We have a lot of work to do. All reasonable people of goodwill have a lot of work to do. It’s not enough to groan, to bemoan, to talk or even walk, to vote and encourage others to vote, to protest or rally or lobby or canvass, to organize for specific goals, to engage in rituals and contribute to the noise of a very noisy world. It’s not enough to write, or implore, or contemplate, or engage others. We need to take action; a very specific kind of action; a less familiar and, for many, less emotionally gratifying kind of action; a less cathartic and more creative kind of action; a less ritualistic and more conscious kind of action; a less well-trod and more innovative kind of action.
The first step is to know that we can do much, much better. I don’t mean we could do better if only we beat the political opposition at the polls, or that we could do better if only others saw the world the way we do and joined us in our efforts to create a kinder, gentler, saner world. I mean that those of us who claim to believe in our collective potential to improve the human condition can do much better at translating that belief into results. That’s not something that depends on any superficial panacea saving us from a very deeply entrenched status quo, or on any sudden mass change of consciousness (that, in truth, it is our challenge to catalyze and cultivate), but rather on the discipline and commitment of those who share a general vision and goal, in service to that vision and goal.
First of all, I shy away from using the term “progressive,” because, while among existing political ideological orientations, that is clearly the one I align with, and clearly the closest to being the force for moving in the direction of being a kinder, gentler, saner world, it falls woefully short, and leaves behind some who might join us in this effort, while being overtaken by others who are as much an obstruction to moving in the direction of becoming a kinder, gentler, wiser world as our ideological opposites are.
We need a movement within and beyond the progressive movement that commits to something many progressives have not committed to, and some conservatives would: To leave behind the false certainties, the overwrought commitment to oversimplified panaceas, the ancient tribal impulse to reduce the world to the “good guys” that are us and the “bad guys” that are them, and commit instead to disciplined reason and universal goodwill alone as the ultimate goals and underlying means of all that we do.
That doesn’t mean, as some people always insist on interpreting it to mean, that this is advocacy for always being “nicey-nice” and never taking firm stands for or against specific positions, even engaging in “hardball” politics in service to those stands. (Indeed, there are many who accuse me of the opposite error, of not being “nicey-nice” enough in public discourse, of “bullying” people, either with my intellect or my “flowery, condescending bullshit,” depending on their disposition toward me. While I am not claiming that I always get it right, I am claiming that there are definitely times to “bully” people with one’s intellect, or, as I like to put it, to make arguments so compelling that those who find them inconvenient are made uncomfortable by the difficulty of refuting them.) Those are determinations that must be made in the context of the kind of comprehensive analysis, holistic vision, and disciplined commitment to them that I am advocating. Nor does it mean that this vision is meant to (or possibly could) displace the current and familiar popular political landscape, with all of its oversimplifications, precipitous manias, and narrow interests or visions. I discuss below how these two visions and orientations, one of strident advocacy for passionately held views, and the other for cultivating a broader and more accommodating commitment to reason and goodwill in both the form and substance of our political advocacy, can coexist.
Rather, this is the articulation of a higher ideal, a more conscious and restrained and aspirational political and cultural movement, to which people who aspire to the creation of a kinder, gentler, and saner world can invest some or all of their energy, either while engaging in other more familiar political movements that also appeal to them and capture their imaginations and their motivations, or (as might be the case for some few) as their primary or only vehicle for social change.
I had, not long ago, developed one specific blueprint for what such a movement could look like (see, e.g., Transcendental Politics, A Proposal, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world, Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives, Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN)). The specific blueprint developed in these essays is not the subject of this one. Our efforts to create this new “transcedental politics,” this more disciplined and humble and wise commitment to working toward a positive vision of what can be rather than against all of the windmill-dragons populating our ideologically saturated realities, can take what form it will, but it must begin with a commitment to it, and an organized effort to cultivate this new species of activism so that might flourish amidst the flora and fauna of the current political ecosystem.
Many of the essays I wrote in the course of developing and fleshing out my “politics of reason and goodwill” are iterations of the same theme of this one, such as The Ultimate Political Challenge, Second-Order Social Change, “A Theory of Justice”, The Foundational Progressive Agenda , The Politics of Anger, The Politics of Kindness, The Power of “Walking the Walk”, “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few, The Heart of Politics, A Call To Minds & Hearts & Souls, Politics & Social Change, Changing The Narrative, Cluster Liberals v. Network Liberals, Realizing Human Potential, The Loss of Humanity, Getting Off The Political Treadmill, and An Argument for Reason and Humility. Though there is undoubtedly considerable redundancy laced throughout these essays, it is my hope that together they, somewhat haphazardly and inefficiently, carve out a well-defined and increasingly detailed vision of how to do better, of what it means to do better, and of what it requires of each of us who wish to help change the world for the better.
The keys to this vision for progress are two-fold: 1) We need to cultivate within ourselves and within whatever organizations we create committed to this vision the humility, wisdom, and universal goodwill that must inform it, and make those values a discipline that we actively pursue, both within ourselves as individuals and throughout all social fields to which we belong; and 2) we need to explore, in depth and with precision, the nature of the social institutional and cognitive landscape that is the field within which we are operating, applying the knowledge gained to the challenge of affecting that landscape in desired ways. (For my nascent contribution to that second component, 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, Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, and The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix.)
The articulation of these two aspects of what I’ll now refer to as “Transcendental Politics” is one of the challenges I have only barely waded into. It’s clear that they are closely bound together, in numerous ways, and that the discovery of the conceptual threads that weave them into a single whole will be an exciting and gratifying enterprise. I alluded to some of the connections in The Dance of Consciousness, The Algorithms of Complexity, and undoubtedly in other essays as well: They revolve around the fact that we are both participants in, and elements of, the social institutional/technological/cognitive landscape that we are simultaneously operating through and trying to affect. These are not too distinct spheres of reality, as we so often pretend they are, but rather one; recognizing that, and acting on the basis of that recognition, is a cornerstone of Transcendental Politics. (I have just recently bought a book, “Spiral Dynamics,” recommended to me by a friend, that purports to address precisely this dimension of the challenge, to develop a leadership and social movement/social change paradigm based on, essentially, the evolutionary ecology paradigm of our shared social institutional/technological/cognitive landscape.)
Transcendental Politics is one specimen of a larger, already defined category, referred to as “Transformational Politics,” which is political action designed not just to win battles within the current paradigm, but to change that paradigm as well. Transcendental Politics specifies a very precise kind of transformational goal, one which relies less on assumption and more on analysis, is more dedicated to humanity, all things considered, and less to narrower goals that conflict with that global goal on closer examination. It is a transformation that discourages stridency and encourages thoughtfulness and civil discourse informed by humility. It is, in short, the politics of reason and goodwill (leavened with imagination and compassion), pursued with Discipline & Purpose.
Part of what is to be transcended is the level of analysis on which the current ideological dichotomy defining the contemporary partisan divide is to be found (see A Tale of Two Movements). While both contentions are true to varying degrees and in varying ways (the Right is correct that there is a very salient agency problem embedded in any reliance on government to order our lives, and the Left is correct that corporate power, particularly over the political process, has reached crisis proportions), neither dynamic is as simple as its staunchest advocates imagine, and neither lies at the core of what is obstructing progress. (Admittedly, like peeling away the layers of an onion, the core itself may be ever-elusive, but part of the project of Transcendental Politics is to focus on the peeling back of layers to find the ever-more fundamental issues to address, and to eschew the self-satisfied belief that complex issues require no further analysis once a position has been taken. See The Algorithms of Complexity; or The Wizards’ Eye for a fictionalized representation of the dynamic.)
Transcendental Politics involves digging beneath these issues, recognizing the elements of truth in them, but also the utility of the institutions being critically analyzed, and eschewing the manias of obsessive exaggeration and oversimplification. Transcendental Politics requires us to embrace rather than scoff at the habit of qualifying assertions, identifying exceptions and conditions and variability, and, in general, declining to reduce the world to pithy soundbites in favor of exploring the world in all of its subtlety and complexity. To paraphrase the former Colorado (and now Wisconsin) political journalist Adam Schrager, quoting his father, Transcendental Politics favors thinking and speaking in commas and question marks over periods and exclamation points.
Stridency doesn’t exclude anyone from participating in advocacy of Transcendental Politics, or joining any groups that may emerge to implement it, though the stridency itself is excluded. There are times to be strident, and we each use our own judgment to determine when that time has come for us, though, on average, I would say we err on leaping to stridency too quickly rather than refraining from it too often. (For instance, I recently became very strident in an exchange on Facebook, with a bunch of right-wing evangelicals preaching anti-Muslim attitudes, calling for an attitude of prejudice and policies of discrimination toward all Muslims residing in the United States. I found their attitude so reprehensible, so horrifyingly familiar, that, while composing powerful arguments designed to increase the difficulty of rationalizing their bigotry, I also declined to mince words in my characterization of their position. See “Sharianity” for my depiction of their position.)
Many of my fellow progressives are strident about things I choose not to be, and am less convinced merit it. The governmental and police responses to “Occupy” protesters, for instance, while certainly sometimes excessive and counterproductive (and therefore deserving of very clear criticism), seem to me to be embedded in a more complex and nuanced challenge of balancing legitimate needs to enforce laws designed to protect the public health and safety with the need to limit the freedoms of speech and assembly (especially political speech and assembly) to the slightest degree practicable. It is an issue in which there is an inevitable balance to be struck (even if it is not currently being struck in the right place), and therefore an issue in which stridency is to be avoided.
But if an individual, on careful consideration, and in full consciousness, determines that, by their judgment, the issue of overzealous and overly violent enforcement of marginal laws, against political protesters generally not engaging in any serious misconduct of any kind, is an issue worthy of strident condemnation, that’s not a judgment I am in any position to say is “wrong.” I can only say that, since such determinations are a matter of personal judgment, and since one goal of Transcendental Politics is to increase our thoughtfulness and reduce our stridency in general, both my stridency toward those anti-Islamic xenophobes on Facebook, and others’ toward overzealous police action toward the “Occupy” protesters, should be left in the arena of conventional political discourse (where we all will still be participating as well), and removed from the attempt to transcend it.
In fact, people who are stridently opposed to one another on some or all issues might find a venue in which to discuss underlying aspects of those issues in a different way, if some of them at some times share the basic commitment required of participation in Transcendental Politics: That of striving to be reasonable people of goodwill working together to confront the complex and subtle challenges of life on Earth. To enter that new venue, we take off our hats of issue advocacy, and put on our hat of tolerance and acceptance. We do not have to worry that we are tolerating and accepting something intolerable and unacceptable by doing so, because we have not forsaken the other hat of passionate advocacy on that issue. But we can rejoice that we have, without giving anything up, opened up a channel through which reason and goodwill might have more opportunity to gain more purchase on more hearts and minds.
Transcendental Politics is about reducing the entrenchment of mutual antagonism, and increasing the commitment to reason and goodwill. It is about reducing irrationality and belligerence, and increasing consciousness in both thought and action. It is about moving from a politics that reproduces and reinforces our folly toward a politics that liberates us from and gradually transcends that folly. It is about growing as human beings, as individuals and as societies, and reaching toward higher and more life-affirming expressions of our humanity.
My role, thus far, has, for the most part, been to articulate this vision and try to rally others to it. (I have made some organizational attempts as well, such as trying to form my own community organization as part of that component of my “Politics of Reason and Goodwill” project, and engaging, both professionally and avocationally, in a multitude of public interest advocacy efforts. I developed this project, beyond my writings here, in the context of a Colorado Leaders Fellowship, with the Center for Progressive Leadership, outlining a long-term plan for bringing it to fruition. I also sent out hundreds of packets to political and civic leaders in Colorado, describing my specific project to them, looking for support and funding. However, despite all of that, I have not yet done enough to take these ideas across the threshold from the drawing board into implementation.) But, while social progress is always urgent, and millions suffer every day from our failures to address the challenges we face more effectively, instantaneous success is rarely an option.
This is not something one individual can make happen on his or her own. We often look to leadership to lead us, and lament its failure to do so, but, in the end, we should lament most of all our own failures to step up to the plate, and become leaders ourselves, leaders in our families and communities, leaders in our organizations and professions, leaders in our thoughts and actions (see What is Leadership?). None of us should wait for someone else to make this happen; we each should take action ourself to make it happen, to move it forward, to spread this meme and this paradigm, to help it insinuate itself into our cognitive landscape, and, from there, into our social institutional landscape.
If this is a vision you share, or one that you believe has a vital place in our social field, then please, step forward and say, “yes, I want to be a part of this.” Email me with an expression of your interest (even if you have done so already, please do so again: email@example.com). Let’s start a dialogue around it, a continuing effort on all of our parts to transform our world for the better, not by raising our fists and expressing our rage, but by raising our consciousness and expressing our humanity.
We are capable of accomplishing so much together (see, e.g., Public Entrepreneurialism and Gaia & Me). But it takes more than a wish and some words. It takes commitment. Let’s not lament our failure to transform this world for the better to the extent that we know we are able to; let’s, instead, rejoice in our commitment to doing so, and act on that commitment with a renewed sense of determination and indomitability.