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The following is a brief email exchange with a leader of a local Move On chapter to whom I offered to present PRG (“the politics of reason and goodwill”):

Q: since the GOP appears to be working on building the politics of RESENTMENT… that would be a good place to start.  A think tank that would work on changing the discussion to politics of community goodwill.  How would you go about doing that?

A: There are no panaceas. The Republican strategy of cultivating resentments and fears and hatreds -basically, of appealing to our basal ganglia (“the reptilian brain”)- is one that has a comparative advantage in the short run. When we invest our resources in confronting it (as we must), we have to recognize that we are fighting in their arena. But, as has been noted by John Maynard Keynes (“People will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives”) and Martin Luther King Jr. (“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”), respectively, Reason and Universal Goodwill (i.e., social justice) enjoy a comparative advantage in the long-run. One of the biggest mistakes that the Progressive Movement has made over the past few decades is to keep getting drawn into a brawl in a conservative arena, letting conservatives frame the narrative. We’ve done this because we, too, are more easily drawn to attending to the short-term urgencies than to the long-term struggle, and, as such, are constantly fighting to win “the reptilian brain” rather than to cultivate what human history has always struggled to cultivate: Human Consciousness.
 
Traditional politics and political activism will continue much as they have, with the conservative ability to appeal to our baser natures always vexing us in the short run, and progressives trapped on a treadmill perpetually fighting against it, rather than engaged in the long-term effort to cultivate Reason and Goodwill. Other institutions, meanwhile, are more focused on those long-term evolutions: Academe, certain religious-philosophical orders and institutions (such as Esalon Institute in Big Sur, California), and so on. But the products of these other institutions are very esoteric, and do not diffuse into the population at large in any highly robust way.
 
So the question is: How do we make a long-term investment in cultivating those human qualities in the population at large, that are not cultivated to any great extent by those esoteric institutions that are focused on them, and are mostly ignored by political activism? In one sense, it’s not a “political” question, because it isn’t at all about winning the immediate struggles over current policy issues and current electoral contests. In a deeper sense, of course, it is quintessentially “political,” since politics is really, at root, about the battle over what people believe (this is somewhat true even in brutal dictatorships, but more true the more democratic a society is). Even the much vaunted corporate power we talk about so much is the power to spend enormous amounts of money on media messages which affect what people believe.
 
When we ask “how can we most effectively affect what people believe in the short run?” the answer, to too great an extent, is “appeal to their fears and hatreds and resentments.” When we ask “how can we most effectively affect what people believe in the long run?” the answer is increasingly “appeal to their dreams and aspirations and imaginations.” But how do you cultivate in people lost, to varying degrees, to their resentments and fears and hatreds, their forgotten or buried human consciousness, full of aspirations and yearning idealism? The answer is, basically, create viable channels of communication, effective messages, and reinforcing behaviors in which you can engage them. That’s what my proposal is designed to do.

The underlying idea is this: Most Americans presumably self-identify (accurately or inaccurately) as reasonable people of goodwill. Those who don’t are beyond reach, and can only be marginalized rather than “brought on board.” Many conservatives and moderates place a high value on “community” and “family,” and believe in social solidarity at that level, even if constrained within their own narrow definitions. Media Messages (both traditional and social) with markers that indicate that they are “progressive” or “liberal” or “Democratic” messages hit cognitive confirmation-bias filters and never reach the mind of any but those who are already on board. Reframing those messages, divorced from reference to particular policies or candidates, in non-partisan language, creates a pathway to reaching into at least some of the minds that would otherwise be inaccessible. 
 
There are three components to my idea for doing it: 1) a network of non-partisan community organizations committed to doing good works in the community, and creating a forum for civil discourse dedicated to examining issues from all points of view and with as much mutual respect as participants can muster (with guidelines agreed to up-front to reinforce this commitment); 2) something I call “meta-messaging,” which is a project to gather, design, publish, and disseminate narratives which reinforce people’s commitment to social responsibility and compassion (think of “A Christmas Carol,” which is both an example of, and a metaphor for, such “meta-messaging”); and 3) creating a user-friendly internet portal to all arguments, from across the ideological spectrum, that are actually arguments (even if bad ones), rather than just slogans and platitudes and emotional appeals. This third component lends legitimacy to the claim to be a movement committed to “reason” as well as to “goodwill,” and might, to some small degree, over time, increase the role of reasoned argumentation and analysis in the formation of popular political opinions.
 
These three components are mutually reinforcing in a variety of ways. Doing good works in the community reinforces recognition of belonging to a society, of interdependence. The community forums to discuss political issues can encourage drawing on the information made available through the internet portal. The community organizations’ avowed purpose of strengthening our communities provides a conduit for the narratives (the “meta-messages”) reinforcing a sense of social responsibility. It is a movement designed to cultivate what is best in us, to improve how we arrive at our political positions both as individuals and as a society, and to produce a marginal, slight, constant impetus in favor of Reason and Goodwill.
 
Since democratic politics, when all is said and done, is really a battle over what people believe, a long-term strategy which can exert a long-term pressure on what people believe, or the underlying attitude informing their beliefs, can have a bigger pay-off than all of the other more immediate types of political activism than we are typically engaged in. Since virtually all of our political organizational resources currently go toward the latter (the immediate political struggles), and virtually none to the former (the effort to affect underlying attitudes which inform policy positions), it seems to me to be obvious than we need to create a movement that redresses that by investing some small, perhaps even tiny, portion of our resources at affecting underlying attitudes.
 
While it may seem naive to think that anything like this can work, I think it’s almost inconceivable that it wouldn’t, if any significant effort were made, though it wouldn’t yield any dramatic or easily measurable results in the short run (that’s not what it’s designed to do, or can do). The zeitgeist changes, and varies from society to society, mostly according to the cumulative winds of social change. Almost all efforts to affect those winds are focused on the short-term, and do so to the extent that those short-term efforts are successful. But we generally lack the farsightedness to invest in the long-term evolution itself, where we can have the most dramatic effects, and will encounter the least resistence (both from individual cognitive barriers, and organized political movements).
 
When we figure this out, and begin to divert a very tiny stream of resources toward it, we will at last be working toward putting ourselves on a sustainable progressive path into the future.

Q: Specifically where would you start?

A: Do you mean, where would I start with the project I’ve laid out? With the first nodes in a network of non-partisan community organizations dedicated to this vision. That requires virtually no funding, just a sufficient degree of interest. As funding allows, the next step would probably involve developing the meta-messaging paradigm. I have a pretty straightforward human research experiment I’d like to operationalize for testing its efficacy, for those who prefer research-based practices rather than speculative ones. The most labor intensive component is probably the internet portal, which I envision as something similar to the human genome project: A huge cataloguing of information.
 
I know that this is a different kind of idea. It’s not focused on a single issue (in fact, depends on not focusing on specific issues, or, in the context of organizing this movement, taking organizational stands on specific issues), will not yield returns within election cycles, is not inherently combative, does not identify the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” is committed to what I infer to be our underlying values as progressives (and what most certainly are my underlying values) rather than to the political ideology that has (imperfectly) grown out of those values, and aspires to initiate a gradual and sustained movement of the whole political tug-o-war in the direction of Reason and Goodwill rather than just to win a few rounds of that tug-o-war where it is currently located.
 
There’s little doubt in my mind that we’re going to have to start to think more along these lines, and commit more resources to something similar to this, if we are serious in our commitment to get this country onto a better path. What we’re doing now plays right into the hands of those who want to define progressives as mere equal and opposite counterparts of conservatives, pick your flavor, it’s just a matter of taste. That’s because we treat our political struggles as a bunch of issues, on which their is an ideological difference of opinion, rather than as a tension between reason in service to humanity on the one hand, and irrational belligerence on the other, with progressives tending to be more aligned with the former and conservatives more aligned with the latter, but not always, and not in all ways.
 
It is not only an idea about how to improve the efficacy of the progressive movement in the long run, but also about how to improve the quality of the progressive movement in the long run, by focusing more on advocacy of those procedures and methodologies which favor reason and goodwill, and less on the substantive positions that imperfectly track what conclusions those procedures would lead to.
 
Right or wrong, agree or disagree, it’s a dialogue we desperately need to be having.

(See A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill.)

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