"There is more than sufficient demand for reform. And there are more than sufficient reforms under consideration. But to our view and that of many of the hundreds of elected officials, academics, journalists, and activists we interviewed while preparing this book, there is an insufficiency of focus. There needs to be a unifying theme that will galvanize the movement and enhance its power. From this enhanced power -- and only from such enhanced power -- can foundational democratic reforms emerge. This is the last great challenge in shaping the current moment for reforms into a necessary transformational politics."There is a lot of visible activism going on these days, and I am heartened to see it, but I agree that we need to connect all of our seemingly disparate activist efforts into some larger cohesive whole. Heck, this was a call I made five years ago at a speech I gave at the final plenary of the 2008 convention of the Illinois Coalition for Justice, Peace, and the Environment. I even specified a proposal for that cohesive whole later that year at another presentation I gave in St. Louis.
-- John Nichols and Robert McChesney, in Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America
Despite the passage of time, my thinking on this score remains steadfast. We need some way to stitch together our disparate activist efforts into a grander tapestry. And we need some unifying theme as a means to do so. And we need some way to figure out and reasonably judge which theme to use.
Read more after the fold.
Figuring out which Grand Unifying Theme is an effort that should be more widely discussed and more urgently addressed -- perhaps as pressing a discussion or elaboration as any topic under the sun at the present moment (for reasons I'll explain in a moment).
A Grand Unifying Theme should subsume under a single theoretical tent as many issues as possible with as many clear and concise connections as possible. The longer it takes to draw those connections, or the fewer direct connections made, the less effective a Grand Unifying Theme would be.
The more ground that can be covered with a single theme, the easier connections can be drawn, the more alliance can be won, the more people involved. And with more organized people, the better the odds that challenges to power will succeed.
In panels, or constellations, or blog posts, or social media conversations, in coffee clatches, in every place large and small, the conversation should widen and expand. And it may be that the theme (if such a thing can be said) may not come from a conversation (just ask Occupy Wall Street, whose second anniversary is today). Nevertheless, I think it's a useful criterion to judge whether or not we have the "right" Grand Unifying Theme, or for that matter any Grand Unifying Theme.
We need to figure this out fairly quickly -- as things go, we don't have a lot of time to address some of the most pressing issues of our age: Climate scientists tell us we have maybe a couple of decades before we exceed the climate Rubicon of 500 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, beyond which no effort to reverse climate change will succeed. What's more, when it comes to "critical junctures", those rare opportunities maybe once per generation when social change can occur at a far more rapid clip than normal, we are probably in the granddaddy "critical juncture" of them all right now and for maybe the next five years.
John Nichols and Robert McChesney (whom I saw in person last month) offer their own proposal for a unifying theme:
To our view, the focus must be on the act of voting that underpins any sincere democratic experiment. Not on the vote as it has been perverted, dumbed down, and diminished into a merely political act, but on the vote as Walt Whitman understood it when he wrote, "Thunder on! Stride on! Democracy. Strike with vengeful strokes!"Nichols and McChesney outline the reasons why "the vote" should be the Grand Unifying Theme in their book Dollarocracy (which you should buy and read).
In my presentation in 2008, and my current thinking still, I think that the Grand Unifying Theme should be the challenge and eventual abolition of the institution of markets. That's as heretical an idea as any in current intellectual life, and I intend to defend vigorously the idea in posts to come.
Of course, it's possible that neither of these themes would be the Grand Unifying Theme for political activism and those interested in positive change. Fair enough. But the discussion is long overdue -- and I will elaborate on this theme more in my next post.