Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics

"This is a powerful and important book. By looking at different grassroots organizations first hand, Hart gets to the center of debates over American politics that ask what kind of languages are available when trying to persuade others, and what kinds of references to morality work in secular politics."—James M. Jasper, author of The Art of Moral Protest

"This is a timely and important book—an intelligent call to reorient progressive politics in a more pragmatic and effective direction. Hart examines actual grassroots organizations on the ground to make a substantive contribution to debates over social movements and their effectiveness in public arenas."—Christian Smith, author of American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving


An excerpt from

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

by Stephen Hart

Part I: How We Engage in Politics and Why It Matters
Chapter 1: 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 to participants, 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. (1)

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.

CCV defined itself as a nonsectarian organization promoting the observance of Judaeo-Christian morality. In fact, its constituency was largely evangelical Protestant, but there was some Catholic and mainline Protestant involvement. The staff pointed to the presence of nonevangelical faiths as evidence of the group's nonsectarian character and would have been very happy to have Jewish involvement so as to make that case stronger. The reality, however, was that all CCV participants were religious traditionalists and the vast majority were Protestants.

The religious traditionalism of CCV members was linked to their conservative views on pornography politics. However, to understand the ways in which civil-societal cultural traditions can help or hinder progressive politics, we need to be aware that this combination represents an important but hardly representative link between religion and politics. A large body of evidence shows that traditionalist religion supports conservative politics in relation to sexuality but not in other domains of political debate. (2) We will see later that religious traditionalists can easily be progressive on economic justice issues. And in fact, it occasioned no tension in CCV that one of its leaders, an evangelical minister who wrote a column in a local newspaper, took liberal positions when he addressed economic questions.

The organization devoted a large amount of time to the education and formation of members. It was serious about having a practical impact, yet it did not confine its meetings to practical matters. Group activities, in addition to their instrumental purposes, provided a context in which rank-and- file participants were encouraged to become public actors and given training in how to articulate the connections between their politics and their faith and other basic values.

One chapter meeting that I observed started with prayer and song. Then the leader presented information about an adult video store that was renting videos combining sex with violence against women. This led into a lengthy discussion of why this was abhorrent; many of the participants expressed their views. Next, everyone in the room wrote a personal letter to the owner of the store. The leader did not provide any pattern that the letters were to follow--everyone was on their own. Then several members read their letters aloud, precipitating further discussion. The meeting closed with prayer.

Other meetings had strong educational components. At one local chapter meeting, with about twenty people in attendance, a video was shown that presented a revisionist history of the constitutional principles in the First Amendment, arguing that they did not mandate as strict a separation of church and state as contemporary civil libertarians usually thought, and certainly did not bar religious people and organizations from explicitly bringing their values into public life. As at the other meeting, a discussion followed.

A different local chapter had smaller, more informal meetings that were held over lunch in a restaurant. At these meetings members shared their current activities and concerns. At one, a member told of how she was trying to have her mother-in-law's adult video store in the suburbs put out of business. While her husband was supportive, she was evidently in some anguish about the situation. The other members listened with sympathy, talked over what was happening, and offered support.

CCV's case against pornography was linked to broader social issues. It was in part a critique of unbridled markets and individualism. CCV members also bemoaned the loss of traditional moral certainties. Furthermore, like many other Americans, including social critics who focus on deficits in "social capital" or civil society, they were worried about what they saw as a tendency toward social disorganization in our society. I heard little mention of sexuality in the meetings but a lot of worry about divorces and children using drugs. These were problems that members believed to be significantly exacerbated by pornography.

In short, CCV's political proposals were grounded in more basic or general values, that is, values that participants applied to life as a whole, not just politics. These values were mainly religious in CCV, but in other organizations, as we will see, secular values can play the same role. The transcendent quality of CCV's values, plus the universal applicability that people in CCV claimed for them, made a basis for asking people outside the group to support its aims. To be sure, many Americans are not so sure that CCV's moral standards should be applied in full rigor to every situation, and this limits what CCV can accomplish politically by such appeals. But certainly members felt themselves to be urged into action by transcendent claims.

The connection between the particular political issues CCV was addressing and wider social visions was articulated. Even more important, CCV participants became better able to connect their personal commitments and their religious traditions to public policy issues. Through their involvement, they were empowered to operate as actors in public life. They were encouraged to speak in their own words, expressing their own concerns. This was particularly impressive given that most members were people from modest backgrounds who had not previously been engaged with public affairs. In short, CCV members acquired new cultural capacities. One does not have to agree with the organization's political proposals to see the strengths in its cultural practices and the kind of public discourse carried on within the group.

Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope

The antiwar coalition described above illustrates constrained discourse on the left while CCV exemplifies expansive discourse on the right. But progressive politics is not inherently or necessarily more constrained than conservative politics. To see this clearly, let us preview the movement to be examined in depth in part 2 of this book: congregation- or faith-based community organizing. This movement is similar to CCV in the expansiveness of its discourse even though its politics are progressive. The local organizing project in Milwaukee, which I observed from 1991 to 1993, is Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH).

Faith-based community organizing is a movement that works for economic justice and radical democracy but at the same time has some of the characteristics of CCV with regard to its political style. This kind of organizing combines a variety of religious social action traditions and the philosophy of community organizing developed by Saul Alinsky--who was a secular Jew--into a distinctive religio-political language.

At MICAH meetings, people are present not as individuals but as representatives of their congregations. In front of me at the table around which the MICAH housing task force met was a manila folder bent into a simple name plate reading, "Steve Hart, St. Andrew's." Faith in such an environment is not a private source of motivation, as it was for the people from the churches that I found in the antiwar organization and other progressive groups in Cincinnati, but a communal identity. (It is for the most part not a limiting identity, however, in that MICAH incorporates varying faith commitments and translates its statements into secular languages as well.)

All meetings begin and end with prayer--frequently lengthy and referring to the group and its members--and some include a reflection period organized by one of the participants, often based on a passage from scripture. From time to time people make references to religious or ethical values underlying the practical work. For instance, at one meeting the housing task force discussed a city initiative to boost inner-city home ownership. Several people argued that MICAH's priority, contrary to the city's, should be on publicly subsidized rental housing, because people with very low incomes could not plausibly benefit from owning homes and the first concern of religious people should be with the poorest of their neighbors. At another meeting, representatives from a Baptist congregation expressed their concern about whether a planned march to the mayor's house would have sufficient dignity to satisfy their sense of decorum and show enough respect for the city's highest official.

But the connection between faith and politics goes deeper than this. In interviews and meetings, MICAH participants continually tell stories about how their lives have been transformed by their involvement in community organizing. Over and over again I heard how they had learned to connect their faith to public life and become effective, engaged actors in the public arena. Far from competing with their spiritual life, this involvement often deepened it. They also reported that their congregations had been affected, becoming at once more connected with the surrounding society and more effective organizations internally.

In addition to business meetings and other task-oriented activities, MICAH devotes an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources to training. Most people who become more than superficially involved attend training, often a lot of it. It plays a major role in how participants are transformed and is a key site for learning and articulating the movement's religio- political language. Training in MICAH is not primarily a matter of learning particular skills (how to run a meeting, for instance) but of developing a systematic perspective on religion and politics. In training, one is challenged to rethink one's connection to public life, the way one's congregation operates, and even the goals for one's personal life. The perspective involves a distinctive set of terms or categories--self-interest, power, relationships, and so on--providing what is explicitly called a "language." Training is a key part of how a richer, more robust discourse, more like CCV's than that of the progressive groups I observed in Cincinnati, has been created within faith-based community organizing.

To draw on the life-affirming values found in religious communities is understood by almost everyone involved in contemporary organizing as the heart of the process. These values are not uniform. There are some very diverse views found within MICAH, given that it includes denominations as different as the Quakers and the Church of God in Christ. But practically everyone agrees that faith has political implications and is comfortable with the kind of things MICAH seeks, such as more resources for inner-city neighborhoods and power for inner-city residents, as part of those implications. To be sure, some members of MICAH congregations do not agree. But most do, and the divisions on these questions do not set whole congregations against each other. Issues that might, such as abortion, are not discussed. This is the most obvious constraining discursive rule that MICAH adopts. Nonetheless, overall the style of political discourse exhibited by MICAH is quite expansive. MICAH persistently and carefully links faith and values--frameworks and commitments found in civil society-- to political issues and public policy.  

Styles of Discourse: Constrained and Expansive

The contrasts among these groups are striking. With regard to political "content"--the kind of political and social change the groups are seeking-- CCV is conservative while the other two groups are progressive. But when we consider political discourse from the standpoint of its mode or "style," it is apparent that CCV and MICAH share some important features that distinguish them both from the antiwar coalition. And while I have given only one example of constrained discourse, I observed this style in several other groups, both progressive and conservative, during the research for this book; I have also seen it in dozens of groups I have watched or read about over the years. Neither of these styles of discourse is unique.

Differences in the style of discourse crosscut differences in political agendas. A secular radical, disagreeing fervently with CCV's political stance and its religious basis, could nevertheless admire the care taken in member education and formation, the way the organization empowers ordinary people to enter public life, the attempt it makes to connect specific issues to broader visions, and the encouragement given to members to construct and articulate moral arguments. When I told participants in Amnesty International--an organization in which letter writing is a central activity--how at a CCV meeting people wrote individual letters and then read them aloud to each other, they were amazed and said that they ought to imitate this model but might not be able to do so. On the other side, I have observed conservative groups that operated in much the same way as the Cincinnati antiwar coalition.

As a shorthand for describing these differences in style, I use the terms constrained and expansive. The former term refers to discourse like that in the antiwar coalition, while the latter applies to CCV and MICAH. (3) What kind of difference does this contrast represent? That is, what kind of choices are people making when they adopt discursive styles?

To begin, note that the constraints adopted by action groups are not ad hoc. It isn't as if a group were to do an opinion poll in January and decide to be very constrained, then find in October that public opinion had shifted and a more expansive style would do the job better. In the antiwar coalition and many other groups with constrained discourse I have observed, the degree and kind of constraint have been essentially constant during the period that I observed them. The same is true for groups with more expansive discourse. There, the variation one finds is contextual. MICAH, for instance, uses very expansive discourse in training but a more constrained style in business meetings. Some socialist groups I have observed use expansive discourse internally but constrain themselves significantly when addressing the outside world.

Furthermore, the kinds of constraints on discourse one finds in a particular local group are seldom unique. The groups I have observed that use relatively constrained discourse operate according to rules that, while not identical, are similar enough to suggest that they represent a kind of blueprint for political organizations and public discourse. This blueprint originates outside any particular group and is used as a guide for the construction of discourse in many groups. Groups with relatively expansive discourse, similarly, operate by rules that go beyond the particular group.

The style of discourse in any group develops through its unique history and is in part an unconscious, perhaps even accidental, pattern. But the discourse styles we have been discussing are more than that. They are a set of customary rules--sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit--governing discourse. It was by intention, not accident, in the antiwar coalition, that certain topics did not come up. Nor were these topics absent simply by default; that is, because nobody thought of them. Rather, they were embargoed. The discourse I observed in the antiwar coalition and have seen in many other progressive groups operates as if the following rules were in effect: Don't talk about anything other than the practical steps of achieving the immediate goals the organization is trying for! Don't bring up any basic values (religious or political) that underlie your commitment to the organization! Don't ask anyone to articulate their reasons for participating in the group! Don't talk in terms that engage people's passion! Discuss issues in purely instrumental terms whenever possible! By contrast, CCV and to a large extent MICAH operate under implicit rules like these: Have a single overarching set of values that rules your whole life, personal and political! Talk about these and develop them (through discussions with sympathetic others)! Relate the specific issues of the day to this value system! Engage yourself whole-heartedly in the struggle!

Note that each of these sets of rules is religiously and politically contentless. These ideas are not inherently liberal or conservative, religious or secular. They represent a distinct dimension along which political ideas and practices differ, independent of left-right or religious-secular debates.

But what kind of rules are these? Are they simply instrumental in intent-- that is, advice for how to achieve one's purposes more effectively, like the rules for mixing a great martini? To some extent this is surely the case. And to an even greater extent, people in groups with relatively constrained discourse believe this to be the case. Numerous leaders in activist groups have told me, at one point or another, something like "If you waste participants' time by endless discussions of first principles, they're liable to desert you." Very frequently, the accounts that group members give for why their groups operate under constraining rules follow this pattern. With regard to the rules governing internal discussions, participants say there is not enough time to loosen the constraints or that destructive conflict would erupt if they were to do so. With regard to external discourse, they say that only with a narrowly focused message can the organization achieve its goals.

These accounts, however, are not always plausible analyses of the group's situation. After all, groups like CCV and MICAH achieve concrete victories and are frequently very task-oriented but also find time for education and values talk. In the antiwar coalition, the relative political homogeneity of the group internally meant that severe conflict was unlikely. Time was not really a problem and achieving the group's immediate objective was impossible, so it is not clear what would have been lost by dealing with broader issues. In this and many groups with highly constrained discourse topics are absent, not just for practical reasons but because they violate norms to which many participants are deeply attached. Observing the antiwar coalition, other progressive Cincinnati groups, plus a conservative one (a group supporting the Gulf War) that used a similar discursive style, I felt myself in the presence of a taboo or prohibition. Certain kinds of discussion were out of bounds for reasons that transcended practical concerns. The fact that constraining rules frequently apply not only to the public statements a group makes, but also to its internal discussions, is another indication that they are more than instrumental advice. Rather, they have the quality of an ethos--an ethically charged way of political life.

In many groups, the accounts for constraint just mentioned are firmly believed and sometimes stated. This attachment to the accounts makes a difference, regardless of how plausible the accounts really are. And there are other accounts we will encounter later, such as the idea that respect for privacy requires group members not to ask each other about the sources of their political views. There are accounts used to explain and justify expansive discourse as well--for instance, the ideal of a life self-consciously unified by a coherent set of values. Such accounts, in short, are themselves part of the cultural life of activist groups.

Thus grassroots social action groups operate according to a set of customary rules governing their style of discourse, and they often articulate justifications for these rules. This combination is parallel to how a political platform might propose new public policies and argue why these would be best for the nation. Choices about how to conduct politics that follow a consistent pattern, implicit or explicit rules manifest in that pattern, and justifying accounts, taken together, constitute what might be called a "cultural structure." This structure is a guide to how one should engage in political talk, without regard to whatever views one holds on particular issues. Ideas about what modes of discourse one should adopt, especially when they become explicit, are a second layer of discourse placed on top of garden-variety political debates. (4) Discursive rules and the grounds for them, in sum, represent a political ethic. They are about the right way to be a citizen activist. And as we have seen, Americans have varied understandings of what that way might be.

As with most contrasts, the difference between constrained and expansive discourse is not a simple dichotomy. In practice there are compromises and syntheses of the two as often as pure instances of either. Furthermore, there are different respects in which discourse can be constrained or expansive. Some of these are shown in the table provided for reference at the end of this chapter.

Religion and Modes of Discourse

The two cases of relatively expansive discourse discussed earlier were groups with a religious identity, and a person might think that for all practical purposes discursive expansiveness and religiosity are the same. But this would be an error. It is quite possible to engage in expansive talk on a secular basis. In The Search for Political Community, Paul Lichterman provides a good example of this possibility. He describes in rich detail the life of several activist groups with a broadly environmental focus. One of these is a Green Party chapter in California. The "Seaview Greens," as he calls them, have strong shared commitments. Most obviously, they hold to "Green values" and a "Green perspective"--an ideology mixing ecological and social justice concerns. But in addition, they adopt a mode of political commitment that Lichterman terms "personalism." (5) Theirs is not a life-style enclave or the kind of politics of self-expression and self-development that communitarians love to criticize. It is strongly public spirited and involves willingness to compromise and work collectively. The Seaview Greens seek to win concrete victories in the real political world. Nonetheless, they are deeply committed to the high value and development of the individual activist. As Lichterman puts it, "each individual activist is a locus of personal responsibility and efficacy, outside as well as inside activist organizations." (6) Given this understanding, cutting off discussion or narrowing its scope in order to get something concrete accomplished is almost never done. Also, specific political projects are always discussed in the context of the overarching framework of Green values. These values constitute a whole way of life, an ethical as well as a political framework. In essence, Green values do some of the same things religious commitments do within MICAH or CCV. They provide transcendent commitments and ground particular political choices on the issues of the day. At Green meetings, the moral grounds for politics are manifest. Varied specific issues are bound together into a broader social vision. Issues are addressed with passion and transcendence. And the capacities of participants to relate their most basic commitments to public life are systematically nurtured.

The Greens, and the expansive discourse sometimes found in the human rights movement, to be discussed in part 3, show that it is quite possible to carry on expansive talk on a secular basis. Of course, one could define religion as any framework that asserts transcendent values, and then argue that all expansive discourse is "religious." But if we are talking about religion in the ordinary sense, the connection between religion and discursive styles is contingent.

One key hallmark of expansive discourse is the presence of transcendent talk. By transcendent, I mean using standards of value that are grounded in things outside of normal life in the currently existing world, and giving these standards a morally binding quality such that they trump not just one's personal interests but also the rules and values found in one's social and cultural environment. Thus the biblical injunction that "we must obey God rather than any human authority" (Acts 5:29) (7) manifests transcendence, as does the stance of a journalist who follows strongly held ethical standards and publicly defies the law, going to jail rather than revealing sources. The Seaview Greens clearly believe in transcendent standards, and other examples of transcendence without religion abound.

For instance, I have observed for many years a loose group of ex-communists who are in their seventies and still politically active in various left-of-center groups. They are secular, but they feel that the social world is morally skewed at a basic level. Especially since they stopped appealing to any "actually existing socialism" as a model, they use external, nonempirical bases--hopes and visions for a better society--to assert their stance. They take it that these represent superior principles worthy of being followed. That is, these values have a transcendent, morally binding quality, parallel to the way CCV members conceive of traditional sexual morality. These ex-communists manifest their commitment personally by organizing their lives around a vision of justice and involvement in struggles to achieve it. This commitment has exacted serious risks and costs. One, for instance, was a school teacher who was fired in a procedure ruled illegal only over a decade later, and even then with vastly too little compensation to make up for his economic losses. Nevertheless, they have been able to maintain their worldview over the entire span of their adult lives, and their point of view has sustained them. Having a transcendent worldview does not make these people "religious"--if anything, they tend to be antireligious, although they have mellowed in this regard over the years--but it does give them capacities for expansive discourse.

In fact, transcendent values can lead to an antireligious stance. This was traditionally the case for Marxists. In addition, some human rights activists, while asserting transcendent values about the liberty and dignity of the human individual, see religious faith as one of the great sources of human rights violations.

Conversely, religious groups--especially new or unconventional ones-- sometimes deal with public issues in a "cool" way, defining themselves, at least in their external discourse, as just one more cultural grouping. In essence, they want to be treated as interest groups and put forward entirely prudential arguments--we are taxpayers, we are law-abiding, we vote, we are customers--for accepting them and giving them the same rights as any other group. They take an implicitly relativistic stance in their discourse on public issues, even though on religious ones they may be far from relativistic.

To be sure, religious faith offers many possibilities for engaging in expansive discourse. The assertion of transcendent standards against the existing world was something humans first learned how to do within religious frameworks, long before secular worldviews developed this capacity. In the West, as Robert Bellah among others has argued, it was the radical monotheism of ancient Judaism that first decisively relativized worldly standards and authority. (8) Elsewhere, other religious traditions did similar things: witness the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves during the war in Indochina. But this capacity, like other hallmarks of expansive discourse, can now exist independently of religion, or even in opposition to it. It exists among the Greens as analyzed by Lichterman and the ex-communists just described. People who are secular have every right to insist that making a passionate and transcendent commitment to social ideals does not make them less secular or more religious.  

Why Styles of Discourse Matter: Culture and Political Trends

There is a paradox about recent trends in American politics. It is indisputable that public policy and the political discourse found in

Washington and many state capitals have shifted dramatically rightward over the last twenty-five years. At a practical level, the shift is evident in national and state legislation, such as the gradual loss of progressivity in income taxes and the offensive against welfare capped by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. With regard to the tone of debate, there has been a vigorous reassertion of individualistic themes such as self-reliance, and a growth in skepticism about government.

If this rightward trend expressed a sea change in public sentiment, we could explain it straightforwardly. But, in fact, there is no such change. Republicans have done better in elections. But when Americans are asked about issues, no trend to the right is revealed. On the contrary: reliable evidence shows that public opinion in the United States has been largely stable since the 1970s. Leading academic survey researchers have done comprehensive and careful analyses of opinion poll trends, finding little change in grassroots views on most issues. (9) Only on criminal justice is there a clear conservative trend. Opinions on economic equality are essentially unaltered compared with twenty years ago, as are views on abortion and a host of other issues. On a few issues, especially ones about women, the trend is liberal.

Furthermore, Americans today, as in previous generations, regularly manifest in local activities remarkably strong concern for community and the public sphere. Although some commentators worry about Americans bowling alone, nobody denies that civil society is still exceptionally strong in this country compared with other nations. (10) (By "civil society," I mean arenas that are not part of either government or the for-profit business world. An alternate term with nearly the same meaning is "voluntary sector.") People work in soup kitchens, enlist in civic improvement organizations, try to protect the environment, get involved in religious congregations, sing in community choruses, and find solidarity with other parents in soccer leagues. In these and many other contexts, ethical languages are spoken or expressed in action. In grassroots associational life, Americans give practical witness to values that are much less individualistic than those dominant in Washington.

How is that so much has changed in national and state politics while so little has changed in public opinion or civil society? An important part of the answer, documented by Dan Clawson and others, is that the right has organized itself systematically, much more than previously, to use the economic resources of corporate America to advance a conservative agenda. (11)

In addition, however, there is a cultural part of the answer. Progressives, especially in recent decades, have not paid as careful attention to the cultural dimension of politics--and especially to values and religious traditions--as has the right. Progressives often fail to articulate, and sometimes even try to hide, the ethical values that ground their proposals. The right, meanwhile, engaging in discourse that is generally more passionate and transcendent, has seized the discursive high ground. There is sometimes more critique of how capitalism operates in conservative thinking than in what one hears from socialists. Progressives are often appalled by the florid links between faith and politics articulated by the religious right, but have failed to take in the fact that progressive politics has equal need of rooting in cultural traditions to which people are deeply committed. To be sure, progressives want to maintain values of tolerance and diversity sometimes threatened by groups on the religious right, but to do so, as I will argue in part 4, it is not necessary to abjure all connections between religion, morality, or transcendent values and political discourse.

Furthermore, progressives have often pursued politics in ways that disconnect their work from the cultural traditions generated in civil society. This has hurt their chances, since these traditions, at least on economic issues, have more progressive implications, giving a higher value to community and lower one to the market, than the kind of discourse currently dominant in Washington.

In sum, to understand the problems and possibilities of progressive politics, and the role of cultural factors in American politics, we need to examine modes of discourse as well as the content of what people say. To examine political work in this way clearly involves in part a normative analysis in which one makes explicit value judgments. I will go into normative questions in detail in part 4 of this book. For now, I will confine myself to two observations.

First, sound value judgments on social and political issues are based in part on accurate descriptions of what is actually happening. The first task of this book is to describe the modes of discourse that Americans currently use. Only if this is done in a fair and thorough way can we make intelligent judgments. Given the complexity of the judgments to be made, it is crucial to understand in some detail the kind of discursive choices activist groups make and the implicit or explicit moral basis for citizen activism. Accordingly, the major part of this book is devoted to describing and understanding what is happening in grassroots groups. Such understanding can serve as an impetus to improving the cultural work of progressive politics and may help citizens of any political stripe decide how the kind of politics they favor might best be strengthened.

Second, judgments about discursive modes do not follow directly from categorizing them as constrained or expansive. While I do believe that progressive political discourse in America is on average more constrained than ideally it should be, the best mode of discourse in any particular situation depends on the context and the kind of group involved, and there are usually considerations on both sides that need to be weighed. And any group, as we saw with MICAH's implicit rule against discussing abortion, adopts some constraints. The real question is not whether to have constraints but what particular constraints one might adopt and what will be lost or gained by adopting them.  

The Organization of This Book

The book contains four parts. The first, comprising the current chapter, lays out the issues to be addressed and the approach to be used in the remainder of the book. The next two parts constitute a descriptive account of important cases of cultural work in contemporary progressive politics. Part 2 presents the most extensive case study of the book. It concerns faith-based community organizing--the broader movement that MICAH exemplifies. This movement illustrates ways of constructing a culturally robust politics focused on one of the main agendas of progressive politics, the pursuit of economic equality and democracy. Part 3 deals with a secular case: the human rights movement. This movement is an important expression of a second core progressive agenda, the liberty and dignity of the individual. The language of human rights is also important because its claims to universality--to be valid for people of any religious or cultural tradition--are more widely accepted than those of most other political frameworks. Here, Amnesty International will be the main example. The discourse found in the local Amnesty groups I observed has expansive characteristics but also strong constraints. Amnesty pays unusually close attention to its discursive rules, thus providing insight into discursive constraints that are operative in many other social movements, only less explicitly.

In part 4 the analysis becomes primarily normative. Chapter 7 takes up issues about individualism and civil society that occur frequently in the writings of such American social critics as Robert Bellah, Robert Putnam, and Richard Rorty. In addition, it proposes a way of understanding individualism that integrates concerns about justice and liberty. Chapter 8 deals with the opportunities and perils of integrating culture and politics, taking on social critics such as Richard Rorty and Todd Gitlin and arguing that the need for a richly cultural politics outweighs the dangers. In both chapters, I attempt to clarify the issues conceptually and to bring data about the actual cultural life of activist organizations to bear on them.


1. Throughout this book I use the terms progressive and conservative. I recognize that there are grave problems about such terms. "Progressive" can be confused with progressivism as a specific political movement, and has connotations of faith in progress. Also, some social critics, such as Anthony Giddens, argue that the conservative/progressive dichotomy is outmoded. Nonetheless, I think "progressive" is a less unfortunate term than the alternatives. "Liberal" has such a variety of frequently invoked meanings, ranging from a philosophical preference for the individual--the meaning on which critics such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas focus--to the journalistic meaning of favoring economic equality and civil liberties, that the term is deeply confusing. "Left" also has severe problems. In using the term progressive, let me be clear that I imply nothing about progress or any other teleology. Nor do I mean to imply that the political views Americans hold exist in neat packages all easily arranged on a single progressive-conservative dimension. On the contrary, it is clear that the patterning of political views takes diverse forms. Nonetheless, the kind of progressive politics embodied in support for human rights and that manifested by struggles for economic justice have things in common, and are empirically associated to some degree. (return to text)

2. Opinion poll data conclusively show that there is no connection between religious traditionalism and conservatism on economic issues, or indeed on most issues outside the areas of sexuality, reproduction, gender roles, and schooling. See Stephen Hart, What Does the Lord Require? How American Christians Think about Economic Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992; expanded edition: New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996) for survey data on this point and references to other authors reaching the same conclusion. (return to text)

3. In past writings I have spoken of "thick" and "thin" discourse. There is no essential difference in that to which the old and new terms are meant to refer. But the new terminology, I hope, has a smaller overload of evaluative connotations and will therefore be less confusing and off-putting. Another reason for changing terminology is to avoid confusion with the terminology found in Michael Walzer's Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), which has appeared since I started using these terms. Walzer's distinction is related to mine but is not by any means the same. Confusion has also come from people's familiarity with Clifford Geertz's concept of "thick description." (Geertz, of course, was speaking of thick qualities in the social scientific narrative about culture, whereas Walzer and I are concerned with the cultural forms themselves.) (return to text)

4. One could distinguish between "primary" discourse, dealing with the world, and "secondary" discourse that tries to govern primary discourse. This distinction is analogous to the way legal theorist H. L. A. Hart defines primary and secondary rules in The Concept of Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961). (return to text)

5. This is not to be confused with the philosophical perspective of the same name, associated with French thinkers such as Henri Bergson and Emmanuel Mounier. In the United States, the most obvious political manifestation of personalism in this more traditional sense is the Catholic Worker movement. (return to text)

6. Paul Lichterman, The Search for Political Community: American Activists Reinventing Commitment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 34. (return to text)

7. Here Peter and the apostles are speaking to a Jewish priestly council. This and all other scriptural quotations and citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Bible. (return to text)

8. The basic argument for the social and political significance of transcendent religious frameworks was first made, within social-scientific analysis, by the sociologist Max Weber. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1958 [German original, 1904]), Weber showed how world-rejecting stances could transform the world (paradoxically, more than stances backing the pursuit of self-interest). He made the argument even more pointedly, and in a way that applies more directly to politics, in the conclusion to The Religion of China (New York: Free Press, 1951 [not published in Weber's lifetime]). Michael Walzer's The Revolution of the Saints (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965) carries forward this intellectual perspective, applying it explicitly and in detail to the religious genesis of modern revolutions. Robert Bellah's seminal article "Religious Evolution" (American Sociological Review, 29 [June 1964]: 358-74) puts the argument in an ambitiously comparative context. My own What Does the Lord Require? How American Christians Think About Economic Justice (expanded edition), an empirical analysis of grassroots viewpoints based mostly on in-depth interviews, shows how the capacity of Christians of many theological stripes to assert transcendent values and images of reality against what they see around them persists today, often with progressive political implications. The line of argument of all of these scholars applies fully to the Greens and ex- communists described here. In other words, they meet the analytical requirements of this model even though concretely their worldviews are very far from the ones Weber, Walzer, and Bellah discuss. (return to text)

9. On this subject, see Tom Smith, "Liberal and Conservative Trends in the United States since World War II," Public Opinion Quarterly 54 (1990): 479-507; James Davis, "Changeable Weather in a Cooling Climate Atop the Liberal Plateau: Conversion and Replacement in Forty-Two General Social Survey Items, 1972-89," Public Opinion Quarterly 56 (1992): 261-306; and the preface to the 1996 edition of Hart, What Does the Lord Require: How American Christians Think About Economic Justice. A more journalistic treatment is found in Thomas Ferguson's Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). The reason for my focus on issue positions in this argument is that voting and party preference do not really measure where people stand on issues. Also, some of the shift in party allegiance is in the South and may be a move from being conservative Democrats to being Republicans, without any shift in political philosophy. (return to text)

10. A not very empirical but nonetheless insightful argument about the enduring strength of American moral discourses is found in Jeffrey Stout's Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988); see especially chapter 9. The debate about whether American civil society is declining has been spirited in recent years, particularly in response to Robert Putnam's widely influential essay "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy 6 (1995): 65-78. One important critique of Putnam is Theda Skocpol's "Unraveling From Above," American Prospect 7, no. 25 (March-April 1996): 20-25. For a study of how American voluntary associational involvement stacks up against other countries (way above average, including religion; a little above average not including religion), see James Curtis, Edward Grabb, and Douglas Baer, "Voluntary Association Membership in Fifteen Countries: A Comparative Analysis," American Sociological Review 57, no. 2 (April 1992): 139-52. (return to text)

11. Dan Clawson, Alan Neustadtl, and Mark Weller, Dollars and Votes: How Business Campaign Contributions Subvert Democracy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998). See also Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). (return to text)

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