…but everything is politics.
On the one hand, the almost exclusive focus of highly engaged, intentionally political activity is electoral politics and governmental decision making proper. On the other hand, the implicit recognition of the paramount importance of public opinion pervades that same narrowly conceived arena. The hot-button issues of campaign finance reform and corporate power, for instance, are firmly rooted in that implicit recognition, for, in the final analysis, campaign finance and corporate political power is entirely a function of the ability to influence public opinion. (“Follow the money” if you doubt that conclusion.)
Human history is a story of the dynamical tapestry of human cognitions and emotions (see e.g., The Politics of Consciousness , Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, Bellerophon’s Ascent: The Mutating Memes (and “Emes”) of Human History). Politics is one slice of that dynamo, the slice which involves everything from forceful subjugation to sophisticated mass persuasion. The more democratic a society is, the more salient is the latter modality. Despite the flaws in our own American democracy, it is sound enough that mass persuasion is at the root of all political decision-making.
But we tend to address that paramount challenge of swaying public opinion on too superficial a level, issue by issue, candidate by candidate, fighting against impenetrable fortresses of confirmation biases, with drawbridges raised at first sight of the party or issue-position already opposed. We tug back and forth between ideological and partisan camps, while deeper forces are constantly shifting the ground beneath us.
Those deeper forces are in a largely unconscious struggle of their own, between, on the one hand, reason and goodwill, and, on the other, irrationality and belligerence. One of the principal challenges facing reasonable people of goodwill is to turn that unconscious struggle into a conscious one, to engage in it not just candidate by candidate and issue by issue, but on a more fundamental level. When, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke before the Lincoln Memorial, what made it so momentous, what made it so effective, was that it wasn’t an appeal just to pass a piece of legislation or elect a particular candidate, but rather an appeal to rise to the heights of our better natures. And that is a very powerful appeal indeed. (See The Power of “Walking the Walk” and The Foundational Progressive Agenda )
I’ve written about Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives, using stories and narratives, without reference to specific policy issues or specific candidates or specific political ideologies, to disseminate and inculcate a framework invoking shared underlying values conducive to the forces of reason and goodwill. My archetypal example of a meta-message has always been Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (which I adapted as such in A Political Christmas Carol), but I did not know until recently that that was exactly how Dickens had intended it.
In Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, by Sylvia Nasar (author of A Beautiful Mind), the author describes how Dickens had written A Christmas Carol as an intentional response to Thomas Malthus’s An Essay On The Principle of Population, which had been the intellectual basis in opposition to England’s public welfare system and a move in the direction of greater cruelty and callousness exemplified by work houses and other memorable relics of Victorian England. Dickens believed, and history has borne out, that we are capable of reaching for and achieving greater heights of humanity than the callous indifference that characterized so many in his time and place, and, shockingly, so many in our own as well.
And who would deny that, while it may be impossible to attribute any specific political achievement to the immense success of his wonderful little tale, it has almost certainly played a role in those gradual, invisible shifts of the ground beneath our feet, keeping them at times from moving as far as they might have in the direction of greater callousness, and perhaps even nudging them at times in the direction of greater kindness.
We can’t all write such wonderful stories, but we can reiterate and amplify on them (as I did in A Political Christmas Carol), disseminate them, facilitate their reverberation through our collective consciousness. Politics, at its most fundamental level, isn’t as much about candidates and elections, or public debates about specific issues and the governmental processes which determine what public policy will be regarding them, as it is about what people think and believe, what people feel, what forms the substance of human consciousness.
So for those who live as though politics is everything –eating, drinking, and breathing what we narrowly conceive of as political engagement– please remember that there is much more beyond those explicitly political endeavors of ultimately deeper and broader significance to how our futures are formed and down what channels the currents of history flow. While some throw all of their weight and all of their passion into the tug-o-war between competing ideologies regarding competing candidates and policy positions, the real struggle, and the more momentous movement of humanity possible within it, lies largely unattended by any conscious and organized effort. Imagine the untapped potential of devoting just some small fraction of our passion and energy to that deeper challenge, tunneling under the ideological fortifications that deny entry to reason and humanity, collapsing those walls with subtler and more strategic assaults upon them.
(See A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for a complete discussion of how to go about this.)