined to be obsolete within 72 hours!) This discussion went on well past 10:00 pm and many people left before it ended. The reason for turning down invitations to broader discussions appeared, instead, to be a sentiment that it was dangerous or inappropriate to discuss any larger social visions or grounds for opposition to the Gulf War. The group should stick to an affirmation that the war was wrong.

Another possible explanation for the group's nuts-and-bolts orientation is that diverse opinions among its members meant that the only thing they had in common was opposition to the war and that even talking about anything beyond that would be at best useless, since no agreement would be reached, and at worst divisive and destructive. But this line of argument is not very persuasive in view of the fact that the group was relatively homogeneous politically. Some of the participants were students, but the rest were long-term peace activists (some leftists, others pacifists or people whose political identity focused on peace issues) who had been demonstrating together for years against American policy in Central America and, for the older ones, Indochina. There were certainly differences: the pacifists and the socialists disagreed on some points. But I very much doubt if there was a single participant who opposed the Gulf War alone without feeling that there were underlying reasons why the United States continually got involved in problematic wars.

A third potential explanation is that the group was concerned to make its case effectively among the general public. It is possible that the older participants remembered the flamboyant and perhaps ill-advised rhetoric used by some leftists during the 1960s. This may have been part of the reason not to try to adopt a political statement. The usual argument for issuing a narrowly focused statement on a particular public issue-even if people within a movement have common views on a wider range of questions-is that the movement has a good chance for an important political victory in the near future and that the chance will be reduced if people outside the movement are alienated by broader statements with which they may not agree. Perhaps some people in the antiwar group were thinking in these terms, although it was a somewhat implausible position given that by the time of this meeting the movement had no chance of practical political victory no matter what it did. But in any case, the group elected to constrain not only its external but also its internal discourse. Externally, it declined to adopt a political position statement contextualizing its opposition to the war. But in addition, by not even discussing the draft statement and by ruling the college student out of order, the group failed to take advantage of two opportunities for internal discourse about the broader political or ethical values behind its opposition to the Gulf War. And as we have seen, efficient time use or the likelihood of destructive conflict do not seem plausible explanations. Something deeper and more implicit, some set of customs or rules-learned in the group or brought in from other political experiences-appears to have been in play.

In this group, there seemed to be an implicit rule that people's reasons for belonging and their ethical-let alone religious-sentiments were an entirely private matter. Any discussion of topics beyond nuts and bolts, any effort to talk about values or religion, was effectively embargoed. Connections between the immediate political issues at hand and general social or political visions were not made. Nor were links forged between people's politics and the more general cultural traditions, such as religions, to which they were attached. Furthermore, these activists expressed little passion and transcendence, even though in fact most of them were highly committed to their cause.

Citizens for Community Values

Let us now turn to a group with a much less constrained style of discourse, also active in Cincinnati in 1991. While this organization was more conservative than the one just described, I will focus here not on its goals but on its way of talking about politics and on how it attended to the cultural dimension of public life.

Cincinnati acquired notoriety when the Queen City's contemporary art museum hosted a traveling exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. The show upset every cultural traditionalist in town. It included erotic representations, same-sex relationship themes, and images that some found to violate religious sensibilities. Elsewhere the show aroused some opposition, but in Cincinnati opponents managed to close it down and put the museum officials responsible for organizing it on trial for obscenity. (A jury later acquitted them, however.) A particularly conservative sheriff spearheaded these steps, but his actions were strongly influenced by the presence of a militant and effective grassroots antipornography organization, the Citizens for Community Values (CCV). In Hamilton County-comprising the city of Cincinnati and the inner suburbs-CCV had managed by 1991 to wipe out all adult bookstores, get all X-rated videos removed from video outlets, and ban the showing of X-rated movies in theaters. In the six surrounding counties, adult video stores survived but were close to extinction.

CCV was a local group operating only in the Cincinnati area, although it provided advice to other groups and was part of national coalitions. It was structured as a membership organization. In 1991 CCV had approximately five thousand people on its mailing list, but perhaps more importantly it had a contact network reaching nearly five hundred congregations and a number of local chapters (one based in a congregation, the rest geographic). The contact network meant that there was a person in each church who could quickly disseminate information and requests for action throughout the congregation. For instance, if a crucial legislative issue was coming up, the contact could go to church the next Sunday and organize many fellow congregants to write letters to their representatives. Several dozen volunteers were also involved in committee work. In short, CCV was not a staff-driven organization with a passive constituency dealt with by mail. There was significant personal contact and political activity involved in its work.


Excerpted from Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics by Stephen Hart Copyright © 2001 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Stephen Hart is an adjunct member of the sociology department at State University of New York, Buffalo. He is the author of What Does the Lord Require? How American Christians Think about Economic Justice.

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