Beyond Progressive and Conservative Politics
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Q: What differentiates a good political thinker from a bad one?
The range of political discourse in the society is mostly “horizontal” — from Far Left to Centre to Far Right. It concerns only with What We Think and completely ignores How We Think (which is a “vertical” distinction).
There are a couple of problems with this one-dimensional approach.
First, whenever people try to refer to some sort of bi-ideologian (kind of like bipartisan, but involving the agreement or cooperation of two opposing ideologies instead of parties) political thinking, they often use the term “centre.” It basically refers to the middle parts of the x-axis. But holding viewpoints in that area isn't necessarily the hallmark of a good thinker.
Second, people often use “far” as a proxy for someone who is an obnoxious, uncompromising, radical fundamentalist. This isn't necessarily true.
There are plenty of uncompromising conservative people whose views are mainstream, and there are plenty of people who hold radical progressive views but are very well informed and open-minded. (Try debating with a group of hardcore Marxist philosophers and you'd be blown away by the calibre of their thoughtful arguments.)
In order to distinguish good political thinking from bad political thinking, the correct terminology to use is “high-rung politics” and “low-rung politics.”
Consider four political thinkers. The two thinkers on the left side hold common political stances on a particular topic at hand. Same for the two thinkers on the right.
But the two rungs of thinkers have something in common — they share a certain way of thinking about politics. Their views may be different, but their approach is similar.
High-rung politics is the Rational Mind's way of doing politics. It places the highest value on truth. It treats political viewpoints like science experiments to be tinkered with, via criticism and vigorous debate.
A high-rung political culture encourages intellectual diversity and independent thinking among individuals, and a collaborative attitude among opposing factions.
This doesn't mean everyone in the high-rung political world gets along with each other. Arguments are the rule, not the exception. That's essentially how they decide what is, what should be, and how to go there.
Most importantly, high-rung political thinking doesn't lock itself into any particular faction by identifying as strictly “progressive” or uncompromisingly “conservative.”
The same high-rung thinker might be traditionally conservative — pro-business, and against raising taxes — but also have several progressive attributes — pro-choice, pro-gay, pro-lesbian, pro-environment, etc.
While individuals bounce back and forth between the two camps, enough people fall into each camp on any given issue thereby creating a healthy high-rung political environment.
But all is not well and dandy. There's an even larger world down below the y-axis that lives inside a children's movie.
You see, the real world is grey, amorphous, and endlessly nuanced. But children's movies simplify everything into binaries — what is good is purely good and what is not good is purely evil — with rarely anything in between.
That's what low-rung politics is all about — a set of binaries. While the real world is a mess of complexity, everything in low-rung politics is crisp and clear: Good guys and bad guys, with good ideas and bad ideas. Good politicians and bad politicians, with good policies and bad policies. Right and wrong. Smart and ignorant. All black and white. Nothing in between. Tim Urban calls this “Political Disney World.”
And at the heart of every faction in low-rung politics is a guiding narrative. This narrative comes with its own worldview, its own retelling of history, its own depiction of the present, and its own interpretation of the opposition. It's a unique movie script created by the tribe, for the tribe.
In low-rung politics, the progressives see themselves as righteous citizens in a continual struggle advocating for social equality, government intervention in economic matters, and policies that prioritise the needs of marginalised and vulnerable sections of society even as the mean, bigoted conservatives keep favouring the wealthy and powerful, perpetuating income inequality and neglecting the needs of disadvantaged communities.
Similarly, the conservatives tell the story of advocating for individual freedom, limited government intervention, and market-oriented economic policies even as the lazy, morally defunct progressives keep favouring government intervention and social welfare programs that continuously stifle economic growth and individual initiative.
Teammates abide faithfully by these ideologies while the opponent's stance is seen as having zero merit.
Not only that. While high-rung political thinkers would argue passionately about what's right and wrong, they apply their moral standards consistently — to themselves and to opponents — whatever their conclusions. They work hard to avoid falling into the tribal mindset of Us v Them. But a Us v Them mindset is the default in low-rung politics. This results in double standards — one set of standards for Us and another for Them.
Consider sports fans. When athletes from their team engage in unsportsmanlike conduct, supporters may downplay the behaviour as passionate competitiveness. However, when similar actions are displayed by players from rival teams, they are often perceived as unethical and reprehensible.
We can think of it like a simple Venn diagram.
The litmus test comes when the middle section isn't an option — when your team and your principles are in conflict.
A high-rung political thinker would stay inside the circle on the right, criticising their own teammates or even standing up for the other team when doing so aligns with their principles. But low-rung political cultures encourage people to stay inside the left circle, keeping true to their team, even when doing so conflicts with their principles.
In low-rung politics, if you are not completely with the team, you are against the team — there's no middle ground.
A low-rung political culture stifles intellectual diversity and independent thinking among individuals, and fosters tribal behaviour and ideological warfare among opposing factions.
When our psyches are mired in low-rung thinking, we're usually too foggy to realise it. Most people reading this will picture themselves on the high rungs. Low-rung politics, we believe, is where those other shitty people are.
But humour me for a minute and try to answer these questions honestly: Do your political views conform a little too perfectly with the checklist of stances on one side? Do you demonise your political opponents, feeling more disgust than empathy for them, and always assume the most uncharitable interpretation of their motives? Did you feel outraged about a certain policy or tactic of the opposition and then stop feeling that way later when your own side takes it up? These are all signs that you might have drifted down into low-rung political thinking.
In any case, depending upon who you ask, the prevalent narrative is that it's either the progressives or the conservatives who are taking the country forward while the opposite faction is take it backward.
We derive such reductive conclusions when we look at the whole system one-dimensionally, i.e., when we only consider What We Think (our ideology of thinking) and completely ignore How We Think (our quality of thinking).
The truth is that it is high-rung politics (consisting of the Upper Left and the Upper Right) that pushes the country forward and it is low-rung politics (consisting of the Lower Left and the Lower Right) that pushes the country backward.
Before You Go…
I'll see you next Sunday,
PS: All typos are intentional and I take no responsibility whatsoever! 😬