Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Movement politics

I believe our society is heading for catastrophic failure, and the existing Democratic party is not going to save us, barring a science-fiction brain swap between Clinton or Obama and an actual progressive. It behooves me, then, to talk about ways of fixing our society.

There are several plausible scenarios for catastrophic failure. In the best possible case there won't be any kind of rebellion, coup, or general suspension of the Constitution; we will experience a severe economic depression and the short- and medium-term domination of our government by the Republican party, but our fundamental systems will remain at least nominally in place. If this scenario occurs, there are substantive and effective steps we can take to make our society a better place.

The right has used the movement/party model to take over our government. This model is very effective, and many fundamental features can be replicated by the left.

The movement/party model consists of a disciplined, unified, extra-political organization, the conservative movement, to construct and propagate a political philosophy. The members of this movement then use their discipline and unity to control the specifically political Republican party. Since the movement supplies a consistent philosophy, a voter base and, most importantly money, the actual politicians further the movement's agenda in official government.

There is every reason to believe the left can replicate the movement/party model with similar success. Create a liberal-progressive movement, take over the Democratic party and further a liberal-progressive agenda in government.

Moreover, the left can replicate the model excluding many of the features of the right's implementation that many on the left find odious: authoritarianism, dogmatism, and almost complete disconnection from reality and factual truth. Some of the right's features are very powerful tools for unifying a movement and ensuring discipline. The religious have honed authoritarianism and dogmatism to near perfection over at least two or three millennia. There are, however, tools that authoritarianism and dogmatism render almost useless, and which can be employed to good advantage by the left: truth and transparency.

To be effective, a movement has to be disciplined and unified. The members of a movement have to deliver a consistent and stable philosophical message, they have to vote as a bloc, and they have to concentrate money. These requirements force some degree of top-down approach to decision-making. An internally consistent and stable philosophical basis; majoritarian, consensus or near-consensus decision-making; and a rigorously bottom-up electoral structure can, however, prevent the top-down decision making from devolving into elitism, authoritarianism and dogmatism.

A bottom-up electoral process* in one in which those groups at the "direct" or lowest level elect one of their members to represent the group at the next highest level; the group of people thus elected then elect one of their own to represent them at the further level, until a small enough group has been concentrated to make decisions for the movement as a whole.

*I'm sure there's a name for this organizational method. I thought it was syndicalism, but that refers to a specific kind of labor politics.

I intentionally use the word "philosophy" in place of "ideology". Ideology has come to be too strongly associated with authoritarianism and dogmatism. However we label it though, any movement must have a set of core principles that are internally consistent and stable over time. Stability doesn't mean incapable of change; it means only resistance to capricious change, change only when there's a very good reason to change. Since a liberal-progressive movement can't rely on any kind of philosophical or religious authority, those principles will have to be fairly broad, and adherence need not be absolute; it should be necessary only that a lot of people can endorse most of the core principles directly, and find none of them abhorrent.

(I should also note in passing that "pragmatism" is not a core philosophical value. It just means "effective for some stated purpose"; without a specific stated purpose, it's vacuous. It should be noted that the Cheney Bush administration has been very pragmatically effective at enriching the top 0.01% of the country.)

With a disciplined, unified movement committed to using politics to implement its agenda, and by trading authoritarianism and dogmatism for universalism, truth and transparency, I believe those of us with liberal and progressive views can have a profound impact on the political social and cultural life of the country.

15 comments:

  1. PhysioProf:

    If leftists, liberals and liberal-progressives absolutely cannot act with discipline and unity, then authoritarianism is the future of humanity. The authoritarians have shown, time and again, that they can indeed operate with discipline and unity.

    But I don't think it's true that liberals cannot be disciplined. It's a novel idea, to be sure, but it's not at all fundamentally unrealistic.

    And, with all due respect, the idea of a disciplined liberals is at least a bit more realistic than your brain-swap or Shawn's magic spell ideas.

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  2. Create a liberal-progressive movement, take over the Democratic party and further a liberal-progressive agenda in government.

    Have I finally convinced you that there are two sides to progressivism?

    As for the rest of the piece, doesn't it just boil down to "liberals need to copy those conservative traits which help them get into power but none of the ones that make them bad people,"?

    And as for 'discipline and unity' on the Left, you need voters who care about more than one issue and agree with each other on a broad platform. The Left is filled with special interests which causes dis-unity.

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  3. Have I finally convinced you that there are two sides to progressivism?

    Not really. But if you're going to use the term "progressive conservative", it behooves me to explicitly disambiguate.

    doesn't it just boil down to "liberals need to copy those conservative traits which help them get into power but none of the ones that make them bad people,"?

    Yes.

    The Left is filled with special interests which causes dis-unity.

    So was the right in the middle of the 20th century; forty years of hard work was able to turn that around.

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  4. Okay, I’m no philosopher and haven’t put as much thought into this as you have, but I have a couple of questions:

    So, what organization or structure can you imagine to unify the many flavors of progressives? What will function as effectively as the authoritarian model of “church?”

    In a church organization parishoners MUST attend at least once a week and MUST give a certain amount of their money – whether they can afford it or not. The church model allows for frequent, reinforcing communication of a nuanced and persuasive nature, and generates enthusiasm, unity, blind acceptance or just plain guilt and obedience. In addition, the pressure to tithe funds the operation on a lavish scale.

    I don’t really see most progressives becoming a part of any such organization, even if you were able to design one that did not operate on some of the psychological bases that the church does. Being rational, as I would hope that most progressives are, seems to thwart the ability of the organization to pressure people into actions that, while good for the group, are not in an individual’s own best interest. The result of this kind of pressure is the life-blood of a church.

    I concede that some of the attributes I described are likely to be the church’s downfall, however. For instance, being awash in money, as the churches and pastors are, creates a huge opening for corruption. On the other hand, the redundancy of the message seems to be able to overwhelm most parishoners’ ability to call anyone to account for even egregious malfeasance. (Oops! See, I can’t stay on one side of an argument long enough to even make my own point!)

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  5. Anfractuous:

    I’m no philosopher...

    Yes you are. If you think about issues like, "Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on Sunday," then you're a philosopher.

    So, what organization or structure can you imagine to unify the many flavors of progressives?

    It's not so much unifying all the progressives as some organization that presents a disciplined, unified message across the spectrum of progressive issues.

    Being rational, I would hope that most progressives are, seems to thwart the ability of the organization to pressure people into actions that, while good for the group, are not in an individual’s own best interest.

    This is not one of the features I'm looking to replicate! One of the key features of progressivism is that it's about on mutual benefit. See my post on the Prisoner's Dilemma.

    See, I can’t stay on one side of an argument long enough to even make my own point!

    See, you are a philosopher!

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  6. Problem is, authoritarian hierarchies are the default state of humanity. Liberalism and democracy are hard because they take constant vigilance and work. And really, who wants to work that hard when American Idol is on?

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  7. BB: “It's not so much unifying all the progressives as some organization that presents a disciplined, unified message across the spectrum of progressive issues.”

    A: Seems pretty dry and unengaging in comparison to the church. Your model seems to lose every time when up against gut-wrenching, self-immolating, orgiastic, self-righteocitizing, spiritual engorgement, have-to-have-a-smoke-afterward kind of commitment evoked by religion.


    So, I repeat, what type of organization would get people to make the kind of commitment necessary to do what we need to do? I can’t imagine a burning desire to go to a “club,” a “meeting,” a “conference,” etc. It takes fire in the belly to do what you describe. A “disciplined, unified message across the spectrum of progressive issues” just ain’t gonna cut it, I’m afraid!

    And yeah, I deplore the fact that Americans seem to make important decisions based on some emotional “I’d love to go have a beer with him” kind of schlock, instead of studying the issues and how a candidate’s policies will impact society, for instance, but it’s how things seem to work.


    I believe psychologists agree that strong actions are impelled when emotion is added to reason, so we need to figure out how to combine the two. I guess that’s my real question - how to combine them to get commitment from busy people who are just trying to get all the way to Friday without something falling apart every week.

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  8. Seems pretty dry and unengaging in comparison to the church. ... [W]hat type of organization would get people to make the kind of commitment necessary to do what we need to do?

    I think my presentation is dry. I'm a philosopher and a computer programmer: I'm not very emotionally inspiring except perhaps when I'm really pissed off.

    In any event, the underlying structure is not what would actually be sold. At this point, I'm analyzing the structure only from a "negative" perspective: How to keep a top-down decision-making structure from becoming authoritarian, dogmatic and unresponsive. I'm trying to overcome the traditional left-wing aversion to ever actually agreeing on anything.

    But your observation is sound. We need more than a couple of paragraphs in a blog post.

    Your model seems to lose every time when up against gut-wrenching, self-immolating, orgiastic, self-righteocitizing, spiritual engorgement, have-to-have-a-smoke-afterward kind of commitment evoked by religion.

    Amazingly enough, though, religion has steadily (albeit very slowly) been losing its hold on the human mind. Something other than well-honed appeal to emotion is operating.

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  9. BB: Amazingly enough, though, religion has steadily (albeit very slowly) been losing its hold on the human mind. Something other than well-honed appeal to emotion is operating.

    A: While I’m all for this trend, I think there is something to the appeal of churches that we need to recognize -- the need people have to bond with a like-minded group. That could apply to something more rational, like the PTA, AAUW or your local book club, too. However, mega-churches beat these kinds of groups out because of their incredible emotional draw, and because of that they are still able to command the loyalty, and voting proclivities, (not to mention their financial support.) of a huge group of people, even as their message seems to be losing its appeal.

    Soooooooo, all we have to do is figure out a way we can involve progressives on a rational level while supplying the needed emotional punch. We don’t need to preach about the supernatural. But we do need someone to reach people on both a thinking and a gut level about the problems and solutions of, let’s say, world hunger. Surely, we can find plenty of wide-ranging rational solutions ALONG WITH an emotional hook. I don’t see that as authoritarian.


    How about personalizing and humanizing, rape, human trafficking and other kinds of misogyny? Don’t you think we could construct an egalitarian, scientific, thoughtful and non-authoritarian organization to analyze how to combat at least some of these problems?

    We’ve sanitized our media so nobody has to see anything remotely disturbing. That has kept the nation to a zombie-like, apathetic non-response. What’s to get excited about? But the church doesn’t have any of those compunctions. They WANT people agitated. They know that’s what gets them to the voting booth. And repetition sticks the message.

    When we saw the Abu Graib pics, we got exercised, although not for very long. But at least we know that people still do care about such things, and I saw and heard some good suggestions on what to do about it at the time. We just need to keep the public’s attention focused on the problem in a way that might yield solutions. Why does that have to be authoritarian? I don’t think it does. Think Wikipedia or some of the social networking sites on the internet. Can’t we find a way to tie that all together?

    Okay, end of sermon. Well, not quite. I just think we need to get thinkers like you together with people who know how to energize the public – say Spielberg and Jolie and Moyers and Stewart and … you get the idea. But most important, we need to find the way to plug all that excitement and creativity into actual public policy. Now there’s the rub! It doesn’t matter how excited people get if actual policy is completely unresponsive to the will of the people, but controlled by corporate and governmental self-interest.

    Oh dear! Now I am really depressed.

    Oh wait! I know! I know! We just gotta make ‘em responsive!
    >
    >
    >

    Okay, nevermind…

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  10. The political failure of society, while undoubtably unpleasant, is hardly catastrophic. People will still fall in love, get married, and have babies - although not necessarily in that order.

    True catastrophe is when the oil stops flowing, or there is not enough food or water to go around.

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  11. DiscoveredJoys: Social constructions, i.e. politics, are an important part of what keeps the oil and food flowing. At the most obvious level, people keep showing up to operate the wells and refineries, the farms and canneries, because they get paid. Money is the first and foremost of politically established social constructions.

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  12. Now if you had said "Social constructions, e.g. politics..." I would have gone along with your sentiment.

    I'll agree that without government any industrial society will gradually slow down and then fail, but politics is only the grease on the gears of government. There are several instances of government existing without politics (either through constitutional crises or military rule) and society continuing to stumble on. Not pretty, not nice, but managing to carry on.

    Many special interest groups (power workers, truckers, farmworkers, script writers, housewives, politicians, telecomunications, media, bloggers and so on) reckon that their contribution is what holds society together. Some have a potential impact greater than others - in my opinion politicans are not in the first rank.

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  13. DiscoveredJoys: Now if you had said "Social constructions, e.g. politics..." I would have gone along with your sentiment.

    That's precisely what I meant; I apologize for my lack of clarity.

    [P]olitics is only the grease on the gears of government.

    Again, please forgive me for my lack of clarity. I'm speaking of "politics" in the larger sense, in the sense of the processes in place to establish and maintain specific social constructions such as money and economic value, individual liberty and what behaviors constitute "crime", and so forth.

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  14. There, we were agreeing vehemently all the time...

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