Shaking the Foundations of Progressive Leaders in Politics and Media
Progressives are innovators. The commentaries such as those from Chaitt (“When did Liberals become so Unreasonable?”) or Kristoff (“President as Pinata”) demonstrate the same resistance conservatives have to any form of cognitive dissonance about their leaders. Both grumble about the propensity of progressives to question the authority and wisdom of progressive leadership and their policies. Chaitt and Kristoff point to patterns and traits that are hardly signs of weakness but of strength, and corroboration for this can be found from managers of innovators. Having worked in high technology for a few decades managing large numbers of highly innovative and intelligent individuals, the perspective of such commentators is the familiar mark of Cain one would hear from antiquarian managers from companies doomed to failure. Do such commentators have any idea how many times Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have been told by their employees that they were brain damaged? Do they understand how many cycles of disillusionment high tech companies normally pass through, and how inevitable such cycles are? Examine the revolt at Apple during the transition from the Apple ][ to the Macintosh. It was not pretty, and the “solution” of Apple’s board was to replace Jobs with a conventional manager who nearly killed the company. It seems to me there is a profound lack of comprehension from progressive leaders both in politics and media about what a productive relationship with the creative forces of their base looks like.
The “business as usual” approach of the conventional social contract between political elites and the people can longer assumed to be valid for true progressive organizations- the swarm will not mass for them.
I can’t say any of the recent commentary about the left’s relationship towards Obama has been insightful. Consider first the premise of this commentary and ask the inverse. Why is it that conservatives do not call into question the actions of sitting conservative presidents, and is this a healthy pattern we as progressives wish to emulate? The conservative’s model of the national family is infantile: After choosing a “Father who knows best”, all that is required is to display ironclad loyalty and heartfelt perseverance to follow his lead in everything- My President, right or wrong. It is a simple role to play and the pattern permeates all social units: there is a circling of wagons around any leaders- the coaches, the priests, and the owners of the city businesses- regardless what is alleged is done to innocents in the shower. Aversion to cognitive dissonance about the identity of the leader retards critical thinking. Being critical of the leader is tantamount to insubordination, and any suggestions of disillusionment makes the members feel that their team/tribe/family is losing coherence and viability. Ironically liberals also act out this narrative, associating such criticisms with a disaffected tribe on the road to ruin.
This great leader storyline is a crock. But the myth of the great leader head of the Hobbesian Leviathan is embedded in everything we were taught about history until Howard Zinn came along and showed that from the microhistory perspective, the pageant of history has always been that of a superorganism, composed of a multitude of small acts of individual initiative
That progressives do not adhere to the “Father knows best” style of relationship with their progressive Presidents is a healthy thing. Now, I cannot say that Progressives have an especially unified model of what a healthy family is like or share a common mode of treating the person heading the national family. But as Germaine Greer stated, the alternative to Patriarchy is not Matriarchy- the alternative is fraternity. That is where we are going with the occupy movement: towards peers collaborating together as brethren.
Kennedy stated that no one should judge a President until they have sat in the President’s chair. I agree that there is a great deal of hubris in judging presidents, but as citizens if we do not do so then we are not citizens of a republic but subjects of a kingdom. We must Be Bold and have little interest in Hero worship or the expectation that someone else in authority is going to solve societies ills. What happens depends on what we- each of us do. Obama is a good public servant and because of what I see in him, I am confident he can do much better.
He is a prudent and practical man, but the times do not call for caution. We are not looking for a “pretty good” President. Roosevelt was pretty good. Jefferson as a president was “pretty good. Obama’s character is such that he must not rest on his laurels or settle for “pretty good”.
Lincoln was a Great President. Obama could be a Great President.
We are no longer in a Father knows best world of homogeneous families where the Patriarch is looked to for all things. We all serve the family, but the head of the family sets the narrative. The libertarians have their view of a leaderless utopia, but the only replace the governance of elected officials with the governing thuggery of unelected corporations.
The superorganism of mutually nurturing individuals can self govern because it has empathy, not hypermasculine individualism in its heart. This alternative anti-authoritarian model of society is not anarchism nor a dictatorship of the proletariat. It does not make democratic institutions or voting obsolete.
If the swarm that showed up in 2008 is the same superorganism swarm that is powering the occupy movement, it is fair to ask where they were in 2010. Ask the occupiers. Ask if they were in the Organizing for America (Obama’s OFA volunteer organization) in 2008. Ask them what they think happened to that organization, and you will hear the same story. It was a massively missed opportunity. It was allowed to die. After the election, progressives were basically told to shut up and sit down. *
So they did.
When conservatives marched in the street in 2010, progressives were no longer mobilized. The conservatives were holding angry rallies but progressive activists had basically been seen as a post election irrelevancy to the real affairs of state. So when 2010 rolls around, the voter turnout is swelled by an energized conservative base and the progressives don’t show up. It is the easiest response, and the most cowardly to blame the volunteers for not showing up. Not only were they were never asked, they were given the distinct impression that they were to go home. Yet what we hear from the expert political analysts was the reason progressives were alienated was that progressives are infantile: you know, back biting ingrates incapable of being satisfied with any Democratic President.
It’s a load of horse manure.
This smug complaint should be seen for what it is. Although it is true individuals should have had a better appreciation of the danger of the situation in 2010, this was not a failure of the rank and file progressives. It was a systemic failure of progressive managers to interact with the progressive base in a meaningful way. The management style of the Democratic party needs to wake up, enter the 21st century and take some pointers from high technology companies. Progressive leadership must own up to the structural flaw of their organizing, and recognize that their management style requires a fundamentally different approach than that of conservatives. It must be qualitatively different because the essence of what it means to be a progressive movement places utterly different organizational demands than what is required for conservative movements.
In industry, organizing for innovation is fundamentally different than managing manufacture of a stable product where the goal is to maintain adherence a system of best practice that are often the expression of decades of investments in refinements. These two different approaches are well understood in industry- and the only thing bad or good about them is when there is a mismatch between the management style and the organization’s goals. You don’t manage workers creating new products at Apple in the same manner you manage workers on an assembly line. At a high tech company, substantial profit results from questioning all prior conceptions in order to create a breakthrough product. If the company is manufacturing armchairs or bicycles, the product definition is exceptionally stable, and the management’s goal has the entirely different character, with the goal of maintain a steady state of high production with high quality. While improvements are welcome, methods that risk instability are shunned in favor of incremental improvements to existing best practice.
Let’s be clear: Of course the barbarians are at the gates. If Democrats lose the White house and congress, the conservatives will devastate progress made during the last 70 years. The stakes are high and many say the base is disillusioned but consider this. The same was true for any previous election where the democrats held the White House. During which of these presidencies were progressives not disillusioned? For which election were the stakes not high? Johnson- Goldwater? McGovern- Nixon? Reagan- Carter? Gore-Bush?
Chait and Kristoff engage in partriarchy envy and delude themselves that what democrats have to do is become better conformists like the Republicans that fall into lock step behind the great leader. Consider this. Trusting the Democratic leadership, brilliant Democratic Party technocrats allowed the incredibly energized Organizing for America organization to whither on the vine. Political operatives had better things to do and didn’t need the slave labor anymore. Trusting in the Democratic leadership, Martha Coakley was put up for Ted Kennedy’s seat and democratic party elites smugly expected they would have a comfortable win in 2010. Trusting in the Democratic leadership, Democrat patricians in the Senate let stand rules with no constitutional basis that prevented us from achieving Cap and Trade, Single Payer, and numerous appointments such as those of Warren, Goodwin Liu, and Don Berwick. Trusting in the democratic leadership, the debate this summer was focused intently on the republican agenda of austerity measures rather than jobs.
The approach of treating volunteers like star artists rather than drones is hardly idealistic. It is pragmatic. The “street heat” of progressive activists should no longer be regarded with condescension by the Patriarchy of the Democratic party. We should no longer be disbanded or treated like slave labor.
It was not the Democratic leadership that changed the nation’s dialog back to Jobs. It was the Occupy Movement. Yes- when we didn’t leave it to people “Smarter than we are”, the democratic superorganism demonstrated its power.
This is quite baffling to Party elites. It is quite baffling to commentators like Chait and Kristoff. Stuff like this shouldn’t happen according to the patriarchal model of organization. For encyclopedia writers, it was very clear how subject matter elites would carefully craft and assemble the collective wisdom of the culture.
Wikipedia was not supposed to happen. But it did. The breakthrough examples provided by these phenomena presents the profound observation these pundits miss. The big tent of diversity cannot be organized as a Patriarchy with the narrative of unquestioned allegiance to the leader. Unlike followers of the patriarchy, an empire of Fear will not long stand among democrats because progressives do not sustain themselves on the limbic system’s norepenephrine (fear-anxiety) circuits, but on the other limbic system- Dopamine which powers feelings of empathy and joy of service. Chait and Kristoff attempt to terrorize a mass of non conformists into conformity- they think that desperate times require us to tear a page from the republican play book. Well, it is silly because progressives aren’t wired that way.
Chait and Kristoff are both uninsightful and without historic perspective. It is a strategy that is not just ill informed- if we follow it, we will fail to achieve the congressional wins we need in 2012, and we will fail to retain the presidency in 2016.
If the leadership of the Democratic party wants the respect of progressives, they will have to earn it. When they do, they will find they will be exceptionally generous with their time and money. Starting today, they need to jettison the patriarchal and consumerist models of “grassroots organizing”. Progressives aren’t children, nor are they angry consumers demanding better customer service for governmental products. Some points:
- Stop treating volunteers like cattle. Eventually they get the drift that they are regarded as peons.
- Try stripping 95% of your email of any solicitation for money. The subject matter should about issues, preparation for events, and offers of events and gifts that the rank and file truly value.
- Stop using the term “grassroots organizing” and start doing it- an organization of individualistic champions achieving recognizable goals and getting some measure of recognition for it,
- Understand the management style used in high tech, research science and entertainment- where the manager is more of an assistant who helps the workers excel in whatever goals their intuition drives them towards. An organization where the administration is there to help supply the initiatives of the group with resources and tactical advice, not to attempt to treat them as soldiers following the leadership’s marching orders.
- It is ok and expected that leaders provide the global vision and that leadership will from time to time request participation in comprehensive coordinated activities.
The historical- philosophical dimension is strongly felt in these times. The antiquation of the dominant Hobbesian notion of the Leviathan must be recognized. It had its value in its day, positing the great leader model of western societies, as a replacement to the notion of the divine right of Kings that was confronted first academically and finally militarily by Cromwell and his protestants followers who were deeply, theologically released from the old order. In the wake of that shock, and recoiling from the fear of chaos in the absence of of strong central government, Hobbes proposed a social contract between the rulers and the ruled which would lend new life to the Patriarchy of ruling elites. These include the ones whom Senator Bernie Sanders refers to as “royalists” but the principle applies to all political elites of any party or ideology. With identical timing as the monarchists who expelled the anti-authoritarians of the Paris Commune in 1871, after just two months of occupation, the same forces expelled the Occupy protesters from Zuccotti park, and from the other cities by both liberal and conservative mayors. Neither the phenomenon nor the customary reaction from authorities was by any means new. In the wake of the 1871 Commune, Emile Durkeim produced an alternative view to the question of what holds society together. His analysis laid the foundation for understanding the organically binding influence of the collective consciousness of such such superorganism social movements. The superorganism is not a beheaded leviathan, necessarily stumbling as Hobbes would have us believe- in the throws of an inevitable death. A more apt image for the superorganism would be not a mechanical body of automatons following the orders of the leader, but an organic brain composed of billions of synaptic individuals, with communication paths between innumerable clusters of working groups. Solidarity is achieved not through mechanical application of punitive correction, but emerges from the sense of organic strength of interpenetrating cooperative relationships between individuals of diverse interests.
Administrative services have not been made obsolete by the Zucotti/ Indignados re-emergence of the leaderless swarm. “Keeping the railroads running on time” does not require the heart of an imperious authoritarian- the functions of individuals who help keep the group coordinated an efficiently achieving whatever goals the superorganism chooses can be born of fraternal desire to serve the brethren, not to patriarchally decide and demand fealty to policies they judge best for the people.
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