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Many people on both sides of the ideological divide believe that the great political battle is between progressives and conservatives, but in reality it is between extremists/purists/fanatics on the one hand, and moderates/pragmatists/realists on the other. The world isn’t divided between substantive ideologies (including religions) so much as between attitudinal and procedural ones. On one side are extremists of any substantive ideology, people who promote oversimplistic abstractions above lived reality and become fanatically committed to militant advocacy of those abstractions. Such people include religious zealots, terrorists, and others who aggressively reject the more moderate, pragmatic, informed, shared effort to deal with a complex and subtle world that characterizes “modernity.” And these fanatics, in whatever form or to whatever degree, either succeed in inflicting suffering on the rest of us, or remain absurd self-marginalized characters in the story of our shared existence. It’s not really what anyone should aspire to be.

On the other side are people who aspire to live well, and either do not begrudge or actively desire that others successfully do the same (see below for more discussion of this latter variable). “Moderates” is a misleading term for them, because they do not necessarily occupy a point, or even a range, between the extremes, nor do they necessarily lack passionately held and coherently developed views on matters of public interest. What distinguishes them is not that they are between the extremes (which may or may not be the case in each instance), but rather that they are attracted to reason in service to pragmatism rather than to arbitrary certainties in service to abstractions.

A secondary spectrum, on another axis altogether, ranges from extreme self-and-local-interest to extreme global altruism. Both ideological purists and rational pragmatists can adhere to any point on this spectrum (though the former, as extremists, they will tend to cluster at the two extremes of this spectrum as well, while the latter, as pragmatists, will tend to occupy a space which acknowledges the values of both localization and globalization of interests and seeks to balance them in some maximally functional way).

As I’ve written in A Proposal and elsewhere, we need to redefine the progressive movement in procedural rather than substantive terms, fighting less for particular policies and more for particular procedures by which policies are selected, procedures which favor reason and goodwill. I believe, strongly, that the policies I favor will be favored by such a process, and, when they are not, I will have increased reason to leaven my disappointment with consideration of the possibility that it was I, rather than the outcome, that had erred. To the extent that we can redefine the political battle over our state, nation, and world as the battle between reason in service to goodwill, on the one hand, and irrational extremism, on the other, we will have captured the narrative, because relatively few Americans are willing to explicitly take the latter camp, and relatively many want to believe that they are advocates of the former.

The political challenge is less to win battles among relatively arbitrary competing positions, and more to win the battle to reframe the entire process. Let’s advocate for Reason and Goodwill first and foremost, along with the development of procedures which better ensure their predominance, and let the substantive positions flow from that commitment. That’s the real political battle we are currently in.

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