‘Yes we can’: identity politics and project politics for a late-modern world

23 Apr 2009

There is widespread agreement in mainstream participation studies that social capital and civic engagement in Western democracies are in decline. So how did Barack Obama mobilise tens of millions of volunteers and supporters for his campaign?

This was against all scientific odds and statistics.

Part of the answer is that his campaign was directed to building political capital for solving common policy concerns. This shows a gap in political analysis in which the study of reflexive individuals in discursive political communities is situated. When, to an increasing extent, such individuals are deliberately choosing not to engage in ‘big’ politics, it is not because they feel inherently opposed to it or highly satisfied with it. It is above all because they think that the ‘old’ kind of ‘big’ politics does not leave them space and autonomy to pursue the kind of identity politics and project politics that they prefer. Obama’s rhetoric resonates with the lived experiences of such individuals, because it does not expect, or assume, their blind or rational obedience. Rather, it requests them to participate directly in his project, trying to convince them that Obama’s eventual success relies crucially on their abilities to make a political difference.

This marks a creative shift in political communication from being oriented towards keeping government effective and legitimate to getting people freely and actively to accept and help in executing what has to be done in order to solve common concerns.

This paper discusses why this shift has not been detected by mainstream participation studies, following their development in Almond and Verba’s civic culture, through Putnam’s social capital framework, to Norris’ cause oriented politics. Later, Marsh et al’s new politics of lived experience is introduced and connected to the project politics model for studying Everyday Makers and Expert Citizens. The conclusion is that Obama’s rhetoric in particular appeals to Everyday Makers and Expert Citizen and that their reciprocal resonance opens for a fusion of identity politics and project politics in a new, much more communicative and interactive democratic model for doing what neither neo-liberalism nor statism apparently can do: getting things done in a timely and prudent manner by establishing more balanced and discursive two-way relations of autonomy and dependence between political authorities and laypeople in their political communities.

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