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In my zeal to penetrate the mysteries of our lives, I often forget the value of simplicity. So here is a step-by-step explanation of A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, in very simple and straightforward terms (if you find the idea interesting, it’s worth it to read the long version):

1) I’d argue that the main obstacle to the implementation of policies based on reason in service to goodwill in the U.S. is insufficient popular support. There are several reasons for this deficiency in popular support, including the prevalence of blind ideologies superceding any commitment to a process or methodology (similar to scientific methodology or legal procedure) which narrows debate down to the range defined by reason and goodwill. Therefore, one major challenge for those who want to increase the influence of reason motivated by goodwill in public discourse and political decision making is to promote a commitment to procedures or methodologies which systematically favor reason over irrationality, and clearly identify what values, goals, and interests are being served.

Certainly, increasing the breadth and depth of commitment to such methodologies increases popular support for the policies they generate and inform, and thus increases the extent to which we successfully implement them. So the question is: How do we increase the commitment to procedures and methodologies which favor reason and goodwill, and by doing so increase the popular support of well-reasoned and socially responsible policies in general?

2) When those of us committed to the promotion of reason and goodwill as the guiding principles in political decision-making limit ourselves to fighting it out on an issue-by-issue and candidate-by-candidate basis, we appear, in the eyes of most marginally engaged moderate Americans, to belong to the blindly ideological camp which supports the same issues or candidates, and to be just equal and opposite counterparts of those blind ideologues in the opposite camp. We need to establish a movement that does not assume a presupposed ideological bias (other than reason and goodwill), or primarily argue substantive policy, but rather one which advocates only the application of reason to evidence in service to goodwill. This is not something that anyone who aspires to be (or be seen as) a reasonable person of goodwill can simply reject out of hand.

3) A movement that can remove itself from the frame of “political ideology,” and into the frame of “alternative to political ideologies” gains an advantage. One movement has recently gained some of that advantage by framing itself as an alternative to existing political parties (the Tea Party Movement), but has done so not by framing itself in terms of a commitment to reason in service to goodwill, but rather in terms of a commitment to a zealously held political ideology (small government, individual liberty, etc.). That ideology is not a commitment to a process, to reason and goodwill, but rather to a fixed belief that, much like a broken clock that always points to the same hour, is occasionally right and frequently wrong. In other words, it is a fixed ideology that sometimes is most reasonable and best serves mutual goodwill, but frequently is not and does not. It is, in a sense, the opposite of what I am advocating.

4) I think that as many or more marginally engaged moderate Americans would be attracted to the more profound alternative that rallies around “reason and goodwill” or “kindness and reasonableness” as have been attracted to the Tea Party. I think lots of mostly silent Americans are sick of politics and hungry for “kindness” and “reasonableness.” They just don’t know where to find it. And they don’t trust existing political movements, because existing movements are still dominated by ideologues and focused on insufficiently examined or questioned substantive positions.

5) This movement has to distinguish itself from what’s already in place, so it can’t use the labels of existing political ideologies or movements. It must establish a new political vocabulary, talking about being reasonable people of goodwill, removed from those “other” ideologies shouting back and forth at each other.

6) One of the major obstacles to the establishment of reason in service to goodwill as a political movement is that it is very taxing on individuals to have to make sense of the complex and massive information relevant to public policy decision making. Thus a core challenge of the movement I am advocating is to provide a credible, comprehensive, user-friendly portal through which to access and evaluate relevant information and competing arguments. This would be an enormous on-going project, focused on maximizing the signal-to-noise ratio without promoting one conclusion or another. The goal would be to create a systematic, triangulated evaluation of all arguments, including competing evaluations of what interests are served or undermined by each policy idea. This is the first component of my proposed project (see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for more details).

7) This first component not only creates a single reliable source for relevant public policy information and analysis, it also legitimates the claim to the mantle of “reasonableness.” It is the first component of a movement dedicated to the compilation and diffusion of comprehensive systematic analysis, to cutting through the cacophony of arbitrary opinions and political marketing campaigns. It’s the effort to lay everything we know and think on the table, all the work that’s been done by people trying to organize and evaluate relevant information, from all across the ideological spectrum, to sort out the information from the disinformation.

8) In order to claim the mantle of “goodwill,” this movement must be divorced from politics as we currently conceptualize it, focused entirely on cultivating cooperation. It’s purpose is to improve the quality of our lives, to recognize and facilitate our interdependence as members of a society, and to help one another to live the healthiest, freest, most secure, most satisfying, most enjoyable lives we can. This movement is addressed to those who are tired of ”politics,” but who want to make our communities stronger, and work toward shouting at one another less and listening to one another more, working together as reasonable people of goodwill in a shared society. That’s the third component of my proposal: Organizing in our communities to improve the quality of our lives locally in our neighborhoods and communities, and to create a foundation and context for civil discourse about city-and-countywide, statewide, national, and global issues (again, see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for more details).

9) The challenge of building a bridge from this locally generated “goodwill” to support of well-reasoned public policies that are motivated by such goodwill involves redefining government as much as possible, in as many minds as possible, from some external thing imposed on us (what it was, to an already diminishing extent, prior to the American Revolution 230 years ago), to an imperfect and problematic agent of our collective will (the meaning of the popular sovereignty that we established as a result of that war). We do that by connecting the community-building work to the public policies we support that are mere logical extensions of it, using all media of communication to reinforce this idea, the notion of belonging to a society, of being interdependent, of existing in a systemic social reality in which public policies affect the amount and distribution of opportunities, the robustness and justness and sustainability of the framework of our coexistence. That’s the second component of my proposal (again, see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for more details). I call it “meta-messaging,” reinforcing the single, underlying message of being reasonable people of goodwill, at all levels of social organization.

One way to think of this second component is as an institutionalization of Marley’s Ghost and the Three Spirits from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Just as these uninvited counselors tapped into Ebenezer Scrooge’s own frames and narratives, and found within his formative past, his incomplete present, and his foreboding future the key to his own redemption, we must seek to activate the compassion and humanity that lies dormant or obstructed in many of those who blindly oppose compassionate and humane public policies. If our efforts succeed in moving one thousandth of our modern day Scrooges one thousandth of the distance toward reason and goodwill that their fictional archetype traveled, it would be a significant contribution to our ability to improve our social institutional landscape.

10) It’s important that the policies implicitly advocated by this movement be well-reasoned public policies motivated by goodwill, drawing on the first component, to legitimately avoid the argument that certain policies may be motivated by goodwill, but have effects that, on balance, detract from rather than contribute to others’ welfare. The response is that adherence to the politics of reason and goodwill eschews reliance on blind assumptions, but rather is committed to ensuring that our choices of action are the best informed ones possible, taking all knowledge and arguments into account.

11) I say “the policies implicitly advocated by this movement” because it is about changing attitudes and moving the zeitgeist, not about direct political advocacy. The Politics of Reason and Goodwill is about advocacy of Reason and Goodwill, and letting the politics follow from that. Members or fellow-travelers will of course be involved in other activities, advocating for the policies and candidates to which reason and goodwill have led them in good faith, sometimes in disagreement with one another. That’s fine; this movement isn’t to control choices, but to nourish the mind and the heart in the belief that minds and hearts so nourished will, on average, make more reasonable choices, better guided by mutual goodwill.

It’s a fairly simple idea that becomes complicated only when it is fully fleshed out. It’s very ambitious, focused on the long-run rather than the short-run, and on marginally, gradually shifting the underlying foundation of political discourse rather than winning a little ground momentarily in an endless tug-o-war. It is a project aspiring to the overarching framework I’ve described, but comprised of numerous more modest goals, such as creating networks of community organizations dedicated to doing good works locally (such as tutoring and mentoring kids) and fostering robust, thoughtful, civil discourse (see Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN)).

This proposal is essentially the answer to the question “if we were a rational society, striving to govern ourselves as intelligently and compassionately and pragmatically as possible, how would we go about it?” It is not a panacea. It will not any time in the foreseeable future change human nature, or erase human bigotries, or eliminate blind ideological rancor. It would represent one, small, marginal effort to do better, and, if phenomenally successful, would move the center of gravity of public discourse in this nation a tiny bit in the direction of reason and goodwill, over a very long time. But even such tiny changes can have enormous effects.

Please join me in trying to implement this idea, to find an organizational home for it, or independent financial backing. Again, any help in moving this project forward would be greatly appreciated!

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  • Mike Manes:

    Hi Steve,

    In a futile effort to pare my Inbox down to a less tyrannical size, I found your post from last December 11th that I’d tagged “To Do”. So I did …

    I agree with your concept of an organization which promotes the welfare of its members and their community. But, like you, I haven’t the foggiest about what form it would take without engaging in fantasies reminiscent of Paradise and Nirvana. This leaves me back on the ground, facing the grubby realities of the day-to-day rigmarole and suburban survival. Not to mention the “shellacking” that you shared with so many other fellow Democrats during the recent mid-term election …

    So I hope that you have discovered a realistic embodiment of your concept, and I’m eager to hear more about it. Please let me know what you’ve come up with.

    – Mike Manes

  • Hey Mike. Actually, I think there is a way forward. The link at the top of this diary is to the more comprehensive version of the proposal, whose purpose is to make a deep structural, process oriented investment in gradual long-term change in popular attitudes, rather than (or alongside of) our traditional short-term substantive focus. It’s not a panacea, but rather a methodology. And, like science and law, the idea is that when you put into place (or, rather, “exercise and promote the exercise of”) improved methodologies, over time, you get improved results. Cheers.

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