(cross-posted on SquareState: http://www.squarestate.net/diary/1137/a-progressive-new-year-the-ongoing-project)
I think most people who self-identify as “progressives” are, at root, committed to advancing the cause of reason in service to universal goodwill as the driving force of public policy. Unfortunately, we are all less than perfect on both dimensions, often failing to be either particularly reasonable, or particularly motivated by goodwill. But if we are serious about our commitment to improving the quality of human life by employing more reason in our public policies, more in service to humanity (and, by extension, all that humanity depends upon), there are things we can strive to do, dimensions we can strive to improve on, to advance the cause to which we are all committed.
In A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, I outline three components of the individual and collective disciplines that would best serve the on-going progressive project: 1) The Compilation of Social Systemic Knowledge; 2) The Cultivation of Social Identification; and 3) The Activation of Interpersonal Kindness. I describe each of these three, and penumbral aspects of the overall proposal (such as the commitment to process), in detail in the post linked to above.
One aspect of the first component (“The Compilation of Social Systemic Knowledge”) is the creation of an overarching social systems paradigm through which to compile and evaluate all competing ideas, one which does not start with any inherent political ideological bias, and in fact accommodates currently conflicting analytical and ideological paradigms. I have outlined such an overarching paradigm in The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change.
One aspect of the second component (“The Cultivation of Social Identification”) is finding frames and narratives that resonate with the frames and narratives of those who either are not “progressives,” or are “progressives” of the sort that are promoting just another blind ideology (precipitously certain substantive conclusions) rather than a commitment to reason in service to goodwill (a procedural and methodological discipline). In A Political Christmas Carol, I’ve provided an example of the kind of “messaging” I’m talking about (and that George Lakoff was referring to in his book The Political Mind). By associating the currently prevalent extreme-individualist ideology with a character almost universally pitied and disdained, and a reason-in-service-to-goodwill approach (what I consider to be the essence of progressivism) with his almost universally appealing transformed self, the gravitational cognitive force of progressivism is marginally increased, drawing more of those toward it who are capable of being drawn toward it. Since we know that social attitudes and ideological centers of gravity shift over time, we know that current distributions are not fixed and immutable; a major challenge is how most effectively to sway the zeitgeist in the direction of reason and goodwill.
Of course, one lonely act of such messaging on one blog is not going to do the trick. We need to flood discursive space with this kind of messaging; not, as some believe, only with the kind of mechanistic and reductionist sloganeering that has served the Right so well (though, yes, some of that as well), but also with the deeper appeals to human souls which is where the Progressive comparative advantage lies. We don’t want to become just an equal-and-opposite counterpart of the Tea Party; we want to be the clear distinction from all that is wrong with it, the opposition to irrationality and belligerence, not to perceived enemies and reductionist boogeymen.
And, finally, one aspect of the third component is the organization of community groups dedicated not to anything overtly political, but rather only to strengthening our communities and increasing our interpersonal commitment to reason and goodwill. The value of this is not only intrinsic, but also increasing the association of empathy-based policies with interpersonal goodwill, something which helps erode the successful Libertarian meme of government as some external entity imposing its will on an antagonistic public. If we want to promote progressive public policies, which use government to improve opportunities and enhance the quality of life, we have to associate support of such policies with actions in our communities based on that same attitude. This helps dispell the enervating argument over whether government itself is “good” or “bad,” and refocus on the inevitable fact that government is the battleground over whether our public policies will be yielded to the interests of the most wealthy and powerful, or will be successfully harnessed in service to humanity. I have made some efforts on this dimension as well, organizing the South Jeffco Community Organization, an on-going project I will return to after I clear my plate of some other more immediate and pressing obligations.
My point here is that there is a pretty clear path forward for a progressive movement that wants to be effective at the most fundamental level, and that there are clear substantive steps we can all take in service to that path. Our almost absolute focus on who is elected to office and how successfully we compel them to do our substantive bidding is sub-optimal on several levels: 1) It reduces us to mere equal and opposite counterparts of the advocates of irrationality and belligerence, and leaves many marginally engaged moderates seeking some midpoint between the two camps, as though that were the definition of “reasonable;” 2) It fails to attend to the very real issue of how often and to what extent our substantive bidding is imperfectly informed and conceived, and the resultant need to place more emphasis on the procedural discipline of discovering the best policies motivated by less certainty of the infallibility of our current understandings; and 3) It fails to address the more fundamental determinant of public policy, the zeitgeist, the popular political ideological center of gravity. There is, of course, a place for traditional political activism, but if we really want to catalyze and institute social change, traditional political activism alone is not enough.
If we redistributed the resources of time, money, effort, and passion currently invested by American Progressives in progressive advocacy in more targeted ways, looking beyond the superficial political arena, and focusing more on the ultimate political battlefield (the human mind), and doing so in well-designed and coordinated ways, we would have far more success at moving this country in a progressive direction. Here’s to the hope that we begin to do so.