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I. The Habits, Methodologies and Procedures Which Govern Our Existence

Political activism tends to focus on issues and candidates, advocating for particular positions on particular issues, which cluster into and are framed by competing ideologies, and campaigning for candidates who, by and large, represent those competing ideologies. This system is the product of an evolutionary process (discussed at more length in section II)), and is certainly more functional than many that have historically preceded it or exist elsewhere. But it is not a perfected system (no system is), and some portion of our advocacy efforts should be dedicated to the challenge of consciously refining it.

In some other facets of life, particularly scholarship and law, procedures and methodologies have evolved which increase the role of reason in human belief formation and decision-making. Scientific methodology is a discipline which reduces error and increases accuracy. It has proven to be an acceleratingly robust technique for exploring the nature of the world and universe around and within us. Legal procedure is a discipline which assesses the accuracy of alleged facts and applies complex decision-making rules to them. It has proven to be a more accurate tool for pursuing just outcomes than the less rationalized procedures which preceded it, such as “trial by ordeal” or the purely idiosyncratic judgment of rulers or magistrates.

One of the challenges facing humanity is to refine and extend such disciplines. Though our electoral system is an example of such continuing refinement and extension, the context of our electoral system still involves a competition of largely arbitrary and underexamined ideological convictions. The products of scientific and legal methodologies are brought in haphazardly, and with only marginal influence. Popular opinions are formed irrationally, and voting choices are manipulated by well-funded marketing techniques, turning politics into a competition of cynical strategies favoring concentrated capital interests, and leading to dysfunctional outcomes.

It is a well-known and well-evidenced conclusion of cognitive science that human beings are not, by and large, persuaded by logical arguments and reliable evidence as much as by emotionally appealing messages that resonate with their already internalized frames and narratives. Some people misinterpret this to conclude that it is impossible to increase the salience of reason in popular political decision-making. But history demonstrates the error of such a conclusion: Scientific methodology, legal procedure, and constitutional democratic forms of government have all developed and gained prominence in the modern era, despite human irrationality.

II. The Lathe On Which We Spin…

The explanation for this paradox can be found in John Maynard Keynes’ quip that people “will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.” The archetype of this dynamic can be found in nature, in biological and ecological evolution, where creatures large and small, few of which are generally considered to be “rational,” evolve in highly rational ways, embodying strategies for reproductive success (and survival in order to facilitate it) that we, for all of our impressive human consciousness, can only mimic and emulate in our own intentional social institutions and technologies.

In biological evolution, this occurs through genes, which reproduce, occasionally mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. In cultural evolution, this occurs through “memes” (cognitions), which reproduce (are communicated), frequently mutate (change in the process of communication by mixing with other memes to form new memes or being are refined or altered or misinterpreted by those to whom they are communicated), compete for reproductive success (compete with mutually exclusive beliefs, or compete with other technologies, or compete for limited cerebral capacity), and thus evolve. In both cases, packets of information reproduce, mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. (For more in-depth explorations of this evolutionary ecology of human social institutional and technological systems, see, e.g., 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), plus several others in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).

Cultural evolution isn’t inherently benign. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically favor those memes most conducive to human happiness and welfare. More powerful weapons prevail over less powerful weapons; conquerors spread their memes more prolifically than pacifists; those who mine natural resources more rapidly (even if unsustainably rapidly) prevail more surely; aggressive, predatory societies overrun others that may be laden with beautiful and life affirming memes that simply don’t survive the brutality of our existence. One role for our conscious participation is to counterbalance these dysfunctional aspects of our underlying cultural evolutionary processes.

But neither is cultural evolution inherently malignant. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically disfavor those memes and paradigms most conducive to human happiness and welfare. A social entity characterized by strong internal cooperation will tend to prevail over a social entity characterized by weak internal cooperation.  The robust production of prosperity tends to prevail over more sluggish economic systems. Broader and deeper systems of cooperation prevail over narrower and shallower systems of cooperation. Political and economic liberty, in which most or all people are robust participants in their own governance and in a production of wealth from which they benefit in proportion to the value of their contribution, tends to prevail over political and economic centralization, in which human energy and enterprise is less fully tapped and channeled.

This combined, almost paradoxical, evolutionarily favored status of both liberty and cooperation is precisely why the movement I am referring to is not just “the politics of reason,” but “the politics of reason and goodwill.” Decades ago, in an experiment by Robert Axelrod, competing computer programs using strategies of “cooperation” and “defection” in bilateral, repeated “prisoners’ dilemma” games (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems) demonstrated that the best strategy in a world in which cooperation yields collective benefits, but not cooperating is always better for the person who doesn’t cooperate, is first to cooperate (show goodwill), and then respond to the other in kind (continue to cooperate if they do, but not if they don’t). This is a mathematical demonstration of what we all intuitively know (or should know) to be true: Goodwill benefits us all.

That’s at least one reason why the evolutionary process I describe below, entering into the modern era, has produced notions of human rights and natural rights and individual rights, and notions of egalitarianism and fairness and mutual responsibility, that many of us treasure, and that all of us benefit from. The world is a better place not only when we are reasonable people, but also when we act with goodwill toward one another. And even if the distribution of individual reasonableness and goodwill is not something that is particularly tractable by organized efforts in social movements, the salience of reasonableness and goodwill might be (see below for an explanation of this distinction).

III. …And That We Ourselves Are Spinning.

Biological evolution is, in a sense, a passive process. The members of evolving species do not intentionally participate in the evolutionary process that creates them, identifying evolutionary goals and consciously pursuing them. They merely are more or less prolific reproducers, and so carry genes that are more or less well-represented in subsequent generations. But the human cultural echo of this evolutionary process plays out through our cognitions, which are the substance of our consciousness. It is the result of what we choose to believe, and the result of how successfully we advocate or promote or market our beliefs or innovations. We are active and conscious participants in our own cultural evolution.

The degree to which we consciously guide and channel this process in service to humanity is a function of how far-sighted we are in our goals, and how inclusive we are in our identifications. Genetic evolution occurs through the pursuit of very immediate, short-sighted goals: Surviving long enough to mate, mating, and ensuring in one way or another that some of your progeny survive to mate as well. Cultural evolution occurs through the pursuit of these as well (through the reproduction of memes that serve these goals), plus slightly less immediate and short-sighted goals, such as financial security or prosperity and satisfaction of various needs and desires, and conscious identification with genetically somewhat dissimilar others, such as co-members of a race, a tribe, a nation or a religious community. (Often, there is an element of marginal genetic similarity in these identifications, due to how they are historically produced.) Politics consists by and large of a struggle over how and if and how far to extend both our time horizon and our identification, and how ambitious or modest our collective goals should be.

This struggle occurs on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, framed by competing comprehensive ideologies. We tend to emphasize the particular battles, and “recognize” that it is futile to try to win an argument over “which” ideology is superior. (Even so, the most zealous among us –myself included, but in a modified way explained in this essay and others like it– engage ceaselessly in debates over the relative merits of competing ideologies.)

The tendency to “duke it out” on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis comes at the cost of shortening our time horizons and narrowing our identifications, because issues attract our attention in proportion to their urgency and immediacy, elections are immediate and urgent contests, identifications in these struggles focus on the coalition of factions advocating particular positions within it, and, most importantly, the logic of political competition drives the most politically active among us into an almost exclusive focus on political strategies and tactics. The last dynamic strongly favors appealing to our basest and least far-sighted and least-imaginative inclinations as a polity, because these are the easiest to appeal to, and the most successful fulcrums on which to ply our political efforts.

If our evolutionarily determined habit of focusing on immediate issues and immediate candidates in service to immediate concerns and immediate desires does not best serve the challenge of being more conscious and inclusive participants in our own cultural evolution; and if it is futile to try, instead, to move the struggle to the level of a national debate over which substantive comprehensive ideology to embrace; then what is the alternative?

The alternative is diverting some portion of our time and attention and resources from both the issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate political struggle, andthe futile substantive ideological debate that envelopes and undergirds it, to an effort to transcend both by developing and investing in methodologies which systematically favor reason and goodwill in our personal and popular political decision-making process. To accomplish this, we need to find a foundation on which to build such a methodology on which most people, across ideological lines, can agree to, and which appeals to most people’s underlying frames and narratives, as well as recognizes the limited degree to which most people are willing to invest time and energy in our political processes.

Extremists of all stripes will tend to reject any such foundation that is proposed, correctly certain that it would undermine their ideological convictions and goals. But, though extremists dominate message boards and public attention, most people are not extremists. Most people are relatively moderate and pragmatic people who just want to be able to participate marginally, without investing too much time and energy, in our self-governance in a way which is both gratifying and productive. Many, of course, don’t want to do more than vote, but even those form their political opinions and electoral choices by means of a diffuse engagement with others around them and with various media of communications.

The challenge is to find, rally, and motivate those who both are or wish to be highly politically engaged, and who are interested in exploring the possibility of doing fundamentally better than we are now in moving the state, nation, and world in the direction of ever-increasing salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of our public policies, and to mobilize these activists in the design and implementation of a movement which accomplishes that goal. Obviously, any success would be marginal, and the world would continue much as it has. But even just marginal success in such an endeavor could have truly revolutionary implications over the course of time.

IV. The Proposal

I have already outlined my proposal (which I call, alternatively, “The Politics of Reason and Goodwill,” or “Transcendental Politics,” or “Holistic Politics”) in several essays (see, e.g,. A Proposal, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world, and Transcendental Politics; plus dozens of others in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). I’ll just summarize it very briefly here.

The social movement I envision is, by necessity, a non-partisan social movement which emphasizes the procedures by which we arrive at our beliefs, conclusions, policy positions, and electoral choices (which I’ll refer to from here on out as “political memes”), rather than the specific, substantial political memes themselves. It is a movement that is dedicated to not advocating for progressive or conservative ideologies or policies or candidates, but rather for a commitment to reason and goodwill and to the development of procedures and methodologies which systematically favor them.

This may seem to run up against the cognitive science reality that people are not primarily persuaded by reason in the formation of their political memes, and certainly the most fanatical and extreme will not be amenable to any suggestion to make any movement of any kind in any direction. But this movement does not depend on people in general changing their habit of political meme formation. Rather, it depends, first, on a dedicated group of people implementing the three components summarized below (and elaborated on at length in the other essays I linked to), and, secondly, on a significant number of people agreeing in principal only to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill. That second requisite is not a change in how people form their cognitive landscapes, but rather an appeal to existing frames and narratives, since most Americans, I would argue, identify themselves as, and wish to be, reasonable people of goodwill.

It’s very important not to be excessively distracted by the highly visible and vocal minority who clearly are too committed to irrationality and belligerence to even contemplate making such a commitment. In the end, any social movement that aspires to increase the salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of public policy, while it might continue to try and hope to gradually convert some of them, has to focus more on simply marginalizing the most irrational and belligerent among us, and rendering them outnumbered and de-fanged by a movement that just leaves them behind (in terms of their political and cultural influence, not in terms of our shared commitment to their well-being and the facilitation of their productive participation in society).

This movement, which I’ll refer to here as “PRG” (short for “Politics of Reason and Goodwill”), requires two very difficult, interrelated steps for adherents (that is, activists working to advance this social movement) to commit to, in order to realize the social step forward that the movement aspires toward: 1) In the context of the movement (though not in political activities pursued outside of the movement), advocacy for specific substantive positions, specific ideological convictions, specific candidates, and, in general, specific substantive political memes, must be suspended. PRG advocates for a commitment to an ideal that transcends ideology and a procedure for realizing that ideal, sincerely and with assiduous integrity agreeing not to displace that ideal or that procedure with current substantive certainties held by any adherents. And, 2) The sincere humility to realize that a procedure which accomplishes this to any meaningful degree is preferable to such substantive certainties currently held, because our current substantive certainties may or may not be what reason and goodwill, assiduously adhered to, would actually have led to, and we should prefer what a disciplined process suggests is most in accord with reason and goodwill over what we more haphazardly assume is most in accord with reason and goodwill.

The core political meme of this movement, in fact, is the meme that we are better served by disciplines and processes which systematically favor reason and goodwill than by our current ideologies that assume they are most informed by reason and goodwill. And, just as those who have practiced and implicitly and explicitly advocated for scientific methodology, rule of law, and democratic and constitutional governmental processes have fought uphill battles to establish them as central features of our shared cognitive and institutional landscape, assisted by the evolutionarily favored utility of these disciplines, so too is this extension of that logic evolutionarily favored by its utility and implementable, over time, through our relentless and passionate advocacy and practice.

PRG consists of three components: 1) The creation of a comprehensive data base or web portal which makes easily accessible all arguments which purport to apply reason to evidence in service to human welfare, along with citations by which to verify the reliability or accuracy of the evidence utilized (see “Component 1” of A Proposal for a more complete and extensive description); 2) The creation of an enterprise which disseminates the message, in emotionally appealing ways which communicate directly to existing frames and narratives, that we are better off, both individually and collectively, when we strive to be reasonable people of goodwill (see Component II of A Proposal and Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives for more complete and extensive descriptions), and 3) The establishment of a network of community organizations, which leverage existing community organizations (e.g., PTAs, HOAs, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, local churches and other religious institutions, park districts, etc.), to create a forum in which participants agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, to consider all points of view and arguments with an open mind, to be civil, and to improve the strength and solidarity of our local communities and of our nation (see Component III of A Proposal and Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN) for a more complete and extensive description).

The supposition is not that most people would avail themselves of the internet portal or spend significantly more time comparing arguments and counterarguments surrounding various policy issues, or that most people would attend the community meetings or participate on the on-line network, or that most people would change their habits in any visible or significant way. That would not be realistic. Rather, the hope is that this would create a new center of gravity, a new source of legitimacy for the concept of making decisions on the basis of reason and goodwill, a new nucleus from which a marginal increase in the number of people who take marginal steps in the direction of thinking and acting in accord with this ideal can form a source of information and inspiration for the many who make no change in their lives whatsoever. Few of us are scientists, but most of us rely in one way or another on science.

Think tanks and policy institutes are in some respects the prototype for Component I, but always lost their popular legitimacy by failing to be popularly accessible and popularly comprised institutions. All are seen, rightly or wrongly, as having been co-opted by a particular ideology. But, in PRG, the think tank is all of us, the arguments considered are all of them. And it does not stand alone, like an ivory tower out of reach, but in the center of a community, where it can be utilized and discussed by those ordinary people inclined to do so. Even if very few ever avail themselves of those resources (the portal and the community organizations), others (moderate others who are not lost to an impenetrable fanaticism) will be more inclined to look to those who do as relatively reliable sources of information. And those who do avail themselves of these recourses will be those who, both by predisposition and by the effects of utilizing these resources, will tend to have more moderate, better informed, better reasoned, more humane positions on social and political issues.

History is comprised of innovations, both humble and bold. Many such innovations are social institutional, and some have had enormous and lasting effects on our cultural evolution. The invention of money, of legal systems, of our own Constitution and national system of government, are all examples. Some technological innovations dovetail with these, or form the basis of social institutional innovations of their own: The computer, the internet, social media, have developed in ways which have created new opportunities and new dimensions of possibilities yet to be fully explored. PRG, or something similar to it, would be precisely the way to leverage these developments, and explore these possibilities.

I sincerely and fervantly believe that a dedicated cadre of people working dilligently to design and implement this plan, or a plan similar to it, can and almost inevitably would have a dramatic effect, over time, in moving our state, nation, and world gradually but significantly in the direction of reason and goodwill, in the direction of being wiser, more foresighted, more cooperative, more life-affirming, and more humane. I hope all who read this will join me in this effort, and will share it widely in the hope that others join us as well.

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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.)

(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.

As part of A Proposal: The Politics of Kindness, I discussed the importance of organizing and acting in our communities, in non-partisan ways for non-political immediate purposes, in service to the ultimate social and political goal of  deepening and broadening the shared commitment to reason and goodwill, in our private lives, in our communities, and in our public policies. I believe that doing so should become a social movement, akin to the Civil Rights Movement, but rather than dedicated to a single issue or set of issues, dedicated instead to a comprehensive attitude that implicates all social issues.

Clearly, the time is ripe for such a movement. Just as the Civil Rights Movement was blessed with a ready-made organizational infrastructure (the southern black church network), so too are all reasonable people of goodwill today blessed with an even more powerful and extensive organizational infrastructure: The Internet and Social Media. I’ve already written about the implications of this technological and social paradigm shift, the possibilities and potentials of which we have just barely begun to explore (se, e.g., A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?, Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed, Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”, Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization).

A Tea Partier told me on a Facebook thread recently, “just remember who’s better armed.” When it comes to the more powerful weapons of Social Media, it may be the progressives who are better armed. In any case, the implication of these particular arms is that they accelerate the sifting out of rational from irrational arguments, the lathe of public discourse and debate, which favors reason and goodwill in the long run. Certainly, when it comes to Reason and Goodwill, progressives are better armed, and will inevitably prevail. It is our job to expedite that eventuality, reducing the short-term detours into irrationality and belligerence constantly elongating that path.

The best way to do so is to change the game, the frame and the narrative. Right now, America is stuck in a tug-o-war between progressives and conservatives, both broadly perceived by the vast silent middle to be two opposing extreme camps (with perhaps slightly greater affinity for the conservative than progressive pole). But those same occupants of the vast silent majority would not perceive a movement of community volunteerism and community solidarity building to be either extreme or unattractive. And they would not find it offensive if such a movement included in its “mission” improving the civility and reasonableness of public discourse. But what is the progressive movement if not the commitment to mobilize reason and goodwill, and apply them to our public policies?

The most effective thing progressives could now do is to mobilize a network of Community Action Groups (CAGs) into a nationwide Community Action Network (CAN), dedicated to this component of the proposal linked to above. The only challenge is to create an emerging awareness of the power of such an effort, of the degree to which it can become a game changer if enough progressives were to commit themselves to it. Every local progressive group now in existence, every state house and senate district democratic party organization, every OFA chapter, every MoveOn chapter, every other local group with even moderately liberal leanings, can and should organize into a Community Action Group that seeks to do good works in their own communities, and to foster civil discourse based on no ideology other than a commitment to reason and mutual goodwill.

I ask everyone who reads this to please help me to promote this idea, because the way to become a nation of reasonable people of goodwill is for all who are committed to that end to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill in their own lives, and in their own communities, and to allow that to be a model to others, and to coalesce into a national level commitment. The reason why progressive advocacy is so much less effective than one might think it would be is because progressive advocates are so much less effective, permitting the frames and narratives of the far-right to take root and define the debate. Removing that power from them, and owning it ourselves, is not a function of better sloganeering, but rather of more compelling demonstration; we can and should, we must, demonstrate what it is we are advocating for, if we want our advocacy to become a truly powerful and transformative force in our national history.

(See A Proposal for a slightly revised version of this post, followed by an extensive elaboration of its various components)

To advance the cause of Reason and Goodwill, I propose a project, or movement, that is comprised of three parts: 1) a policy analysis component; 2) an information dissemination component; and 3) a community organizational network component. While I conceptualize each of these in somewhat novel ways, in the context of grass roots political activism, it is the third which is perhaps the most innovative and crucial component, and so it is with the third that I will begin.

Currently, grass roots activism by those who claim the mantel of advocacy of Reason and Goodwill is almost entirely focused on electoral politics and public policy as generated through governmental mechanisms. As such, it is very easy for the opponents of this movement to dismiss these activists as people who want to take the opponents’ money and give it to others. One aspect of this conceptualization is that government is not considered an agent of the people, but rather an external entity which imposes itself on people and deprives them of their liberty. The arguments for and against this conceptualization are irrelevant for my present purposes. There are clearly many people who do indeed adhere to this conceptualization, and that fact is what’s relevant.

George Lakoff in The Political Mind talked about the need to activate the frames and narratives in all of us that are empathy-based, if we want to be successful in implementing empathy-based public policies. There are few people of any ideological stripe who oppose community involvement, and most actively support it. Many conservatives are involved in their communities through churches, civic groups, and PTAs, for instance. Such involvement is where their empathy-based frames and narratives reside, along with, in many cases, a notion of “family values,” some aspects of which are also empathy based. By increasing the association of these activities with what is currently referred to as “the progressive agenda” (though avoidance of the word “progressive” might be crucial to the success of this project), we can increase the value of the (possibly renamed) brand, attracting more people to it, including some who never imagined that they might be attracted to it.

History is replete with examples of the persuasive power of those who “walk the walk.” Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are two examples of “progressives” in their day, fighting to advance particular causes (Indian Independence and African American Civil Rights, respectively), whose examples were so compelling that few today would denounce what either of them stood for. They were “political entrepreneurs,” mobilizing “charismatic authority” in service to humanity. We can’t all be such giants, and we aren’t all willing to make the sacrifices it requires, but we can all make more modest sacrifices and rise to more modest heights, demonstrating the sincerity of our convictions and, by doing so, making the power of our message that much more irresistible.

There are already many who invest a great deal of time, energy, money, and personal commitment into advancing the progressive agenda. If some significant fraction can be persuaded to invest some increased portion of that time, energy, money, and personal commitment into increased, non-partisan community involvement, they will contribute greatly to increasing the association of the policies they advocate with the spirit of goodwill in service to mutual benefit. And by being direct agents of reason and goodwill in their communities, the public policies such activists favor are given a human face; rather than being easily conceptualized as the impositions of a remote overlord, such policies can be plainly seen to be the sincere preference of some good neighbors and community members who believe that the spirit of community can be expressed not just directly, but also through our government acting as an agent of our collective will.

I describe this component at greater length in several posts on my blog, Colorado Confluence. The post with the most concise and focused treatment is “The Power of ‘Walking the Walk'”: http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=1540.

This community-strengthening component isn’t only a laudable end in itself, but it also serves the second component I mentioned: Messaging. The cause of Reason and Goodwill is a powerful one, one which few would explicitly claim opposition to. The most pronounced failure of those who are its political advocates is the failure to connect the political expression of Reason and Goodwill to the widespread individual aspirations to be reasonable people of goodwill. One aspect of addressing that failure involves modeling what it means to be reasonable people of goodwill, and cultivating the commitment to it that might eventually translate into increased popular support for public policies that are expressions of reason and goodwill.

More generally, the messaging has to rely less on academic or legalistic argumentation, and more on resonating with the frames and narratives that form people’s minds. We need to reach people where they live, finding their own empathetic frames and narratives, and connecting the set of well-reasoned public policies which are empathy-based to those frames and narratives. Therefore, the second component of the project I am proposing is the continuing and focused development of a cognitively sophisticated system of disseminating not just “progressive” ideas, but doing so in ways which resonate with non-progressive mindsets.

This project, therefore, involves not only increasing popular positive associations with progressive policies by modeling a progressive spirit of mutual goodwill, and forming increased positive social connections with people who do not self-identify as “progressives,” but also involves communicating that same message in ways that are precisely tailored to most effectively resonate with those who are currently perhaps only marginally inclined to be attracted by it. The community involvement becomes the most important conduit for the message, communicated with increased credibility, and couched in increasingly effective ways.

Finally, the first component of this project involves reducing the arbitrariness and exclusiveness of what is assumed to be those policies which advance the cause of Reason and Goodwill. Rather than a traditional policy think tank with an ideological bias, this component of the project would have to strive to map out the entire range of public policy ideas and options, guided only by a commitment to reason in service to the public interest, acknowledging legitimate debates and ranges of uncertainty (such as, for example, between Keynesian and Chicago School Economics, and the associated policies of economic stimulus through public spending v. “fiscal conservativism”).

I envision this component as a very ambitious social institutional analogue to “the human genome project,” in which the social institutional landscape is mapped out using available analytical tools (e.g., microeconomic analysis, network analysis, legal analysis, meme theory, etc.), comprising a coherent complex dynamical systems paradigm, and then, within this context, all competing ideologies, policy ideas, proposals, and analyses are cataloged and evaluated, controlling as much as possible for ideological bias, simply subjecting the universe of human social and political thought to the crucible of methodologically rigorous reason.

Two important dimensions of this project need to be highlighted: 1) These three components are not mutually segregated, but are rather integral aspects of a single coherent effort, reinforcing one another, and creating a powerful synergy of progressive thought, communication, and action; and 2) An enormous amount of work has been done in all three areas, under a variety of organizational umbrellas; utilization and integration of the product of those efforts, and of the existing social institutional material that has been generated from all quarters, is a large part of what this project would be about. The community involvement component would actively seek out partnerships with churches and other religious organizations, civic organizations, PTAs, park districts, non-profits, local businesses, and all others who have already developed a community infrastructure to work with and through.

We would, through this synthesis of focused analysis, focused communication, and focused action, weave the spirit of reason and goodwill into the social fabric as it currently exists, and contribute to the ongoing evolution of that social fabric in ways more conducive to the cause of Reason and Goodwill.

I believe that this project would have to avoid direct political advocacy of any kind (a function already addressed by other organizations) in order to preserve its legitimacy, and to reduce the obstacles that explicit partisanship creates. Its purpose would be to explore the social institutional landscape with as little bias as possible (but with an explicit commitment to advancing the public interest through the advocacy of reason in service to mutual goodwill), and through a combination of direct involvement in our communities and well-designed (cognitively targeted) messaging, disseminating that understanding as widely and deeply as possible. This would “soften the ground” for traditional political advocacy, and would also increase the quality of what we are advocating for (by decreasing ideological presumption and increasing openness to all ideas).

I am currently looking for any and all feedback, assistance, direction, and referrals to others who might offer the same. I can envision this as either being a directly funded project that I oversee (or merely participate in), or as a project that finds a home in an existing organizational context. I am completely amenable to these, and any other, possible paths of implementation. Please email me at steve.harvey.hd28@gmail.com

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