In the mid-term elections, the GOP’s not-so-secret weapon was fear. Fear of Ebola, fear of ISIS, and fear of immigrants all played a significant role in shaping the pre-election political climate, and Democrats for the most part, responded by hunkering down into a defensive crouch.
Once again, as in 2010, they largely abandoned any pro-active agenda setting of their own, any talk of breaking new ground, exploring new possibilities—even despite the greater-than-hoped-for success of Obamacare—and they certainly lacked the patience, maturity and self-confidence to stand back and criticize the childish, self-defeating fearfulness at the heart of the GOP’s campaign strategy. Republicans had one thing going for them—fear. Democrats had two potential strengths they turned their backs on—innovation and maturity. By failing to capitalize on those potential strengths, Democrats spent almost the entire campaign hunkered down, just waiting for the fear-based attack to come.
To put it mildly, it was not a strategic position of enormous strength, much less one of flexibility. Things changed rapidly during the campaign, and even more dramatically afterwards, as all three of those fears have faded rapidly into the background by now. Yet, the Democrats’ defensive crouch left them unable to take advantage of any changing situations. Democrats even proved entirely unable to take advantage of the unforeseen extent of Obamacare’s success, which deprived the GOP of their key pre-planned bogeyman for the campaign. On top of everything, fear of being identified with Obama was a widespread concern which hobbled many campaigns and even crippled some—a dynamic which looks increasingly ridiculous in hindsight, as Obama’s been particularly successful in taking major actions after the Democrats' miserable mid-term showing.
It didn’t have to be that way.
More than 80 years ago, in his first inaugural address, FDR addressed a frightened and uncertain nation, and told them, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Not only has today’s Democratic Party lost its way in terms of building on its New Deal economic heritage—which helped create the largest middle class in human history—it’s just as lost in terms of the over-riding can-do sense of purpose which made Roosevelt’s success possible. What’s more, it’s lost the momentum, not so much in generating new ideas, as in pushing the out into the world, so that they shape our shared perceptions of what’s real, what’s possible, and what’s desirable as well.
Fear is a powerful political motivator, in some ways, perhaps the most powerful of them all, but by calling fear out, and naming it as the one thing we were truly wise to fear, Roosevelt performed one of the most profound and significant acts of political transformation in American history. In a single stroke, he largely immunized himself to the repeated waves of fear which he would inevitably face in the years to come. As a result—working together with millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of activists—Roosevelt was able to both save and fundamentally transform both American capitalism and its surrounding political culture, virtually creating the modern middle class out of the ruins of the Great Depression.
Things are different today. For one thing, President Obama is himself a source of fear for many white Americans, particularly conservatives. Roosevelt, too, was hated by conservatives, portrayed by anti-Semites as part of a world-wide Jewish conspiracy to run the world. But in reality, his ancestors were already old money by the time of the American Revolution. The fears rallied against Obama—fantastical though they were—had far greater surface plausibility, but more importantly, America’s entire political culture is radically different today—a point that will be explored more below—on top of which Obama’s non-elite background made him far less self-assured in directly confronting his elite opponents—the “malefactors of great wealth”, as FDR described them. Obama’s efforts to allay the fears whipped up against him by acting with restraint have proved fruitless, in large part simply because he is black and in part because conservatives were so violently opposed to compromising with him, treating every effort to compromise as either a trick to be drawn back from, or a sign of weakness, meaning they should double down on their demands.
Conservative hostility had multiple sources, not least the fact that everything conservatives had believed in during the Bush years had crumbled to dust. Nothing had worked the way it was supposed to. The Clinton era of relative peace and prosperity had given way to a time of catastrophic failure at home and abroad, and the 2008 electoral map showed it: for the first time since 1964, a Democrat won the states of Virginia and Indiana. Speaking of 1964, some Democrats hoped that Obama would be an LBJ-style figure, substantially updating and expanding the New Deal legacy which forms the core of what the modern Democratic Party means and has meant since the 1930s. But his allegiance to corporatism, Wall Street and neo-liberalism has made him more a Tony Blair-style figure of continuity with Bush than a sharp break with him. And yet, that has done nothing at all to dim the fears and hostility that’s been marshaled against him. If anything, Obama’s efforts to placate conservatives have only made them more profoundly hostile and suspicious on the one hand—as epitomized by birtherism, and the NRA’s repeated claims (here, here, here, etc.) that massive gun confiscation is imminent—and more demanding on the other, as epitomized by their ever-increasing demands to cut government spending on programs for the poor and the middle class.
This dynamic obviously has a lot to do with the recent history of American politics, as well as Obama’s race, but it also has much deeper roots as well. As explored in a story I wrote last summer, the conservative reliance on fear has a documented foundation in what’s known as “negativity bias,” but could just as well be called “threat bias.” That story focused primarily on a paper, “Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology,” by lead author John R. Hibbing of the University of Nebraska, which I noted “advances three successive waves of evidence, which combine to show that conservatives differ from liberals by having stronger, more intense reactions to negative aspects of the environment — such as physical threats, or potential sources of disease — which are ultimately physiological.” It’s not that fear alone explains conservatism. As I wrote in that piece:
To understand what Hibbing and his colleagues have achieved, it’s useful to compare their work to a 2003 paper, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” by John Jost and colleagues, which made a more modest, but related claim that conservatism could be understood as an ensemble of tendencies within a unified framework. That paper focused on psychological survey data — information gleaned from conscious questioning in 88 separate studies across decades of research in 12 countries. It did not claim that motivated reasoning was limited to conservatives, or that motivated reasoning was necessarily false, although many of its initial critics in Congress and elsewhere jumped to those conclusions (and some even threatened to defund the entire field of research into political psychology). But the paper’s abstract did say that “Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism–intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification).”
It was, I wrote, “an intriguing array of diverse yet interrelated factors, crying out for some sort of simplifying insight that could explain how and why they all fit together in some relatively simple, straightforward manner,” and that’s what Hibbing’s focus on threat bias provides. Regarding Hibbing’s paper, I explained:
[T]he authors’ argument proceeds in four stages. First, an examination of “liberal-conservative psychological differences as reflected in (survey) self-reports,” which was established in Jost’s 2003 meta-analysis, and has been expanded on since. They note that two of the five core personality traits — known as the Big Five — correlate consistently with political orientation “across a broad range of studies” — conservatives score higher on conscientiousness while liberals score higher on openness to new experiences. (The other three traits are agreeableness, extraversion and emotional stability). Second, they review “psychological differences that are not fully accessible to the participants themselves,” such as differences in responding to negative imagery. Third, they describe evidence of “physiological differences between liberals and conservatives,” including differences in brain structure and function. Fourth, they present a synthesis of the research “arguing that many of the correlations described are tied together by the common thread of differences in response patterns to negative stimuli.” They point out that “Good evolutionary reasons exist for negativity bias given that negative events can be much more costly in fitness terms than positive events are beneficial; to state the obvious, infection, injury, and death curtail reproductive opportunities.”
Hence, negativity/threat bias plays a key role, not in isolation, but as an initiator and orchestrator of the wider array of phenomena others have studied for decades. What’s important for political psychology is not just threat bias, but the fact that it varies across the population. Among the many noteworthy points made in the paper, two are worth highlighting here. First, threat bias may have evolutionary origins, with heightened threat bias playing a more important survival role before the development of means to survive life-threatening injuries. “In modern life, on the other hand, threats are less immediate and the selection pressures for elevated negativity biases have likely been reduced, opening the door for substantial genetic variation at relevant loci.”
Second, a diversity of threat-bias levels in a population may be beneficial, in the same way that a diversity of immunological responses is. But what’s beneficial for small group survival may produce major problems in larger social groups:
Just as groups of spiders benefit from having a mix of social and asocial members and virtually all species benefit from having individuals with different immune systems, the argument is that human groups benefit from having members who are differentially responsive and attentive to negative stimuli. If this were true, the polarization that afflicts many modern democracies may be a vestige of the mixes of the behaviorally relevant, biological predispositions that worked well in small-scale societies.
One thing that’s particularly noteworthy about these two observations is that they present negativity/threat bias as a natural phenomena, even a positive good at one point in our evolutionary development, yet also as potentially deeply problematic. It’s not all good or all bad, but mixed—a typically nuanced liberal view of liberalism’s implacable enemies.
The flip side of heightened threat bias may not be as sharply defined, as Hibbing notes, but a relative freedom from fear clearly allows for a greater willingness to explore, less fear of others and the unknown, heightened curiosity, a propensity to innovate, etc.— all aspects of the Big Five trait of “openness to new experiences,” identified with liberalism, as noted above. It allows for other aspects of liberalism to flourish as well, particularly a greater capacity for complexity of thought and self-reflection that comes with greater cognitive development—development that’s more favored by decreasing fear. As the world becomes a safer place overall with the advance of civilization, these liberal traits, bringing more deliberation and less impulsive action, are less likely to incur dangerous consequences, which means they have less of a social cost, even as their potential benefits rise.
As societies increase their capacity to create a safer, more nurturing world, these liberal traits are more likely to be socially valuable, because a safer, more nurturing world, which reflects these liberal values is one with reduced actual threats, increased remedies, and greater potential rewards from synergies of different exploratory advances. (The world will also become more friendly to other liberal-related traits or tendencies as well, such as tolerance for uncertainty, and increased integrative complexity—the capacity to first differentiate multiple perspectives and/or dimensions and subsequently integrate or synthesize them. More on this below). This is an example of “reflexivity” as George Lakoff described it when I interviewed him:
It has to do with the fact that thought is part of the world. That when you’re thinking, it’s not separate from reality, it’s part of reality. And if your understanding of the world is reflected in what you do, then that thought comes into the world through your actions. And then through your actions, if many people have the same ideas, those ideas are going to spread, and they’re going to come back and reinforce themselves, because they will change the world.
Thus, the evidence suggests that the process of civilization, though shot through with contradictions—most notably how it treats those deemed “not civilized”—is a fundamentally liberalizing process, in which reflexivity plays a crucial role, making the world increasingly safe for more liberal values to be expressed, and bear good fruit. This is only a probabilistic processes however, and contrary cycles of conservative reflexivity can certainly take hold—as they clearly did in Germany after World War I, for example—and have repeatedly done after every major advance in black rights in America, including Obama’s election. Indeed, the widely-observed phenomena of civilizational rise and fall may point to an inherent tendency for a limit to be reached, a tipping point, triggered most probably by resource scarcity which shifts the balance from the dominance of liberal to conservative reflexivity.
We can gain a bit more insight into this process from "Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich" in which Kevin Phillips included a comparison of America's trajectory as a world power with its three immediate predecessors as the leading world power: Spain, Holland and Britain. “Leading economic powers are not made or unmade overnight,” he wrote. “Each of the three that preceded the United States gained that status over roughly a half century, always amid a powerful convergence of commercial, political, geographic, and cultural forces.” He provided brief summaries of the cycles of each power’s rise and fall, then summarized:
Even these short capsules preview some striking recurrences. The early decades of each emerging economic primacy-Greater Spain in the 1520s and 1530s, Holland in 1600 or 1615, late Georgian and regency Britain-were fat years for each nation's economic elite. But it was the subsequent heydays, the golden ages, that brought the flood tide of commercial opportunity, new markets, and wealth that produced the broadest benefit for the largest number. Thereafter, each nation's relative distribution of wealth and income would narrow. Stratification would set in….
America’s three decades of post-WWII prosperity were part of this pattern as a golden age par excellence. But as for what came after, Phillips went on to make three significant points:
- Each power experiences an unexpected shock at the height of it's powers that lets it know it is not invulnerable, after all. [The Vietnam War was not an anomaly.]
- Each power reacts similarly—a reactionary politics of denial sets in for a period of several decades, during which the elites do better than ever, while the majority of people see their fortunes either stagnate, or decline.
- Finally, in each case, after several decades, an egalitarian reversal sets in.
Reflecting on some of the previous cycles, Phillips wrote:
[T]he popular reactions in mid-eighteenth-century Holland and early-twentieth-century Britain against opulent aristocratic and financial elites raise a different possibility: the emergence during the first third of the twenty-first century of a U.S. radicalism seeded by economic and political pessimism. We have seen how a portion of the Dutch people, seeking a return to lost values, mounted a "Patriot Revolution." Major elements of the British population, seething against wealth and unfairness, used the new Labor Party to build a British welfare state-worker and lower-middle-income circumstances improved markedly-around the much higher tax rates imposed by war and politics on the upper and upper middle classes.
It’s ironic that Phillips, once the chief architect of Nixon’s infamous “Southern Strategy” was so far left of both party establishments by 2002. If America does not follow the same trajectory—or does so with significantly greater difficulty—one reason will surely be because of America’s much higher degree of racial fragmentation, which Phillips himself helped make so toxic in his youth. This racial fragmentation has become a key fault-line for organizing a large portion of conservative threat bias.
But the question for progressives is not simply how to understand conservative’s heightened threat bias, but how to go about shaping an organized response. This task is complicated by the cultural dynamic Phillips described, since the post-Vietnam elite-favoring period has fueled a form of cultural liberalism which is tone-deaf at best and downright hostile at worst to traditional New Deal liberal economic concerns. It’s not simply neo-liberalism, which has conservative as well as liberal adherents, but a broader cultural mindset affecting everything about how one views and approaches the world. Before considering how to shape an effective response to threat bias, its useful first to consider how this post-Vietnam elite cultural liberalism has clouded our understanding, and significantly weakened the Democratic Party as well.
As stated above, threat bias (Ebola, ISIS, immigration, etc.) was GOP's not-so-secret weapon in 2014 elections—and it worked spectacularly, particularly since Democrats responded fearfully and defensively. Kentucky U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes' ridiculous refusal to say if she’d voted for Obama was a highlight of this sort of attitude, as was Mary Landrieu’s ludicrous efforts to be more anti-Obama than her Republican opponent.
But these were simply extreme examples of a much more pervasive pattern, which was visible in the 2010 elections as well—elections which echoed the Democrats historical losses in the 1994 mid-terms, which, like the 2010 elections, came after a rare two-year period in which Democrats controlled both the White House and both chambers of Congress. The 1994 losses went far beyond giving the GOP control of the House for the first time since 1954, they also gave the GOP the edge in controlling state legislatures, by 19 to 18—a staggering loss of power, since the Democrats had dominated state legislatures without interruption for the previous two decades. From 1971 through 1994, Democrats controlled an average of 29 state legislatures to 10 for the Republicans—an average margin of 19 [calculated from data here].
What 1992 and 2008 had in common was that neo-liberal Democrats promising to put a fresh face on the party swept into office at the White House. What 1994 and 2010 had in common was that Democrats at every level of governance suffered staggering losses, as disillusioned Democrat base voters failed to show up, and swing voters failed to be impressed by Democratic leadership fruitlessly that tried to find common ground with conservative Republicans who rebuked them. In between, the two Democratic presidents who tried to make compromise their governing principle discovered that doing so only gave conservative Republicans a free shot to punch them out repeatedly, leaving the rest of their party confused, disoriented, defensive and demobilized.
This is not to say that Clinton and Obama didn’t get anything done. Clinton’s tax increases began the process of reversing the massive Reagan-Bush deficits, while Obamacare—though Republican in origin—vastly expanded the number of Americans with health care. But their best accomplishments were either compromised or compensatory at best, while many other things—such as NAFTA under Clinton or the continuations of Bush’s Wall Street bailouts under Obama—were elite-favoring policies deeply opposed by key blocks of their base. The very “moderation” that made the neo-liberal D.C. pundit class praise them, for shutting out the party’s left, did not make the Democrats more attractive as a party, as it was supposed to do, according to the neo-liberals class-unconscious view of the world. Instead, the exact opposite occurred—it made Democrats deeply unpopular, all the way down to state legislatures and below.
What’s more, in both instances, conservative Republicans radically altered what it meant to be a conservative—from identifying with the U.S. as the world-dominating superpower under both presidents Bush to bitterly opposing the federal government as a tyrannical power under their Democratic successors, who were used as key figures in their largely unacknowledged self-transformation. By repeatedly invoking one form of threat bias or another, conservatives kept the focus narrowly on opposing anything and everything the Democratic president might do (or even merely seem to), while repeatedly attacking him as a dangerous liberal extremist—the exact opposite of the sort of politician that he actually was.
A whole-hearted return to economic populism—ala Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown—would be an obvious place to start. That would give Democratic base voters a reason to show up for mid-term elections, if nothing else. But it can do far more than that, as shown by projections of how well an Obama/Edwards ticket could have done in 2008. Of course, Edwards turned out to be the ultimate flawed messenger, but the potency of his message should be crystal clear. Still, that’s only the beginning of an answer—and an unlikely beginning, considering the preponderance of wealthy donors that the Democrats depend on almost as much as Republicans do. Unless they’re provided with a strikingly different framework of ideas to rely on, odds are not good that they will return to modes of thought and action which reinforce progressive values in a way that uplifts all, the way that liberal reflexivity works during times when civilization advances.
In short, new frameworks for thinking about politics are needed as well, ones that draw on the traits that define liberals much the same way that threat bias defines conservatives. One such framework, already mentioned, is openness to new experience. As mentioned before, this includes greater willingness to explore, less fear of others and the unknown, heightened curiosity, and a propensity to innovate. And this is precisely the framework we should use for understanding America’s existing social safety net, as well as for guiding us in extending it to deal with new needs and challenges in the 21st Century. Because that safety net—and it’s expansion—are key to unlocking our deepest exploratory and creative potential, which in turn is also key to healthy, broadly-shared economic growth.
While neoliberals like Obama tend to regard New Deal programs as relics of a bygone age, they ignore a wealth of evidence that paints a very different picture—that robust social “safety nets” can function more like trampolines. In The Great Risk Shift—published two years before the financial crisis—Jacob Hacker argued that economic uncertainty had become an even bigger problem than inequality in recent decades as powerful economic actors who were most able to handle risk had repeatedly managed to shift it onto isolated individuals and families who were much less able to deal with it. Rather than trimming back the New Deal safety net, this pointed to a new form of need to be addressed that markets did not fix. What’s more, Hacker directly challenged a key conservative tenant which most neoliberals embrace as well—the idea that providing security for people discourages economic dynamism. As I explained at Open Left in 2008:
It's not simply a matter of protecting folks at the bottom, Hacker argues-effective[ly] dealing with risk is vital for creating an environment in which people feel secure enough to take on the sort of voluntary risk that helps drive the economy forward-what's often called "entrepreneurial risk," but that includes a wide range of choices to invest resources of time, money and effort in future possibilities that by their very nature cannot be certain. These include investments in education, training, changing careers, starting a new business, etc. In short, Hacker argues, a security orientation is not the polar opposite to an opportunity orientation-it is a vital aspect of an opportunity orientation.
Conservatives have always argued the opposite, of course: providing economic security for people only saps their will to exert themselves… unless, of course, they’re CEOs, Wall Street banks, the nuclear power industry, etc., etc., etc. But the evidence for Hacker’s contrary view is overwhelming. As noted in a recent New York Times story, “A Big Safety Net and Strong Job Market Can Coexist. Just Ask Scandinavia”:
In Denmark, someone who enters the labor force at an average salary loses 86 percent of earnings to a combination of taxes and lost eligibility for welfare benefits; that number is only 37 percent in the United States. Yet the percentage of Danes between the ages of 20 and 59 with a job is 10 percentage points higher than in the United States.
In short, more people may work when countries offer public services that directly make working easier.
But there’s obviously a lot more than that involved. Denmark’s muscular safety net is an expression of their inclusive society which makes individual Danes even more motivated to give back. (The Times article has a chart showing a linear relationship between effective tax rates and employment rates, so it’s not just a matter of comparing Denmark and the U.S., it’s a robust relationship that holds across the OECD countries.) This is yet another example of reflexivity in action. Countries with long histories of mutual aid and assistance produce whole populations who take that for granted—in ways diametrically opposed to what conservatives expect. Being cared for by the whole nation only makes them care more about the whole nation in return. That’s why they’ll go to work despite ostensibly getting so little in return—because the lion’s share of what they get is not the income they receive, but the satisfaction of knowing that they’re helping to sustain Denmark as a whole.
It’s a whole different kind of identity politics—one that’s built around a powerfully pro-social national identity—precisely the sort of identity that Kevin Phillips tells us emerged in Holland and Britain after their reactionary periods. In Europe, it’s known as social democracy; here in America since the time of FDR, it’s liberal. Either way, it’s precisely the opposite of what we see in the GOP’s “makers vs. takers” rhetoric that dominated the 2012 campaign. America has a long, rich tradition celebrating this liberal/social democratic identity, which appeared over and over again in the movies of the 30s and 40s in particular. It’s A Wonderful Life is a classic example. So we’re not talking about introducing something either foreign or unknown, we’re talking about reviving a sense of identity we’re already deeply connected to.
There are other aspects to liberalism as well—just as there is more to conservatism than threat bias alone, as Jost’s 2003 paper made clear. But perhaps the most important other aspect for countering the politics of threat bias is comes from what I called above “greater cognitive development,” also associated with “maturity”. These are reflected operationally in Jost paper mentioned above as “integrative complexity,” which I described briefly as “the capacity to first differentiate multiple perspectives and/or dimensions and subsequently integrate or synthesize them.”
While Jost’s paper focused specifically on this one operational measure, which is easily the most widely recognized, there are actually a diversity of similar, related approaches, each with its particular strengths—and, as we’ll see below, there is a straightforward relationship between greater cognitive development and openness to new experience: one develops more cognitive complexity through a willingness to question and explore. Some of these approaches derive from the developmental framework pioneered by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, and seek to characterize discretely different styles of reasoning, as opposed to more subtle gradations. I employed a typology from one such framework, from the 1988 book "Reason, Ideology and Politics," by Shawn Rosenberg (no relation), in a diary I wrote at the time of the Terri Schiavo controversy.
At the time, I was struck by vast difference in sophistication between the dominant media discourse and the content of expert commentary provided by the Institute for Public Accuracy (IPA) [here], and so I wrote, “Terri Schiavo: We're Too Smart!” in which I first presented the typology, which consists of three different styles of reasoning, and then used the expert commentary to illustrate what was meant by the most sophisticated style, before arguing that we had to find ways to use the simplest style of reasoning when events like the Schiavo controversy erupt—hence “We’re Too Smart!” I presented the typology as follows:
- Sequential thinkers reason "by tracking the world," recognize regularities in sequences of events, but have no abstract understanding of cause and effect. The world they perceive is a world of appearances that has very little organization to it beyond the recurrence of sequences.
- Linear thinkers understand cause and effect, limited to a one-direction, one-cause/one-effect model. The world they perceive has logical order and structure, but the structure is invariably hierarchical, causality flows top-down, and the world is divided neatly into cause and effect.
- Systematic thinkers understand multi-faceted, multi-linear cause and effect, with mutual cause-and-effect relationships between different elements. The world they perceive is primarily a world of systems and relationships, rather than objects.
I wasn’t arguing that all liberals are systemic thinkers and all conservatives are sequential ones—that’s clearly not true. But I was arguing that these two modes are in some sense normative for the two contrasting bases of activists and/or engaged voters, typified say, by Rush Limbuagh’s audience at the time (2005) on the one hand, and Amy Goodman’s (even more than Rachel Maddow’s) on the other, which is where one might hear IPA’s experts interviewed.
Of course, I was half-joking when I said, “We’re Too Smart!” because I wasn’t saying we should be dumb. Indeed, we ought to continue to prize our greater capacity for cognitive complexity. But—tapping into a form of reflexivity once again—we need to use that complexity to reflect back on ourselves, and see when and where we should present complex arguments, and where we should present much simpler ones—or even just slogans:
We have to fight fire with fire. Associational, sequential thinking has to be countered with the same sort of thinking, simply because sequential thinkers can't grasp anything else.
That's why associating this whole charade with outside interference in family affairs is such a winner. Not only is that obviously true, it absolves us of having to make any more abstract arguments.
It also works to bring in other associations. This is clearly grandstanding, a power-grab, a distraction from other important business, etc. It works to make these points, provided we come back to them again and again, since it is the repetition of the points, rather than the logic which appeals to the sequential mind.
Again, I wasn’t saying we should abandon systemic thinking, but we ought to be smart enough to use systemic thinking to understand its own limits in getting across to certain audiences. And it’s not about people being dumb. Definitely not. We all make sequential-style snap judgments in one situation or another in life. Progressives’ goals in using such thinking selectively should include creating space and laying a foundation for more sophisticated reasoning to follow. But before you can run, you’ve got to learn to crawl.
The challenge of embracing systemic thinking, but using sequential thinking to communicate is a daunting one—not least because it requires us to confront the underlying process which may cause a separation between ourselves and our intended audience—a separation that’s often implicated in rightwing populist attacks on liberal elitists.
It’s relatively easy for conservatives to launch fear-based attacks that pull people down into their most primitive and fearful mindsets. It’s far more challenging to engage in a liberal response that revolves around building people up to the point of seeing things holistically, seeing patterns of cause and effect where seemingly subtle shifts can have profound long-term consequences. And it’s even more challenging to do that without coming across as superior, especially when you’re being continuously attacked for being snooty. But that’s a big part of the challenge progressives face, if we want to start crafting long-term strategies to counter the short-term effectiveness of conservative threat-bias attacks. Thankfully, the challenges that come with cognitive development have not gone unnoticed.
One of the most helpful, lucid introductions to dealing with them came from Grammy-winning recording artist John Legend, when he returned to the University of Pennsylvania in 2009, ten years after his own graduation, to give the commencement speech, which was later broadcast on Democracy Now. The title of Legend’s address is “"A Commitment to Truth Requires a Commitment to Social Justice,” but as Legend explains it, the process of cognitive development which a college education fosters cannot be separated from either truth or social justice.
At the time I wrote about it, relating Legend’s first-hand narrative to a detailed framework describing the nine-part cognitive development process in college developed by William Perry at Harvard University in the 1960s, a developmental process that is very naturally conceived of as a journey of exploration, thus connecting the two liberal traits of openness to experience and greater cognitive development. The nine “positions,” as Perry called them, represent a more detailed breakdown of four basic categories or stages: Dualism, Multiplicity, Relativism, Commitment in Relativism, and Legend describes his journey, begun with a relatively unreflective commitment to what he simply believed to be true, and concluding with highly self-reflective commitment to the process of discovering the truth in community with others.
About this process, Legend says, in part:
There was James Joyce telling me "a man's errors are his portals of discovery," Toni Morrison telling me that "if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it," or even my sociology professor repeating his mantra that "correlation does not always equal causation." You all know what I'm talking about.
With each course I took, my mind was challenged to be more critical, more flexible, more fluid, more supple. With each new friend I made, I realized this world was a lot bigger than Springfield, Ohio, and, though I thought I was pretty smart when I got here, I had a lot to learn.
These experiences helped me realize that the answers to many of the issues we face are not always black or white. The answers very often lie in that gray area. It helped me realize that searching for the truth is a process. It's a journey.
And translating that experience into what it means going forward he said:
And now more than ever, even more than when I graduated ten years ago, what our country needs, what our world needs, are more people who are committed to the process of finding what my friend Cornel West calls the "unarmed truth."
The process Perry mapped out, and that Legend passed through, has potential traps, points at which one might stop with the life lesson of the process half-digested. If this does occur, one may well lose the certainty one began with, and not have something even more valuable in its place. But if you do complete the educational process, then you have a new ground on which to stand, just as firmly as you stood before. It’s just that your purpose in standing firm is to take the next step forward—and the next, and the next, and the next.
The journey metaphor perfectly captures how the two aspects of liberalism—openness to new experience, and greater cognitive complexity—are intimately related to one another. And it’s the decades-long scope of a life-long journey which properly encompasses how progressive must think, in order to properly counter the freak out right now! threat-bias orientation of conservatism. To put it another way, “Hard truths may never outsell easy lies, but they will outlast them.”
This is the shape of things we must contemplate in finding our collective way forward. It does not give us a campaign manual-style answer on how to counter conservatives’ fear-based campaigns. But it gives us something ultimately more fundamental and more important—the outlines of a moral roadmap for bringing our nation to higher ground. Campaign-level strategies will still have to be developed, of course. They are absolutely vital. But first we need to clear our heads, and truly understand what it is we’re struggling for, where it is we want to go.
Of course it’s more complicated than fear itself. How could it not be? And yet, the turning point away from fear remains as simple now as it was when Roosevelt first took office over eight decades ago. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” So let’s stop being afraid, and let’s start building a world that’s safe for everyone’s dreams.