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November 08, 2005

open-ended politics

A good citizen may certainly fight hard for a political position. However, there is also an important kind of political work that does not pursue any particular policies. It attempts to strengthen our capacity for self-government by being deliberately open-ended. Instead of defining problems and solutions in advance, such work creates open forums, networks, and institutions in which diverse groups of citizens can make their own decisions and act effectively.

Often we think of discussions, meetings, and other deliberative processes as examples of open-ended politics, because good democratic conversations are open--not constrained by predetermined outcomes. However, talk is not the only political activity that can be open-ended. People can also work together on practical projects without committing to predetermined ends. For example, they can found, fund, and physically construct a library or a school without deciding all the purposes that it will serve over the long run.

"Open-ended" seems a better term than "neutral," because neutrality is something of a chimera. Most political interventions have more or less predictable consequences for left and right. For example, someone might register young voters to increase participation. However, if one registers students on my campus, experience suggests that 70 percent will vote Democratic--a partisan consequence. Even in a simple public discussion, someone must issue an invitation that may somehow shape the ensuing conversation.

Nevertheless, there is surely a difference between trying to inspire, persuade, or manipulate people to adopt a view, versus helping them to form and promote decisions of their own. For example, imagine that a community must decide whether to build a mall or a school in a location downtown. An individual who favors the school could respond in the following ways, among others ...

  • Try to get a school built by mobilizing the pro-school members of the community to vote or protest

  • Try to get a school built by organizing a meeting, open to everyone, at which the pro-school message will be highlighted.

  • Fight to delay a referendum out of fear that the mall might win if the vote were held right away, whereas support for the school would grow over time.

  • Try to get a school built by organizing a meeting at which there are balanced presentations by the pro-school and pro-mall forces -- in the expectation that the arguments in favor of the school will prevail.

  • Fight to delay a referendum, on the ground that public decisions are better when they are preceded by deliberation.

  • Organize a meeting that is structured to be as informative and balanced as possible, and commit to implement any vision chosen by the group.
  • These options grow increasingly open-ended. That doesn't necessarily mean that they get better as we move down the list. If a school is objectively superior to a mall in this situation, then the last two options may be a mistake.

    Indeed, if one endorses a full-blown political ideology (complete with appropriate policies, arguments, institutions, constituencies, and tactics), then it may seem morally compelling to further that view rather than to promote open-ended civic processes. However, I doubt that any of the available ideologies, from libertarianism to socialism, is in good enough intellectual condition today to merit anything more than lukewarm support. In that situation, pragmatic, open-ended, participatory civic work is especially important.

    In would be unwise to adopt an open-ended approach to politics if public opinion generally reflected deep inequality of knowledge, status, power, and other resources. We would have to reform the economic structure of society before we could trust public deliberations to reach just or wise conclusions.

    Indeed, there is such a thing as "false consciousness"—a set of views contrary to people’s own interests that they adopt because they are manipulated by cultural norms, status differentials, advertising, state propaganda, schools, religious bodies, and other large forces. However, we are not respectful of our fellow citizens if we diagnose them as having been so manipulated. It requires a remarkable belief in the superiority of one’s own views to attribute false consciousness to others. Again, given the weak intellectual condition of all major ideologies today, such arrogance seems misplaced. Besides, it is generally more effective to begin with a sincere attitude of respect and, having genuinely listened, then to express one's own dissenting views.

    Posted by peterlevine at November 8, 2005 01:08 PM


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