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(See A Proposal for a slightly revised version of this post, followed by an extensive elaboration of its various components)

To advance the cause of Reason and Goodwill, I propose a project, or movement, that is comprised of three parts: 1) a policy analysis component; 2) an information dissemination component; and 3) a community organizational network component. While I conceptualize each of these in somewhat novel ways, in the context of grass roots political activism, it is the third which is perhaps the most innovative and crucial component, and so it is with the third that I will begin.

Currently, grass roots activism by those who claim the mantel of advocacy of Reason and Goodwill is almost entirely focused on electoral politics and public policy as generated through governmental mechanisms. As such, it is very easy for the opponents of this movement to dismiss these activists as people who want to take the opponents’ money and give it to others. One aspect of this conceptualization is that government is not considered an agent of the people, but rather an external entity which imposes itself on people and deprives them of their liberty. The arguments for and against this conceptualization are irrelevant for my present purposes. There are clearly many people who do indeed adhere to this conceptualization, and that fact is what’s relevant.

George Lakoff in The Political Mind talked about the need to activate the frames and narratives in all of us that are empathy-based, if we want to be successful in implementing empathy-based public policies. There are few people of any ideological stripe who oppose community involvement, and most actively support it. Many conservatives are involved in their communities through churches, civic groups, and PTAs, for instance. Such involvement is where their empathy-based frames and narratives reside, along with, in many cases, a notion of “family values,” some aspects of which are also empathy based. By increasing the association of these activities with what is currently referred to as “the progressive agenda” (though avoidance of the word “progressive” might be crucial to the success of this project), we can increase the value of the (possibly renamed) brand, attracting more people to it, including some who never imagined that they might be attracted to it.

History is replete with examples of the persuasive power of those who “walk the walk.” Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are two examples of “progressives” in their day, fighting to advance particular causes (Indian Independence and African American Civil Rights, respectively), whose examples were so compelling that few today would denounce what either of them stood for. They were “political entrepreneurs,” mobilizing “charismatic authority” in service to humanity. We can’t all be such giants, and we aren’t all willing to make the sacrifices it requires, but we can all make more modest sacrifices and rise to more modest heights, demonstrating the sincerity of our convictions and, by doing so, making the power of our message that much more irresistible.

There are already many who invest a great deal of time, energy, money, and personal commitment into advancing the progressive agenda. If some significant fraction can be persuaded to invest some increased portion of that time, energy, money, and personal commitment into increased, non-partisan community involvement, they will contribute greatly to increasing the association of the policies they advocate with the spirit of goodwill in service to mutual benefit. And by being direct agents of reason and goodwill in their communities, the public policies such activists favor are given a human face; rather than being easily conceptualized as the impositions of a remote overlord, such policies can be plainly seen to be the sincere preference of some good neighbors and community members who believe that the spirit of community can be expressed not just directly, but also through our government acting as an agent of our collective will.

I describe this component at greater length in several posts on my blog, Colorado Confluence. The post with the most concise and focused treatment is “The Power of ‘Walking the Walk'”: http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=1540.

This community-strengthening component isn’t only a laudable end in itself, but it also serves the second component I mentioned: Messaging. The cause of Reason and Goodwill is a powerful one, one which few would explicitly claim opposition to. The most pronounced failure of those who are its political advocates is the failure to connect the political expression of Reason and Goodwill to the widespread individual aspirations to be reasonable people of goodwill. One aspect of addressing that failure involves modeling what it means to be reasonable people of goodwill, and cultivating the commitment to it that might eventually translate into increased popular support for public policies that are expressions of reason and goodwill.

More generally, the messaging has to rely less on academic or legalistic argumentation, and more on resonating with the frames and narratives that form people’s minds. We need to reach people where they live, finding their own empathetic frames and narratives, and connecting the set of well-reasoned public policies which are empathy-based to those frames and narratives. Therefore, the second component of the project I am proposing is the continuing and focused development of a cognitively sophisticated system of disseminating not just “progressive” ideas, but doing so in ways which resonate with non-progressive mindsets.

This project, therefore, involves not only increasing popular positive associations with progressive policies by modeling a progressive spirit of mutual goodwill, and forming increased positive social connections with people who do not self-identify as “progressives,” but also involves communicating that same message in ways that are precisely tailored to most effectively resonate with those who are currently perhaps only marginally inclined to be attracted by it. The community involvement becomes the most important conduit for the message, communicated with increased credibility, and couched in increasingly effective ways.

Finally, the first component of this project involves reducing the arbitrariness and exclusiveness of what is assumed to be those policies which advance the cause of Reason and Goodwill. Rather than a traditional policy think tank with an ideological bias, this component of the project would have to strive to map out the entire range of public policy ideas and options, guided only by a commitment to reason in service to the public interest, acknowledging legitimate debates and ranges of uncertainty (such as, for example, between Keynesian and Chicago School Economics, and the associated policies of economic stimulus through public spending v. “fiscal conservativism”).

I envision this component as a very ambitious social institutional analogue to “the human genome project,” in which the social institutional landscape is mapped out using available analytical tools (e.g., microeconomic analysis, network analysis, legal analysis, meme theory, etc.), comprising a coherent complex dynamical systems paradigm, and then, within this context, all competing ideologies, policy ideas, proposals, and analyses are cataloged and evaluated, controlling as much as possible for ideological bias, simply subjecting the universe of human social and political thought to the crucible of methodologically rigorous reason.

Two important dimensions of this project need to be highlighted: 1) These three components are not mutually segregated, but are rather integral aspects of a single coherent effort, reinforcing one another, and creating a powerful synergy of progressive thought, communication, and action; and 2) An enormous amount of work has been done in all three areas, under a variety of organizational umbrellas; utilization and integration of the product of those efforts, and of the existing social institutional material that has been generated from all quarters, is a large part of what this project would be about. The community involvement component would actively seek out partnerships with churches and other religious organizations, civic organizations, PTAs, park districts, non-profits, local businesses, and all others who have already developed a community infrastructure to work with and through.

We would, through this synthesis of focused analysis, focused communication, and focused action, weave the spirit of reason and goodwill into the social fabric as it currently exists, and contribute to the ongoing evolution of that social fabric in ways more conducive to the cause of Reason and Goodwill.

I believe that this project would have to avoid direct political advocacy of any kind (a function already addressed by other organizations) in order to preserve its legitimacy, and to reduce the obstacles that explicit partisanship creates. Its purpose would be to explore the social institutional landscape with as little bias as possible (but with an explicit commitment to advancing the public interest through the advocacy of reason in service to mutual goodwill), and through a combination of direct involvement in our communities and well-designed (cognitively targeted) messaging, disseminating that understanding as widely and deeply as possible. This would “soften the ground” for traditional political advocacy, and would also increase the quality of what we are advocating for (by decreasing ideological presumption and increasing openness to all ideas).

I am currently looking for any and all feedback, assistance, direction, and referrals to others who might offer the same. I can envision this as either being a directly funded project that I oversee (or merely participate in), or as a project that finds a home in an existing organizational context. I am completely amenable to these, and any other, possible paths of implementation. Please email me at steve.harvey.hd28@gmail.com

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