In the shadow of the new regime, as dark and overwhelming as it seems, I believe that we have an incredible opportunity to play offense, at least as far as culture goes. I say this because history has taught us that cultural change is the best avenue to lasting political change. And also because the promise of cultural strategies for social change isn’t just about laws that protect the rights of all people and the land, but a culture that believes that all people have rights, that resources are to be protected, and that it is all of our responsibilities to do so. It is this broad-scale cultural change, not just political change, that we most want and have an opportunity now to build.
Achieving this will take time and focus. And it will require us to build upon what’s working and develop new, deeper and more nuanced cultural strategies and tactics than we currently have, particularly ones that can implement long-term, mass-scale culture interventions which feed into organizing and policy campaigning. Below are some of my ideas on how we can achieve this. Please consider this an invitation to spitball these and other big cultural ideas with me.
I have always seen cultural strategy like wildfires started by lightning. Just as a strike creates sparks only when the conditions are right (when it is dry and there is fuel to burn and plenty of oxygen), creating the right cultural conditions will similarly make it possible that future sparks turn into an unstoppable wildfire for change.
Five Ideas on Strategies and Tactics for Cultural Change
1. Stop talking about issues in order to win on issues. It sounds counter-intuitive, but in cultural strategies we may need to develop a strain of the work that stops talking about issues altogether and starts focusing on narrative leverage points — the cultural concepts, cues, and assumptions that sit at the intersections of issues and at the heart of our individual and collective worldviews. These are concepts like “difference”, “opportunity” and “participation” or the cultural definitions of “family,” “work”, “equality” or “public” that tap into our values and core beliefs. These ideas aren’t defined by the issues that the social change movement has divided ourselves into, and yet, they are vital to every single one of our issues — how can we win on race, immigration or gender or sexual orientation if we don’t first transform ideas of “difference,” let alone “identity”? How can democracy survive much less thrive and authentically represent its people without creating a culture that expects and encourages participation? Furthermore, narrative leverage points are personal, collective, and aspirational — focusing on who an audience wants to be, not just who they are. Strategies that address these leverage points are focused on creating hope, imagining possibility, and priming participation in the intended audience itself.
2. More focus on audience, and audience-matching. In my two decades of working alongside the entertainment industry, the words “audience” and “fans” are spoken with as much regularity as “justice” and “funding” in the progressive movement. In the cultural realm, everyone is trying to build or expand an audience. Everyone is trying to understand and even serve their audience better.
The reason that audiences are critical is that they are active and willing participants in a cultural product or community. To better understand this, consider that being a fan is a likely determinant of who you vote for and what party you align yourself with. In fact, according to an article in The New York Times about the 2016 presidential election, TV audiences were a more precise predictor of who a person voted for than how an individual voted in past elections. In other words, what culture a person consumes and what audience they belong to correlates to how they think and act, and especially vote.
Audience-matching is a strategy that I have used in my work with musicians. In it, we seek to work with the artists and creative projects whose audience is those we wish to engage. If Evangelical Christians are the most moveable on climate, we should be working with Christian rock bands and others that appeal to this demographic. If baby boomers are the biggest obstacles to marriage equality and other LGBTQ rights, then artists that were popular in that era are key to that work. Most artists have a sense of their audiences, but commercial artists and projects have actual data. Adding this cultural and audience affiliation information to the voter files will help us track and use these strategies and tactics better. Additionally, employing behavior change and user design techniques in our campaigns (in which we start where the people we are trying to engage already are, and / or create user profiles) will help us work with new audiences in deeper and more effective ways.
3. Think of cultural change as a long game. In 2013, Ari Wallach wrote an article for Wiredwhere he described the limits of short-term thinking for the deeper social and political changes we need. He argued that we need “a framework for long-term strategy — one that is visionary yet goal-oriented” — that can guide us towards addressing issues like climate change, equity, etc., which cannot be achieved with short term strategy. In it, he asked what change do we want in 15 years, and then asked us to develop strategies to achieve it. I believe that culture is what he called a “longpath strategy” — to be most potent, it requires much longer lead times than traditionally allowed for in the grant-making that fuels our movements. Some of our society’s most “disruptive” technologies and companies, like Apple, Facebook and Uber, were given at least seven years to prove they were successful by their funders. The work of disrupting worldviews needs to develop a similar timeframe. In addition to rapid response that we’re already doing, cultural strategists, organizers and funders need a longpath view of culture that starts with what we want to see in terms of shifted perceptions in 15 years, and then gives ourselves the runway to achieve that shift.
4. Provide more creatives with more support and strategies. Many culture-makers responsible for the content that is consumed by non-voters and conservatives today consider themselves to be progressives. They often segregate their beliefs from their work because they lack the strategies, tools, and support to integrate the two successfully. In my experience and work with artists and others in the entertainment industries — to help them weave social change into their creative and business practices — I have found that a minimal amount of effort to encourage and provide support has always been enthusiastically embraced and has led to leveraged change-making that isn’t reliant on the nonprofit sector for resources. A combination of encouragement and showing them the research and science behind what works and what doesn’t with cultural strategies is key to turning them from potential allies to powerful ones. Fortunately, this is an easy task given the growing network of creatives wanting to do something to resist the new regime, and even more powerful if we provide simple support and strategies to those creating for the audiences we are seeking to change.
5. Create multi-year, multi-lateral cultural campaigns around narrative leverage points that lead into organizing and policy efforts. These types of campaigns would focus on engaging like-minded artists and creatives who already create for the audiences we seek to engage. Using the research on what we know works, these professionals would inject expanded narrative themes intended to shift their audience’s perceptions into their existing works. They could also create new cultural projects and interventions (e.g., film or TV scripts, songs, music videos, visual art or ads, etc.) with this kind of content. Multiple creative outputs that appeal to the same or similar audience would be deployed in order to reinforce the messaging. After a period of, say one to two years, during which the intended audience was “primed” with this cultural messaging, organizing and policy efforts can then do what they do best — translate people power into real change and into laws.