On Prophets and Pathfinders

As part of my enduring interest in the study of political power and its vagaries, I’d like to talk here about two roles within the construction of power that I see as vital to the success of any political party. These roles are archetypes which represent methods of building and maintaining power, and can be found in myriad partisan stripes and colors. They aren’t strictly delineated, and many fill elements of one or both. These roles are the Prophet and the Pathfinder. This writing is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis, but rather a way of thinking about the functioning of political parties and the roles within them. At the same time, these archetypes apply beyond political parties, as political parties do not have a monopoly on the construction and assembly of power.

The Function of Political Parties

As the political scientist James Q. Wilson notes early in his 1966 book, The Amateur Democrat, the three functions of political parties in a democratic government are to “recruit candidates, mobilize voters, and assemble power within the formal government.“ The latter two functions are particularly important to what I intend to discuss today, particularly the idea of assembling power. Within the formal government, political parties assemble power by getting their own candidates elected to office, and creating informal networks of elected officials with shared interest and goals. In mobilizing voters, too, political parties assemble power by developing an infrastructure that functions to enable the election of these candidates.

In both cases, the function of the political party is the assembly, maintenance, and construction of power. In both cases, the party’s assembly of power ultimately boils down to a capacity to get voters to the polls, with the recruitment of candidates only mattering insofar as it enables the party to fulfill this principal function. This capacity is volatile, shifting with election cycles, with economic shocks, with cultural swings. At its core, though, this capacity is ends-dependent.

Voters vote with the belief that their vote achieves some desirable end. These ends can be simple; better public housing, the dispensation of local patronage, the paving of a local road. These ends can be contrarian, voting in one person because the alternative is particularly undesirable. These ends can be complex; ideological ends, tribal ends enmeshed with personal identity. Some voters choose not to vote at all, either because they believe that their vote will not achieve desirable ends or that the desirable ends don’t outweigh the obstacles presented to their voting.

In any case, if the role of the political party is to assemble power through a capacity to get voters to the polls, it follows that much of the work of assembling and maintaining power comes down to the ends that induce voting in the first place. The political party must either work to define an end that is appealing enough to a broad enough spectrum of voters to ensure victory; or they must work to identify existing desired ends, and chart a path to those ends that entails voting for candidates of the party. Ideally, the party would do both, establishing a positive vision for the future, and identifying a path to get from here to there.

The Prophet: Defining a Future

Effective political ideologies and movements, throughout history and even today, have a clear conception of where they want to go. What brought Marx to the Millions was not his granular economic analyses of Capital, but his vision of a classless, stateless future. What endears Libertarianism to adolescent men across America is not the specifics of tax policy, but the vision of a future in which the State gets the hell out of the way of ordinary folks. Elon Musk gets many Americans to overlook his problematic clashes with Labor through his ambitious visions of colonizing Mars, and doing away with fossil fuels. The Prophet archetype is the individual, or group, that can create and articulate a vision like this. This articulation is important, not just for the influencing of voters, but for the way it provides a north star for political activity in the future. Political achievements become measurable by how they advance, or detract, from this vision. Questions like “what would happen if the Democrats controlled the federal government?” are in this sense not simply abstract, pie in the sky questions, laughable for their impossibility; they are an important part of inducing the voter to vote for the Democratic party.

The Prophet archetype is also engaged in the work of conversion. It is not enough for a political party to articulate a vision of the future; the vision must capture enough of the voting public to win. Individuals have their own goals, desired ends, legitimate and illegitimate grievances. The most effective visions are applicable regardless of scale; as the individual voter can see themselves in the vision, can identify with it, so too can whole demographics. The Prophet archetype assembles power through convincing an aggregate of individuals to subscribe to a shared vision of the future; as the end goals are shared, the individuals’ political efforts are moving in the same general direction.

The Pathfinder: Defining a Pathway

Where the Prophet is an archetype focused on defining the future, the Pathfinder is an archetype focused on achieving that future. In the context of political power, the role of the Pathfinder is to identify clearly the current state of individuals, the desired ends of those individuals, and then create a roadmap between the two states for the individuals to follow. Individual activity takes the form of pathways from point A to B, where point A is where they are and point B is where they’d like to be; the function of the Pathfinder is to define a pathway that fulfills those criteria. In the context of political parties, the function of the Pathfinder is to define a pathway that entails voting for that political party, so that the individual may get to B through the act of voting.

This requires a clear understanding of the current state of affairs for prospective voters, a clear understanding of where they’d like to go, and a clear understanding of how the electoral process can effect that. The Pathfinder says, “if you get out to vote for these candidates, legislation X can be passed to serve your need Y”. It does not require that the individuals in question have the same vision of where they’d like to go; the role of the Pathfinder is not to define the end, but to establish a pathway to the ends of the individuals. In the context of political parties, this often involves coalitions with contradictory notions of where they’d like to go, united by a shared pathway through the election of a political party. The Pathfinder archetype assembles power through unifying individuals on specific courses of action, creating an aggregate pull in the same direction — however brief.

Combining the Two

These two archetypes dovetail with each other, and are more effective when used in concert. To put it in terms of the assembly of power, the Prophet creates a unity of ends, and the Pathfinder creates a unity of means, which together get an aggregate of individuals moving along the same path towards the same end. A vision of the future without a pathway to get there may win over converts, but find it difficult to make concrete steps towards that vision. A vision without a pathway may turn off more practically-minded individuals interested in the praxis of the ideals. At the same time, a political party focusing overly on immediate practicality, on building short term coalitions through unified pathways, may find itself burdened by contradictions as visions diverge. To make it more concrete, during the 2016 primary one of the arguments levied against Sanders’ campaign was the lack of a roadmap to achieve his vision; since then, we have also learned that the Clinton campaign struggled internally to articulate a coherent vision, a reason for Clinton’s running, to justify her election to the voters.

Finishing Thoughts: a Prescription

As the second decade of the 21st Century comes to a close, we find that the credibility of many traditional political parties and ideologies have been eviscerated, particularly among the Millennial cohort, which will soon be the largest voting cohort in America. Yet there does not seem to be a clear sense of where America, or the world, will or ought to be in 20, 30, 50, or 100 years. There is a lot of organizing going on, a lot of pathways being established for action towards specific, short-term goals. It can be easy to lose sight of the future as we fight defensive actions against toxic, and even apocalyptic, ideologies; but in the long run, a coherent positive vision will be necessary to ensure that the new structures of power constructed in the 21st century aren’t undermined by the contradictions of short term tactical considerations.

There are a lot of Pathfinders out there. We need more Prophets.

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