People still want to dream: Stephen Duncombe Interview, part 3
Our third and final installment of the Stepen Duncombe interview begins with the way those on the Left and Right (with all caveats about generalizations acknowledged) think about and use power and persuasion.
JD: You wrote in Dream, that progressives worry about abusing their power even when they don’t have any power. Now that Democrats have some measure of power with the White House and Congress, why is it that they seem so ineffectual? Why does a headline like “Republicans take 41-59 seat majority in the Senate” make sense? What is it about the way the “Left” and “Right” use persuasion and power that makes that headline make sense?
SD: It’s tricky, there’s two sides to this question: i.e. what is happening now, specifically with the Obama administration and Congress, and the bigger, general questions about the way power is used in this country.
The specific issue now is that I believe the Democratic Party has no idea what they stand for or believe in. They have no narrative. Everything got thrown out piece-meal and no one knew why they were defending these policies. There was no muscle, no ‘steps on the road to Valhalla.’ There were weird little ad-hoc pieces that looked like paybacks to constituents and funders.
Now was this feeling the same in 1932? No. From 1932 to about 1968 or maybe 1972, the Democrats had a platform and a vision: expanded government, the right of the State to intervene in the market, and a whole host of coherent policies that went along with social democracy.
Essentially, the brilliance of people like Ronald Reagan was they re-set the agenda. It was an “epistemological rupture” (to use my new favorite phrase). The epistemological rupture that looked like it might happen under Obama turns out not to be one at all. Once the Clintonites started moving back in, one could figure out no ruptures were going to happen.
One of the reasons why the Left are so ineffectual is that they aren’t true believers, while most on the Right are true believers. The Right has three or four main points that can be written down on a post-it in your hand, and you can ram home that message. The Democrats can’t do that.
Now, another view on this, and I’m not sure I totally believe it, is that the Left believes in democracy and believes in allowing people to make up their own minds. And the Right is much more paternalistic, believes that there are legitimate authorities-- strong father figures who set the agenda, and should be followed. Therefore, there’s nothing morally wrong with persuasion. It’s a game of power politics and you get what you can.
Interestingly enough you can see cracks in this on the Right with people in the Tea party. A lot of the Tea Party folks actually believe in democracy, and they are not going to take their marching orders from the power centers of the Right. People at these Tea Party rallies were made very uncomfortable when the heads of evangelical movements came in and made moves like they were trying to hijack the movement.
Persuasion is made much more difficult when you actually believe in Democracy.
JD: in the spirit of openness, is there any thing that we haven’t discussed, or you want to re-emphasize, or leave us with?
SD: When we think about persuasion, we think about getting people to go along with an idea, to go along with a program that is already being put into place. That is, we think in terms of consent. The big question now is: can persuasion be used to do something else? Can it be used to open up spaces for people to imagine things for themselves, to get people act for themselves, as opposed to getting people to consent to an action already being taken? It strikes me that that is the next frontier. Otherwise persuasion is only doing what advertising is already doing. And it’s not working in advertising very well these days anyway.
I think we need to look to the artists, the futurists, the provocateurs who are experimenting with novel forms of public intervention, and recast this work persuasion. We don’t call this work persuasion, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s a different type of persuasion. It’s jamming the question: what if?
Poll after poll shows the distrust or lack of faith in government, in our economic system, in many of our core systems we have in place for ordering the world. Poll after poll indicates that people think things are broken, and that we’re heading in the wrong direction. The problem is there are no other viable options out there—people feel trapped in “what is.” People think: “of course politicians are incompetent criminals!”
So, the moment of and demand for imagination has never been stronger. That’s why people got so excited about Obama’s message of hope and change. There seemed to be this opening. In this classic Lippmann-esque moment, we had this huge symbol of hope that we could all attach our emotions and feelings to. In that moment we began to dream.
Then, the business of governing came about, and there was no longer any space for us to dream AT ALL. But people still want to dream. Right now those dreams are nightmares, and people still raging against the nightmares. But I feel like there’s still that space and that open place for people to imagine “what if?”
This space is open, and those on the Right are seizing it, but those on the Left have become passive. There’s no ground-swelling and energy like we saw in Seattle, where you could feel the change in the air. I don’t see any place where that’s happening now in the U.S. or Northern Europe.
So, it will take another rupture, another re-framing to move people to use the space that is now open. And we’ll see how this all turns out. It is a prime moment for those who know how to use persuasion effectively.
Thanks again to Steve for an amazing conversation. He will also be joining us at our Spring Tech Horizons Conference (May 18-19, 2010), as if you needed more persuasion to attend!