Letter from the Section Chair for Spring 2012 Newsletter, Francesca Polletta (University of California, Irvine)


In his forthcoming book on the 2008 Obama Internet campaign, Dan Kreiss punctures the myth that the campaign was a grand experiment in bottom-up democracy. The Obama “brand” was about the transformative possibilities of grassroots participation. The Obama campaign was not. Centrally and hierarchically organized, relentlessly focused on “money, message, and mobilization,” the campaign's New Media Division figured out how to persuade supporters to donate millions of dollars and thousands of hours of volunteer time while supplying the ever-more precise data that allowed campaign operatives to target their fundraising appeals. Campaign analysts systematically tested what color buttons led website visitors to contribute more money; what tone the personal emails from “Michelle” (Obama) and “Joe” (Biden) should strike; and how people could be motivated to participate without thinking they should have a say in setting campaign strategy. A staffer who was in charge of writing engaging profiles of Obama’s supporters was deliberately kept insulated from the rest of the campaign. Getting “too close to the sausage making,” his boss told him, would make the ring of people-power in his posts seem less authentic.

But Kreiss argues that supporters didn’t much mind. They wanted their candidate to win. And so, all talk of democracy aside, they were content to serve as foot soldiers in Obama’s high-tech army.

If Kreiss is right, he raises all kind of questions. Did Obama’s supporters give up the chance for input into their candidate’s platform on the belief that campaign operatives knew better than they did what winning required? Did they experience the campaign’s rhetoric of citizens controlling the political agenda as just rhetoric? Or did they feel that they were controlling the political agenda? Has participatory democracy come to mean collaborative effort rather than collective control?

I ask these questions because they’re part of what I think of as an emerging cultural sociology of democracy. Not democracy at the level of the nation state, but democracy as people encounter it in their workplaces and schools, in volunteering and mobilizing. I mean a cultural sociology of democracy not in the sense of the cultural conditions for democratic organizations, but rather the study of how and why certain understandings and practices of democracy come to be taken for granted. What does democracy mean today? Where do people’s models of what democracy is and requires come from? What are the consequences of those models for how much people want and get from their political and economic institutions? There is plenty of scholarly work on the gaps between democratic ideals and the institutional practice of democracy; I wonder about how people experience those gaps.

When I wrote ten years ago about experiments in radical democracy in American social movements, most people in and outside academia thought of radical democracy as a worthy ideal but in practice unworkable. It was meaningful only to committed (and often aging) idealists who were unconcerned with political effectiveness or economic efficiency. Today, bottom-up decision making seems all the rage. Crowdsourcing and open source, flat management in business, horizontalism in protest politics, collaborative governance in policy studies–these are the buzzwords now and they are all about the virtues of nonhierarchical and participatory decision making.

What happened? The Internet was certainly part of it. As numerous writers have pointed out, new digital technologies dramatically lowered the costs of joining, forming, and coordinating groups. They made it possible to combat the problems of scale that have long dogged briefs for participatory democracy; in a sense, they made democracy practical. But even more interestingly, as ethnographer Jeffrey Juris (2009) has shown, the Internet has served as a model for what democracy is and requires. Activists in the anti-corporate globalization movement have sought to create organizations in which autonomous spheres or publics are linked in multiple ways along the lines of a virtual network. The democracy they practice would seem strange to a 1960s participatory democrat: they talk about autonomy more than equality; about self-management more than leaderlessness; about diversity more than unity. They prefigure a different kind of democracy than 1960s activists did.

There are other trends behind the new enthusiasm for bottom-up decision making. Laments about Americans’ combination of political apathy and ignorance have issued in a burgeoning field of public deliberation, in which citizens are invited to discuss and make recommendations about issues ranging from urban sprawl to foreign policy. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have participated, variously, in citizen summits, Deliberative Polls, study circles, National Issues Forums, and countless local deliberative exercises. In international development work, the virtues of grassroots associationalism have become axiomatic (Schofer and Longhofer 2011). In modern business organizations, say Boltanski and Chiapello (1999), the new “spirit of capitalism” takes bureaucracy as its antagonist rather than its exemplar. The buzzwords now are flexibility, networks, an orientation to projects rather than structures, mobility, and a rejection of hierarchy in favor of “transversal flows.”

The result of all this has been democratic enthusiasms in some predictable places, like progressive social movements, and some odd ones, like corporate boardrooms and local real estate development. But is democratic enthusiasm the same thing as democracy? One might well wonder. When in 2002, 4,500 New Yorkers gathered in a giant convention center to deliberate over what to build on the site of the former World Trade Center, many observers hailed this “21st century town meeting” as an exercise in people-powered democracy. Michael Sorkin, a progressive architect who participated in the event, was less enthusiastic. As the day wore on, he said, he increasingly felt like a delegate in a “1950s Soviet Party Congress”: the options for how to develop the site had been determined in advance and they were basically identical. When the mc for the event gave a “brief pep talk on how the meeting was democratic as all get out because ‘in democracy, the people have a chance to speak!’” Sorkin had enough. He stood up and yelled “Buuuuuulllllshiiiiiiit! Democracy means the people have the power to choose!” His “tiny act of insurrection went completely unnoticed” he commented ruefully (2003: 58).

Certainly, “democracy” is a concept that is as manipulable as it is meaningful. Ed Walker’s (2009) research on “grassroots lobbying” details a vast industry dedicated to getting ordinary people to send pre-written emails and letters to Congressional representatives in support of corporation-friendly policies. Grassroots, indeed. But I wonder whether the people who are sending those emails think they are participating in a bottom-up democracy. What do people want and expect of democracy? Do they really see spectacles of democracy—complete with hand-held voting keypads and instantaneous results on jumbotron screens—as the substance of democracy? If their expectations are stunted, why is that the case? Is participation without power seen as good, or is it seen as better than nothing? And are there settings or occasions in which people’s expectations of democracy are more expansive, or are questioned or challenged?

Dan Kreiss, as I said earlier, argues that Obama supporters weren’t bothered by their lack of input into a campaign they had supposedly created because winning was more important to them. In her ethnography of the Burning Man Festival, the annual arts festival in the Nevada desert, Katherine Chen (2009) gives another example of democracy seemingly meaning something other than democracy. The group that organizes the festival has striven to stay true to its countercultural roots, even as it has become a for-profit organization responsible for managing a small city. In describing how the organization’s board of directors made decisions about the festival, Chen writes, “Although organizers decide by consensus, the board has a designated leader. As the executive director, Larry Harvey exercises the final say.” Why did that statement not seem a contradiction—not so much to Chen as to Burning Man organizers? Was it because Burning Man’s leader, Laurence Harvey, was so charismatic that simply by listening to people, he made his organization seem collectivist? Was it because members felt not that they were part of the Burning Man LLC but part of the once-a-year-happening, and therefore did not much care who ran things between happenings? Or was it because consensus has come to mean simply input? Have collectivist practices that were popularized in the 1960s retained their countercultural glamour even as they turned into a management strategy?

In an article on the people who organize and run deliberative forums, Caroline Lee reveals an even more complex set of beliefs about the relations between democratic participation and power. Deliberation practitioners actively promote their services to businesses and local governments, Lee shows, promising that involving people in “hard choices” will make them more accepting of fiscal cuts in the name of fiscal austerity. They actively sell public deliberation as a solution to the problems wrought by neoliberalism and as an alternative to noisy protest. Yet, at the same time, deliberation practitioners are true believers in the civic value of deliberation. They talk about deliberation as an antidote to the ethos of the market that they believe has turned citizens into self-interested and passive consumers. That, then, is the irony: what makes deliberation so marketable is its promise to create the kind of active, responsible citizenry that will, through the power of talk, accommodate itself to the failures of the market.

And yet, I’m not entirely sure that Americans have been sold on the notion of talk as the sum total of what democracy is. When I interviewed people who participated in the forum that Michael Sorkin wrote about, I was struck by their clear-eyed view of what their deliberations would accomplish. They were under no illusion that rebuilding authorities would simply take their marching orders. “You expect the worst and hope for the best,” as one put it. But they emphasized that the organizers of the forum, and participants too, would have to press their case after the forum was over for it to have any impact. Their model of deliberative democracy was one in which persuasion was combined with pressure. As one put it, if the forum organizers weren’t “vigilant” about keeping up the pressure on rebuilding authorities, “…if they back off and let them maneuver and manipulate this situation, it will be null and void what we did.” “We’re an alliance,” another said. “We need to protest, shut things down if we have to make sure they commit to really taking our—the stuff we did with the selection process and voting and the whole democracy thing—taking it seriously.”

This suggests to me that participants in deliberative forums may be operating with a very different understanding of what deliberative democracy means and requires than are forum organizers—and indeed, than are many democratic theorists. Far from a civil alternative to political contention, democratic deliberation, in this view, is inevitably part of a contentious process, from beginning to end. In this case, better understanding how ordinary people understand their own participation might well open up possibilities for impact that have been obscured by a tendency to see social movements and politics as wholly different kettles of fish.

I’ve only mentioned a few people working on a cultural sociology of democracy. There are many others: Nina Eliasoph, Paul Lichterman, Margaret Somers, Jeff Alexander, Ann Mische, Andy Perrin, Donatella della Porta, Nicole Doerr, Ron Jacobs and Eleanor Townsley among them. What makes all this work so exciting, to my mind, is that it captures the complexity and nuance of people’s ideas about what counts as democratic while at the same time probing the sources of those ideas—whether in deep civic codes or in everyday rituals, in organization-specific cultures or in cultural norms that diffuse across international organizations. It provides vital tools for understanding both the ideals we hold out as democratic and the practices through which we strive to enact those ideals.

Boltanski, Luc and Eve Chiapello. 2007. The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott. London: Verso.

Chen, Katherine. 2009. Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event. Chicago: The Univ. of Chicago Press.

Juris, Jeffrey. 2008. Networking Futures The Movements against Corporate Globalization. Durham: Duke Univ. Press.

Kreiss, Daniel. 2012. Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Lee, Caroline W., Kelly McNulty, and Sarah Shaffer. 2012. “Hard Times, Hard Choices: Marketing Retrenchment as Civic Empowerment in an Era of Neoliberal Crisis." Unpublished paper.

Polletta, Francesca. 2008. “Just Talk: Public Deliberation after 9/11.” Journal of Public Deliberation 4 (1), article 2.

Schofer, Evan and Wesley Longhofer. 2011. “The Structural Sources of Association.” American Journal of Sociology 117(2):539-585.

Sorkin, Michael. 2003. Starting from Zero: Reconstructing Downtown. New York: Routledge.

Walker, Edward T. 2009. “Privatizing Participation: Civic Change and the Organizational Dynamics of Grassroots Lobbying Firms.” American Sociological Review 74 (1): 83-105.