This post is an abstract of a scholary article. For the article itself, see: James A. Throgmorton. 2013. In Greg Young and Deborah Stevenson. The Ashgate Companion to Planning and Culture. Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, pp. 105-120.
How should proponents of interactive-communicative planning theory respond to the rise of the “Tea Party” in the United States? This paper begins answering this question by briefly reviewing the communicative turn in planning, paying particular attention to John Forester’s treatment of planning as “attention-shaping, communicative action.” It then synthesizes my own claims concerning rhetoric and persuasive storytelling about the future. This synthesis concludes that four factors of governance had by the late 2000s left many ordinary Americans feeling completely bewildered and often outraged.
The paper then narrates a story about the Tea Party’s sudden emergence in 2009-2010, highlighting five key features: (1) it emerged in the context of an extremely complex problematic situation; (2) its activists were motivated by fear, anger, and a sense of betrayal: (3) existing conservative organizations transformed the problematic situation into a problem of governmental failure; (4) Tea Party ways of perceiving the world and defining the problem are rooted in essentialist conceptions of American identity; and (5) Fox Cable News, radio talk shows, and new social media greatly amplified the Tea Party’s voice.
The final section of the paper explicitly interprets the Tea Party’s rise in relation to interactive-communicative planning theory. Consistent with Forester, this section observes that the Tea Party emerged in response to a messy problematic situation that needed to be converted into a problem that made sense and could be acted upon. But consistent with my own prior work, this section also observes that conservative organizations (which articulated and enacted a story rooted in a “Founders Tale” of the United States) played a crucial role in making that conversion. Their version of this tale sought to define and control (1) the spatial boundaries of places (at every scale from the nation to the neighborhood) and (2) the composition and identity of the community of people who live within them. Instead of productively engaging in public conversations with people who held different views, Tea Party fundamentalists condemned efforts to promote dialogue and inclusiveness with people they considered illegitimate and lacking any right to be in America or to be considered a “true American.”
The way this story has been used to shape attention and define the problem reveals the unavoidably political aspect of planning, and it suggests that planning theorists need to articulate a coherent and persuasive political rationale for rejecting essentialist conceptions while also providing democratic space for both fundamentalist and multicultural ideas to be articulated. This rationale must be articulated, not just to fellow scholars in journals but to ordinary people in the public arena. And it must include a process for answering the two key questions posed by the Tea Party movement: first, who should be included within and excluded from this community and, second, whose stories should be told, be heard, and legitimately influence the construction of place? In other words, planning theorists need to devise a viable process for facilitating democratic deliberation about who we (U. S. Americans) are and who we want to become.