Politics’ Fatal Therapeutic Turn

Politics’ Fatal Therapeutic Turn

This is a moment in American life that cries out for far-flung activism on behalf of a bold democratic agenda. Instead, the partisans of democracy are largely demobilized and defensive. Why?

Progressives are apt to blame cynicism spawned by Barack Obama’s betrayals of his left and liberal supporters, bafflement in the face of government dysfunction and corporate largesse, ignorance fostered by a deceptive or enfeebled media, and disgust at right-wing nastiness. Far down on the list, when it appears at all, is inertia born of deficient organizing. The organizing issue may merit a nod, followed by the ritual summons to get our collective act together. Rarely is that summons accompanied by a reflective analysis of why it’s so hard for us to respond.

To further such analysis, I want to examine a remedy for democratic demobilization that’s being advocated by a wide range of observers, activists, and entrepreneurs, including many influential individuals and organizations on the Left: treat politics as a source of personal validation and emotional succor. However well-intentioned, advocates of personalized activism fail to realize that therapeutic motives are fatal to political effectiveness and highly susceptible to manipulation. I aim to prompt that realization and to sketch the very different motives requisite to a durable democratic politics.

As Tocqueville observed, “the habits of self-government” are only acquired through civic association. It’s in local venues that the claims of democratic citizenship are most keenly felt. That’s also where the therapeutic style’s subversive effects are most visible. To illustrate those effects, I focus on two therapeutically informed attempts to encourage political participation at the grass roots: the online public comment process called Kitchen Democracy that operated in five East Bay cities between 2006 and 2009; and MoveOn’s implementation of Marshall Ganz’s narrational organizing model in its local council trainings. In both cases, political engagement is undercut by the desire to avert the emotional rigors of full-blown politics. At the same time, each project exemplifies a distinctive form that the therapeutic attitude assumes in the larger political culture: Kitchen Democracy uses digital technology to distance individuals from the aggravations of politicking; MoveOn and Ganz use techniques of mutual self-disclosure to propel individuals into a politics where aggravation is alleviated by the balm of righteous sentiment. I turn first to Kitchen Democracy because, unlike MoveOn and Ganz, its representatives openly deplore the unpleasantness of politicking and thereby afford a clearer view of both citizenship’s demands and the therapeutic palliative.

Political Stress and the Internet

The following appeal heads up the home page of Peak Democracy, a for-profit corporation whose stated mission is “to broaden civic engagement and build public trust in government.”

Include the missing voices in your public comment process.

It’s hard for most residents to participate in city council and other government meetings. Whether they’re intimidated by public speaking, uncomfortable confronting others with opposing views, uneasy about publicly stating their opinions, or too busy to attend evening meetings, most of your community’s voices are rarely heard…

Peak Democracy runs Open City Hall, an online public comment process, paid for by government agencies or officials. As of January 2011, Open City Hall was operating in eighteen cities across North America, in places as diverse as Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Williamsburg, and Berkeley.

Open City Hall is based on Kitchen Democracy, a free program that Peak Democracy CEO Robert Vogel co-founded with his wife, Simona Carini, in 2006. For three years Vogel, a retired software executive, and Carini, a computer programmer and analyst, ran Kitchen Democracy, known as KD, as a pilot project in the East Bay Area. They started by offering KD to the people of Berkeley as a new way to communicate with city hall. To take part, you had to register your name and home address. KD would keep that information confidential, using it only to identify statements from residents in and near Berkeley. Though only registered Berkeley voters were included in KD tallies, anyone could propose a topic to the KD “Suggestion Box” for vetting by other participants. After editing the initial version in response to comments, the proposer would then present his case to the Kitchen Democracy “community” for polling. KD participants could vote Yes, No, Neutral, or Maybe and, if they wished, explain their positions in detail. A “Decision” page tracked official city actions on each issue.

Kitchen Democracy closed shop in 2009. By then, the KD website had solicited views on thirty Berkeley issues. Most involved zoning, but people also weighed in on the city’s rent control laws, term limits for city commissioners, bus rapid transit, fire station closures, and the University of California’s new athletic training center. Meanwhile, KD had spread to four other Bay Area cities—Alameda, Kensington, Oakland, and Santa Clara.

Kitchen Democracy and Open City Hall are part of the burgeoning “open city movement,” a term that designates numerous efforts to use electronic technology to make U.S. municipal government more responsive and transparent. Some of these programs are designed to give the public greater access to official information. Others, such as KD and Open City Hall, seek to bring more people into the political process through online polls, virtual town meetings, civic networking, “webinars,” and videoconferences. What interests me is the second group of projects and the therapeutic attitudes toward political involvement that they embody and promote.

As an indicator of such attitudes, Kitchen Democracy is particularly revealing because it sparked a heated controversy about legitimate forms of citizen participation. Critics accused KD of bias, saying that it over-represented the affluent; under-represented local views; failed, as a voluntary poll must, to gauge public opinion fairly; and—most relevant here—debased the public process by favoring comments posted on a “message board,” sometimes anonymously, over those submitted in a written letter or in testimony at a meeting.

These charges were parried by Kitchen Democracy co-founder Vogel. Granting that the wealthy were disproportionately represented in KD tallies, he noted that American politics was similarly unbalanced. In any case, KD did not claim to present an accurate sample of opinion in a city; it did not “represent the definitive voice of the people—no single channel does.” It simply offered another way of communicating with public officials. “I want to emphasize,” Vogel wrote in a community newspaper op-ed, “that Kitchen Democracy is not intended to replace existing channels of participation.”

Strictly speaking, that was true. But Vogel also believed that, beyond voting, many people would participate in Berkeley public affairs via Kitchen Democracy or not at all. Certainly that was the case for him and his wife. “We believe we are responsible citizens,” Vogel wrote on the KD website,

We work hard, pay our taxes and try to be considerate of other people and of the environment. We vote in each election after carefully studying the candidates and the issues. But there is one thing we almost never do. Even though we have strong opinions about local issues, we almost never go to City Hall meetings. Feeling guilty about that, we asked ourselves why.

The answer was that they found the meetings inconvenient, unpleasant, and intimidating. Inconvenient, because they were held in the evening and often lasted until midnight or later. Unpleasant and intimidating, because the proceedings were contentious, personally abusive, and undemocratic: “A few people dominate and say unkind things about a lot of [others].” Vogel and Carini envisioned Kitchen Democracy as a “peaceful, civil” alternative that would free people “to express their opinions—anonymously if desired—knowing that they would not be personally attacked…on their own schedule, from the safety and privacy of their own home.” (The computerless were invited to log in at a terminal in the Berkeley Public Library.)

Vogel was right about the inconvenience but only partially right about the unpleasantness. Though certain individuals do frequent Berkeley council meetings, the city’s rules of public comment, like those of many municipalities, limit the number of speakers on any item and the number of times any one person can speak, making it impossible for a few people to dominate. That said, those who do speak may well criticize other citizens, especially when the issue at hand is a dispute among neighbors about the development of private property, which it often is. At meetings of the council and other public bodies, the criticism can be sharp.

What’s telling is how Vogel and Carini responded to these conditions. They could have tried to get the city to make its meetings more conducive to citizen participation—for example, by adopting a more convenient schedule. Even then, people would still have to go to meetings and—here’s the rub—encounter the inherent aggravations of politics firsthand.

No matter how civil, politics always involves a struggle for power, and being in a fight, especially a public fight, is emotionally taxing, even if you win. The emotional ante goes up in local venues, where you’re facing people who may well live next door. Venue aside, politics’ disquieting effects are exacerbated by the indeterminacy of political effort. Unlike in a game, where the rules are clear, the sides are stable, and the resolution is final, in political contention, rules shift, alliances dissolve, and resolutions unravel.

Everyone who participates in politics, whether novice or old hand, citizen volunteer or paid professional, confronts its vicissitudes. But for volunteers, the encounter can be particularly trying. In American society, time away from work is “free,” presumably dedicated to the enjoyment of autonomy—and what one chooses is supposed to hold out at least the promise of personal affirmation. Politics frustrates these expectations. Besides affording few easy pleasures, it demands personal commitment to impersonal, collective goals. To ask politics to nurture authenticity or prop up fragile egos is to pervert political life in the service of therapeutic concerns. Today, American politics is increasingly subjected to such demands. The virtue of Vogel and Carini’s testimony is its unusual if unwitting candor about the therapeutic agenda’s anti-political thrust.

Kitchen Democracy lightened the emotional burdens of political participation. It allowed individuals to enter into debates anonymously, sparing them the anxiety and, more discomfiting, the reality of offending their neighbors—one-third of its users declined to state their names. The forum guarded participants against personal attacks by withholding statements its managers deemed “disruptive,” defined on the website as “disparaging remarks which impute motives to a personal action.” By contrast, “statements of fact, or of your own opinion” were considered “generally not personal attacks.” It was permissible, for example, to write that a person said X but in fact did Y; it was not permissible to assert that a person had lied.

But perhaps KD’s most effective means of relieving politically induced stress was to expedite and legitimate participation by e-mail. E-mail’s obvious attraction was convenience. People no longer had to make their way to the council chamber, sit through hours of deliberation as they waited for their item to come up, and finally speak their three minutes at the lectern. Now they could convey their views “on their own schedule” without having to leave home.

The avoidance of live debate offered something besides convenience: emotional ease. Literary discourse is much gentler on the nerves than oral performance. The great scholar of orality, Walter Ong, explained why: speech carries a unique affective charge. “In oral speech,” Ong wrote, “a word must have one or another intonation of voice—lively, excited, quiet, incensed, resigned, or whatever. It is impossible to speak a word orally without any intonation.” By contrast, the silent words of a text “lack their full phonetic qualities.” Speech’s affective impact is heightened by the interiority of sound. Resonating at once within and without, speech literally moves us in a way that writing cannot. Conversely, writing’s distanced and distancing visual character provides emotional cover that speech cannot offer. Unlike live persons, texts are imperturbable. “There is no way to directly refute a text. After absolutely total and devastating refutation, it says exactly the same thing as before.” Moreover, texts can be revised without compromising an author’s reputation for clarity and confidence, while a speaker who tries to reformulate a statement usually comes across as hesitant and uncertain, or worse. And then there’s what might be called writing’s kinesthetic advantage. “A writer sits,” Ong observed, whereas “an orator…typically stands, a combative and precarious posture, inviting overthrow.”

Calling a three-minute public comment oratory may seem like a stretch, but oratory it is; it makes the same kind of emotional demands on a speaker as do more ambitious forms of oral performance. With e-mail, it’s easy to avoid those demands—easier than sending a hard copy letter, which has to be written, formatted, placed in an envelope, stamped, and mailed. With e-mail, you just knock it out and hit Send.

A Diminished Citizenship

So what’s wrong with making the political process more comfortable, especially if doing so draws in people who wouldn’t otherwise participate? The problem is that the price of comfort is the quality of citizenship and the integrity of policymaking. Vital democracy requires a citizenry able to withstand the pressures of political work—the disapproval of fellow citizens; the stress of public speaking; the tedium of stuffing envelopes, handing out literature, and working a phone bank; the strain of listening politely to people whom you consider ignorant, rude, inarticulate, dishonest, and/or dangerously wrong. That capability, a mix of forbearance and fortitude, is sapped by the immunities of participation at a distance.

Programs like Kitchen Democracy and Open City Hall don’t merely supplement robust activism; they discount it by legitimating the reluctance of those who lack the stamina to speak their mind in person in public. Sanctioning a diminished mode of citizenship, they expand but degrade democratic participation. Yes, communicating by e-mail is better than not communicating at all, but it can never match the potency of taking a stand in person.

To opt out of face-to-face deliberation, even as a spectator, is to lose access to invaluable sources of political knowledge. It is also to lose the unique influence that personal witness exercises over decision-making. Both sorts of loss were vividly depicted in a New York Times story about Symantec’s “virtual-only” annual shareholder meeting last September. Bruce T. Herbert, an investment manager whose clients hold Symantec shares, explained to columnist Gretchen Morgenson:

“As an investment manager at an in-person meeting, you get to ask questions of management and you can see in the eye and hear in the voice of the reply if they’ve ever thought about it before. There is a sparking back and forth as people ask questions—you can get the sentiment of the crowd. But online nobody knew anything. There was no live link, no viewing of questions that were being asked.”

The upshot was a reciprocal lack of managerial accountability. Herbert said that executives failed to identify the sources of the questions that were asked; that the company failed to answer a query he had placed in the electronic queue; and that shareholders had no opportunity to follow up on any topics that were raised.

Greater access through technological interactivity is a major selling point of the new media. But for all its inclusiveness, the Internet attenuates the ties between officials and their constituents—sometimes to the breaking point. In Berkeley the real identity of Kitchen Democracy registrants became a major point of contention, after officials cited a “decision” reached on KD to justify approval of a controversial development project. As the caption of a famous New Yorker cartoon has it, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. Asked by reporter Judith Scherr about the possibility that anonymous parties from outside a particular neighborhood or outside Berkeley altogether were influencing official policy, the mayor’s chief of staff said that he and his boss asked themselves, “Is this a good comment? In this sense, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a real person or not.” But when it comes to public policy, interests and ideology invariably come into play. Citizens need to know the real parties who are behind the ideas their elected representatives embrace.

Of even greater consequence for the prospects of democratic activism, online participation weakens citizens’ political ties to other citizens. The citizen-to-citizen disconnect may be obscured by the ease of getting onto the Web and accessing and transmitting information. But political efficacy requires more than information. Once you figure out what’s going on, you still have to decide what to do about it in concert with others, and then you have to do it together, again and again. For Americans, it’s the need to act collectively over time that’s hard to meet via the Internet.

That’s because in the United States the Internet works best as a vehicle of personal, not collaborative, communication. It isolates its users, even in the presence of others. Think of people working their Blackberries at a meeting; they are—to borrow the title of Sherry Turkle’s latest book—“alone together.” As a supremely personal medium, the Internet is ill-suited to the waiving of autonomy that political action demands. “How,” asked Malcolm Gladwell in an essay debunking Twitter and Facebook as vehicles of “systemic change,” “do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?” His reply: with great difficulty. Making decisions and implementing them requires leadership—and activists willing to follow directions. But hierarchy and discipline are repellent to the Internet mentality, which seeks interesting experiences that expand its options, prerogatives, and pleasures. The excitement of a crisis may tempt digitally oriented Americans into on-the-ground political action. But when the excitement wanes—and it always does—they will likely withdraw. They might be good for a political sprint; they certainly won’t be available for a long march through the institutions.

Storytelling at Camp MoveOn

That helps explain why MoveOn has been ramping up its offline local councils. With over three million members, MoveOn is by far the most visible progressive organization in the United States. But as Christopher Hayes wrote in a probing 2008 Nation essay, MoveOn’s model of “simplified and accessible activism” appears to have “reached the point of diminishing returns.” Its “rate of growth has slowed considerably,” a major problem for an organization that needs 200,000 new members each year just to maintain its e-mail list. At the same time, the ease of online activism has lessened its impact. Public officials barraged with Internet-generated petitions recognize that their production requires scant effort and discount their value accordingly.

MoveOn is also coming under fire from critics on the left who charge that the organization treats its members as customers rather than comrades, forgoing if not precluding the commitment essential to mass action. Hayes cited the prominent left theorist of organizing, Marshall Ganz, whose résumé includes extensive work with Cesar Chavez and the UFW, the Obama campaign’s field staff, and the Sierra Club. Ganz teaches organizing at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “[MoveOn’s] gonna send letters to Congress and the President,” he told Hayes. “And man, we generate a lot of fucking letters….So what sort of capacity have we created in the process? Have we developed a new leadership? Probably not. Have members learned more about relating to each other? Not so much.”

In a Washington Post op-ed co-authored with Peter Dreier in August 2009, Ganz explained what he means by “capacity.” The piece called for “movement-building” that would induce the president to make good on his campaign rhetoric and take on entrenched interests. To succeed, such organizing “must be rooted in the moral energy that can transform people’s anger, frustrations and hopes into focused public action, creating a sense of urgency equal to the crises facing the country.” The actions the authors recommended ranged from leafleting, holding vigils, and running newspaper ads to acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Ganz’s criticism of MoveOn hit its target. The organization has been inviting members of its local councils to weekend trainings called Camp MoveOn. At the session that I attended in Oakland last August, the trainers hailed Ganz’s approach and showed a video clip of a class he led. Half of the sixty-one-page “Camp MoveOn Participant Guide” was explicitly dedicated to his teachings.

The camp curriculum, with its emphasis on personal expression and self-realization, has a therapeutic cast. For Ganz, organizing is primarily about creating “relationships” through “public narrative,” stories individuals tell about choices they’ve made in the face of uncertainty. By telling and hearing stories about “choice points” in their lives, he says, people construct their identities and move others to join them in action. The great advantage of such stories is that unlike “ideas,” they engage “both ‘head’ and ‘heart.’” Riffing on Rabbi Hillel’s famous adage “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Ganz asks his students to share, in succession, “stories of self”; “stories of us,” which recount why our community is called to act; and “stories of now,” which ask us to commit ourselves to a movement.

At the Oakland Camp MoveOn, participants spent the entire first day being led through just such a sequence. Throughout the day, the storytelling drills were interspersed with exhortations to “trust in each other” and “to get inspired,” as well as capsule accounts of MoveOn’s history, organization—described as “leadership-rich” and illustrated by a pattern of interlaced snowflakes—and mission: “to bring real people back into the political process and rebuild this habit of organizing.”

The mission as stated was admirable; the means intended to accomplish it, problematic. Personalized storytelling was supposed to foster solidarity. “Through the story of self,” one trainer declared, “you can create community.” In fact, community grows out of trust, and trust out of shared action, not shared stories. A compelling story can inspire people to get involved, but it’s only in the course of working together that you find out whether, and how, people walk their talk. That knowledge leads to confidence (or not) in others and, if the requisite trust has been earned, to the loyalty that sustains solidarity.

To speak of community, however, is still to miss the mark, a mark that has politics written all over it. As Christopher Lasch observed, whereas the “concept of ‘community’” evokes “intimacy and ‘togetherness’…political life thrives on controversy.” And political controversy centers on the deployment of power, a source of contention among allies as well as opponents. One of the most challenging assignments facing leaders of a professedly democratic organization is to reconcile the organization’s democratic professions with its strategic need for unity in a manner that builds general confidence and trust.

“We are led by our members,” one of the MoveOn trainers told the assembled campers, explaining that every week the organization polls 1/52 of its e-mail list on “priority issues,” seeking consensus in the results. To MoveOn’s left critics, Hayes reported, such consultation hardly constitutes bottom-up leadership. The organization, these observers contend, “is really run by its staff.” Building the local councils is an avowed effort at democratization. To judge from the proceedings at Oakland Camp MoveOn, that effort has a long way to go, and Ganz’s precepts aren’t helping it to get there.

Tensions around accountability surfaced in the hour-long orientation conference call held the Tuesday evening before the weekend event. For most of the call, campers’ voices were muted by the trainers. Occasionally, however, we were un-muted and invited to ask questions. Early on, a man asked if there was “going to be some discussion about the relationship between the councils and MoveOn central leadership.” The San Francisco council, he said, “has had some issues about…continuing to operate efficiently” that had to do with its relationship to “MoveOn Central.” At the training, would there be “time to provide feedback up the chain”? It was a crucial question about where power lay within the organization.

“I appreciate that question,” said the presiding trainer, who assured us that issues not on the agenda could be discussed over the weekend at camper-initiated lunchtime groups. The next day participants were e-mailed notes from the call. In place of the San Franciscan’s query and the trainer’s reply was “a friendly reminder on what the content is for this weekend’s training[:]…for us to really discuss our member leadership development model & current campaign.” The weekend’s “tight agenda” and the optional lunch discussion groups were mentioned again, but with a warning: “In the rare instance where a particular individual is being disruptive to the agenda at hand, those specific individuals may be asked to leave the training.”

At the Oakland camp, no such disruption occurred. But more than once, attendees questioned the advisability of a MoveOn policy or practice—for example, the unilateral online “purging” by MoveOn’s Washington staff of members who had not recently taken part in a MoveOn activity. Each time, the inquiry was squelched by a trainer.

The blame for this high-handedness lies at least partly with Marshall Ganz. To be sure, his “leadership-rich” model of organization was jettisoned by the trainers at Oakland Camp MoveOn. Perhaps that was inevitable, given MoveOn’s centralized structure. That said, the closest the “Participant Guide” came to offering advice on resisting “leadership-poor” facilitation was a four-line bulleted item under the heading “Setting Norms” for “Council Building” that instructed participants to “brainstorm” how the group “will discuss options and reach decisions as a team to ensure vigorous input and debate” and how it “will self correct if the norm is broken.” (Needless to say, no such discussion occurred at the Oakland training.)

Ganz is no stranger to issues of control and dissent. His book about the farm workers movement, Why David Sometimes Wins, details Cesar Chavez’s descent into autocracy and the resulting decline of the United Farm Workers. But at the trainings he advises—and I speak as a veteran of Camp Obama as well as Camp MoveOn—the focus is on motivating involvement through the emotional pull of storytelling, not inculcating the conceptual and practical tools of democratic mobilization. Ganz’s emphasis on narrative is an understandable response to the wonkery that has too often deadened left calls to action, and compelling moral rhetoric is an essential political tool. But if storytelling is to advance an accountable and effective radical politics, it needs to be premised on explicitly political grounds: the ends and means of power wielded on behalf of the common good. Instead, Ganz’s method gives priority to personal affect and motivation. The upshot is a method of organizing that not only leaves individuals helpless before peremptory authority but also neglects, when it doesn’t actually undermine, the creation of a solid agenda that lays out issues and commensurate policies, and the design and implementation of a strategy that can realize that agenda.

The last point was hammered home by Sean Wilentz in a November 2010 New Republic essay that attacked Ganz for disdaining “grubby politics” and issues in favor of inspirational feeling and “values.” Wilentz’s criticism was borne out by the curriculum at Camp MoveOn. Ostensibly, participants were being educated in recruitment. But it was hard to grasp how Ganzian stories would work as a recruiting tool, unless they were folded into an explicitly political context—in this case, MoveOn’s current campaign—from the start. Instead, the campers, almost all strangers to each other, were first invited to expound on their successful encounters with personal challenges of whatever sort. Unsurprisingly, my group found it easiest to come up with stories of self; stories of us proved more elusive; stories of now were pretty much beyond us—a performance that boded poorly for the future of our local council.

But the real cause for distress isn’t Marshall Ganz. It’s the adoption of his ideas by the leaders of MoveOn and the Sierra Club, both high-profile organizations that enjoy substantial progressive support. Their embrace of a personalized politics indicates the dismaying extent to which therapeutic values have permeated and distorted our political culture. Treating people with respect is an indispensable component of democratic politics; basing political engagement on personal affirmation is a recipe for impotence. And political vigor isn’t the only casualty of the therapeutic mode: the irony of both organizing by storytelling and online citizen participation is that for all their preoccupation with personal well-being, such tactics actually weaken individual character.

Instead of disseminating an anemic form of activism, the Left should be fostering the strenuous citizenship essential to democracy. We can do that only if we recognize what such citizenship entails: the morale to identify with a common cause; the will to act; the wit to temper passion with astuteness; the courage to call power to account; and, in Max Weber’s poignant phrase, “the steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes.”

Zelda Bronstein is a writer and community activist. In 2006 she ran for mayor of Berkeley.