Too much of our public debate is over the conclusions we variously arrive at, and not enough is over how we arrive at them. Even some conclusions that more closely correspond to those derived from careful analysis are very often mere articles of faith to those who hold them, a habit which may sometimes embrace good conclusions, but unreliably if embraced blindly.
This is a political challenge that needs to be addressed first inwardly, and then outwardly. Few if any of us have fully transcended the folly of precipitous assumption, of harboring beliefs that snuck into our consciousness without enough scrutiny, and then of defending those beliefs as indisputable truths. We all can do better; we all have an on-going internal challenge to meet.
If we progressives can criticize Tea Partiers, or neocons, or racists, or xenophobes, or homophobes, or ultranationalists, or any number of people holding any number of views that some or all of us perceive to be contrary to the interests of humanity, then we had better learn how to criticize one another and ourselves as well, for the enemy is within far more than it is without. Human folly resides in each and every one of us, myself included, and we had better start spending as much time and effort recognizing it within ourselves as we do recognizing it within others.
The more members of any social group or organization get together to congratulate one another on being the ones who get what others don’t, the more they have failed to meet this challenge.
The real issue is how much we each contribute to moving the world in a direction that improves the human condition. This involves two challenges: 1) identifying and developing the best public policies, and 2) successfully implementing them. Too many people assure themselves that they have accomplished the first with too little justification, and, even when they’re right, the actions thus motivated do not necessarily contribute to the realization of those policies.
If someone claims to be attempting to implement a more equitable distribution of wealth by bombing mansions (to take an extreme example), most of us would agree that their attempts are unlikely to result in the desired ends. Neither the 9/11 terrorists nor Timothy McVeigh succeeded in undermining American (or federal) power, though both succeeded in imposing enormous human suffering on innocent victims to no benefit or purpose. The value of their goals is one thing (whether dubious, as in the preceding cases, or less so); the value of their means is another. It’s not just important what you’re attempting to do, but also how you’re attempting to do it.
The world is rarely comprised of the good-guys and bad-guys that so many so simplistically reduce it to. Moving in a positive direction involves recognizing the complexity and subtlety of reality, a complexity and subtlety that at least the two currently most salient political ideological “extremes” both claim doesn’t exist. And that’s the problem with their ideologies, not how progressive or conservative they are, but rather how open they are to doing a fully-informed systems analysis as the basis for political and policy decisions.
People frequently argue that there is a straight line from where we are to where they think we ought to be. Even when what they identify as where we ought to be is something I agree with (as is sometimes the case), I rarely agree that there is a straight line from here to there. More often, when dealing with even simple systems, let alone complex dynamical ones, you have to do things that are completely counterintuitive to move in the desired direction. And we all have to learn how to incorporate into our convictions realization of that possibility rather than latching onto premature certainties.
An example in a very simple system is driving from Denver to Utah. You drive north on I-25 to I-70, wanting to get onto I-70 westbound. The straight path is turn left, cross the I-25 median, drive the wrong way up an I-25 southbound on-ramp to go west in the I-70 eastbound lanes. It is a straightforward realization of the goal of going west on I-70, but one which is not only going to fail to take you to Utah, but will succeed only in taking you and several other people to the morgue.
You have to turn east to go west, turn right onto the off-ramp to get onto I-70 westbound, turn the opposite of your intended direction. And that is in a completely static system of intersecting lines and curves, not something nearly as complex as human society, in which such nonlinearity permeates almost everything. Examples abound: “You have to spend money to make money.” In some circumstances, lowering taxes can raise public revenues, and in other circumstances raising taxes can increase the wealth of those being taxed. Our world is laden with counterintuitive truths, most of which are not broadly known, and some of which are not yet known by anyone.
Adam Schrager (the pre-eminent Denver political broadcast journalist) once quoted his father as saying (to paraphrase) that people like to think in periods and exclamation points, while reality is characterized by commas and question marks. Those who qualify their statements are often called wishy-washy, though in truth they are often simply doing a better job of tracking the complex systems they are discussing.
Criticisms of politicians are often based on just this discrepency between public reductions and professional expertise. Competing factions of the public zealously demand from their elected officials the implementation of competing certainties. And while there are all too many elected officials who reflect the same mentalities, the best of them don’t, and so are criticized by almost everyone, and adored by few.
That means that we need a different kind of progressive discourse, one which does not presume the answers, but embraces the best processes for discovering them. Process is what gives us perhaps the most robust system for understanding the nature of the world and universe around us (the scientific method), and process is what gives us a very robust system for deciding legal disputes (rule of law, which is fundamentally procedural). And process is where the real progressive challenges are, not presumed answers, but improved and more disciplined methodologies for discovering and implementing them.