Institutional versus cultural power

Our inability to distinguish, disconnect, and leverage different types of power is not just undermining discourse -- it's risking our republic.

In the media systems of the last century, driven and controlled by traditional gatekeepers, institutional power guaranteed cultural power. Gatekeepers controlled reach and meted out access to audiences via a carefully orchestrated set of norms that ensured the dominance of a carefully maintained status quo. As a feature of that control, they also took responsibility for ensuring the credibility of information and authority of storytellers — as long as they conformed to that status quo. Institutions with important information and access to gatekeepers could assume their ability to drive a dominant cultural narrative based on this preferred access. And we have been used to institutional and cultural power being connected.

Now, in our fully graph-based media systems (rather than channel-based ones) where gatekeepers have lost their iron grip on access to community, they have also lost their control of cultural power. The consequent rise of more and more diverse voices means cultural power is now the product of desire, relevance, history, and while can be elevated (or diminished) by the platforms we use to distribute and discover stories (Facebook and Google) operate independently from institutional power. But because their cultural power is not guaranteed, institutions must compete for cultural power in the same ways as everyone else.

As a general shift in power and control, this new dynamic is potentially healthier for a more diverse, more inclusive cultural discourse. But in the process of evolving and adjusting has profound consequences for the quality of information we need to be informed. In our new world, we lack new markers for the credibility and authority once provided for us by gatekeepers. Our current substitutes do not work well and leave us easy to manipulate by both platform algorithms or mis- and disinformation. But institutions who’ve always assumed cultural power have generally not developed the capabilities and capacities necessary to build cultural power effectively in this new landscape. So when they have information we need, they don’t have the storytelling skills necessary to ensure we get it or that it shapes our cultural narrative in response to, for instance, a public health crisis if the institution in question is the CDC. This breakdown in institutional assumption of cultural power also means that information we may need as a society may not be getting to us or create sufficient cultural weight.

This disconnection operates in both directions: cultural power also does not guarantee institutional power. This confusion can lead to believing that a dominant political worldview in culture inherently means political power and progress in a particular direction. Everyone must build relevance the same ways using the same mechanisms. Access to institutional power can come from cultural momentum (see President Trump) but is by no means guaranteed (see Black Lives Matter) and in fact new boundaries are being built between them everyday to ensure that institutions are insulated from cultural influence (see GOP “election protection” laws). Both of our majority political parties are minority-rule parties if we consider party registration, and both have benefited from the traditional cultural control afforded such institutions. But one is growing and growing in cultural resonance, and one is shrinking.

Increasing access to participation and actual participation ought to be a positive step forward for a participatory democratic republic. But when increased participation and cultural power is perceived as a threat to minority rule, we get one party leveraging the least democratic features of our systems against the nation as a whole. And unfortunately the other is failing to understand this disconnect between cultural and institutional power and watching as that gap gets greater and greater and wondering why or how.

Getting our heads around this shifting landscape of information and power is necessary long-term to ensure that our democratic institutions are productive and to rebuilding our trust and access to shared power — but just as essential in the short-term to protecting the fragile state of our current dysfunction as we adjust. We can’t wait to get comfortable to get better at this — whether that’s the CDC ensuring we understand the public health reality of this (or the next) pandemic or the Democratic party actually protecting voting rights.


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