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There is a great deal of emphasis on “messaging,” which, as it is commonly used and understood among blogosphere politicos, means out-sloganeering the opposition. While this is a necessary aspect of the political strategic struggle we are trapped in, it is also a surrender to that which traps us in it, and a ceding of the subtler and more essential narrative to those positions which benefit most from the reduction rather than expansion of information. That which is less rational, and that which is less motivated by goodwill, gain strength from the characterization of the competing positions on diverse issues as mere opposite and equal ideological convictions, on an issue-by-issue basis. That achievement obscures the fact that underneath this issue-by-issue struggle is the deeper, more coherent struggle between reason and goodwill, on the one hand, and irrationality and indifference to the welfare of others (if not outright malice) on the other.

The remedy to this problem lies in adding a new layer to our efforts. We cannot abandon the superficial political struggle, the battle of messages in service to reason and goodwill on an issue-by-issue basis. But that does not mean that we cannot also confront the deeper and more consequential challenge of writing the underlying narrative in favor of reason and goodwill, not as they relate to each issue, but rather as they inform all issues. This is what I call “meta-messaging.”

Perhaps the subtlest and least “nailed down” aspect of my proposal (A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world) is how to use frames and narratives in service to reason and goodwill. In the posts I linked to, I used the example of “A Christmas Carol,” which is both such a form of communication, and is a story about a magical analogy of such communication. Another that is very similar in both of these respects is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Obviously, there is a Christmas “goodwill” narrative that is reinforced in several Christmas stories.

But many other narratives also qualify, including several fictionalized popularizations of real people and real events. Some examples are “Gandhi,” “Invictus” (which I just watched last night), “Amistad,” to name a few that come immediately to mind. There are real events, documented and incorporated into our national meme-scape, like Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and countless movies and stories that reinforce the idea that goodwill makes us whole and happy, whereas malice and extreme individualism diminish us.

There are competing narratives as well, narratives that glorify individualism, that make a virtue out of mutual indifference, that rationalize and justify social irresponsibility. In one sense, the political substructure, the zeitgeist, is the product of a complex articulation of narratives, and the political struggle at that level is over influencing how these narratives aggregate, what overarching paradigms emerge as a result. And that is the struggle that is most critical to win (see The Politics of Consciousness).

I believe that narratives informed by reason and goodwill enjoy a “comparative advantage” (as economists put it), particularly in the long run, for two reasons: 1) They engender a more pleasant feeling in those who embrace them than the opposing narratives engender in those who embrace those (just as Scrooge was happier when he embraced the former, after his transformation, than he was throughout the many years in which he succumbed to the latter, prior to his transformation); and 2) the slight but constant pressure on history favoring rationality, or “utility,” causes those arrangements which yield greater aggregate benefits to prevail in the long run over those that don’t.

So the challenge is to play on these advantages, but not to passively rely on them. We need to compose, coopt, weave together, reinforce, assemble, and disseminate “armies” of narratives which coalesce into the maximum transmission of the desired effect, using all of the skills of the human mind and of human organization available to us. This is the second component of my proposal, which forms a kind of bridge between organizing in service only to mutual goodwill (not substantive political agendas), and lubricating the means of making well-informed and well-reasoned assessments of what public policies serve goodwill on a societal-wide scale.

This bridge, therefore, needs to take existing narratives in a particular direction, emphasizing our interdependence, emphasizing our ability to use government as an agency of a collective will, emphasizing the logical extension of interpersonal goodwill into public policy goodwill, and emphasizing that this is possible, that this is plausible, that this is right and good and natural.

There are huge bodies of existing literature to build on, from ancient epic myths to historical chapters to triumphs of collective will over shared adversity and in service to shared aspirations. Think how often we do this using the “Apollo Moon Landing” narrative: Every time someone wants to argue in favor of a concerted national effort to tackle a national problem, the fact that we collectively landed a man on the moon is invoked as a narrative argument in favor of national collective action in pursuit of difficult to achieve massive goals.

But it has been, up until now, a haphazard, decentralized, seat-of-the-pants strategy, used sporadically in service to uncoordinated and disparate arguments. This, in a sense, is my central point: Rather than invoking powerful tools in scattered and uncoordinated ways, it’s time to make an effort to focus them on pressure points that underwrite the entire spectrum of reasonable policies in service to universal goodwill. It’s time to work on developing, consciously and painstakingly, one integrated, powerful narrative to reinforce one coherent and unifying pair of values, and by doing so, advocating for everything that adheres to those values.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

(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.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards