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History is unpredictable. As George Will has aptly put it, historical patterns repeat themselves until they don’t. I’m not going to proffer a grand theory about fanatical overreach and inevitable reaction, as though it were an immutable universal truth. But I will point out that, from time to time, when things swing too far in one direction, the reaction gains the more lasting victory.

There is another pattern that frequently reappears, perhaps a more constant one, one around which a simple military motto formed millenia ago: “Divide and conquer.” Or, as Ben Franklin put it, accompanying his famous sketch of a dissected snake, “United we stand, divided we fall.”

The Tea Party has been gracious enough to put the modern Republican Party on the wrong side of both of these trends. They have zealously and implacably tried to move the country farther right than even our right-leaning mainstream can easily stomach, and they have done so in a way designed to fracture by far the largest, and currently only viable, conservative party in the United States.

There is a lesson in this for the Left as well, a lesson many of my friends on the left are as ill-equipped to learn as their emotionally if not ideologically, similar counterparts on the Right: Don’t demand everything you are certain that reason and justice irrefutably recommend, but rather act with an eye to long-term sustainable success. I’ve often been critical of many on the Left for failing to heed this advice (see, e.g., “The Fault, Dear Brutus….” and Cluster Liberals v. Network Liberals).

We should not see-saw with zealots on the Right, taking turns yielding our advantage to the winds of our passions. Rather, we should actually be the party of reason and humanity, of patience and foresight and goodwill. If we could just commit to that, we would inevitably win the future. Instead, we are as committed to shooting ourselves in the foot as our more foolish opposition is, leaving everyone hopping and howling but no one leading the nation and world into a brighter future.

The last most famous moment when the Left threw its advantage was during the 1960s and 70s, when the country was reacting against Vietnam and Watergate, when hippies were culturally dominant, when Broadway sang of “the dawning of the age of Aquarius.” Thanks to that excessive euphoria, that overconfidence, in service to an unbalanced and unrealistic (even if somewhat refreshing) idealism, it became the prelude of the Age of Reagan Conservatism instead, which laid the groundwork, in a way palatable for that age, for the more extreme right-wing fanaticism of today. (Reagan, of course, the modern conservative messiah, would be drummed out of today’s Republican Party in a heartbeat, far too liberal was he for the new breed of glassy-eyed conservative cultists).

The Tea Party was heady with its brief ascendency, deluded into believing that they represented mainstream America, certain that God and Truth were on their side. They became a magnet for religious fundamentalists and libertarians, not always compatible ideologies but somehow generally hypocritical and inconsistent enough for many in their respective ranks to believe that they were one and the same. And as they held the country hostage (by refusing to vote for a raise in the national debt ceiling, a vote which had heretofore been routine due to the national self-destructiveness of failing to do it) in service to what virtually all economists, conservative and liberal, considered bad fiscal policy (extending the Bush tax cuts), forcing a downgrading of our national credit rating in the process, more and more people began to recoil in horror and disgust, as they should have recoiled long before. (See, e.g., Bargaining v. Blackmail, Why A Bad Deal Might Be The Best Deal Right Now, and Response to a Right-Wing Myth for discussions of that shameful episode.)

The Republicans had a real chance to defeat Obama this year, not necessarily justly, but simply due to the criteria by which people vote. The economy is still soft, and unemployment is still high. The current president is always held responsible for such things, no matter what the reality he inherited, and no matter how successful he was in turning the tide in a positive direction.

Obama, a black intellectual moderate liberal with a Muslim name who spent much of his childhood in an exotic foreign country, triggered a complex web of deeply entrenched American bigotries, failing to be innocuous enough to hopeful but easily disillusioned moderate supporters, failing to be zealously unrealistic enough to starry eyed believers that he could snap his fingers and change the world into their vision of what it should be, and continuing to be “foreign” enough to maintain the enmity of the ultra-conservative xenophobes who saw in him something inherently “un-American” and never liked him in the first place. A united and focused Republican Party would have had a relatively easy time toppling him in 2012.

But, thankfully, it apparently was not to be so. It looks like it is the Republicans’ turn to shoot themselves in the foot, overzealously demanding what too few Americans identify with, rejecting their best candidate and insisting on horribly defective alternatives (Santorum, the religious nut-case; Perry, the intellectual light-weight; Gingrich, the unlovable grinch; Paul, the extreme libertarian who would have surrendered to Hitler and left Jim Crow intact in service to the purity of his understanding of “liberty”). Despite the fact that Romney is the last man standing, Santorum and Paul supporters remian implaccable, unwilling to accept the “moderate” (oh! horror of horrors!) Romney.

Let this be a lesson, fellow progressives: Press our advantage when we have it; don’t squander it by overreaching. The world is moved by inches, sometimes over a threshold, but only when that threshold has been arrived at. Don’t mistake what’s right for what’s immediately possible, and don’t insist on what can’t be currently attained at the expense of what can be. But, all the while, lay the foundations for the giant leaps of the future, for those foundations are laid through work that does not register immediately, and only culminates after many unsung but vitally important labors. If we were wise enough and disciplined enough to follow this advice, the world we bequeeth to our children and our children’s children would be that much closer to the ideal we aspire to.

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The one constant is change, but the speed and utility of change is not constant at all. Organizations emerge for the purpose of fomenting change, yet, as a general rule, they soon ossify in the same kinds of unimaginative patterns as the institutions they are seeking to affect. Significant change through the medium of established organizations and institutions is generally catalyzed by either those who are raised to positions of influence despite their failure to satisfy conventional check lists of appropriate qualifications, or those who act in ways not predicted by the fact that they satisfy conventional check lists of appropriate qualifications.

Human actions fall within a space one axis of which is defined by courageous and imaginative choices striving for excellence at one extreme, and conventional choices striving for mediocrity or maintaining the status quo at the other. That axis alone does not describe the quality or efficacy of individual actions: Courageous and imaginative choices striving for excellence that are made in service to an odious ideology, or that are in some other way misinformed, may well do more harm than good, whereas conventional choices striving for mediocrity may make valuable marginal contributions to human welfare. But, while caution, analytical sophistication, foresightedness and respect for uncertainty, and subtlety of insight and strategy are necessary variables to render courageous and creative innovation a positive rather than negative force, the absence of courageous and creative innovation guarantees suboptimal outcomes.

Several recent experiences have raised this to the fore of my mind: A program director position for an educational reform foundation that I applied for, and would have done a truly exceptional job in, that I failed to get because an unimaginative vice president was looking for candidates that satisfied the more superficial and easily acquired criteria for the job rather than the more profound and harder to duplicate criteria of greater importance; other nonprofit positions filled by decision makers similarly focused on superficial and less salient criteria; an alternative school led by a robust and idealistic principal who may prove to be an exception to this “rule;” a widespread insistence, across the ideological spectrum, to cling to conventional modes of thought and conventional strategies and conceptualizations of political activism, rather than to reach down a bit deeper and attempt to foment truly fundamental change instead.

The most profound lesson of human history is the robustness of social change, the degree to which that which is taken for granted as a permanent feature of our consciousness and our social institutional landscape is truly ephemeral, and can and does change far more rapidly and dramatically than those living in their own time and place are wont to realize. It is true, of course (as discussed in The Variable Malleability of Reality) that some things are easier to change than others; that smart strategies identify what aspects of our current reality are more malleable in order to massage our encompassing social (and natural) systems in ways which move us in desired directions. But it is also true (as discussed inThe Algorithms of Complexity) that that layered complexity, in which deeper levels are generally less malleable than more superficial ones,  provides frequent opportunities for rapid, dramatic change, when some of the underlying “algorithms” are actually fairly malleable. The art and science of participating in history in socially responsible and “ambitious” ways involves recognizing and reconciling these two aspects of the challenge at hand.

It’s time for a new social movement that confronts this challenge head-on, and does so with a commitment to doing so as rationally and imaginatively and compassionately as possible. I’ve outlined one general proposal for organizing such a movement in A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill and in the other essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. (In the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts can be found essays exploring the nature of our social institutional and technological landscape, to better inform such efforts; and in some other boxes can be found specific applications and aspects of this analysis.)

The proposal has three components: 1) Non-partisan community organizations whose members agree to commit only to reason and universal goodwill, to listening to competing views, and to seeking the policies which best serve humanity; 2) A data base or internet portal making access to all arguments that are framed as analyses applying reason to evidence in service to human welfare, and that provide documentation for all factual evidence relied on, upon which such community organizations can draw for their discussions and debates; and 3) Something I call “meta-messaging” (see Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives): The emotionally and cognitively effective dissemination of the narrative that this is a good and worthy project, that it is good for individuals and good for society to view our shared existence as a shared existence with shared challenges and shared opportunities, that, as I like to put it, it’s better to be Ebenezer Scrooge after his adventure with Marley and the Three Spirits than before.

Such a movement depends on suspending substantive debates until they can be contextualized in the framework being advocated, because to do so would be to lose what cross-cutting appeal such a movement might have. While there are many who would never join such a movement, and never join the community organizations that are a part of it, there are many who would, including many who identify themselves as “conservatives” or “independents.”

This is not, and cannot be, a movement to overturn Citizens United, or a movement to increase public spending on social services and education, or a movement to achieve preconceived substantive goals of any kind, because to allow it to become so would be to defeat its purpose: To find and develop the one common ground all people who wish to be reasonable people of goodwill can agree on, and that is that we all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, humble enough to know that we don’t know all of the answers, wise enough to engage in a public discourse devoted to doing the best we can, and disciplined enough to develop new procedures and new institutions that help us to work together as reasonable people of goodwill confronting the challenges of a complex and subtle world.

What we need more fundamentally and more critically than to achieve any of the individual, ideologically saturated substantive goals that divide us is to rediscover and develop our common ground, the underlying values and aspirations that most of us share, and the procedurally and attitudinally focused framework that we can create to pursue them more constructively and cooperatively. There are many people in America who are sick of the divisive, angry, excessively intransigent political rhetoric which dominates our public forums and airwaves, who would flock to a movement that steps back from that and tries, instead, to establish another kind of public discourse, another kind of political participation. This is a movement to bring them in, and move us forward.

That means letting go of the rituals of warring false certainties, and coming together instead around a common acknowledgement of shared uncertainty and fallibility. It’s time for all who are willing to make that leap of daring idealism, of courageous commitment to doing better, of believing in our humanity, to do so. We can continue to reproduce the unimaginative and unproductive ritual of over-confident warring false certainties, or to work together to create something new and vibrant and potentially revolutionary. As always, we each get to choose how daring and imaginative and conscious, and therefore how effective, our commitment to progress really is.

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In the right wing blogosphere, everyone that isn’t a radical libertarian, evangelical, nationalistic, jingoistic yahoo is a “Socialist” or “Communist” or “godless baby killer” or “anti-American traitor of all that is good and holy.” There is, on the one hand, the One Truth, and there is the Error that is all else.

The One Truth, blindly adhered to and ultimately irrational, is defined by a particular interpretation of the Bible; a particular interpretation of the Constitution; a particular blend of historical, economic, legal, and cultural illiteracies; and particular “worst of both worlds” inconsistencies conveniently combining individualism (“we can’t use government to take care of one another”) and collectivism (“but we can use it to impose the religious dogma of the majority, to discriminate against various minorities, to deny those we disapprove of basic civil rights protections, and to take a belligerent stance toward the rest of the world”), moral absolutism (“our moral certainties are unassailable absolute truths”) and intellectual relativism (“since all opinions, regardless of how well or poorly informed and reasoned, are equal, no one can criticize any opinion we express, which is, when we are not insulating it from criticism through this claim of relativism, the absolute truth by virtue of our rejection of relativism”); all amalgamated into a polymorphous idolatry (see, e.g., “Sharianity” for a discussion of some of these hypocrisies). If you don’t belong to the extreme engaged in that particular Bacchanalia of ignorance and belligerence, you belong to any and all opposite extremes, by whatever labels exist to rhetorically relegate you to their confines.

Of course, between the right-wing extremes of Small Government Idolatry (or what is in reality government mandated only to oppose by all means necessary all those who belong to any out-groups in relation to these paragons of bigotry), religious fanaticism, and jingoistic belligerence, and the left-wing extremes (that barely exist in the United States) of absolute reliance on centralized political power and anti-market economic illiteracy, lies the sanity of recognizing the value of markets and the necessity of regulating them, the value of personal liberty but the inescapable fact of interdependence, and the subtlety and complexity of the world we live in and the challenges it poses.

In other words, in the United States, Small Government Idolatry isn’t predominantly opposed by “Socialism,” but rather by “No Presumption Pragmatism” (NPP), a term I coined in The Great American Debate to represent the belief that we must face a complex and subtle world with as much reason, as much humility, as much discipline, as much realism, and as much goodwill and compassion as possible.

Of course, one could as easily use the phrase “no presumption pragmatism” to justify a more insular and belligerent stance, claiming that “pragmatism” requires a “Fortress America” ideology vis-a-vis the rest of the world, and disregard for the plight of the less fortunate in our own country. Laced throughout my writings are arguments about why this is the opposite of the truth, a small-minded tribalistic and classist reflex that does not really capture the realities of the challenges and opportunities that face us.

It is not pragmatic to lock ourselves into a web of perpetual lose-lose scenarios, nor is it pragmatic to engage in a short-sighted denial of the long-term consequences of present actions. Therefore, “No Presumption Pragmatism” refers to the realistic, vigilant, disciplined, and balanced commitment to forging as much cooperation as possible, and exercising as much compassion as possible, within the constraints imposed by some others’ unwillingness to do the same.

But even aside from the fact that what I am calling “No Presumption Pragmatism” is recommended by enlightened self-interest, it is also an inevitable expression of our core values as a people and a nation. We are not a people who define ourselves as oppressors, who believe that it is right and good to prosper with indifference toward those who are not so fortunate, who are willing to explicitly say that the plight of the poor and unfortunate is no concern of anyone other than those few who care to make it their concern. I believe that few in America today are willing to explicitly advocate for social injustice for the sake of social injustice, that the vast majority of Americans today believe that indifference to the welfare of others is bad. That means that one of the things we need to be pragmatic about is how to most effectively and efficiently implement our commitment to human decency.

One need not be a Socialist, or a Tea Party Libertarian, or a Godless Atheist, or a Bible-Thumping Inquisitor, or a Traitor to One’s Country, or a Militant Nationalist; one can be a pragmatist, without presumption, in service to the welfare of oneself, one’s family, and one’s other in-groups, which, in the long run, coincides completely and inextricably with the welfare of humanity (and of the living planet itself).

Such pragmatism isn’t merely a matter of eschewing the mindless extremes, but rather of embracing the mindfulness that they do not. It is not a default position, the mere absence of manias, but rather an affirmative position, the presence of disciplines of the mind and heart and body and soul. It favors methodology over ideology, commitment to procedure (e.g., the rule of law) over such zeal of false certainty carried by such hubris that no deference to procedures such as scientific methodology or rule of law is necessary (see, e.g., The Elusive Truth, The Hydra’s Heads, The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, Ideology v. Methodology, The Voice Beyond Extremes, Discourse, Diderot & Deity, The Real Political & Cultural Dichotomy, Sacred Truths, The “New” Reductionism, Irrational (but rationalized) Belligerence, The Tyranny of Blind Ideology, An Argument for Reason and Humility).

NPP is the ideology of reason applied to evidence, leavened with imagination, in service to humanity. It is something we can and should develop, elaborate, explore, define, refine, and implement. This blog, in many ways, is committed to just that purpose. (See, for instance, my essays that explore the descriptive paradigm on which we should rely, hyperlinked in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts; my essays that explore the normative and strategic paradigm on which we should rely, hyperlinked in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts; and the remainder of my essays, exploring the bridges between the two, the specific issue details, and the complexities and nuances surrounding both.)

So, here’s to No Presumption Pragmatism! May ever more of my neighbors and fellow countrymen (and countrywomen) flock to its banner, and sing its hymns! It may be the case that we can never really be anything more than elaborately grunting apes, but we can and do grunt in ever-more elaborate ways, with a consciousness that continuously blossoms as a result. Let’s, therefore, be conscious human beings striving to do good in the world, and leave all of the absurd and self-destructive noise on the dust-heap of history, where it belongs.

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Many people on both sides of the ideological divide believe that the great political battle is between progressives and conservatives, but in reality it is between extremists/purists/fanatics on the one hand, and moderates/pragmatists/realists on the other. The world isn’t divided between substantive ideologies (including religions) so much as between attitudinal and procedural ones. On one side are extremists of any substantive ideology, people who promote oversimplistic abstractions above lived reality and become fanatically committed to militant advocacy of those abstractions. Such people include religious zealots, terrorists, and others who aggressively reject the more moderate, pragmatic, informed, shared effort to deal with a complex and subtle world that characterizes “modernity.” And these fanatics, in whatever form or to whatever degree, either succeed in inflicting suffering on the rest of us, or remain absurd self-marginalized characters in the story of our shared existence. It’s not really what anyone should aspire to be.

On the other side are people who aspire to live well, and either do not begrudge or actively desire that others successfully do the same (see below for more discussion of this latter variable). “Moderates” is a misleading term for them, because they do not necessarily occupy a point, or even a range, between the extremes, nor do they necessarily lack passionately held and coherently developed views on matters of public interest. What distinguishes them is not that they are between the extremes (which may or may not be the case in each instance), but rather that they are attracted to reason in service to pragmatism rather than to arbitrary certainties in service to abstractions.

A secondary spectrum, on another axis altogether, ranges from extreme self-and-local-interest to extreme global altruism. Both ideological purists and rational pragmatists can adhere to any point on this spectrum (though the former, as extremists, they will tend to cluster at the two extremes of this spectrum as well, while the latter, as pragmatists, will tend to occupy a space which acknowledges the values of both localization and globalization of interests and seeks to balance them in some maximally functional way).

As I’ve written in A Proposal and elsewhere, we need to redefine the progressive movement in procedural rather than substantive terms, fighting less for particular policies and more for particular procedures by which policies are selected, procedures which favor reason and goodwill. I believe, strongly, that the policies I favor will be favored by such a process, and, when they are not, I will have increased reason to leaven my disappointment with consideration of the possibility that it was I, rather than the outcome, that had erred. To the extent that we can redefine the political battle over our state, nation, and world as the battle between reason in service to goodwill, on the one hand, and irrational extremism, on the other, we will have captured the narrative, because relatively few Americans are willing to explicitly take the latter camp, and relatively many want to believe that they are advocates of the former.

The political challenge is less to win battles among relatively arbitrary competing positions, and more to win the battle to reframe the entire process. Let’s advocate for Reason and Goodwill first and foremost, along with the development of procedures which better ensure their predominance, and let the substantive positions flow from that commitment. That’s the real political battle we are currently in.

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