Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

I just returned from my first ever local meeting, and may well be the only person among the 25 or so in attendance who does not feel energized and encouraged by the experience. Quite the contrary, I feel enervated and discouraged by it, reminded of the sheer magnitude of the challenge that reasonable people of goodwill face, because the enemy is within as much as without, with the obstacles to progress residing as much among those who are advocates of progress as among those who are not.

The fundamental problem that I have identified as being characteristic of the Tea Party is, alas, also characteristic of its counterpart on the left, and that problem is fundamentalism itself. More than the particular substance of the inflexible reductionist certainties, it is the fact of inflexible reductionist certainties, the angry belief that those elected officials who are not following the fundamentalists’ own infallible wisdom about all matters of policy and politics are the only thing preventing us from achieving the dream. It is so familiar, echoed throughout the pages of history in movements that have almost always ushered in increased suffering rather than increased welfare. Real progress has not ensued, and will not ensue, from such reductionist fanaticism, but rather only from responsible attempts to hammer out the nuts and bolts of a workable system, and doing so in heated but compromising negotiations among thoughtful people divided by many significant basic disagreements, but united by recognition that no one faction can impose its will on all matters.

The fundamentalists at all ideological extremes, on the other hand, are united in their commitment to refuse to acknowledge one another’s inevitable role in the formation of public policy, and to insist only that their own view would prevail, if only those who they struggled to elect were as intransigent and oversimplistic as they themselves are.

Political fundamentalists, from all ideological locations, share certain traits:

1) They reduce the world to “good guys” and “bad guys,” with the former being those who believe what they believe and are as intransigent and unsubtle in their pursuit of it, and the latter being both their counterparts at other ideological extremes and those who fail to be fundamentalists at all.

2) They have a simplistic reductionist understanding of political and economic reality, that they not only adhere to doggedly, but which they never pause to doubt,  completely submerged in an unexamined assumption of cognitive infallibility.

3) They are angry with anyone who either opposes the substance of their beliefs, or doubts the efficacy of their political strategy of simply insisting that their agenda can be achieved by refusing to vote for or support candidates of their own party who have ever shown any willingness to  compromise with their ideological opposites, or have ever shown any willingness to work within the constraints of the system in which they find themselves.

It is time for people to realize that we live in a complex and subtle world, that there are a range of beliefs and interests, many of which I find atrocious but which I know I can’t simply wish away, with which we must negotiate. It’s time to start a movement of reasonable people of goodwill, with enough humility not to try to micromanage every move every elected official ever makes, but rather seeks out those who are also reasonable people of goodwill, but are more expert in the areas most relevant to public policy, and let them do their job.

Distressed family members, when a loved one is rolled into surgery, try to follow the doctors and nurses into the operating room. Understandably, they want to be directly involved in the attempt to save their loved one’s life. But they are told that if they want their loved one to get the best care, they have to let the surgeon’s do their job without the obstructions and distractions that their presence will impose.

Government is in some ways similar: We want to be in the operating room, ensuring that the professionals we’ve hired to do the job are doing it right. But we aren’t all equally equipped to perform that operation, or to direct how it should be performed, as popular as the delusion to the contrary may be. When the professionals involved are the ones that we supported and voted for, then we need to defer to them to some extent. It’s hard to do, and hard to balance against the very real need to also hold them accountable, but those activists most passionately involved in the political process are also most inclined to err on the side of micromanagement rather than on the side of too little vigilance. We need to recognize that, and make an effort to rectify it.

The real progressive movement, the one that holds some promise of being effective, is not the one comprised of stridently uncompromising blind ideologues on the left, ready to do battle with both their counterparts on the right and the moderates that stand between them, but rather the one comprised of people who know that it is indeed a complex and subtle world, that those complexities require of our agents in the political arena more finesse than angry idealogues want to impose on them, and that creating pressures to abandon that finesse results in a reduction of our ability to achieve real progress.

The more salient challenge progressives currently face isn’t getting our Democratic office holders to do our bidding, but rather to get ourselves to allow and enable them to do it effectively.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

  • Robert May:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and deeply felt article.

    When you refer to reductionist behavior, sadly, you refer to many people in this country who still want the simple answers, with easy “shoot from the hip” solutions. I can’t know if you were commenting about one person, several people or the entire group. Even one person who doesn’t view our national condition holistically is a person who needs your help!

    As you observe, some individuals are not open to discussion; they reject attempts to have a dialogue. I certainly have experienced this myself, often when canvassing in “normal,” middle-class neighborhoods.

    Ask yourself “Why are they unwilling to have a dialogue?” When you can tell me how to get past that particular person’s barriers, I’ll buy your book! Actually, the Truman Foundation’s National Security Project has a seminar on this problem that is quite good. I attended once but I need to attend it again and frequently practice their techniques.

    I’m a member of MoveOn in the Denver-Metro area and I helped with a Potluck on Sunday. My experience at that potluck, and with my Denver-Metro Council has been quite different. The individuals I have worked with are smart, sincere and motivated to work together. We do understand that most issues are very complex, with many levels and usually are interrelated with other issues. I would invite you to check out the Denver-Metro Council; I believe you will be pleasantly surprised.

    I do have one disagreement with your article, i.e., your last paragraph. As you already know, the current economic crisis we are in has many causes. One major cause in this country and in England, which followed our lead, was caused by rampant speculation by the banks in the housing market. This was “legal” because the regulations were relaxed and oversight of the institutions was relaxed to the point where even known problems were ignored. Remember Bernie Madoff? A whistleblower tried for years to get the SEC to investigate that operation. The same thing happened with the housing speculation.

    One of the principal thrusts of MoveOn is good government. This requires public pressure on our politicians to do the right thing for the general public. Who threw out the Public Option before it ever got to the Senate floor? Max Baucus, a Democrat who gets millions of dollars from the special interests. Look him up on Then go to MoveOn’s web site to see what we are doing about people like him.


  • Thanks, Robert.

    My impressions of that MoveOn meeting were skewed by two of the six people in my small group break-out, one of whom was the group leader, whose sole purpose was to air their grievances, and who confused doing so with “substantive work.” One of them is a friend of mine, who is very active here in South Jeffco, but who, for me, personifies the problem in many ways.

    Several people took issue with my last paragraph! And that disagreement, or difference in emphasis, perhaps defines the more nuanced difference of my perspective from the more widely held progressive activist perspective on that topic.

    I perceive two interrelated demands on us, as the sovereign, in a representative democracy: 1) Holding our representatives accounable for acting in our interests, and 2) Enabling and facilitating their ability to do so effectively. These are somewhat in tension in some ways, because we want, as in all professions, to mobilize some degree of expertise hopefully accumulated by those on the ground (and who hopefully have some relevent training before we hire them for the job), and that means refraining to some degree from trying to micromanage them.

    I don’t mean that there is no role for pressuring office holders to do what we believe is right, but that the balance is skewed far too heavily in favor of doing so, and not nearly enough in favor of working to create the cultural context conducive to doing the things we want them to do. I think we generally overestimate our remote wisdom, and underestimate the sincere commitment of most of those Democratic office holders to advance the public interest, as progressives define it, to the best of their ability. There are exceptions, to be sure, to varying degrees (I’ll read the article you linked to on Baucus later), but some of the perception of exception is due to our imperfect information about the strategic considerations involved, or our lack of recognition of sincere and legitimate differences in analysis about what best serves the public interest, rather than any lack of commitment to the public interest.

    There is not only the issue of what policies would be best (on which I have no disagreement with you on the examples you cited, and suspect that most of those office holders to whom we’re referring don’t either), but also an enormous quantity of other considerations, including the complexity of both the formal and informal political process in Congress, and of balancing all considerations and goals in the context of that process.

    Communicating our preferences are important, and organizing to do so in ways that increase the impetus in favor of voting in accordance with those preferences is a vital part of political activism. But I think we also need to give some leeway to those of our own party to figure out how best to accomplish the task rather than trying to micromanage their decisions from our more remote location vis-a-vis the strategic interactions involved in getting the job done. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and it is certainly possible to err on either side, but I feel pretty strongly that we are currently erring on the side of too much popular hubris, and not enough deference to the people we’ve hired to do the job.

    I believe the right approach involves a combination of investing far more time and effort than is currently the average, even among progressives activists, in understanding the nuances of both the policy issues, and of the political demands involved in advancing them, and far more time and effort in popular messaging, disseminating that information, being the messengers in favor of our favored policies (not that there isn’t already a significant amount of effort devoted to this), with less effort on more directly forcing office-holders’ hand. By means of these other two activities, we will more effectively (indirectly) force their hand (by creating more popular support for the choice we prefer), and do so in better informed ways.

    It may just be that a division of labor is required, with more groups organized to meet demands of political activism that I perceive to be undermet, and those that are doing what they’re doing to continue doing them. My awareness of complexity and uncertainty makes me, personally, less comfortable with more strident advocacy vis-a-vis office holders, and more comfortable with a stronger public information and communication role for advocates (see “A Proposal,”, for a detailed description of the direction I’d like to see the progressive movement develop). But, despite my discomfort with it, I do recongnize the need for direct popular pressure being placed on office holders, even those of our own party.

    Thanks, Robert, for the in-put. I think we all miss the bullseye to some extent on most issues that we discuss, and that the differences in perspective help to move us all closer to it.

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