The Importance of Primaries

As political tribalism grew stronger over the past decades, general elections became less and less about ideas and visions and more and more about turning out your base and fighting over the tiny 10% sliver of non-affiliated electorate. Nothing has really been revealed, learned or discovered during recent general elections, except – of course – who wins.

For the three years following general elections, we tend to have a long echo of the general election, as the losing tribe deploys its Congresspersons, cable channels and newspapers to discredit the winning candidate while the winning tribe plays defense for him. This has made the period of governing resemble a continuing general election, making governing have all the bad things that come with it, such as divisiveness, grandstanding, and never-ending fundraising emails.

Fortunately, there remained one sliver of vibrant electoral democracy left in the process: The Primary. Primaries are the only part of the process where you had to take off your tribal war armor (because it was all internal to your own political tribe) and actually think about what you believed in. You would have more than two choices. You would hear multiple – sometimes dozens – of debates. You would get into the details of different policy plans. You would have a variety of viewpoints pose questions to a variety of other viewpoints. You would have Kuciniches and Deans and Obamas shake up more mainstream candidates. The tribal media would have to turn off its broken record of tribal chest thumping to actually compare and contrast real people. This is the benefit of the Primary process.

Unfortunately, we are on the brink of losing this last sliver of vibrant electoral democracy. The media has become so utterly tribal, that they can’t even imagine a Democratic primary. They have spent 7 years slamming the other side and defending their own that they can’t even bear to return to a short, one-year period where there’s no dog in the fight and they have to turn off the drumbeat and moderate a discussion between various candidates about the direction of the Party. They’d much rather just have seamless tribalism from this administration to the next.

So, a governor and big city mayor (O’Malley) is silenced. A mayor, Congressman and Senator (Sanders) is silenced. A Senator and Assistant Secretary of the Navy with three Purple Hearts (Webb) is silenced. They simply “aren’t serious” enough to face off against the very serious candidate who voted for the Iraq War (death toll: 500,000+; 21 Senators wisely voted against), was the last Democrat to endorse raising the minimum wage (suffering: 30 million works making less today, adjusted for inflation, than every worker made in 1968; all major Democrats endorsed before her), campaigned to expand the Drug War and mass incarceration (2.2 million Americans now locked in cages; 1994 Clinton ramp up of mass incarceration and Drug War opposed by Congressional Black Caucus members while Hillary said “we need more prisons”), turned her back on ordinary people facing bankruptcy when in the Senate despite Elizabeth Warren ensuring that she knew better (as explained by Warren in a 2004 interview), and took to the floor of Congress to oppose gay marriage in 2004 (she said there is a “fundamental, bedrock principle that marriage is between a man and a woman going back into the mists of history”; John Lewis meanwhile said *8 years prior* that Congresspersons must lead on this issue despite its unpopularity, that “we cannot tell people that they cannot fall in love”).

Let’s not let the one last sliver of vigorous electoral democracy — The Primary, the only place left in American electoral politics where we might (just might!) discuss visions for the future of our party and our country — be taken from us. Democrats: Reject the coronation! Let O’Malley, Webb and Sanders debate.

On the Democratic Faith

The powers that be want you to lose your democratic faith. They want you to stop believing in the constructive genius of ordinary men and women. They want you to think: “less people should vote” “the average stranger is suspect” “my neighbor is an idiot” and “only an elect few are capable of learning this or leading that.”faith

Those at the top want us to think this about ourselves and our neighbors because, as we lose this American faith in our ability to co-create our shared world, it becomes easier for them to convince us to freely give away more power to them. It becomes easier for them to further transform our society from a membership society to a management society and, with that transformation, further convert ourselves from citizens to consumers, from members to clients, from neighbors to strangers.

But remember: to hold onto a lost faith is itself a powerful act. All we need to do to begin fighting back — to move from management to membership again — is to trust in that democratic faith again. The democratic faith’s prayers are “hello stranger” “I wonder what my neighbor thinks” and “let’s figure this out together.” The democratic faith’s rituals are the handshake, the gathering, the brainstormed plan, and the curious question.

This democratic faith — a faith that we are all endowed with a Graceful and surprising creative intelligence — built our country. Since the Founding, it has opened the door for Americans to have the confidence to be, what Martin Luther King called, “co-workers with God.”

In this age of political disappointment, we may have lost our hope. But we must not lose this faith.

Community, Integrity, Vision

The three major challenges in American politics today are the triplet deficits of community, integrity and vision.

COMMUNITY in America is in decline: people feel increasing disconnected from their neighbors; groups that could be organized into empowering networks — workers, customers, interest groups — are instead herded under corporate, media and government bullhorns; national solidarity is increasingly limited to writing checks to those in need as opposed to directly interacting with them in authentic ways; the once-communal labors of caringcommunityintegrityvision, teaching, healing, feeding, sheltering, and serving are becoming evermore bureaucratized and hidden from view; and words like “patriotism” become increasingly out of style, as some businesspersons move their activities overseas and some churches and neighborhoods become satisfied tending only to their own gardens, disengaging from our more difficult, shared needs.

Institutions that depend on INTEGRITY are corrupted by money: Legislatures and administrators meant to depend upon the will of the People alone are corrupted by campaign donations; businesses started to create value for everybody begin to limit their scope to creating value only for customers and then eventually limit their scope more to creating value only for shareholders and then eventually limit their scope even more to creating value for only their elite managers, inventing justification after justification to validate their insatiable appetite for more money; universities that were created as moral communities of shared uplift come to be seen as only tickets to one’s private success; and our emotions, vulnerabilities and precious cultural touchstones get endlessly converted by marketers and “public relations” consultants into tools to squeeze more money out of us, creating a national culture whose BS-to-non-BS ratio is becoming untenable.

Lost in the fog, we lack VISION of where to go from here: our political parties are abdicating their responsibility to help point the way towards better days, trading that role in for one of co-producing a 24-hour theater of fear and cultural resentment; our academics must laser-focus on tinier and tinier slices of policy analysis to get ahead; and our time has produced few moral leaders in which to turn for stories of where we came from, where we could go and how we can get there.

But there is hope! Much can change in a generation. If we can address these deficits, we can rise out of our present malaise.

Here are the questions our generation must be asking:

  1. How can we re-build COMMUNITY in America? How do we: come together to make spaces into places again; create participatory counterbalances to corporate and state power; humanize our caring infrastructure; and build programs for national solidarity?
  2. How can we restore INTEGRITY to American institutions? How can we: free politics from the grips of monied interests; return business to the holistic mission of creating value for shareholders *and* customers, workers, communities and the environment; re-moralize universities to their public interest covenant; and restore the sanctity of our personal vulnerabilities and emotions so as to lower the amount of collective BS in our national culture?
  3. How can we find VISION again for America? How can our political parties, intellectuals and moral leaders think broader and more long-term, helping shine light on a direction in which we could again move?

Can we feel part of a national community again?
Can we trust in the integrity of each other and our public institutions again?
Can we have the vision to know, in part, where we come from, where we could be going and how we get there again?

Yes, yes, and yes…but only if we get to work!

The Voting Apollo Program

Yesterday, I attended the festivities in Selma, Alabama marking the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march for Voting Rights. Almost every speaker spoke of the threats facing voting rights today, referencing the efforts by various state legislatures making it harder to vote. For example, Obama said: “Right now, in 2015, fifty years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor.”

However, no speaker made explicit the two stories of what’s really going on here:


STORY 1: If everyone voted, the Republican Party, as it is organized today, would face an existential threat.

Take this Pew Poll of non-voters linked here:

If you bring non-voters into the fold, support for Republican candidates and Conservative ideologies fall:

  • 47% of likely voters supported Romney in October 2012 while 39% of all adults supported Romney because only 24% of non-voters supported Romney.
  • 51% of likely voters viewed Obama favorably in October 2012 while 56% of all adults viewed him favorably, because 64% of non-voters viewed him favorably.
  • 44% of likely voters consider themselves Ideologically Conservative, while only 38% of all adults do, because only 28% of non-voters view themselves as Conservative.

If you bring non-voters into the fold, demographic groups that generally support Republican candidates wane (and vice versa for demographic groups supporting Democratic candidates):

  • 74% of likely voters are White, while only 68% of all adults are White because only 59% of non-voters are White.
  • 20% of likely voters make less than $30,000 while 32% of all adults make less than $30,000 because 52% of non-voters make less than $30,000.
  • 54% of likely voters are over 50, while 35% of all adults are over 50, because only 28% of non-voters are over 50.
  • 13% of likely voters are under 29, while 21% of all adults are under 29, because 36% of all non-voters are under 21.

As you might expect from the facts above, if you bring non-voters into the fold, support for left-wing economic policy increases:

  • 39% of likely voters believe the government should do more to solve problems, but 44% of all adults do because 52% of non-voters believe the government should do more.
  • 49% of likely voters believe that Obamacare should be repealed, but only 43% of all adults do because only 31% of non-voters believe it should be repealed.

These 5-10% differences seem small, but given that most elections are decided by differences of this small size means that this matters: if all non-voters had been voters in the last 10 elections, American politics would be completely different. Specifically, it would be different in the Democratic coalition’s favor.

I don’t mean to be so partisan, but this seems to be the story that the facts are laying out:

  1. Among likely voters, the party coalitions are roughly balanced, ping-ponging electoral victories back and forth;
  2. Non-voters skew towards the Democratic coalition; and thus
  3. If all potential voters voted, the Democratic coalition would have a solid, more permanent majority in American politics.

Given this, it’s not surprising that Republican Party mega-strategists would, at best, not support efforts to have more non-voters vote, and, at-worst, discourage increased voter turnout.

So, that’s what’s probably happening here: Republican-controlled state legislatures are making it harder to vote based on a puffed-up “voter fraud threat”, Democrats are doing their best to parry such attempts, and serious efforts to dramatically increase voter participation are voted down or blocked because only one party has an interest in voter expansion being achieved.


STORY TWO: “Increasing voting rights” today is a technology question masquerading as a political question.

So what do we do about this voting scuffle between the Republican coalition (which has an interest in limiting voting people) and the Democratic coalition (which has an interest in expanding voting to more people)?

Well, the first thing we have to affirm that it’s not our formal democratic system’s problem that the Republican coalition doesn’t have a popular majority. That’s their problem to figure out. The democratic system’s job is to make sure our government is accountable to the will of the People. The integrity of the democratic system should be preserved and fortified regardless of the present consequences for either party coalition. Attempts to change the rules because you’re losing the Popular will should be called out for what they are: “attempts to change the rules because you’re losing the Popular will.”

The second thing is to remember that the spirit of a democratic electoral process is not the literal act of going to ‘polling places’ and ‘casting ballots’, but rather the general idea of having the People choose their governing officials. Too often, I’ve heard people act as if the literal technological mechanisms of voting are what voting is about: for example, I’ve heard many people say “If you’re too lazy to go to a polling place to vote, then you shouldn’t be able to vote” or “if you don’t have it in you to get an ID, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.” But that’s an arbitrary poll test, one that’s randomly based on the technology we happen to use to transmit People’s wills to be centrally counted. Again, the spirit of electoral democracy is that the People choose their governing officials, not any specific literal task that was necessitated by the technology needed to transmit the public Will to a central counting mechanism.

One way to put it is to say that there are two different concepts that make up elections: (1) The political mission of elections: “Transmit the People’s will for certain candidates into a formal decision of who is elected”; and (2) The electoral technology that is used to achieve that mission: IDs, registration, voting, ballots, counting, election commissions, etc.

We can have a political debate over what the mission of elections should be, over who should be able to vote. For example, I believe every adult citizen should be able to vote. Someone else might believe that the imprisoned shouldn’t be able to vote. Someone else might believe that permanent resident non-citizens should be able to vote. This is a political debate.

But, all this voting rights back and forth — voter ID, same-day registration — is actually discussions about the technology we should use to achieve the mission of voting. It’s masquerading as a political debate, but its actually just those interested in limiting voting using ambiguity around the technological mechanisms of voting to limit voting. It would be the equivalent of a town voting to design a building a certain way and then someone from the losing vote side using ambiguity of brick masonry practices or blueprinting technology to achieve their original intention.

The technology challenge of elections is hard, but simple:

  1. Your technology system needs to transmit choices from people across a geographic area to a centralized counting mechanism and then publish those results.
  2. Your technology system needs to make sure that those who are issuing their choices meet certain criteria (above 18, American citizen, from the proper district).
  3. Your technology system needs to make sure that its counting’s integrity cannot be compromised in an environment where people will have a deep interest in compromising it.
  4. Your technology system needs to be able to be audited to verify 2 & 3.

This is do-able: Banks protect money in an environment where people want to steal money, the government processes tax information from across the country to a centralized source, etc. But this is a technology challenge that engineers should work on, not politicians. Like with all other technology challenges the state faces (the Pentagon building a tank, the IRS running a website) the officials should set a mission, hire people (like engineers) to achieve that mission and then verify if the results achieve that mission. They shouldn’t use the middle engineering process of developing an adequate technology as a political tool to achieve their own private mission counter to the agreed-upon mission.


So, what?

Given these beliefs above, you can think bigger about Voting Rights than the small ball that those at Selma50 were speaking to.

We have had the political debate about elections and decided: most every adult citizen should play a role in our formal democracy, having their preferences counted in our elections regardless the color of their skin, their gender, and their income.

Given this political conclusion we should have election technology that lives up to this mission. If we believe everyone should play a role in elections, our electoral technology should work to ensure that. We should see low voter turnout as a technology problem, not as an apathy problem. We should say: “If the government can get every male over 18 to register for selective service; if it can track all our phones and emails; if it can collect taxes from us every year…then it can get our voting preferences every two years.”

Let’s use the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act to start a VOTING APOLLO PROGRAM that aims to achieve 99% voter participation by the 2020 election.

The government wasted almost $5 billion on a failed replacement of Marine 1 Helicopters for the White House. What if we spent $5 billion on election technology that achieved the following:

  1. Complete integrity: (A) Ensures each voter fits requirements of voting (18, American citizen, proper location); (B) Ensures counting’s integrity is not compromised; (C) Ensures counting is auditable by everyone.
  2. Easy participation: (A) You can vote online anytime 6 weeks leading up to an election; (B) You can vote offline in various places (post-offices, McDonalds, schools, etc.) anytime 6 weeks leading up to an election.
  3. Constant reminders: (A) You are emailed constant reminders to vote with direct links to webpages where you can vote; (B) You are snail-mailed constant reminders to vote with direct return envelopes to vote; (C) You are reminded in public to vote and provided with public kiosks to vote right there.

In short, a Voting Apollo Program would achieve full voter participation and integrity protections through election technology fit for the internet age.

Yes, there are thousands of technological details of achieving this mission that are going to be hard. But, there were also a lot of technological details of achieving the mission of inventing the internet and going to the moon. This is beyond achievable by our country.

Full voter participation through serious investment in the technology of voting expansion can be our Edmund Pettus Bridge. Let’s not play small-ball on the sidelines of full voter participation. Let’s cross the bridge.

Jeanne Manford and Lightswitch vs. Gardening Politics

This quote, from Jane Addams’ 20 Years at Hull House struck me this week:

“The decade between 1890-1900 was, in Chicago, a period of propaganda as over against constructive social effort; the moment for marching and carrying banners, for stating general principles and making a demonstration, rather than the time for uncovering the situation and for providing the legal measures and the civic organization through which new social hopes might make themselves felt.”

Too often, we view political causes like a lightswitch: we all believe one thing, we make some noise to flip the switch, and then we all believe another thing. *Flip the switch*… problem solved. This process usually involves drawing a line between the light and the dark, constantly reminding ourselves that we are ‘in the light’, and demonizing and punishing those ‘in the dark’. It’s an easy model for practicing politics, because it requiresSwitch-from-Lancet very little work: just declare yourself clean and start feeling good about yourself.

This way of looking at politics — as a series of switches to flip; a series of lines of which to be on the right side; a series of the right words to say to remain clean — is tremendously ineffective at achieving structural change. Causes like rolling back global warming, reforming the criminal justice system, or getting money out of politics are not going to happen like the flip of a switch. Rather, it’s going to be much more like a gardening project: how are we doing at planting the seeds (changing people’s minds)?; how are we doing at tilling the soil (creating the right environment for change)?; how are we doing at watering the plants (creating the routines and putting in the work that allow change to grow)?; how are we doing at getting the legal right to till the land (legal/structural changes)?; how are we doing at getting the money to buy the materials (funding)?; and how are we doing at inspiring more gardeners (recruiting)? The process looks less like “[No Garden] vs. [Full Garden]” and more like a gradual process of fits and starts and sprouts and weeds and duds and blooms… that hopefully — a long while later — makes this plot of land we call home much more beautiful than it was before. (Notice how declaring yourself “Pro-Garden” and belittling some neighbors as “Anti-Garden” is, at best, a tiny part of the project and, at worst, dangerous to the project.)

I used to think that Lightswitch Politics was good for cultural causes whereas Gardening Politics was good for more structural change. But, the more I learn about the history of successful cultural causes, the more I think that they resemble Gardening Politics, too.Last week, I found the story of a beautiful gardener in the LGBT movement who has a lot to teach our movements of today. In April 1972, Jeanne Manford — a mom and elementary school teacher from Flushing, Queens — was sitting at home when she learned that her son Morty, a gay activist, had been beaten for distributing pro-gay flyers. At a time when being gay was considered a mental illness and designated a crime, Manford wrote a letter to the New York Post saying “I have a homosexual son and I love him.” She marched in the 1972 New York City Gay Pride Parade with a sign saying “Parents of Gays Unite in Support for Our Children.”

The sign went viral and gay Americans started writing to Manford asking for help in how to explain their identities to their parents. It was at this point that Manford could have said, “Wow, your parents are real bigots” and slept soundly knowing she was on the right side of the lightswitch dividing line. But that’s not what she did: rather, she grabbed a shovel and started gardening. She founded PFLAG – Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays – an organization which she hoped could be a “bridge between the gay community and the heterosexual community.” They started holding meetings with parents to help spread understanding, provide support for families with LGBT children, and advocate to change attitudes and create inclusive policies. When “Dear Abby” mentioned PFLAG in one of her advice columns in 1980, they went viral. By 1982, they had 20 chapters. In 1990, a letter from PFLAG to Barbara Bush asking for her support resulted in the first gay-positive comments to come out of the White House. Today, they are currently organized in 350 communities, continuing to spread understanding and build community with an open heart for people at all parts of the process of seeing the light of inclusion, freedom and love with regard to this tender issue.

Because of her work and the work of other gardeners, we live in a nation where even the man who beat up Morty Manford is now an LGBT advocate.

Today, as we grapple with the divisive issues that threaten to make our nation evermore the Divided States of America, I hope we can take a page out of this brave mom’s book, understanding that change resembles growing, building, constructing, glueing, imagining, and loving much more than it does cleansing, condemning and prosecuting. We shouldn’t waste our lines on grand division… because we need to save them for our modest, hopeful blueprints.

A Political Vocabulary Reset

Our political thoughts and conversations are too often confused by our ambiguous political vocabulary. Saying you’re “Liberal” can mean you want more health and safety regulations or that you want less health and safety regulations. Saying you’re “Conservative” can mean you want a muscular foreign policy, an isolationist foreign policy, or a hard-nosed prudent foreign policy. These words aren’t usevocabularyful anymore.

Attempts to clarify this ambiguity — such as the famous square of “liberal vs. conservative” on one side and “cultural issues vs. economic issues” on the other (creating the ever-popular and often-misapplied label of “I’m socially liberal and fiscally conservative”) — give us a much-too-narrow set of concepts than are needed to (1) paint an accurate picture of what’s going on underneath the surface in American politics and (2) begin a much-needed reimagining of American politics.

So, for the sake of just that — (1) clarifying our understanding of the present fault lines of American political belief and (2) providing tools for political re-imagination — here is my first stab at a POLITICAL VOCABULARY RESET.

I aim to reset 12 words, each representing the two poles of six political spectrums. These spectrums are, of course, not comprehensive of all of American politics, but they are my attempt at identifying the range of opinion on a few major foundational questions that are not only present in politics today, but will probably still be present in the coming decades after the specific ‘issues’ debated today — gun control, gay marriage, ISIS, etc. — are past.

Here goes*:

1. FUNDAMENTALISM: “Fundamentalist” vs. “Pragmatist”

Politics is a response to Uncertainty. If we were Certain that some formula or prescription contained all the answers, we wouldn’t need to politically deliberate on what is to be done.

Some people are Certain: they believe that some past, external and eternal formula or prescription contains the answers to some political questions. On those questions, they should be called — at least politically — “Fundamentalist.

On the other end of the fundamentalism spectrum is the “Pragmatist“: someone who believes that present people should use their present intelligence — aided by their own creative problem-solving, learned wisdom and institutional practice — to make ad hoc decisions in response to present circumstances.

This is the first spectrum, because it determines how big a role one believes politics should play, if at all. An extreme Fundamentalist denies politics completely: why deliberate when we have the Truth? An extreme Pragmatist, meanwhile, says “with no Truth, everything is up for deliberation.”

2. PRAGMATIST TEMPERAMENT: “Conservative” vs. “Progressive”

Most of us aren’t Fundamentalist on everything. Even those who follow a literal interpretation of the Bible (or, say, Sharia Law or Marxist dogma) still have to awake their inner Pragmatist when it comes to discussing how to, say, apply Biblical edicts to present circumstance (Biblical fundamentalists, for example, still need to deliberate pragmatically about how the Bible speaks to, say, net neutrality or corporate tax rates).

Our pragmatism often comes in the form of two distinct major flavors: “Conservative” pragmatism and “Progressive” pragmatism. Progressivism and Conservatism are often described as polar opposite ideologies, but this commonly held idea is misleading. They’re not ideologies (systems of ideals that one believes we should move society towards), but rather idea-neutral temperaments of pragmatic politics: they’re sets of moods, rules of thumb, tolerances, best practices and dispositions that inform how to practice politics, no matter your ideology. By this, I mean you can have, say, a Conservative Leftist or a Progressive Libertarian… these temperaments can be applied to any ideology.

So how do we define these two temperaments? They are not the easiest to pin down, but I’ll do my best, aided by quotes from Yuval Levin’s great book “The Great Debate” about Tom Paine, Edmund Burke and the origins of Progressivism and Conservatism in America, as well as a few articles that came out about the book.

Progressives “start with rational, abstract ideals” and then attempt to move society towards those ideals. When they do, they call it “progress” (thus the name “progressive”). When some area in society does not meet an ideal, progressives see it as a “problem” that needs to be “solved.” They often turn to technical, rational experts to solve these problems, centralizing authority in those with scholarly knowledge in the problem area. They, in Levin’s words, often “desentimentalize politics”, saying that rational progress towards a shared ideal should trump sentiments for preserving old, irrational ways. Often, Progressives find themselves struggling to apply their rational solutions “to an often ungrateful and unpredictable society.”

Conservatives start by acknowledging the complexity of the social world and the fallibility of human rationality. They are skeptical about the experts’ rational blueprints to solve social problems, for they have seen even the smartest grand plans foiled by the unpredictable reality of our complex social life. What do Conservatives trust in then, if not the experts? They trust in the natural, gradual accumulation of practices and institutions over time that we inherit from our ancestors and pass down to our descendants. To the Conservative, these social norms probably evolved that way for good reason and thus we should always lean towards conserving them (thus the title “conservative”) and avoid bulldozing them just because we are excited about some new problem-solving blueprint. When Conservatives acknowledge the need to reform a part of our “precious inheritance” (conservatives are open to reform — remember, they’re Pragmatists, not Fundamentalists), they believe the reform should be more like “medicine than engineering: a process of healing that seeks to preserve by correcting.”

There is much to love about each temperament and I hope more of us learn to practice the best of both Progressivism and Conservatism.

The Progressive temperament held up the abstract ideal of Liberty against the inherited institution of Slavery and forced American society to progress out from it. The Progressive temperament said the irrational scattershot hodge-podge of late-1800’s urban life was harmful and thus helped establish the modern city with rational expert-run municipal sanitation, sewage, fire, police and health systems. But, alas, the Progressive temperament has also led to dark places like Eugenics, as the abstract project of producing “a more fit populace” bulldozed over conservative safeguards against such major human dignity violations.

The Conservative temperament fought back against Eugenics. The Conservative temperament also helped save our National Parks from being overrun by the market fundamentalism that had sold out wonders like Niagara Falls to commercial interests. The Conservative temperament helped preserve Constitutional principles — like First Amendment rights and separation of powers — from executive overreach at various times throughout the past centuries. But, alas, the Conservative temperament has also held back the women’s empowerment movement, mistakenly treating varied patriarchal practices as “inherited wisdom” instead of what they really were: irrational injustices.

I mention this spectrum second because it is perhaps the most confused in American politics.

For example, many corporate ideologues are called Conservative, but — under the more-precise definitions above — are in fact radical Progressives. Take libertarian Silicon Valley technologists, like Peter Thiel: They constantly speak about abstract, rational ideals, like “Efficiency” “Openness” and “Transparency”; they want to centralize authority in technological experts; they want to “disrupt” every “irrational” practice of today with some more ideal practice of tomorrow; and they have disdain for 1,000+ year old institutions, like the university or face-to-face schooling. They may be opposed to unions, support corporate tax breaks, and want limited government, but they simply don’t have a Conservative temperament when it comes to politics.

One final note on this point: you can see how “Progressive” and “Conservative” can be temperaments of any ideology by seeing how you can argue for the same issue with each different temperament. For example, you could argue for gay marriage Progressively: “We believe in equality and gay people are being denied equality, so we must solve this problem by granting them equality in marriage.” Or you could argue for gay marriage Conservatively: “Marriage is an important inherited institution for wisely structuring our relations. The more people that participate in this well-tested practice, the better. We can’t risk a portion of the population being outside of this practice, so we should expand it to include them.”

3. COMFORT WITH HIERARCHY: “Left-wing” vs. “Right-wing”

If “Progressive” and “Conservative” are not words to describe ideologies, but rather words to describe political temperaments, then what are some words to describe ideologies?

Perhaps the primary ideological fault line is what one might call “Comfort with Hierarchy.”

If you are uncomfortable with a world where some are socially higher than others and thus want to actively work to lessen such a hierarchy, then you could be called “Left-wing.

If you are fine with social hierarchy — if you find it natural or even find it beneficial — then you could be called “Right-wing.”

What do we mean by social hierarchy? Well, one can exercise their Left-wing or Right-wing ideologies at any or all levels of social hierarchy, from the smallest of inequalities to world-wide disparities. Thoroughly left-wing people are and were uncomfortable with the parent-child hierarchy, the male-female hierarchy, racial hierarchies, the hierarchical-design of organizations like the military or high school, the geo-political hierarchy that leave smaller nations at the mercy of those with mightier militaries, and – perhaps most significantly today – the capitalist hierarchy that leaves the rich (be they nations or people) more powerful than the poor. Thoroughly right-wing people aren’t bothered by these hierarchies: they even find them natural, necessary and beneficial.

Leftists often practice politics with a Progressive temperament, for they hope to re-structure society to meet their ideal of less hierarchy. Rightists often practice politics with a Conservative temperament, for they hope to conserve the inherited hierarchies of the past. However, this is not always the case. Those who argue that we should replace elements of Democracy with rational experts and systems (you might have been caught at a party with someone saying “the country should ditch Democracy and have an ‘enlightened CEO’ that runs everything through Google-like metrics managed by smart people”) could be called “Progressive Rightists.” Those who argue that we should, say, preserve the inherited non-hierarchical community spirit of the teaching profession against the onslaught of nationalized quantitative standardized metrics for merit pay could be called “Conservative Leftists” on that issue.

4. COMFORT WITH CULTURAL MODERNITY: “Traditionalist” vs. “Modernist”

Unlike “comfort with hierarchy”, “comfort with cultural modernity” is less an eternal human question and more of a question specific to this past century. The basic gist of the question is: “How do you feel about the extreme cultural modernization that took place during the 20th century?”

Folks have filled tens of thousands of pages on what 20th century cultural modernism is and means, so I am not going to be able to capture it here in full. But, here’s the basic gist:

Before the modernist explosion in the 20th century — an explosion that was particularly rapid in the 1920’s and 1960’s — women were disenfranchised homemakers, being gay was unspeakable, romance was governed by strict Victorian rules and most people were Biblical fundamentalists who lived in rural villages with their tight-knit large families. By the end of the century, women are – for the most part – liberated and working outside the home, gay people have come out, romance is wild and public, Biblical fundamentalists are a small minority, our relatively-few children spread far and wide across our Interstate-Highwayed nation when they grow up, and most people live in and around urban metropolises wired with internet browsers and cable televisions that are pumping in all kinds of images of all kinds of Truths from all kinds of places.

Some people think most of this is a good thing and that we should continue the cultural march forward… we can call them “Modernists“.

Some people think most of this is a bad thing and we should return to (or to the best of our ability, cultivate in the Modern landscape) our pre-Modern ways… we can call them “Traditionalists.

Again, these words often get confused with Progressive, Conservative and Liberal. True, it was probably people with a Progressive mindset who pushed Modernism back in the day and it was probably people with a Conservative mindset who fought against it. But, now that modern culture is here, those temperaments don’t necessarily have to match your comfort with Modernism. You can be happy with where Modernism brought us up until now and then have a Conservative attitude with regard to attempts to march it further (for example, a Conservative Modernist might be happy about feminism but skeptical about doing away with the gender binary).

Being ideologies, Modernism and Traditionalism — like Leftism and Rightism — are susceptible to Fundamentalism. There can be Modernist Fundamentalists (“we will not rest until all traditional chains are deconstructed!”) and Traditionalist Fundamentalists (“I don’t care what you say, we won’t be satisfied until the traditional family structure is the law of the land!”). Most of us, though, are probably Modernist or Traditionalist Pragmatists.

5. VIGILANCE FOR INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY: “Illiberal” vs. “Liberal” (vs. “Communitarian”)

Notice how I have yet to include the most loaded word in politics today: “Liberal.”

It’s time to reset ‘liberal’ it’s original meaning: to be “Liberal” is to be vigilant in protecting the liberty of the individual. Liberals believe we should, in the course of political projects, both actively broaden the scope of individuals’ freedom to do what they want while vigilantly avoiding restricting individuals’ liberty. Civil rights (“freedom of speech” “freedom of religion” “due process” “equal participation in government power”), international human rights, and private property protections are Liberalism’s children.

Those who act in ways that oppose established Liberal principles and safeguards — and, in doing so, sacrifice individual rights or liberties for the sake of some common Good — can be said to be “Illiberal.” For example, ‘War on Terror’ wiretapping for the sake of some common Good of security is an Illiberal program. Those who try to ban speakers from coming to campus due to their racist or misogynist past comments have often been accused of being the “Illiberal Left.” The same goes for those in favor of violence against individuals as a means to any political ends: they are being Illiberal.

Somewhere between the Illiberals — who want to actively roll back Liberal safeguards — and passionate Liberals — who see the sole end of Government as protecting individual liberty — are the “Communitarians.” They don’t fit in any spectrum well, so here is the best place I can put them. Communitarians might believe in all the present Liberal safeguards, but also believe that there is more to government than protecting individual liberty. They emphasize how we are shaped by our communities and thus support public action to promote community life and some sense of a Common Good. Communitarians of the “civic republican” variety specifically criticize liberals’ neutrality towards the Common Good, for they argue that a lack of any devotion to the preservation of a communal spirit (i.e. only focusing on individuals’ rights and desires) will eventually lead to the erosion of even basic neutral liberal rights, for no one will care enough to defend them.

5b. MODE OF INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY: “Positive” vs. “Libertarian”

Notice how I said above Liberals believe we should, in the course of political projects, both (1) actively broaden the scope of individuals’ freedom to do what they want; while (2) vigilantly avoiding restricting individuals’ liberty. The tension between these two projects form the final spectrum: “Mode of Individual Liberty.”

Those who believe that avoiding explicitly restricting individuals’ liberty is more important than actively broadening all individuals’ freedom are who we call “Libertarians“. Even if a government program helped millions have more choices, they would oppose it due to the increased taxes to pay for the program limiting the liberty of taxpayers. Their vigilance for individual liberty is more focused on preserving freedom from government restraint and interference.

Those who believe that actively broadening the scope of individuals’ freedom to do what they want might be worth the government partially restricting the liberty of certain individuals can be called “Positive Liberals.” Their vigilance for individual freedom is more focused on ensuring freedom from non-government restraints, like poverty and workplace belittlement.

Being a Libertarian vs. being a Positive Liberal comes down to Governmental Power vs. Non-Governmental Power. The libertarians believe the best we can do to protect individual liberty is to restrict government intervention. The positive liberals believe that because there are many assaults on individual liberty (corporate, religious, family, cultural, etc.), we need to deploy the People’s tool – the Government – to help strike a balance that maximizes individual liberty. A Libertarian draws a bolded line between Governmental power and other power because Government is the only one that isn’t explicitly voluntary whereas everything else, in some sense, is voluntary (you *can* get another job; you *can* move somewhere else; you *can* figure it out). Positive Liberals don’t buy it (you *can’t really, seriously* get another job when you’re in dire straights; you *can’t really seriously* move somewhere else when you don’t have a car; you *can’t really seriously* figure it out when your whole environment is bearing down on you…”because, come on, let’s get get real here”).

In some ways, Libertarianism and Conservatism are connected, for the Conservative skepticism of expert opinion is connected to Libertarian skepticism about the alleged threats of Non-Governmental power.  If you are skeptical about whether we can even say that a certain non-government structure in society is implicitly limiting freedom (say, workplace discrimination or low wages or capitalism as a whole), then the prudent, Conservative thing to do is to not meddle and just avoid the worse action of government explicitly limiting freedom to achieve its plans. If you are more trusting of expert opinion — part of the Progressive temperament — you are more willing to be a Positive Liberal, encouraging the government to act on expert opinions about Non-Government powers limiting freedom.

Positive Liberals are similar to Communitarians in the sense that they support active government programs, but are different in how they see their work. Positive Liberals see their work as helping guarantee individuals more equal freedom to other individuals in society. Communitarians see their work as building the community as a whole. For example, a Communitarian might be more likely to support a public investment (like a park or school) whereas a Positive Liberal might be more likely to support a tax-and-transfer program like Social Security or Food Stamps.


So there we go. Here’s a summary of my POLITICAL VOCABULARY RESET:

  • Fundamentalist: One who believes political answers are found in past, external and eternal formulas and prescriptions.
  • Pragmatist: One who believes political answers are found in the present intelligences of present people making ad hoc decisions in response to present circumstances.
  • Progressive: Temperament of pragmatic politics that starts with rational, abstract ideals and attempts to move society towards those ideals, solving problems often through rational expertise.
  • Conservative: Temperament of pragmatic politics that starts by acknowledging the complexity of the social world and fallibility of human rationality, trusting in inherited practices and ‘social knowledge’ over present grand blueprints.
  • Left-wing: Discomfort with social hierarchy.
  • Right-wing: Comfort with social hierarchy.
  • Traditionalist: Discomfort with the cultural modernization that took place in the 20th century.
  • Modernist: Comfort with the cultural modernization that took place in the 20th century.
  • Liberal: Vigilant defender of individual freedom and liberty.
  • Illiberal: Showing a willingness to ignore established rights and practices set up to defend individual freedom and liberty.
  • Positive Liberalism: Branch of liberalism who is willing to have the government partially interfere with certain individuals’ liberty for the sake of actively broadening all individuals’ freedom.
  • Libertarianism: Branch of liberalism housing those who believe that avoiding government interference with individuals’ liberty is more important than actively broadening all individuals’ freedom.

I hope you find this reset useful. As I said before, this is a first draft, to be judged by how effective it is at clarifying the present fault lines of American political belief and providing tools for political re-imagination. I might have mischaracterized something or fallen victim to my predisposition towards Left-wing Conservative Modernist Communitarian-Liberal Pragmatism, so push back. I look forward to reading in the comments what you think.

Four Political Crises in Post-Hope America, 2014

The following essay we written the day after the 2014 midterm elections.

Beneath the micro-trends, the gaffes, and the personalities of the midterms are four moral, foundational crises in American politics:

1. Crisis of DEMOCRACY: Close to no one has faith or trust in our national legislative system. They believe, rightfully so, that money buys results in Congress. They see that legislators spend 30-70% of their day dialing donors for dollars. They see majoritarian issues — like minimum wage raises and rolling back the War on Drugs, which have 60-70% support nationwide — languishing, while unpopular deep-pocketed private-interest requests skate through. We spend precious time during short Congressional sessions debating how to organize Syria, Iraq, and Libya by fiat from afar before addressing our own community’s desperate needs: ones which we actually have the democratic legitimacy — rather than just the brute force — to address. The democratic infrastructure that used to give the common citizen a shot at making a difference — national federated organizations, national churches, national participatory unions — has been replaced by managed shells from afar that only talk to ‘folks’ when they need checks or votes or eyeballs. Americans feel shut out from the very facet of society whose purpose is to ensure we all never feel shut out: democratic politics.

2. Crisis of ECONOMY: The economy, as it is organized today, does not provide widespread security nor creative, productive empowerment. While productivity has increased, wages have stagnated for decades. Tens of millions of Americans make less today, adjusted for inflation, than *any worker* made in the late 1960’s. Those working in the fast-growing service industry (fast food, retail, even home health care) have little recourse when they want higher wages or more power at the workplace. Money circles around the Wall Street casino — apparently “ensuring liquidity” — while productive ideas go unfunded. For most Americans — those outside of Silicon Valleys, those who never went to colleges with innovation labs, those without wealthy uncles to give them $20k for a good idea — a business environment of health insecurity, lack of clear startup capital and bureaucratic corn mazes pushes, for many, the idea of starting a small business out of reach. At the turn of the 20th century, a nation of artisans traded their creative workplaces and family farms for the passive employment security of the Industrial Revolution. Now, we want both — security and creativity from employment — but a growing number have neither. The local worker and consumer cooperatives that could provide an alternative are ignored in Washington. Do any of America’s small business owners and would-be small business or co-op dreamers really believe either party — one which ignores them and the other which stacks the deck for their multinational mega-corporate status quo players — speaks to their needs?

3. Crisis of CARBON: The urgent recommendations of our scientific, international and military community — that we must, with all deliberate speed, reduce carbon emissions — are silenced by the American culture war. The mercenary PR teams of innovation-scared oil magnates have successfully deluded a sizable portion of conservatives — the political personality which historically defended prudence, checked greed, warned of radical changes in the environment, and invented conservation — into believing that doubting the science of Bill Nye, Pentagon generals, the Pope, South Carolina Republican Bob Inglis and an overwhelming consensus of international scientists was somehow helpful to their project of limited government, moral revival, common sense and service to God. The result is set to be disastrous for our children’s most vulnerable neighbors. Again, one party ignores the gravity of the issue — scared of speaking Truth to shale — while the other shills for their corporate paymasters.

4. Crisis of CULTURE: Our culture continues to centralize and drain of moral language. A nation that once had many national cultural centers now packs the cutting-edge into only 3-4 cities, driving up housing prices there and leaving vast swaths of the nation ignored. Regional cultures that flourished and allowed for trips across the country to be interesting and varied are in danger. Enjoyment that came from neighbors, local sports teams, local art, and the like is replaced by time spent alone watching something written by a few people far away. The heroes who are fighting back — cultivating culture and community in the nooks and crannies of America and the internet — are ignored by our politicians. Meanwhile, the centralized culture is drained of public, moral language. The idea that there might be something Good to do — as opposed to just something fun to do — is rarely discussed, replaced by cost-benefit analysis. Our centralized culture does a good job of defending individual rights, making sure cruel bullies are condemned, and building our understanding of marginalized lifestyles — indeed, projects which are tremendously important and for which I am immensely grateful — but fail to discuss other hard questions, like “How does one live an honorable life?” and “How does one choose what to do?” The result: public school classes helping students be “career-and-college-ready” while ignoring the task of educating for citizenship; politicians re-enforcing our self interests rather than challenging us to have higher interests; and a public morality that angrily condemns slips of the tongue and zipper, but not of the wallet and cluster bomb. Without a spice of moral culture, eventually even the liberal bulwarks of rights and tolerance will fall due to lack of desire for common maintenance. And again, both parties ignore this real cultural challenge, while stoking the flames of a fake culture war from which our generation has already moved on.

The GOP response to these crises: transfer the tax responsibility from profitable corporations to citizens; roll back safety, health and conservation protections for workers and consumers; and ensure the construction of a pipeline that Bill McKibben has called a “carbon bomb.” This is a ridiculous response to the crises above, let alone the jobs crisis they have repeatedly raised since 2009.

The Dem response to these crises: leveraging their newfound advantage in the culture war with a “War on Women” messaging while mostly ignoring the other War on Women — the 2/3 of low wage workers who are women struggling without union representation, the millions of undocumented women who face the dangers of living in America without access to police, and the millions of women suffering under the particularly violent patriarchy that grows where poverty reigns — as well as lining up hundreds of plutocratic fundraisers for their leaders to attend, so that they can get in on the action that the GOP used to have to themselves.

Until someone truly speaks to these crises — with a clear voice and vision — we are going to have the same back-and-forth games that we have seen in the last 10 elections. As we vote in the primaries in 2016, we should be on the look out for who is and isn’t ready to address these crises in bold ways.

One response to this all is to be cynical. But that’s exactly what Mitch McConnell wants you to do…explicitly. From the new biography on McConnell, appropriately titled ‘The Cynic’: “‘Mitch said [in early 2009], ‘We have a new president with an approval rating in the 70 percent area. We do not take him on frontally. We find issues where we can win, and we begin to take him down, one issue at a time. We create an inventory of losses, so it’s Obama lost on this, Obama lost on that. And we wait for the time when the image has been damaged to the point where we can take him on.’” As the biography summarized: “In other words, wait out Americans’ hopefulness in a dire moment for the country until it curdles to disillusionment.”

But cynicism cannot be the option. Every “I give up” or “There’s no hope” or “Let the ship go down” or “Every politician is bad” is another point on the board for the Washington insiders — they don’t want you in the game, they’d rather have you check out.

So, what’s the alternative to cynicism? You’re probably expecting me to say “Hope.” But we already tried Hope. It didn’t work.

But, there’s even an alternative to hope. As Roberto Unger writes, “It is a common mistake to suppose that hope i10696328_900037403340177_144162115236399729_ns the cause of action. Hope is the consequence of action: you act and then, as a result, you begin to hope.” So, this time around, let’s trade in our cynicism — let’s even trade in our hope — for action. This weekend, pick an issue and get into it. Pick a block in town and think about how you can address a problem in it. Pick a democratic institution and help revive it. Pick a primary in 2016 and run in it. Have not hope, but faith: faith that the creative genius and vigorous action of ordinary men and women like us can confront these crises of this Age of Disappointment.

I can already see the garden in bloom again, but only when I grip my trowel.

Tools for Organizing the Good Life

When we graduate from college, we’re often hit by a flood of existential befuddlement. We don’t really have a way to organize our thoughts on what makes for a Good, hearty life. We often either trick ourselves into a much-too-simple one-note strategy (maxi970799_769400226403896_664620815_nmize money and all will be okay; maximize stability and all will be okay; maximize experience and all will be okay,” etc.) or lull ourselves into a nothingness strategy (“What feels good?” “You do you, man, you do you!” “What would a person like me do?” “Who *am* I?”).

But I think there’s a better way, which is to try to think about how we’re doing in a plurality of Life Modes and do our best to be strong in our own way in each mode. Here’s a few Life Modes that I have seen people tap into to organize their life:

Cause: Pushing the world in a direction. Examples include fighting climate change, disrupting the housing market with your startup company, or getting more people to join your church. The key question is, “What is my cause that I want to fight for and what can I be doing now to fight for it?” The struggle is waking up everyday and mustering the will to keep pushing a not-easily-pushed world in a direction, while also making sure your direction remains a good direction.

Craft: Honing a tool over time. Examples include chefs who hone their sushi, classical guitarists who hone their fingerpicking, teachers who hone their teaching. The key question is “What is the craft that I want to be a wise expert at and what can I be doing now to hone it?” The struggle is returning to the same thing over and over again, knowing that you have miles ahead of you while taking tiny steps in the here and now.

Experience: Adventure and exploration, both physical and mental. Examples include visiting new places, learning new things, trying new things. The key question is “What are areas I want to explore and what can I be doing to start exploring them?” The struggle is continuing the spirit of exploration and not letting unhealthy amounts of fear and satisfaction get in the way.

Role: Honorably playing your part in a relationship or community. Examples include: Being a good father, being a good citizen, being a good daughter, being a good leader, being a good teammember, being a good neighbor, being a good friend. The key question is “What roles do I care to honorably steward and what can I be doing to honorably live up to those roles?”. The struggle is being there for others and standing upright through thick and thin, even when the relationship is driving you mad, while also making sure your role and relationship is a living thing (and not rigidifying into some inflexible going-through-the-motions or, worse, some negative thing you need to get out of).

Art: Articulating the inarticulate for others. Examples include: Music, Poetry, Personality, Style, Whimsy… you know, art. The key question is “What are some unarticulated messages that I want to articulate and what can I be doing to reflect on them and articulate them?” The struggle is finding the time and focus to: sit with the spirit and feel something real; process that into something you have an insight of understanding into; and transmit that insight into an articulation others can experience.

The modes of thinking about organizing life — Cause, Craft, Experience, Role and Art — have helped me a lot. Hope they can help someone out there, too!

Prospects for Ideological Diplomacy

Below is an essay I wrote after attending the Conservative Political Action Conference in an attempt to better understand part of the conservative movement of today.

If you followed the press coverage earlier this month of the Conservative Political Action Conference, you would think that the entire event was a never-ending parade of 2016 Presidential candidates. Outside the view of the news cameras, however, were the most important characters at CPAC: the hundreds of conference-goers, representing the conservative rank-and-file, whose passions and choices will determine the future of the movement.

1654745_10201565119360909_1783956257_nI arrived at the Gaylord National Convention Center on a mission to see them. Specifically, I had come to CPAC to talk with them about issues where the Left and the Right could converge. I was hoping to see if — at a frequency below the carnival barks broadcasting from the Palin wannabes on stage — there were, among the conference-goers, some seeds of potential for progressive-conservative alliances that could be fostered to break through Washington’s partisan gridlock.

After speaking with dozens of the conference-goers and spending the subsequent weeks exploring the mantras and media that they had made reference to in our conversations, I have four conclusions to report back to my fellow progressives.

1. The conservatives represented at CPAC fall into two main political communities: The Young Professional Right and The Old Heartland Conservatives.  

The largest community at CPAC was what one might call the Young Professional Right. These were the 20-something young guns working for — or, in the case of the sprawling job fair at CPAC, aspiring to work for — the dozens of right-wing institutes bankrolled by the conservative one percent. Young Americans for Freedom, Generation Opportunity, The Leadership Institute, Turning Point USA: the conference was bursting at the seams with well-organized, big-tent organizations meant to attract students and recent graduates to this Young Professional Right.1964633_10201565356686842_607748027_n

These clean-shaven greenhorns often spoke of the “spiraling national debt” as their millennial convening issue — “because, you know, we’re in charge of paying it off in the future” — though I doubt any of their blood is actually boiling over the debt as a generational self-interest issue. What seemed to really drive these right-leaning yuppies was economic libertarianism, an ideology which provides them many benefits: it enables them to participate in a self-described insurgent movement; it allows them to be “conservative” while still participating in the modern liberal culture they learned to love at college; it is a worldview to which only they, with their economics degrees, can hold all the intellectual keys; and, of course, it opens doors to the most lucrative political jobs.

The other community — one might call them the Old Heartland Conservatives — is different. They are the older heads of families from outside the beltway.  At CPAC, they were the midwest grandmas huddled around the “Draft Ben Carson” table and the 40-something small business owners from the exurbs dragging their kids to the NRA booth. They talked about the “spiraling national debt” too, but unlike their young libertarian counterparts, they spoke of the economy in moral terms: less “the incentive effects of marginal tax rates” and more “self-responsibility.” They are also more ideologically diverse: while the the young libertarians I spoke with were one trick ponies — “liberty, liberty, liberty!” — the Old Heartlanders had room for guns, God and glory in their ideological repertoire.

2. The Young Professional Right’s libertarianism presents an opportunity for convergence, but their abstract carelessness gets in the way.

For the Young Professional Right, divisive social issues have receded to the background, creating an opening for convergence on issues where good governance meets libertarianism. Take corporate welfare, for example: libertarians and progressives both have reasons to oppose federal subsidies to Big Oil and Agriculture. Or campaign finance reform: libertarians and progressives both have causes — tax reform on the right, safety and health regulations on the left — that have been squandered by the distorting influence of money in politics. When I raised these issues with the young libertarians at CPAC, they always nodded their heads in agreement, giving me a sliver of hope that such openness could be tapped for convergent action.

Unfortunately, a certain abstract carelessness among the Young Professional Right stands in the way of convergence with progressives. I mean “careless” precisely here: many of the millennial conservatives I spoke with at CPAC simply did not care that certain concrete problems existed in the world. To the young conservatives, if a problem could not be solved by freeing markets, it was not a problem worth thinking about.

Take the 20-something at the Right to Work booth, for example. I asked him, “okay, I totally get the argument for Right to Work, but given that unions are in decline, how do we ensure fair wages in the service sector?” He responded, “you know I haven’t really thought much about that.” This is what I mean by carelessness: a guy who spends his whole day professionally thinking about labor policy while having no opinion about the declining wages of millions of his neighbors.

Or take another millennial at a booth promoting an app that helped you avoid patronizing companies that had donated to liberal causes, like “environmentalism.”  I asked what he meant by “environmentalism” and he said, “you know, crazy tree huggers, like Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund.” What? Boycott Coke because they donated to The World Wildlife Fund? This assuredly smart graduate had clearly never cared enough to think hard about the concrete reality of the tradeoffs of industry and conservation, let alone the history of conservatives in the conservation movement.

These young libertarians illustrate what George Will once called “pitiless abstracting”: letting abstract slogans and ideologies — the type of abstracting that conservative icons like Michael Oakeshott have argued is anti-conservative — get in the way of seeing the concrete suffering in your midst. The Young Professional Right can only converge with progressives if they can move down the ladder of abstraction to a shared concrete reality– a reality with more available solutions than just “lower taxes, reduced spending and less regulation.”

3. The Old Heartland Conservative’s commitment to moral values and a producerist ethic could be tapped to rein in corporate power, but only if progressives are willing to tap it.

When I asked about potential for Left-Right convergence, the Old Heartland Conservatives were much more skeptical than their younger counterparts. However, two trends in the Heartlanders’ rhetoric set off my ideological diplomacy receptors.

The first was their emphasis on moral values in the public sphere. Many Heartland Conservatives spoke of their worries that we have become a society without a moral core, as well as of their anger at Hollywood and the courts for pushing moral values out of our public culture. Some liberals might see this sentiment as a trojan horse for mixing Church and State and pushing anti-gay and anti-feminist policies. But I see it another way: it’s an opening for convergence over the immoral excesses of corporate capitalism.1927073_10201569017138351_1176385915_n

Without a shared moral language in the public sphere to draw on, we have no recourse against those who assert their power in the vacuum of morality. For example, in an earlier time, if a corporation were to advertise sugary drinks to children, we might have been able to shame them by drawing on the shared moral language of public responsibility. If greed was rampant in a community, we could call for “Prudence.” The corporate-funded cult of economic absolutism thrives on today’s vacuum of neutrality in the public sphere. The only counterweight to it’s relentless expansion is our collective moral indignation.

On this issue, it is young progressives who seem to create the roadblocks to convergence with the Old Heartland Conservatives. How many millennial liberals are asking critical questions about public morality: Are celebrities using their platform to make us better or worse souls? Are public school classes helping students grow up to be Good citizens instead of just “career-and-college-ready” individuals? Are politicians challenging us to have higher, civic interests, or just pandering to our current self interests? The Old Heartland Conservatives are asking these important questions better than we are. If we stopped disparaging the houses of their moral values — their churches — and took time to listen, perhaps we could converge on revitalizing a moral force to counter the corporate libertarian agenda.

The opportunity for convergence around moral values is closely tied to a second hopeful trend among the Old Heartland Conservatives. I finally put my finger on it while talking with Buck Allen, a country singer who was plays Tea Party-themed songs with lyrics such as “Don’t tread on me, I’m American free, you’re not gonna take it away!” I asked him about how he made a living and he talked with pride about his 28-acre farm and the need for people “to produce things again, not just consume things.” If a Tea Party member talking about anti-consumerism is not a sign of potential convergence, I don’t know what is.

In fact, Allen’s “producerist ethic” was present in many of the conference-goers stories. This idea of “Producerism” — the belief that producers of tangible wealth should be valued and that citizens should work to produce more than they consume, give back more than they take — is an old one, having originated in America among laborers, artisans and farmers in the nineteenth century. The worst, untempered edge of Producerism has been visible on the Right in recent years. It is present in the accusations that 47% of the country are “takers,” that those on welfare are “leeching” off of the system, and that the poor are not just economically poor, but morally poor. But, underneath this vile co-option is the original Producerism: the ethic that originally challenged those on all sides of the economic spectrum — especially wealthy financiers — to work to not leech off the system; the ethic that says we should reward the sweaty creators of America, not the tidy aristocrats; the ethic that reminds us that more joy comes from making things than from consuming them.

This is an area ripe for Left-Right convergence. One roadblock, though, is the fact that liberal economic policy often focuses only on the consumption side of the economy: more wages, more equitable incomes, more employment. Where are the popular progressive policies about more worker ownership and worker cooperatives? Or about access to productive resources for starting one’s own business? If progressives started talking more about this production side of the equation, we might be able to bridge the divide.

The Old Heartland Conservatives need to play their part in convergence, too, though.  Despite all the talk about “job creators” and “risk takers,” the Republican Party has yet to put forth a program that seriously supports entrepreneurial dreamers, artisans and makers in the Heartland. Yet, the Heartlanders never punish them for it at the ballot box. Despite all the Tea Party talk about how they are against Wall Street fat cats as much as they are against Washington bureaucrats, their shouts of “taker” are always louder when directed at poor individuals than at rich corporations. Convergence will only be possible when they see the sizeable coalition that could be made from joining with progressives to both rein in the corrupting power of corporate aristocrats and open access to more productive resources for small producers.

4. Conservative leaders have a choice between fortifying the roadblocks to common ground or sowing the seeds of Left-Right convergence.

The “leaders” at CPAC — the ones at the podium in front of the cameras — are roadblocks to convergence for both groups of conservatives. In the CPAC ballroom, the respective flaws of the Young Professional Right and the Old Heartland Conservatives — doctrinaire insensitivity to serious problems and improperly-directed scorn — were fertilized by a bevy of speakers who pandered to the attendees, uninterested in leading them to higher levels of informed and productive conscientiousness. As a result, the Palins, Cruzes and Rubios laughed their way to the headlines, the Young Professional Right got their high-paying jobs at the K10008563_10201565213723268_1224313082_noch Institute, the Heartland Conservatives learned new slogans of indignation to bring home, and no one in the ballroom was left making progress towards convergent coalitions that could actually ameliorate their public dissatisfaction.

Away from the cameras though, tucked in the corner of the convention hall, was real convergent leadership for the Right. When I came across the “Right on Crime” booth, three men present were talking to conference-goers about their convergent initiatives in Texas. “Hey, we believe in limited, efficient government,” one said. “And yet our prison system is bloated and inefficient — something had to be done.” They have spent the past years organizing a Left-Right coalition to develop reforms to the criminal justice system to save money and decrease recidivism. With their help, Texas has strengthened alternatives to incarceration for adults and juveniles over the past years, achieving significant reductions in crime while saving taxpayers $2 billion. At the end of the day, they partnered with progressives to achieve success without sacrificing their conservative commitment to limited government.

Here’s to hoping that by next year’s CPAC, the Palins are tucked in the corner and convergers like “Right on Crime” are center stage.

Nader’s 80

Today is the 80th birthday of Ralph Nader, who is perhaps the most effective civic reformer of the past 50 years.

When he was in law school, some of his friends had been hurt in automobile accidents and his gut told him that it might not have been their fault– it might be the fault of the cars themselves. He set about investigating and eventually produced Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. The book was a sensation and eventually led to the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which shifted the onus of automobile safety from the consumer to the producer and the government. The seatbelts, airbags, and safety standards that arose from his efforts have been credited with saving tens of thousands of lives.

While this was happening, General Motors sent goons to discredit him. They couldn’t crack him and he sued, resulting in the largest invasion of privacy award at the time. He used the money to double down on his consumer protection efforts, growing a force of mini-Naders — eventually deemed “Nader’s Raiders” — to repeat his methods with automobile safety on dozens of other issues. The Raiders, at their peak, are pictured here on the steps of the Capitol.Ralph-Raiders-2-330

His method was genius:

  1. Get energetic young people to research a topic and publish a “Nader Report”;
  2. Use his fame to generate buzz from the report, usually through appearances on the Phil Donahue show;
  3. Switch gears from research to activism, lobbying Congress and federal agencies to act on the newfound research; and
  4. Found an organization to build on legislative victories.

Lather, rinse, repeat, all the while producing a new generation of civic reformers.

The result, legislatively: the Freedom of Information Act; the Wholesome Meat Act; the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act; the Clean Air Act; the Occupational Safety and Health Act; the Consumer Product Safety Act; the Safe Water Drinking Act; the Clean Water Act; the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; the Mine Health and Safety Act; the Whistleblower Protection Act and much more.

The result, organizationally: American Antitrust Institute, Appleseed Foundation, Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, Aviation Consumer Action Project, Buyers Up, Capitol Hill News Service, Center for Auto Safety, Center for Insurance Research, Center for Justice and Democracy, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Center for Study of Responsive Law, Center for Women Policy Studies, Citizen Action Group, Citizen Advocacy Center, Citizen Utility Boards, Citizen Works, Clean Water Action Project, Congress Project, Congress Watch, Connecticut Citizen Action Group, Corporate Accountability Research Group, Critical Mass Energy Project, Democracy Rising, Disability Rights Center, Equal Justice Foundation, Essential Information, FANS (Fight to Advance the Nation’s Sports), Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumer Rights, Freedom of Information Clearinghouse, Georgia Legal Watch, Global Trade Watch, Health Research Group, Litigation Group, Multinational Monitor, National Citizen’s Coalition for Nursing Home Reform, National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest, National Insurance Consumer Organization, Ohio Public Interest Action Group, Organization for Competitive Markets, Pension Rights Center, Princeton Project 55, PROD – truck safety, Public Citizen, Retired Professionals Action Group ,Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest, Student Public Interest Research Groups nationwide, Tax Reform Research Group, Telecommunications Research and Action Center, The Visitor’s Center, and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.

This is all without mentioning that he hosted SNL, was selected by the Atlantic as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Americans, was asked by George McGovern to be his running mate in 1972, sang a song about consumer advocacy on Sesame Street (see minute 3:30 of this clip), and is the namesake of the “Nader Bell” which is the horn that beeps when big trucks back up.

I am personally inspired by him because he embodies this lost art in American politics, which is “the reformer.” The reformer is pushing no burn-it-all-down revolution; the reformer need not be culturally libertine; the reformer is not inspired solely by sticking it to the Man. Rather, the reformer, from a position of deep care for the community, looks at public problems, develops solutions and speaks Truth to power until the system is reformed so that the problems are a bit meliorated. And the best reformers have a vision of how problems are interconnected so their work is not made of one-off band-aids. Some lived the Ralph-Nader1960’s counterculture — the push for individual authenticity and broad-based political participation — by dropping acid at Woodstock. Ralph Nader did it by founding public citizen groups that wielded facts, beat the system, and saved tens of thousands of lives. He’s in a category with Fred Rogers, who took the call for more authentic lives in the 1960’s and founded a television show that helped children develop in a healthy and natural relationship with their own feelings. These are my heroes: those with radical lives, not just radical lifestyles.

Nader’s a living embodiment of his quote: “Almost every significant breakthrough has come from the spark, the drive, the initiative of one person.” And when asked what he wants to be known as, he responds, “Full-time citizen.” Amen.

For more information, I highly recommend the documentary about his life, “An Unreasonable Man,” which is streaming online.