(The following was originally written as a Facebook post in response to one of the typically overwrought, implacable demands for some sort of a purist rejection of our current Democratic leadership, due to its failure to satisfy the writer’s view of what they needed to be doing):
The most important principle in politics is “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” or even of the least bad. Politics is the art of the possible, and the pursuit of the best attainable arrangements, all things considered. Every decision by every individual should be measured by its effect.
The reality we are dealing with includes not only what we each identify as what should be, but also what everyone else identifies as what should be, and what can be accomplished within the context of that distribution of values, beliefs, and opinions, including to what extent they can be moved and changed.
It’s also critical to remember that, in a complex and subtle world, designing the best policies and making the best decisions on pending legislation is an information intensive activity, necessitating not only a sophisticated understanding of the complex systems involved (the articulation of human social institutional, technological, and natural systems), but also of the details of what is happening on the ground. A great piece of legislation, for instance, often becomes a Trojan Horse for a horrible rider, and a smart legislator has to weigh the benefits of the great bill against the costs of the horrible rider. A lot of the armchair quarterbacking that goes on is oblivious to this dimension of the challenge, and many such dimensions exist.
We accomplish the most, and progress the most robustly, when we gravitate toward a pragmatic realism, cultivating a calm belief that it is possible for human beings to govern themselves wisely, in service to human welfare, and keeping all involved (including the electorate) focused on how best to do so. We accomplish the least (and do the most to undermine any and all positive efforts that are being made) when we gravitate to conflicting poles, insisting that our own faction’s vision is the only acceptable one, and that nothing else will do. It fails both on pragmatic grounds (it paralyzes our ability to progress) and on realism grounds (there is more genius in the humility of the many than in the hubris of the few).
There are political goals more fundamental than advancing the policies of the moment. Those goals require cultivating, each in ourselves and all of us together, certain qualities that improve our collective ability to design and implement the best policies in any moment.
One such quality, as I’ve already suggested, is humility. We serve a truly progressive agenda best when we each strive to recognize that what we individually believe to be true may or may not be, that our own certainties may be mistaken, that our own conclusions may be incorrect. This breeds two positive behaviors: 1) It motivates us each to keep learning, to keep examining, to keep absorbing information and recognizing that we never know or understand enough; and 2) it improves our ability to work in productive concert with those who have sincere and legitimate disagreements with us. The second is most useful when the ultimate ends are less disputed than the means for achieving them, as is often (though not always) the case.
Aligning the ultimate ends is best served by striving to be people of goodwill, driven by empathy more than by mutual indifference. Not everyone is willing to agree that that is a laudable goal, but most are. Some will argue that it is a laudable goal, but not the proper purview of government, which is fine, because it provides a foundation of agreement about the ends within which to debate what the most effective means are, a foundation that works as long as we cultivate the other necessary qualities as well (humility and reason).
As I just said, the third quality is striving to be reasonable. Many believe that they are doing so, but few are. An important first step is to recognize how our minds really work, by thinking in frames and narratives which may or may not serve the cause of reason in any given instance. Being aware of this helps us to coopt the reality in service to the ideal, of guiding our frames and narratives in service to reason.
These three qualities (striving to be humble, striving to be empathetic, and striving to be reasonable), together, comprise a deeper political goal, that of creating the most robust and fertile cognitive and cultural context for social and political progress.
I think we serve ourselves best by prioritizing our commitment to this “deep structural political goal” above all of the other more ephemeral and superficial (though often critically important) goals which depend upon it. Doing so serves our long-term ability both to advance those immediate political goals most effectively, and to ensure that they are the right goals to advance before doing so.