September 2007

Josh Cook


Dream: Re-Imagining Politics in an Age of Fantasy by Stephen Duncombe

There is a new genre of political writing in America, one that assumes certain theories and beliefs and focuses on the political strategies necessary to implement those beliefs. It's the "How the Hell Did We Lose to Him Twice," genre, through which Democrats and their supporters try to figure out how someone holding a radical belief system, while being clearly unqualified for the job, was elected twice by the American people.

Stephen Duncombe contributes to this genre concluding that, though most Americans agree with most of the Democratic Party's platform, the Democrats are unable to communicate that platform because they cling to irrelevant ideas of political discourse. The Republican party, by contrast, has wholeheartedly adopted effective methods of communication and so have convinced the American people of obvious falsehoods and radical agendas. Despite being the party for powerful elites, pushing dangerous agendas, Republicans are more populist in terms of how they send their messages. It is less that they tell the people what they want to hear, but how they want to hear it. Republicans speak in the language of fantasy, spectacle, and dream.

By clinging desperately to the Enlightenment principle of reason, the Democrats ignore many of the messages the population they purport to represent is telling them. In a sense, Duncombe is articulating a hyper-populism, where politicians can not just respond to what the people want, but must be sensitive to how people respond to messages and how people communicate their irrational desires in the marketplace. His argument sounds both obvious and radical: if you pay attention to how the masses spend their time and money you will know how best to communicate them. "If the masses like Las Vegas, then progressives have got to figure out what it is about Las Vegas they like."

Duncombe then goes on to do exactly that, examining some of the major popular trends including: the success of Grand Theft Auto ("The intense pleasure gamers get out of playing games like Grand Theft Auto suggests that if a game offers power, excitement, and the room to explore, people will play evening after evening regardless of results"), the popularity of "transparent spectacles" like Las Vegas and the WWE, the methods of advertising ("...with all the references to fast food purged, the commercial aired by McDonald's makes an excellent advertisement for a progressive social agenda"), and the prevalence of celebrity gossip ("What do celebrities have that we don't? They have wealth and they have leisure and they have beauty. Framed in terms of access instead of excess these are bread-and-butter issues for progressives; better pay, shorter work weeks, mandatory vacation time, and universal health and dental care"). While too many liberals and Democrats ask why anyone would enjoy those things with a condescending tone, Duncombe asks the question as a scientist and his answers go a long way in explaining the massive gap that has formed between the Democrats and the people.

Duncombe then argues that liberals and Democrats need to value these conclusions, by adopting what is clearly the preferred method of communication for the population, spectacle, and adapting it in such a way that it reflects the ethical system that distinguishes liberals from conservatives. "In brief, then, a progressive ethical spectacle will be one that is directly democratic, breaks down hierarchies, fosters community, allows for diversity, and engages with reality while asking what new realities might be possible."

The success of the Bush administration in the 2004 election is proof enough of Duncombe's assertions, as that victory was earned through compelling fiction, convincing image, and diverting spectacle. The Bush campaign succeeded through narrative and fantasy rather than reason and rationale. (The mid-term Congressional swing to the Democrats was much more Bush's doing again as his destructive policies and wild fantasies were revealing themselves to the public.)

The book is focused and well-argued, with Duncombe drawing both from the mainstream and from the fringes of political activity to construct a coherent strategy that is at least worth trying. The reasoned Enlightenment approach that the Democrats have been using has rendered their, demonstrably popular ideas, wholly irrelevant. "For all their bluster about being the ones who are realistic about power and politics they have not been able to deliver political power to the Democrats."

Duncombe provides a framework for future political strategy and action, giving tangible examples for how his ideas could and are being applied, but the most important contribution this book makes to the discourse around liberal political strategy is a mindset. Democrats and their supporters must accept the power of fantasy, if anyone is going to really believe their reasoned arguments.

If a certain way of thinking about things is not working, then no matter how reasonable it sounds or how effective it should be, a new way of thinking must be found. Even if that way of thinking also proves ineffective at least it marks progress towards one that does not. Duncombe makes the choice clear. Democrats must either continue responding or start dreaming.

Dream: Re-Imagining Politics in an Age of Fantasy by Stephen Duncombe
New Press
ISBN: 978-1595580498
230 Pages