Dissatisfaction in Progressive circles with President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress continues to swell and grow. Indeed, I myself am deeply disappointed that the same old legislative and partisan stalemates seem to be so firmly entrenched that even a phenomenon promising optimism and significant reform could not break old habits. Still, rather than resort to the Howard Fineman/Maureen Dowd approach and play a game of “I-told-you-so”, I’d much rather avoid pettiness altogether and attempt to understand why we are faced with politics-as-usual when we are at a point in our nation’s history when we can least afford it. Answers exist beyond the usual discourse though they are rarely raised when many would rather exchange philosophy for wonkery. Wonkery has its place, but what we seek now are solutions and ideas, not process and jargon.
Regarding our current crisis of several reform measures that have bogged down or are in danger of being passed or scuttled depending on the hours, much of the problem arrives when one considers that we are frequently confused by different allegiances to often incompatible schools of information dispersal and guidance. Either we are in a stage in between two different paradigms or we have tried to blend together two absolutely contradictory styles, wondering why we can’t get any results afterward. Conservatives frequently use purely linear leadership to achieve their ends and we on the left often use an uneasy mash up between linear leadership and its asymmetric counterpart.
Linear leadership is the sort that was brought to this country by European colonists. A small continent in land mass contained an enormous variety of different cultures, different languages, and different ways of looking at life. With so much variance and so little likelihood of reaching consensus or finding common purpose, a forceful style of conducting affairs developed that quickly grew highly stratified and regimented. In it, hierarchies, pecking orders, and ranking systems became of paramount importance, as did the underlying assumptions that leaders were few, followers were many, and a passive kind of obedience was to be practiced. In all areas of Western life, this style dominated. Speaking from a purely Christian perspective, most Christian denominations, sects, and faith groups even to this day follow this same model, whereby a leader (called by a variety of different names depending on which group one ascribes) frequently instructs fellow believers in the form of a sermon and holds much power to direct church policy. A linear system is a passive manner of conveying a message. I talk, you listen. Placing power in the hands of a structured system frequently disenfranchises people and glosses over distinctions, but it is deliberate, effective, and highly successful in dividing and conquering as well as hammering home a singular message.
Grassroots groups, however, are run on an asymmetric brand of leadership. The idea is often not about top-down leadership, but on a more egalitarian approach where each individual voice is as important as anyone else’s. Frequently, however, this creates problems when it comes down to agreeing on any uniform statement or platform that the entire group endorses as a whole. What is frequently advanced is a notion that everyone has to find his or her own path towards understanding the challenges and issues the group seeks to influence and reform while simultaneously pressing the notion that no one’s path or interpretation should be ranked as more or less important by the organization as a whole. The problem with grassroots groups is that they seek to affect policy by using one particular strategy that is not found within politics itself. Politics is structured from top-to-bottom and rarely are those at the bottom granted the ability to speak with any degree of authority. They are expected instead to be good foot soldiers, never question party line, with the hopes that they might rise up through the ranks and achieve greater distinction and a greater ability to be taken seriously and to contribute to the group dynamic.
Many Native American groups were based upon an asymmetric model when it came down to making tribal decisions and stating individual opinions. Though it was certainly more uniformly fair, its key failing was that it did not foster group unity, unintentionally creating factionalism in the process. Native Americans never had the same sense of common purpose and common unity that Europeans did, which was why they were so easily defeated in battle and by court action. Different tribes rarely felt any sense of collective solidarity with each other and there was often dissent and schism within tribes. Some faith traditions, of which unprogrammed Quakers are one, have their worship services more aligned with this philosophy. Unprogrammed Quakers have no minister and conduct worship without any element, aside, of course, from the start and the finish, planned out beforehand. However, they often have difficulty reaching uniformity on a large scale basis and particularly from region to region, yearly meeting to yearly meeting. As a result, different subsets and regional groups have very different priorities and very different ideas about what ought to be important and advanced.
The 9/12 and Tea Party groups have faced this same problem and are in danger of breaking apart. Motivated only by their opposition to what they perceive as a common threat, they have frequently broken apart when unable to achieve anything resembling one coherent message. We might gloat at their self-destructive behavior, but learning from their mistakes and not repeating them within ourselves might be the best lesson of all. We will need to ask ourselves, individually and collectively, what school do we want to set forth? Top-down or spread-around? Whatever we choose will need to be soberly contemplated, because each method has pros and cons, and so long as our opposition continues to use tactics that can, as we have seen, divide us easily in the hopes of conquering us, we cannot take this matter lightly. We might have to acknowledge that a House divided against itself cannot stand. It will become all one thing or all the other.