I need to be obsessed when I write. I’m talking about forgetting to eat and sleep, about not knowing how to interact with people. In that space my mood can go from sunny to foul with a turn of phrase. Last year I was writing two books back-to-back, including Building Blocs, which I’ll get to in a moment. About halfway through the year, my energy started to flag, and I cast about for something to keep up my obsession. I remember binge-watching the American show, Inside the Actors’ Studio, for clues on how artists motivate themselves to keep showing up for work. Daniel Day Lewis stays in character. Robert DeNiro‘s approach was, “Just do it. Just say the line.” Around the same time the Paris Review ran a series on how writers confront this challenge. Toni Morrison rents a hotel room (she can’t work at home). I was gratified to learn that I had figured out a few tricks of the trade on my own. I wrote at the same time every day. I revised what I wrote the previous day as a way to get back into the piece. But clearly that wasn’t working anymore.
That’s when I decided to read fiction again. It was an old trick of mine from when I was only writing academic journal articles. I found that it relaxed me at the end of the day yet also kept me immersed in the place or period I was writing about. Muckraking novels, southern literature, and historical fiction worked best, so I turned to them again in the home stretch. From the American South, I re-read Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird and Robert Penn Warren‘s All the King’s Men. My favorite novel on Chicago, which is the subject of my chapter in Building Blocs, is The Jungle by Upton Sinclair; when I read it I cringe, because I know that in a Sinclair novel capitalism chews workers up and spits them out. My colleagues and I eventually finished Building Blocs in the Spring of 2014, and it released just a few weeks ago. I realize now that these novels helped me over the hump for another reason. Apart from getting me in the mood, they are books about political obsession, ignited and stoked by political forces that are dependent on, but largely beyond the control of, their protagonists. In a way, this is what Building Blocs is about. Manali Desai, Cihan Tugal and I co-edited this book because of our dissatisfaction with the scholarship on political parties, which argues that parties either reflect the interests and identities of social groups (e.g., Jews, Muslims, Latinos, men, etc.) or extend the power of the state and individual politicians.
As the above novels suggest, neither of these approaches captures what parties do. Toward the end of The Jungle, Sinclair describes a church-like Socialist meeting that brings the protagonist Jurgis out of the cold and into the warm embrace of a community that helps him understand the loss of himself and his family. If parties were merely the vehicles of individual political ambition, then Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark (Louisiana’s flamboyant populist, Huey Long, in real life) would have held on to power, but the Democratic Party had other ideas. Harper Lee recounts the travails of blacks and racial progressives like Tom Robinson and Atticus Finch in the American South during the Jim Crow era. Though it is tempting to assume that the racist political establishment derived its unremitting cruelty from white people on the ground, we know from the late historian C. Vann Woodward that segregation was the project of party politicians to pit whites against blacks and thereby take back power from progressive forces after the U.S. Civil War. The only way to explain these apparent paradoxes is to admit that political parties have their own objectives, quite apart from state and society, and that parties realize those objectives by dividing people as they remake the social order.
Division entails the politicization of identities and social differences that might otherwise not be especially controversial. That some people are Muslim, while others are Jewish, and still others are Christian need not be a source of friction, but in the hands of political parties seeking to exploit religious difference for power, religion can cause friction. In that case, we argue, people nominate themselves as workers and therefore Socialist or Muslim and therefore Islamist. We call this circuit of recognition between political parties and would-be constituents “political articulation,” and it is the core process that sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails in the various chapters of the book, from the United States, Turkey, and Egypt, to Indonesia, India, and Canada. It may strike some as unserious to put books of fiction alongside political sociology. But as a pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar once told me, “Hamlet is not larger than life; Hamlet is life’s largeness.” Speaking only for myself, I would submit that the political awakening of Jurgis Rudkus and the murders of Tom Robinson and Willie Stark tell us something about political life that social scientists have not fully absorbed. They tell us about the loss and discovery of self and the lengths that people will go in the service of political parties.
Cedric de Leon is Associate Professor of Sociology at Providence College. His most recent book, co-authored with Cihan Tugal and Manali Desai, is Building Blocs: How Parties Organize Society. He is also the author of Party and Society: Reconstructing a Sociology of Democratic Party Politics (Polity Press, 2014).