There is much emphasis on the Left on the failure of our leaders to control the message, but this emphasis conveniently deflects the responsibility that each of us has, oversimplifies and “arm-chair quarterbacks” the far more complex challenges faced by those of our party representing us in government, and reduces “messaging” to sloganeering, assuming that we should become Tea-Party-esque, hawking a progressive message in the same way that Tea Partiers hawk a regressive one. But as I posted in The Ultimate Political Challenge, there is more to progressive messaging than pithy slogans and official spokespeople; there is, instead, the ultimate importance of each of us making the most eloquent and heartfelt appeals we can, to anyone and everyone who is not yet on board that we can, to move the center of gravity to whatever extent that we can.

At the local meeting I attended last night, that was in many ways discouraging to me due to the focus by some (who were vocal enough to seem to express the mood of the group to me) on office-holders rather than on us as a people, on griping rather than on identifying positive things we ourselves can do, and on trying to impose political “purity” on elected officials rather than making any allowance for the combination of expertise and pragmatic commitment necessary to advance progressive policies in the halls of government  (see “The Fault, Dear Brutus….”), the issue that many identified is “messaging.”

We’ve all heard it repeatedly: We let the Tea Party right define the message, and did not counter it effectively with our own. But it wasn’t just their slogans, or their way of couching their propaganda, that was effective; it was also their ability to resonate with the frames and narratives in people’s minds. And it was the fact that each and every adherent took responsibility for that message, conveyed it themselves, shouted it from the rooftops. Messages from the heart and from the many can be messages of hope or fear, of love or hate, of realistic aspiration or of clinging to fictions, but their power comes from the combination of passion and contagion. The Tea Party did not wait for their preferred candidates to shout the message; each and every one of them shouted it themselves. And that’s exactly what we have to do, with a message that expands rather than contracts the human spirit and its positive effects on the world.

That’s part of what my previous, and largely overlooked post on The Ultimate Political Challenge was really all about; “messaging” as emotional and cognitive appeal, but emotional and cognitive appeal to our better angels, such as MLK and Gandhi and Obama in 2008 were able to do, rather than to our basest and darkest aspects, such as Hitler and Joseph McCarthy and Glenn Beck and too many others have been able to do.

It’s not only the challenge of “messaging,” as so many rightly identify, but messaging of the former rather than latter variety. And it’s not only about demanding that inspirational messaging from our elected officials (as so many focus on), but also demanding it from ourselves, reaching for it, engaging in it, contributing to its formation in what would be the ultimate contribution to grass-roots progressivism.

Not everyone has to be an MLK or a Gandhi or an Obama to contribute to this, and complaining that this or that elected official isn’t an inspiring enough speaker or didn’t do enough to control the message doesn’t contribute to it at all (just the opposite, really). Posting comments and diaries on SquareState, responding to injunctions to get out and vote in the days before the election, by insisting that the lack of inspiring leaders on the left is why the rank and file on the left are so uninspired, is the opposite as well.

Rather than complain about a lack that each of us is partially responsible for, we should each step up and do what we can to meet out responsibility. It is first and foremost the responsibility of each of us to inspire ourselves if no one else is inspiring us, and to inspire whoever and however many around us that we are able to.

We need to focus less on our at best partially-informed gripes about Democratic office holders who are dealing with the complex challenges of maneuvering within the political arena, and more on creating a context which improves their hand and their position in those complex negotiations and strategic interactions.

We need to focus less on holding others responsible, and more on holding ourselves responsible. We need to focus less on our anger (which is what motivates and informs the messages we oppose) and more on our hope and goodwill. We need to focus less on hubris and more on humility, less on trying to direct remote others and more on trying to move those around us by creating something attractive to move toward.

We need, each of us, to step up to the plate in positive and constructive ways. We need to stop using our scapegoats in Congress as excuses for our own failures to persuade those around us, who are not already persuaded, that there is a better path into the future than Tea Party extreme individualism and social irresponsibility.

Hope, like anger, crests on a sea of millions of people contributing to it in small ways. Our message depends not just on pithy slogans and official voices, but also on all of our voices, and how we use them. What I saw at the meeting, at least among the two most vocal participants in my break-out group, is the opposite of what we need to do to turn this country around again, not because of any defects in their preferred public policies, but because of the defects in their understanding of what they can best do to realize them.

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Martin Luther King, Jr, (apparently borrowing from an earlier Christian philosopher) said that “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” John Maynard Keynes (later plagiarized by Winston Churchill, directing the reference toward Americans in particular) said that “[people] will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.” What these quotes illustrate, aside from the prevalence of plagiarism among famous orators (John F. Kennedy got his “Ask not…” line from his prep school, whose motto it was, substituting “your country” for “your school”), is the combination of optimism and cynicism that characterized these two quite different but equally visionary thinkers. In both phrases, the short-term is frustratingly full of injustice and irrationality, but the lathe of trial and error, and the impetus of the human soul, tend to sort it out in the long-run.

Neither of them were counseling complacency, however. Both were counseling perseverance, and commitment to bending the arc more sharply toward justice, accelerating and abbreviating the exploration of all those irrational alternatives. We who believe in reason, who believe in justice, who believe in the shared responsibility to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and in the woefully underrealized potential we have to intentionally and conscientiously improve the human condition, are called upon to be the agents of reason and justice in an irrational and unjust world, not as glassy-eyed fanatics pursuing emotionally gratifying caricatures of the two, but as patient, committed, and good-humored agents of what is good and decent about humanity.

The question that forever presents itself, and that is never more than partially and inadequately answered, is: How do we best confront that challenge?

There is no one answer. Yes, we need to keep generating the best ideas, most disciplined by reason exercised through reliable methodologies, most inspired by focused imaginations, most dedicated to the highest ideals and tempered by humility and dispassionate lucidity. Yes, we need to be pragmatic, political realists, working within that which currently exists to create that which might someday be. These two demands upon us cannot be denied: We must both generate the best ideas, and fight within the political arena to see them implemented to whatever extent possible, by whatever legal means possible. But these two demands, which dominate our attention and seem to exhaust the scope of our obligation, are missing the most vital component: We must reunite the two, so that the best ideas about how to govern ourselves become the means for their own political success. We must create a center of gravity comprised of reason and goodwill, a moral and intellectual force that few can resist.

The two great historical figures I quoted above both did just that, as have others: Martin Luther King, Jr., like Gandhi before him, made passive resistance in service to simple justice a very compelling force, one that few could stand against in the long run, though many stood against it in the short run. John Maynard Keynes helped inform a fiscal and economic policy that remained almost undisputed for over half a century, informed the most massive and rapid economic growth the world has ever seen, and continues to be the certainty of last resort in a fiscal crisis, when “we are all Keynesians.”

My favorite movie line of all time exhorts us all to rise to the level of such leaders, by being followers who honor them by identifying with them: “I am Spartacus!” (This line is in the news again, as supporters of a fellow in England who was arrested for Tweeting a joking bomb threat at a Northern English airport are now tweeting joking threats of their own, with the tag line “I am Spartacus!”). We are all Spartacus; we are all Martin; we are all Keynes; we are all capable of asking the most of ourselves in service to one another, and of doing all that we can to bend that arc of justice more sharply, to abbreviate that exploration of irrational alternatives to whatever extent possible.

Martin, in fact, “was” Gandhi, became Gandhi by emulating Gandhi, as any one of us can become Martin by emulating Martin. Who will be the next to stand up and lend their name to that nobility of spirit that resides in each of us, something we all aspire to realize, something we all struggle to untangle from the baser elements within us that hold it back and keep it buried? It may well be you.

But what does it mean to find that soul of justice and reason, of courage in service to these virtues, of commitment to stand on their behalf and resist the temptation to simply find a quiet refuge to escape their demands (and even, as the Tea Party has now done, create an ideology which justifies and exalts yielding to that temptation)? It means not just submitting to the discipline of reason and goodwill, but also dedicating oneself to making them inexorably attractive forces, striving to give them a voice and an incarnation in each of us that others cannot deny, just as the many could not deny reason and justice expressed through Gandhi and King.

The project I have proposed (A Proposal) is an attempt to give a new philosophical and programmatic life to this ideal. We need to work harder at connecting that place in our soul that can’t hide from the message insisting upon social justice when expressed with the undeniability of a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Mahatma Gandhi with the efforts we make to reassert that same forgotten commitment to reason and social justice that so languishes today. Few of those Tea Partiers who are, unbeknownst to themselves, spitting on the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., would ever suggest that they aren’t an admirer of his. We need to spoon-feed them that inconsistency, gently but assertively, and force them to work through the cognitive dissonance it provokes. We need to make them face the fact that they are not reasonable people of goodwill, that they are one of those “other alternatives,” that outward bow in the arc that must be bent back toward justice.

That is the ultimate political challenge. It includes creating the best ideas, and it includes fighting to have them implemented, but it also includes appealing to something inside all of us, something that responds to what’s true and right if it is presented in a way that can’t be denied. The phrase “winning minds and hearts” has become a cliche, but it remains the ultimate political challenge.

Let’s not forget to keep rising to it.

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