It's 1979, and the Southern Baptist Convention isn't that terribly different from most mainstream Christian denominations: since the '50s, it's become increasingly liberal, embracing modern scholarship and social stances while moving away from Biblical inerrancy.
That summer, in Houston, everything changes. Fundamentalists, angered by what they see as repeated betrayals of the church's founding principles, bus in supporters. Instead of a genteel administrative process, they've treated the SBC apparatus the way a political machine does; organizing relentlessly with an eye to seizing as much power as possible.
It works. The moderates and liberals are routed in an "orchestration from the sky boxes." With their victory, the fundamentalists gain access to thousands of churches to spread their views, along with control over universities, media, built-in loyalty and a budget to use for whatever else they want to do. The SBC has remained conservative to this day, and the 1979 takeover played a major role in making the religious right-wing a political force. With the SBC in their grasp, fundamentalists had a foundation to back the efforts of previously scattered fringe groups.
It's 1896, and the Democratic Party is largely a conservative organization, dominated by the "Bourbon" wing and Southern aristocrats; there hasn't really been a major liberal faction of the party since the 1830s. President Grover Cleveland is such a perfect Gilded Age fat cat that Ayn Rand will later swoon over him.
But things are changing. The Populists have made gains throughout the Midwest, including voting friendlier Democrats into office on fusion tickets. While much of the rest of the party is divided, a young congressman, William Jennings Bryan, spends the year-and-a-half leading up to the convention getting to know the delegates and leading the populists to control the endless ground-level meetings that the party's elite assume will turn out in their favor. Instead, Bryan and his allies aimed, in his blunt words, to "organize and take charge of and control the policy" of the party. That summer, hundreds of new delegates pour into Chicago. "They are assembled now," Bryan thundered. "Not to discuss, not to debate, but to enter up the judgment rendered by the plain people of this country."
He rallies them with a hell of a speech and the left wing takes control of the Democratic institutions. The Dems don't take the presidency, but the populists still remake a major political party. While its power has waxed and waned, since 1896 the Democrats have always had to deal with a progressive faction in their midst. The Bourbons were furious — they considered the populists an illness — but the virus had already taken hold.
An institution is, at heart, just a name and a structure attached to resources. That's it, and it means that determined groups of people can infect them until they turn into something very different.
Among the many problems with seeing anything, including "the system" as a monolith, is that it leaves out opportunities that might otherwise be obvious.
Instead of a closed system, even the most rigid institutions have roots in more dispersed networks. They have to, because they need sources of recruitment, resources, and channels of communication. Puritans are prone to looking at expansive hierarchies and their multiple branches with simple disgust; the wise see opportunity.
Any structure, after all, must be occupied by people, so a different collection of people will make for a very different institution.
Take, for example, a local government. It's run by an elected Mayor along with a gaggle of Council/Aldermen/Commissioners, and administered day-to-day by professional staff.
But staff can't do everything, after all, and any help from community volunteers takes a bit off their plate. Council can't deliberate over everything, and has to delegate downward. So the institutional structure starts spreading out, with a committee here, a new position there. The result is that a variety of boards wield a fair amount of power in what they choose to endorse or propose. Every last one of them becomes a potential point of infection.
Usually, these boards aren't particularly the subject popular political focus because they seem dull and unimportant. But anyone who's dealt city politics can tell you that big ones, like a Planning and Zoning commission, are hugely powerful and even the seemingly minor ones can exercise a significant amount of influence on certain issues.
So staff and the elected officials inevitably end up relying pretty heavily on what comes out of these less prominent parts of their organizational machine. Their recommendations will shape the discourse. Sometimes, as with the Texas textbook controversy, they bubble to the surface, but 90 percent of the time their work is quiet even within their own backyard.
By the same token, the professional staff change much the same way any workplace does, so a determined employee can become quite powerful as they recruit colleagues with similar views to fill vacant spots.
Institutional infection works the same with almost any established institution: church, advocacy organization, political party, or non-profit. A group, let's call them the Virus, spots unguarded ground, something the existing leaders don't pay much attention to because it's worked in their favor for so very long, something they expect everyone finds boring. Next time the organization needs applicants, the Virus steps in, with little fanfare. Then, they do it again.
Of course, at some point it becomes clear what's going on. But if a committee is packed with a faction the leaders find unappealing, the government's going to have a hard time just ousting all of them; essentially they'll spend a lot of time eating parts of their own structure and overhauling its rules.
That's all ugly, and they have so many other priorities. Better to give the Virus what it wants for now. By the time the infectors wish to push further, people are used to them and their own members are more experienced. They've probably even made a few allies, while their enemies actually know them (and it's harder to crush people you know). Things settle down.
Then another slew of vacancies comes up, or one of those times (an election, a convention, a major controversy) where the structure has to temporarily open itself for wider input, and the Virus has more forces waiting than its opponents expect.
In the end, the organization ends up pursuing almost opposite goals from those it held just a few years before. If the infection is really successful, it even infiltrates the minds of those within its target organization: people who might not agree with the infectors often end up doing their work. If you were a moderate Dem or Baptist, it was hard to jettison your social circle or give up on an institution you'd spent your life serving. This is the rare case where fringe causes actually use conformity to their advantage.
In recent years, a lot of activism has focused on building alternative institutions. This is appealing to the more puritanical mindset I mentioned earlier, itself a result of understandable frustration, as it leaves the participant untainted by a structure they distrust.
There's advantages to that approach, certainly, including more freedom of action. But as with physical infrastructure, new stuff is expensive and time-consuming to build.
Infection's appealed to causes ranging from the radical left to the far right because it has its own considerable advantages: existing institutions come with budgets, expertise, established connections, tax exemptions, legal status, built-in followers, etc. Even better, when successful, the infectors end up using their enemies' own resources against them.
That's the height of strategy, and it's being done in many, many places as we speak. It always has been.
But the nature of a Breaking Time, to quote this blog's core statement, is that "complicated moment in history when the old answers don't work," and that situation leads to a particularly rich variety of complacent organizations, each having churned through enough iterations to leave a multitude of infection points.
Look carefully at their names and images. Come tomorrow, or the next day, many of them will mean something quite different.