David Brooks hit at least one nail on the head in a recent New York Times column discussing (what he perceives to be) Obama’s success this past week, by returning to the network-liberal mode on which he ran in 2008, and retreating from the cluster-liberal mode into which he had recently fallen (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/10/opinion/10brooks.html). While I tend to agree with Brooks’ specific conclusions, it’s the distinction between these two modalities, and their significance, that I find particularly interesting and useful.
Just to summarize: “Cluster liberals” are those who entrench around an inflexible commitment to what they perceive to be “the right policy,” and consider compromises to be an act of selling out to an evil enemy. “Network liberals” essentially agree on the substance, but generally disagree on the utility of that attitude, recognizing instead the reality of conflicting views and interests, and the functional necessity of negotiating with those opposing positions in pursuit of the best achievable outcome. I am a very strong advocate of “network liberalism,” not because my commitment to the ideals of creating a kinder, gentler, and wiser nation and world is any less than that of those who adhere to “cluster liberalism,” but rather because I want actually to get there, rather than to dissipate my energy (and see others’ dissipated) in self-gratifying ways that serve only to prevent us from getting there.
In fact, I believe that “cluster liberals” are more similar to “cluster conservatives” than they are to “network liberals” (who in turn are more similar to “network conservatives”), because, as I’ve said before, the more salient dichotomy is an attitudinal and procedural one, rather than a substantive one. The closest analogy is the remarkable similarity between Fundamentalist Christians and their substantive enemies, Fundamentalist Muslims, who together form that to which Rational People are opposed to.
Many of my recent posts have spiralled around a similar distinction, voicing my frustration at the emotionally gratifying but generally non-to-counter-productive ideological entrenchment, accompanied by a chorus of righteous indignation, that diverts so much of the energy of those who would otherwise be contributing to the political goals that more level-headed and pragmatic progressives are seeking to advance (see, e.g., “The Fault, Dear Brutus….”, The Politics of Anger, The Foundational Progressive Agenda, The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & Without, The Battle of Good v. Evil, Part 2).
As the posts I’ve linked to above indicate, I don’t think that striving to be “network liberals” rather than “cluster liberals” is just good politics (though I do believe it is that as well); it is also good policy. It is not just good form, but also good substance, because it better mobilizes the genius of the many, better recognizes our own individual limitations and failings, better acknowledges the subtlety and complexity of the world we are trying to affect, and better addresses the reality of what it takes to affect it effectively.
The Czech author Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, asked through his protagonist, who was witnessing an angry demonstration in France, “don’t they realize that the raised fists arethe problem?” It’s not always obvious, but the extent to which our quickness to absolute and generally oversimplistic certainties fuels an intransigent militancy in advocacy of those certainties is one of the biggest obstacles to human progress we face, bar none. Being wise and effective progressives requires being more humble, more strategically sophisticated, and more committed to outcomes than to outrage. I’m personally convinced that if everyone who shared my dream of a wiser and more compassionate social institutional context shared also this sense of what it takes to accomplish it, we would get there far sooner, and far more completely, than we will in our current state of angry intransigence.
Progressives, you face a choice: Gratify yourselves with outrage, or work effectively for a wiser and more compassionate world by being wiser and more effective warriors in service to the values that motivate you. Please stop undermining our efforts to do what can be done by insisting that anything less than righteous inflexibility is unacceptable. The world already has more than enough righteous inflexibility; what it needs instead is more wisdom.