Cargo Cult Politics

In the South Pacific, there’s a set of beliefs which are known as “cargo cults.”    While they may seem ridiculous at times to Westerners, they make sense in terms of a society attempting to explain something in terms of that society.

Since the modern manufacturing process is unknown to them, members, leaders, and prophets of the cults maintain that the manufactured goods of the non-native culture have been created by spiritual means, such as through their deities and ancestors. These goods are intended for the local indigenous people, but the foreigners have unfairly gained control of these objects through malice or mistake.[9] Thus, a characteristic feature of cargo cults is the belief that spiritual agents will, at some future time, give much valuable cargo and desirable manufactured products to the cult members.[9]

Many of the rituals mimic what they saw during various times, particularly World War II.  There are “airfield,” “control towers,” and so on, all designed to influence the gods to redirect the cargo to them.   So what does that have to do with politics?

Over the past few years here, I’ve used the term “frustrati” a lot.    I didn’t come up with the term, it’s origin came from a discussion group about how many “progressive voices” seemed to be perpetually throwing tantrums whenever something didn’t go as they expected,  or what they thought should happen, didn’t.   Since I’m a “pragmatic liberal,” I’ve also devoted quite a big section of this blog to “how do you get what you want,” at least politically.   There are others, such as Milt Shook, who have written extensively on the subject.   So why isn’t it happening?  A recent editorial in the Washington Monthly has a point that crystallized the problem:

But for the most part today’s left-leaning progressives are almost entirely focused on politics, economic justice, social issues, and the influence of money in politics. These are important subjects. But the vast complex of government is largely a black box to these folks. Other than defending the idea of government against anti-government conservatives, getting rid of the filibuster, reforming the primary system, and occasionally calling for more “accountability” and “transparency,” they would be hard pressed to articulate any coherent vision of how to reform the government we have, or any real understanding of how the damn thing works. (bolding mine)

That’s true when comes to understanding political parties as well.  If you want to fix something, or make it better, you have to know how it works in the first place.  Unfortunately, many on the left, including some of the biggest “progressive voices” completely lack that understanding.

When President Obama took office, one of the common quotes on liberal blogs was from President Roosevelt agreeing with the progressive activists of the time, and telling them “now make me do it.”   What the progressives of today thought that meant, and put into action, was that they had to yell a lot at the President (“hold his feet to the fire”) and go on various news media to say how he would be a failure if he didn’t do it.  When it didn’t happen fast enough, they had to “yell louder.”   All of which ignored what Roosevelt really meant, and what the activists of the time understood.  He wasn’t telling them to yell at him, he was telling them to go out there, marshal public opinion, twist politicians arms or lobby them, and get a bill through Congress that he would have to sign.

That the Left of today didn’t understand that was obvious during the debates surrounding the Affordable Care Act.  Many wanted “single payer,” or were willing to “compromise” with a public option.  Neither one were well-defined goals, in that there was a remarkable diversity in what was meant by the terms, which makes it difficult to put into legislation.  The other thing was that most of their efforts were aimed at the President, not at Congress, and what efforts they did have in Congress’s direction were limited to lobbying legislators who already agreed with them.  Almost no working of public opinion, mass efforts to pressure members of the House and Senate around the country occurred, and to no one’s surprise except their own, the end bill wasn’t what they wanted, but what could pass.

The Occupy Movement is another example.   Starting in New York City with Occupy Wall Street, it spread across the country and the world.

The movement has been described as having an “overriding commitment” to Participatory democracy.[88] Much of the movement’s democratic process occurs in “working groups,” where any protester is able to have their say. Important decisions are often made at General assemblies,[89] which can themselves be informed by the findings of multiple working groups. Decisions are made using the consensus model of direct democracy. This often features the use of hand signals to increase participation and operating with discussion facilitators rather than leaders – a system that can be traced in part to the Quaker movement several centuries ago, to participatory democracy in ancient Athens, and to the spokescouncils of the 1999 anti-globalization movement

Also a feature was an unwillingness to be involved in politics.   While they did have the effect of starting a national conversations on income inequality, corruption in the financial sector, and money in politics, the difficulty in coming up with clear proposals, lack of spokespeople to present those to the media and visiting politicians, and a disdain for politics meant that in the longer term, they failed to accomplish anything beyond starting the conversation.  While taking the form of a mass protest, and in many ways modeled after the anti-war and civil rights movements of the ’60’s, it wasn’t the same.  Those all had, if not leaders, spokespeople; clear demands; and a real involvement in politics.  Unlike the Occupy protests, the protests in the civil rights and anti-war movements were just a part of them.  Visible, yes, and media-friendly, but just as a part of an overall movement to produce a desired result.

In order for progressive agendas, a better government to happen, you can’t just mimic the form of previous actions, you have to understand what they did.  You have to understand how government is structured, and how it works.   You have to understand how political parties are structured, and how they work.  You need to have a solid idea of exactly what you want accomplished.   If it’s not to your liking, or you want it to do something, it means that you have to use that understanding to determine the best way to accomplish what you want, and work to accomplish it.  Otherwise, you’re just practicing cargo cult politics.  Mimicking the form of past successes, without the corresponding behind the scenes work of those successes.  As the Pacific Islanders found out, just mimicking the form does not cause the cargo to return.  The same is true of progressive changes in government and political parties.




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4 responses to “Cargo Cult Politics

  1. Are you sure that yelling louder won’t help? How about typing louder? 😉

  2. Nice analogy, but Occupy might be even worse.

    I spent a lot of time in the East Village in the eighties and early nineties when I was young. I wasn’t involved with the Tompkins Square Park Occupation, but some friends were. One very close friend was heavily involved. As luck would have, I wound up in the middle of the Tompkins Square Park Riot anyway. Of course, it all achieved nothing.

    When Occupy was announced and that said that they were modeling themselves on the Tompkins Square Park Occupation, I thought to myself, “Why would you base your actions on an effort that failed?”

    Over the years, I’ve come to believe that a significant portion of the left doesn’t actually want to succeed. I can’t really prove it because it has to do with guessing at people’s motivations and feelings, but it seems to me that some people are just too happy to strut around talking about how stupid Americans are and patting themselves on the back for being superior to everyone else.

    • My personal opinion – and I do have some facts to back it – is that many of the “leading progressive voices” on the Internet are quite happy with failure, since their finances do better. Outrage causes clicks and donations to happen, success means that people aren’t as prone to click on your website or give money to you.

      My problem with them is that they also grab the biggest microphones, and tout “actions” which aren’t anything except “scream and pout until someone does what we want!” Not “we need to get to work,” but “yell louder.”