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6/4/19

Can't beat capitalism with hashtags

The buzz around "Abolish ICE" - a slogan from the immigration justice movement that was taken up by journalists, media activists, and a handful of politicians for a few months last year - has entirely faded away. A couple of belated articles are all we have for the postmortem. By the 2018 elections, Democrats had "sprinted away" from the issue, Adam Edelman writes; in Buzzfeed, Molly Hensley-Clancy and Nidhi Prakash affirm that it "has been rejected entirely by the presidential contenders," and that it has remained "starkly unpopular with voters".

Reading through the second piece in particular, it's not difficult to recognize what happened. Immigration justice activists say that their slogan was "transformed into a hashtag to earn political points," but with "little consultation with grassroots groups" who "have been doing this work for so long." And since the media campaign wasn't grounded in popular support, it eventually ran into a massive wall of bipartisan opposition. Politicians, sensing a liability on their hands, abandoned #AbolishICE as quickly as they could.

The #AbolishICE hype campaign didn't emerge in an ideological vacuum. Whenever the time came to explain how a Twitter trend was going force a tectonic shift in our political landscape, we heard all kinds of commentary and theorizing about how our politics work. And when the campaign seemed to be succeeding, its partisans pointed to its success as proof that their theories were correct.

That's why, given its evident failure, I think it's worth revisiting some of those ideas - not to place blame, but simply because an intellectual reckoning needs to take place. In particular, I have two ideas in mind: the liberal theory of ideology, and the discourse-gaming "Overton window" tactic.


The power of ideas

Political scientist Henry Farrell, writing for Crooked Timber, directly appealed to #AbolishICE as proof of "the material power of ideas and knowledge" - and as an objection to the standard Marxist account of power, which insists that "it's the economic base, not the superstructure [of discourse] that's doing the work." What the Marxists miss, he wrote, was
that coalition forming...is playing a crucial role in the development of the modern American left, and that ideas are playing a key role in shaping that coalition... 
Abolish ICE, for example, was crafted...to create a sharp dividing line within Democratic party politics, forcing politicians who would otherwise have been tempted to fudge their position to get off the fence...By casting broad opposition to ICE as a make-or-break issue, the slogan reshaped coalitional dynamics within the Democratic party, making it substantially harder for centrist Democrats to prevaricate, and pulling the debate within the Democratic party significantly to the left. 
..So in short, it seems to me to be hard to understand the new American left without paying attention to ideas, and in particular to the ways that the ideas are shaping coalitional dynamics.
Just a few months later, it's hard to read this and not conclude that every word of it is wrong. #AbolishICE did not create a sharp dividing line within Democratic politics; elected officials have sidestepped the issue en masse. It did not prevent politicians from fudging or prevaricating on their position: those who even bothered to acknowledge the slogan easily redefined and co-opted it to mean whatever they wanted it to mean. And the slogan did not change Democratic coalitional politics one iota: it is still a struggle between loud but relatively powerless left wing activists on one hand - and on the other hand, three-quarters of the Democratic base, along with relatively moderate and cautious politicians (read: all of them).

More to the point: if you set out to "understand the new American left" and did this by following #AbolishICE, you were probably more likely to be misled about the actual state-of-play of US politics than informed. You probably concluded that online activists were more powerful than they are, that politicians are more malleable than they are, and more sympathetic to left ideas. If on the other hand you simply paid attention to material conditions, noting (for example) that #AbolishICE just didn't have the resources to leverage against the anti-immigration lobby and its adjacent industries and institutions in the carceral state, then you probably could have guessed pretty quickly how all of this would play out.


The Overton window

Farrell has already alluded to a few of the discourse-gaming theories at work in the #AbolishICE hype campaign: for example, the notion that you can "force politicians...to get off the fence" on a certain issue simply by phrasing your demand in a sufficiently clever way. He leaves out, however, the gimmick most prominently associated with #AbolishICE: "Overton window" shifting, relentlessly championed by self-described "Overton Window mover" Sean McElwee. Here's how The Hill described it:
"This is a strategy in social movements where you play the flank," Broad said. "If you look at the history there is always the side that is pushing for more extreme and radical policies." 
Activists, though, can now speed up that process, thanks to social media, in particular Twitter. 
McElwee appears to be well aware of this — his previous Twitter display name was “Overton Window mover,” a term that describes how to change the boundaries of what is considered acceptable mainstream political discourse. 
Broad said that unlike prior fringe ideas, Twitter supercharged the pace at which a trendy leftist hashtag could drive the national political discussion.
Up front, let me register my skepticism that what McElwee was doing actually qualifies as an Overton window strategy. The correct term for championing a cause that you believe in so that it will be enacted into law is..."advocacy."  Overton window shifting is when you advocate a cause that is even more radical than the one that you want - that way, the one that you want will come to be seen as the moderate compromise position. Despite the fancy terminology, this is not a particularly novel or innovative strategy: as Laura Marsh put it in The New Republic, "Overton did little more than repackage the basic negotiating principle that if you ask for a lot, you will likely get more than if you ask for a little."

That is not, I think, what McElwee was doing: as far as I can tell, he was calling for the abolition of ICE because he wants to abolish ICE, not because he was really aiming for some middle-ground compromise position.

Presumably, so many people have mistaken McElwee's strategy for an Overton window strategy because the two approaches do share a few other things in common. First, they both begin with making a radical demand that is currently outside the range of mainstream respectability. And second, both contemplate the possibility of shifting the discourse from the top down - that is, of gaming the discourse. Joseph Lehman, a colleague of Overton's who popularized his ideas, fantasizes about "true leaders who have the rare ability to shift the window by themselves"'; and though McElwee has occasionally disclaimed any leadership role in efforts to abolish ICE, coverage of his work has invariably talked about him quite differently. [1][2][3][4][5][etc] Instead of singling McElwee out, however, we can simply talk about the broader theory: online activists, who represent a microscopic fraction of the population, can "drive the national political conversation".


Returning to reality: what is left of this strategy? Twitter clicktivists flooded the site with #AbolishICE hashtags, pressured potential allies to support the campaign by swarming into their mentions, and relentlessly dragged its opponents. The effort probably got more media coverage than any issue-centered online campaign since #BlackLivesMatter. And yet if anything, the prospects for abolishing ICE have only gotten worse. Instead of pushing immigration politics to the left, activists suggest that #AbolishICE "may have actually hurt their movement". Why? Because, Hensley-Clancy and Prakash report,
The warning that Democrats wanted to "abolish ICE" appeared in a drumbeat of attack ads throughout the fall midterm campaign that painted the party as weak on immigration and border security.
In other words: immigration opponents have leveraged their superior resources to spin #AbolishICE as a terrifying threat, and since left activists do not have the material resources or popular support to counter this marketing blitz, the hype campaign has failed. To the extent that this was an Overton window strategy to engineer change from the top down, it backfired spectacularly, sparking a retrenchment on the right and making the issue toxic to politicians on the liberal-left.


Discourse gaming doesn't work

Discourse gaming, in theory, is supposed to help you overcome the kind of material advantages that the enemies of immigration have over the left. It can give you a shortcut around the hard work of on-the-ground persuasion and consensus building. And that's precisely why it's so popular among the contemporary liberal-left: supposedly, what we lack in public support and material resources, we can make up for with chessmaster savvy in our rhetoric. Farrell argues this directly when he insists that "The game of ideas may be rigged...but sometimes you can win even in rigged games."

But if #AbolishICE teaches us anything, it teach us that you will typically not win the rigged game of capitalist discourse. Reactionary ideology does not reign over our society because it is winning in some intellectual marketplace of ideas - it reigns because it has won in the literal marketplace of the material economy. It is relentlessly propagated through mass media owned by capital; it is reproduced in schools, courts, book stores, grocery stores, churches, and other institutions embedded in the capitalist economy. And it is ruthlessly enforced by exactly the sort of attack-ads and reactionaries with giant platforms that have crushed #AbolishICE. Discourse gaming can't get you around this problem, technological innovations like Twitter can't get you around this problem, and not even clever rhetorical gimmicks like Overton window shifting can get you around this problem.

As far as I can tell, there are only two ways that we'll get around this problem. Even in the twenty-first century, it still seems possible to build personal relationships with each other that aren't completely captured by the dictates of capitalism; if you can do this, perhaps you can find a space in these relationships to encourage the people you know to see the world a little differently. From a less individualistic perspective, the Marxist theory of ideology teaches us that as capitalism cracks under the weight of its own internal contradictions, the institutions that maintain its ideological hold on the public will weaken, class consciousness will emerge, and people will be able to free themselves from the shackles of reactionary ideology.

There is, in other words, every reason to believe that progress mostly comes when material conditions are ready for it - a tough pill to swallow for liberals with a fetish for limitless self-empowerment, but one that today's Marxists should probably take more seriously than they do. This does not need to be read as a call for fatalism, but it is certainly at odds with the theories that propped up #AbolishICE - and it tells us that if change is going to come, it will certainly take a lot more than a hashtag.