Progressive Strategy Studies Project (PSSP)
a project of the Commonwealth Institute  2006-2009 


Progressive Strategy Seminars & Interviews

Seminar & Interview Summaries

Progressive Strategy Studies Project
Commonwealth Institute
Cambridge, MA, USA

Copyright © The Commonwealth Institute. All Rights Reserved.

What is Progressive Strategy Studies?

This project sought to contribute to the construction of an effective grand strategy for building progressive power in the United States. PSSP collected and maped contemporary strategic thinking of the American left. We expected that the process of mapping would reveal strategic gaps or contradictions that we will seek to specify and clarify. This, in turn, would provide a basis for synthesis and further strategic development. Development might include drafting research and experimental practice "agendas" that address strategic gaps.

What is grand strategy?

Strategy is the art and science of marshalling human and material resources and planning for action on multiple levels and on complex 'terrain' to reach articulated goals. Carl Conetta (2006) has written that,

Strategy...requires that the causal chain by which…action is supposed to achieve its goals [is] rigorous, plausible, and clear.
Regarding this scientific side of strategy, the more rigorous the assessments, the more plausible the operational plan, and the clearer the thinking about the goals, the employment of tactics, and the dynamics of the implementation, the more likely there will be success. The art of strategy pertains to the recognition that even with the use of science, the realm of human affairs is an enormously complex environment for the deployment of strategic plans and there is no scientific method that can take full account of that complexity. The successful strategist will make use of science and supplement it with the arts of intuition and of wisdom gained from experience.

The most challenging conditions for strategy are when there is concerted human opposition, as in politics, sports or warfare. Grand strategy refers to the complex of strategic elements necessary for achieving very large-scale objectives such as winning a war or changing the political course of a nation. A grand strategy will entail multiple simultaneous and sequential operations employing many tactical elements with dynamic effects. 'Grand' should not be confused with 'grandiose,' although some strategists have trouble keeping clear on the difference.

Political strategies are employed in conditions of uncertainty and against concerted opposition also employing strategy. The strategist must attempt to anticipate the dynamics of the system in order to optimize plans. Successful strategies anticipate and plan contingency options for the unpredictable and prepare counter moves to the actions of the opposition.

In American political discourse the strategic level of concepts and plans are often confused with the operational and tactical levels. Indeed there are no fixed lines separating the strategic, the operational and the tactical. Distinguishing them is best done through familiarity with examples. In electoral politics, tactics are the techniques employed to win a particular election campaign. Operations is the campaign plan in action. Strategy is the overarching plan to win power in a state or nation through a coordinated series of campaigns and through the aggregation of the required means.

Some definitions of strategy:

Strategy is how we turn what we have into what we need to get that which we want. It is the conceptual link we make between the targeting, timing, and tactics with which we mobilize and deploy resources and the outcomes we hope to achieve.
                    Marshall Ganz,
Why David Sometimes Wins, p.214.
Strategy is an overall plan that links…resources, doctrine and goals. [Although] it deals hardly at all with details, …strategy is inevitably tied to small-scale problems.
                    The Facts on File Dictionary of Military Science, p.440.

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What is progressive politics?

Implicit in the word progressive is the sense of change or progress toward a better society. Originally used to refer to an American political reform movement in the early 20th Century, the term was adopted in the late 1960s by some people on the American left who wanted to distinguish their politics from that of liberals who were then in positions of power at many levels of government and were the object of pressure and criticism from the left. As American political liberalism receded in the following decades, many liberals came to adopt the appellation of progressive, even as the content of their politics in some cases became more conservative or centrist.

Because there are many different types of progressives, we begin our study of progressive strategy by including substantially all self-described progressives. By proceeding in this way, we believe that a valuable initial product of our study will be the clarification of the goals or objectives of different types of self-described progressives.

The category of political progressive should not be conflated with the category of Democrat. Only a significant minority of Democrats are truly progressive and the proportion of conservatives and centrists in positions of influence in the party grows the closer one gets to Washington, DC. Only some progressives identify themselves with the Democratic Party. Others are fiercely independent of parties or are Green Party members or are members of other minor parties. By providing a reasonably objective classification of progressives, PSSP will contribute a more accurate description of the political spectrum on the American left and provide a sounder basis for strategic planning.

An article by Ken Brociner, The American Left: Liberals, Progressives and the Left, offers a brief history of the confusing use of the political appellation 'progressive' during the last 35 years.

Progressive Roosevelt Battle Flag

Teddy Roosevelt who is now a favorite of conservatives ran as a Progressive in 1912.

(The pictured Progressive Roosevelt Battle Flag now hangs in 3rd floor hallway of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, MA.)

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What do we mean by mapping?

Initially we are used a traditional hierarchical classification system to organize the strategic ideas and plans we find. This system includes categories such as goals and objectives, ways and tactics, and means and resources. Mapping develops a spacial/associative relationship between the elements of the classified strategies.

We used an application called The Brain to organize our research associatively. Using a visual interface this application provides opportunities to discover context and meaning.

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What do we mean by strategic gaps?

Strategic gaps are missing or underdeveloped elements of a grand strategy. An example of a familiar progressive strategic gap is "a shortage of money resources." It is a familiar complaint that the right has more wealthy institutional and individual supporters. Essays about progressive strategy almost always have a paragraph about the need for more money, but rarely go deep below the surface of the issue or attempt to offer a systematic approach to a solution.

Mapping provides a ready method for discovering gaps and we expect that the specification of such gaps will be a major contribution of our study. Once they are specified we will know better what work needs to be done in order to develop an effective strategy.

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PSSP Publications

Finding Strategy: A Survey of Contemporary Contributions to Progressive Strategy, by Wolfgang Brauner and Charles Knight, PSSP Report #1, November 2006 (printable .pdf file.) This report holds a mirror up for American progressives and provides a reflection of the state of progressive strategic thought. It gives an overview of the field and provides some clarifications -- allowing for an improved orientation and basis for strategic development. See review by Erik Love of the California Courage Campaign.

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About the Progressive Strategy Seminars and Interviews

Progressive Strategy Seminars have addressed how to build progressive power in the United States with a focus on difficult strategic issues. The seminars have featured leading progressive activists and thinkers as the lead presenter. The seminar format features a short presentation followed by at least an hour of moderated discussion. With many participants being progressive leaders in their own right, the discussion is of high quality.

Each seminar seeks to move strategic thinking forward. Presenters are asked to choose a few strategic issues they find challenging and offer provisional strategic direction based on their experience and research. Presenters are discouraged from advocating for their particular organization's program or the thesis of their latest book or article. Rather, the seminar sponsors ask the presenters to stretch beyond the familiar and address issues that are most challenging. As a contribution to our collective learning, we summarize in writing the presentation and aspects of the discussion.

Progressive Strategy Seminar summaries:

Joel Rogers

Wade Rathke

Marshall Ganz

Sally Kohn

We also interview progressive strategic thinkers and summarize those interviews.

Progressive Strategy Interview summaries:

Noam Chomsky

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