Over the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about progressive politics, especially with respect to the fight against inequality and climate change. I’m not quite sure exactly where I stand.
On both issues, I believe there are a number of groups who not only agree that the problems we are facing demand urgent fundamental change, but largely agree on the right framework (or ideology) to determine the called-for changes. These groups are driven by evidence, but also by their own values and judgement that are not fully shared by the wider population.
These groups are opposed by vested interests that perceive that they have much to lose (including power and wealth) from the called-for change. They are often also opposed by other groups that agree that the problems demand urgent fundamental change, but disagree on what change is required.
I would argue that the vast majority of people want good outcomes for themselves and for others, but haven’t spent significant amounts of time and energy examining the problems and potential solutions. I call this group the middle ground, but I certainly don’t mean that they are centrists in a specific political sense.
Then, there are people like me, who have spent a lot of time thinking about the issues, agree that fundamental change is needed, but aren’t convinced by any group’s framework. They may also (like me) feel that the needed change must be acceptable to a large enough proportion of the population.
(I don’t intend to sound insulting of any of these groups, except perhaps the vested interests.)
So, how do we move forward? I’m not prepared to just accept the path advocated by a small minority, against the will of the majority, no matter how serious the situation is and no matter how good their intentions. But equally, I certainly don’t want to see us doing nothing, and hoping that things get bad enough that people wake up.
If we’re going to sort this out, I believe we’re going to need to relearn the art of working with other tribes, finding common objectives and forming consensus.
This doesn’t mean throwing away our beliefs and values: many of the positive changes we’ve seen in the past, things like the abolition of slavery and votes for women, only occurred because of minority obsessions.
But these groups worked with others, to get these changes done. They didn’t insist on everyone else believing the same things. Christians and non-Christians managed to achieve great things together despite their fundamental differences. People with strong convictions managed to convince others that their proposals would help others, or at least not hurt them. I believe we need to do likewise.
Here are some specific recommendations:
- Don’t demonise those who believe different things than you. It stops them getting on board, and stops you hearing what they want or worry about (which you need to know to get consensus).
- Don’t blame others if you fail to convince them. Yes, you’ll have to overcome the vested interests, but there really aren’t that many of them.
- Focus on specific changes you want. It is a lot easier to get consensus on the changes than the motivations behind them.
- Build rapport with other groups. The more you are agreeing with other groups, rather than all fighting, the easier it will be to convince those of no strong opinion.
- Develop general credibility over the longer term. If people respect and trust you generally, they will be more willing to listen and trust you on specific proposals.
- Work to build platforms that allow different groups to engage and cooperate. I’m a big fan of citizens assemblies, but there are also a number of electoral changes that would help in this respect.
- Reward groups that show a willingness to do these things. Respect actual achievements, and tolerate what might appear to be ideological impurity.
What might this mean in practice? On fighting inequality, those that see socialism as the answer need to work with those that want measures to reduce inequality as a way of preventing socialism. And they need to spend time with people in the middle ground to understand what in their proposals worries them, so that they can either work on selling it better or leave it out.
On fighting climate change, likewise. Extinction Rebellion is extremely effective at raising awareness, but often gives an impression of ideological purity, that everyone who doesn’t accept all their claims is the problem. Again, I’m not saying that their strength of conviction is a problem, I see it as a real strength, but they need to get better at speaking to the middle ground (for example, I really like their proposed citizens’ assemblies as a way of achieving this).
It often won’t be easy. Our media thrives on fanning argument, because it is exciting, and also because it is often controlled by vested interests that feel threatened by change. Human nature is notoriously alert to tribal disloyalty. But we’ve done it before, and it really is better than waiting for things to get so bad that we’re prepared to try anything.