I just returned from my first ever local MoveOn.org meeting, and may well be the only person among the 25 or so in attendance who does not feel energized and encouraged by the experience. Quite the contrary, I feel enervated and discouraged by it, reminded of the sheer magnitude of the challenge that reasonable people of goodwill face, because the enemy is within as much as without, with the obstacles to progress residing as much among those who are advocates of progress as among those who are not.
The fundamental problem that I have identified as being characteristic of the Tea Party is, alas, also characteristic of its counterpart on the left, and that problem is fundamentalism itself. More than the particular substance of the inflexible reductionist certainties, it is the fact of inflexible reductionist certainties, the angry belief that those elected officials who are not following the fundamentalists’ own infallible wisdom about all matters of policy and politics are the only thing preventing us from achieving the dream. It is so familiar, echoed throughout the pages of history in movements that have almost always ushered in increased suffering rather than increased welfare. Real progress has not ensued, and will not ensue, from such reductionist fanaticism, but rather only from responsible attempts to hammer out the nuts and bolts of a workable system, and doing so in heated but compromising negotiations among thoughtful people divided by many significant basic disagreements, but united by recognition that no one faction can impose its will on all matters.
The fundamentalists at all ideological extremes, on the other hand, are united in their commitment to refuse to acknowledge one another’s inevitable role in the formation of public policy, and to insist only that their own view would prevail, if only those who they struggled to elect were as intransigent and oversimplistic as they themselves are.
Political fundamentalists, from all ideological locations, share certain traits:
1) They reduce the world to “good guys” and “bad guys,” with the former being those who believe what they believe and are as intransigent and unsubtle in their pursuit of it, and the latter being both their counterparts at other ideological extremes and those who fail to be fundamentalists at all.
2) They have a simplistic reductionist understanding of political and economic reality, that they not only adhere to doggedly, but which they never pause to doubt, completely submerged in an unexamined assumption of cognitive infallibility.
3) They are angry with anyone who either opposes the substance of their beliefs, or doubts the efficacy of their political strategy of simply insisting that their agenda can be achieved by refusing to vote for or support candidates of their own party who have ever shown any willingness to compromise with their ideological opposites, or have ever shown any willingness to work within the constraints of the system in which they find themselves.
It is time for people to realize that we live in a complex and subtle world, that there are a range of beliefs and interests, many of which I find atrocious but which I know I can’t simply wish away, with which we must negotiate. It’s time to start a movement of reasonable people of goodwill, with enough humility not to try to micromanage every move every elected official ever makes, but rather seeks out those who are also reasonable people of goodwill, but are more expert in the areas most relevant to public policy, and let them do their job.
Distressed family members, when a loved one is rolled into surgery, try to follow the doctors and nurses into the operating room. Understandably, they want to be directly involved in the attempt to save their loved one’s life. But they are told that if they want their loved one to get the best care, they have to let the surgeon’s do their job without the obstructions and distractions that their presence will impose.
Government is in some ways similar: We want to be in the operating room, ensuring that the professionals we’ve hired to do the job are doing it right. But we aren’t all equally equipped to perform that operation, or to direct how it should be performed, as popular as the delusion to the contrary may be. When the professionals involved are the ones that we supported and voted for, then we need to defer to them to some extent. It’s hard to do, and hard to balance against the very real need to also hold them accountable, but those activists most passionately involved in the political process are also most inclined to err on the side of micromanagement rather than on the side of too little vigilance. We need to recognize that, and make an effort to rectify it.
The real progressive movement, the one that holds some promise of being effective, is not the one comprised of stridently uncompromising blind ideologues on the left, ready to do battle with both their counterparts on the right and the moderates that stand between them, but rather the one comprised of people who know that it is indeed a complex and subtle world, that those complexities require of our agents in the political arena more finesse than angry idealogues want to impose on them, and that creating pressures to abandon that finesse results in a reduction of our ability to achieve real progress.
The more salient challenge progressives currently face isn’t getting our Democratic office holders to do our bidding, but rather to get ourselves to allow and enable them to do it effectively.