Democracy Is in Danger, but Not for the Reasons You Think

Guest post by Extradimensional Cephalopod

[I consider this excellent and thought-provoking article by esteemed commenter/philosopher Extradimensional Cephalopod part of this weekend’s Comment of the Week series, but both in scope, length and form, it is a freestanding article, originally published here. The site is worth visiting, and I highly recommend it. I wanted to hold off on posting EC’s ambitious piece until after the election; vote-counting still drags on, but the results are pretty clear now. Ethics Alarms is grateful to the author for granting permission to present it for its readers’ consideration.]

Congratulations, Earthling voter!  Your party has won the election!  The Good politicians you elected will enact Good policies, to make Good things happen and help the Good people live Good lives.  Your planet’s democracy is saved!  

You claim this government in the name of your party!  Hmm!  Isn’t that lovely, hmm?

…Or is it? 

Dun dun duuuuuuunnnnnn!

Now that I think of it, isn’t there still a whole party full of other voters who disagree with those policies you wanted?  In fact, there are enough of them that they almost elected some Ungood politicians.  

And your best plan for preventing those voters from electing those Ungood politicians was to… hope that your side had more people than theirs did?  That seems risky.  You had to give a lot of money to the Good politicians in order to help them win, and it almost wasn’t enough.  That’s frightening.  

After all, Good policies are very important.  You can’t let them fail just because so many people don’t agree that they’re Good policies.  

So how can you reduce the risk of electing Ungood politicians?  How can democracy work if people vote for Ungood things?  

You might silence the Ungood voters, preventing them from spreading their ideas and beliefs and from working together effectively.  After all, what’s the point of having rights like the freedom of speech and assembly if people are just going to use them to advocate for Ungood policies?  

To save democracy–that is, the system that governs based on the voices of the people–it seems you need to take away the voices of the people who want the Ungood things so that people are only allowed to talk about and vote for Good things.  The less freedom people have to talk about whatever ideas and values they want, the more democracy will thrive!  

Maybe some Good politicians can make Good laws about what ideas people are allowed to talk about.  I’m sure they will still allow you to voice your complaints when the Good politicians are not doing a Good job.  After all, people in charge of running countries are well-known for welcoming criticism.  

The real threat

…If you’re reading this at all, you have probably spotted the irony already, but many other people on your planet have not.  

The real threat to democracy is not the people who oppose your policies and whose policies you oppose in turn.  The real threat to democracy is that the only way you know how to deal with political disagreement is to crush the other side with propaganda and votes, instead of working with them to come up with policies that neither of you object to.  

The Earthling understanding of how democracy works is missing critical pieces, and humans are trying to fill in the gaps with something that very much resembles… well, let’s just say it resembles a political system that barely resembles democracy at all.  

I realize that Earth has not been doing democracy for very long.  I’m not here to ridicule.  I’m merely here to warn you that Earth won’t be doing democracy for very much longer if you don’t take a step back and reflect on what you’re really missing. 

The work of democracy

Most of the work of maintaining a healthy democracy happens before anyone votes for anything, whether that be a political candidate or a policy.  

The work of democracy consists of talking with people: learning about their needs, wants, and fears.  It consists of working together to brainstorm solutions that will satisfy, if not everyone, then as close to everyone as theoretically possible. 

These solutions may be policies, individual efforts, community efforts, or some combination of all three.  When you get creative together, you can practice skills that help communities change, adapt, and thrive while holding onto what is most important.  You can come up with outcomes where no one is cheated or abandoned.  This work is what democracy requires, and you will need to do it consistently.  

Only when you do this work will you see trustworthy politicians.  Politicians will know they cannot get away with the mere appearance of effectiveness, because the voters will recognize what an effective policy looks like versus one that is useless (or harmful).  Instead of hiding behind empty abstractions and platitudes, candidates will run for office by expounding on their skills of policy negotiation and implementation.  

If your country’s people are worried about the outcome of an election and what it will mean for your democracy, that means you haven’t been putting in the work.  

Friends on the other side

“The work of democracy sounds like a great idea,” you may say, “but it will never succeed, because the people on the other side do not want what I want.  There are no solutions that satisfy them that are also acceptable to me.”  

Consider this, though… how much do you actually know about those other people, and what they really want?  

You have heard about the people on the other side from your politicians and your news media, who profit from playing the role of “protecting” you from the enemies they tell you about.  Their jobs depend on you believing that the people on the other side are evil, that you cannot negotiate with them–only overpower them through superior numbers of votes and sheer force of personality.  

You have heard about the people on the other side from your friends, with whom you maintain a shared bond of trust and esteem by expressing contempt for all the same people and by refraining from questioning the shortcomings and misdeeds of your own side.  

You have even heard about the people on the other side from the other side’s own most obnoxious people, the ones who loudly and publicly express contempt for your side because they have only ever heard about your side from their politicians and news media, their friends, and the most obnoxious people on your side.  Most are merely lashing out from fear, but some of them are genuinely selfish and mean-spirited, and the greatest harm they do is making it look like their entire side is like them.  

You know the ones.  There are people on your side who do nothing but take cheap shots at the other side, but you dare not criticize their shallow reasoning or their toxic approach because that would be a betrayal of your side, so you have to defend them or remain silent.  Otherwise, people on your side would accuse you of showing respect and consideration to people on the other side, people who don’t deserve it.  

After all, being a jerk is a good thing when it’s done by people who are Good towards people who are Ungood.  You have nothing to learn from Ungood people, and they would not learn from you, so you might as well take out your frustrations on them in the hopes that they’ll eventually decide it’s not worth standing up for what they care about.  That always ends well for all involved.  

Aaaany decade now, it’s going to end well…

You have been taught to fear these people, and they have been taught to fear you.  What are you going to do about that?  Are you going to steamroll them and justify their fears?  Are you going to continue allowing politicians to play you off against each other forever, while nothing gets done and people on both sides are seriously hurt?  Are you going to let democracy decay into an endless shouting match?  

Steamrolling people makes for very bumpy roads.

“But how do we start doing the work of democracy in the current political climate?” I can only assume you are wondering.  

Well, I’m glad I assume you asked.  

The work of democracy is easy once you know the trick.  We must dispel the fear that both sides have for each other.  We can dispel this fear by learning to understand each other’s values, as well as our own.  Through this learning process, we establish mutual respect and trust.  

I am here to make this process easier, by facilitating communication using a toolbox of foundational concepts.  With these concepts, we can describe as simply as possible what matters most.  

Universal values

Here we will take a look at concepts that enable us to understand each other.  People’s individual desires and motivations are varied and often complex.  However, their values regarding how to run a society are simple and easy to understand.  We all face the same fundamental liabilities, and we value overcoming those liabilities.  

We value triumphing over scarcity to achieve prosperity.  

We value triumphing over disaster to achieve safety.  

We value triumphing over stagnation to achieve vitality.  

We value triumphing over conflict to achieve harmony.  

People don’t disagree on these fundamental values, no matter what planet they’re from.  What we disagree on are the best ways to fulfill those values, which values to prioritize over others, and what risks and costs we’re willing to accept as a society. 

That’s not a problem when people are only choosing for themselves, but dealing with some problems calls for policies that affect communities, regions, or even all of society, and that’s a source of political conflict.  People disagree with some tradeoffs and don’t want to be forced to make ones they don’t like.  

To a certain extent it’s unavoidable that some people’s preferences will be overruled.  When we do end up compelling someone to make a tradeoff they reject, we should compensate them to offset any costs imposed on them.  That’s why people whose property is taken through eminent domain are supposed to be paid a fair price for it.  

We should also take measures to mitigate risks that people may be involuntarily subjected to.  If a community fears that an excavation project will interfere with their groundwater, we might offer to install sensors to monitor the water quality and commit to supplying free fresh water to the community in the event that their fears come true. 

Furthermore, we must avoid getting fixated on a particular result.  If we get too set on one way of living our lives we may one day become desperate enough to sacrifice others to maintain it.  There are almost always opportunities to fulfill our values even if the outcome is not exactly what we had in mind.  Is it great wealth that we desire, or is it the ability to do things we enjoy, and the esteem of people we respect?  

When you spot the light at the end of your tunnel vision, it means you’ve probably already passed many other, better lights.

No matter what, though, we must never stop collaborating to seek mutually beneficial outcomes.  The more that we work together and the more creative we get, the fewer tradeoffs we need to make.  Next we will look at how to consistently find these win-win opportunities.  

Constructive principles

Now that we know the sorts of things we all want, it’s much easier to figure out how we can work together to achieve them.  We just need to start with constructive principles: 

If we want prosperity, we need to work together to practice investment.  We must spend effort and resources in ways that yield returns of more resources.  We can then spend those resources to get even more resources.

We can invest in people by giving them financial stability, education, and the community support they need to make something of themselves.  

We can invest in infrastructure by maintaining roads, plumbing, and electrical grids.  With these systems, everything becomes more efficient, so we can do more with what we have.  

We can invest in technology for harvesting energy sustainably, growing food without harming the environment, and even extending our lifespans.  

However, it’s also critical that we don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.  Ramping up productivity can overclock our systems and deplete subtle resources that are difficult to recover.  We need to spend resources mindfully on things that are meaningful and sustainable, rather than wasteful.  Prosperity must be cultivated, not merely consumed.

If we want safety, we need to work together to practice preparation.  We must learn about the physical world and use that knowledge to decide in advance how to respond to misfortune.  We can equip ourselves with the resources and skills we will need.

Through science, we can learn to predict natural disasters, diseases, and accidents.  We can set up preventative measures and contingency plans in case our infrastructure fails.  By conducting practice drills, people will know what to do to stay safe during a disaster and rebuild important systems as quickly and smoothly as possible.  In the process of rebuilding them, we can upgrade those systems so that the next disaster is less of a shock.  

We should assume that people will behave differently in response to new policies, instead of designing policies as if anything we don’t intend to change will remain as it is.  

We don’t even need to specifically predict a problem in order to prepare ourselves for it.  We only need to ask ourselves what would happen if something that we take for granted were to become unreliable, like internet access, or warm weather, or wheat crops.  

If we want vitality, we need to work together to practice transcension.  We can challenge ourselves to surpass our limits and become more than what we are now.  Learning new skills will stretch our brains and show us how far we can extend our abilities.  Pushing the boundaries of knowledge and creativity lets us peer across the edge of the unknown. 

Developing greater discipline and broader minds will help us face problems in the future, but it is also its own reward.  Contributing to something larger than ourselves, finding an ideal to stand for, a role to play for our community or even for the world, is more fulfilling than an endless series of personal goals.  The more capable we are of living for principles rather than only for our desires, the more alive we are, in some sense.  

If we want harmony, we need to work together to practice ethics.  Getting creative lets us find ways to reconcile our values and build healthy relationships.  

The first step, though, is to be honest, and the first people we must be honest with are ourselves.  If we don’t admit our true motives, or the times we fall short of the expectations we hold for others, we will see ourselves as unquestionably righteous and will regard negotiation and compromise as failure.  

For example, imagine that two neighbors get into a feud.  One neighbor practices the trombone, and the irregular sounds greatly annoy the second neighbor.  The second neighbor retaliates by filling their yard with garish lawn ornaments that the first neighbor despises.  The first neighbor reacts by planting trees that drop leaves and seed pods into the second neighbor’s yard.  The second neighbor plants flowers that trigger the first neighbor’s allergies, and so on.  Each neighbor may have a right to do what they want on their own property, but they’re still making each other’s lives miserable, and not being neighborly at all.

“Wah wah wah wah waaaahhhhh,” says the sad trombone.

The neighbors need to reflect on what they do and consider whether it is to make themselves happy, or to make their neighbor suffer.  A truce that halts the vindictive actions on both sides will benefit both neighbors; that doesn’t take ethics to establish.  The practice of ethics comes in when things that genuinely make one person happy might bring irritation for their neighbor.  

Ethics involves exploring options.  Is the first neighbor willing to give up playing the trombone because it annoys the second neighbor?  Can the first neighbor find a quieter instrument they enjoy just as much, if not more?  Can they continue playing the trombone but make it up to the second neighbor by sharing baked goods?  Can they coordinate with the second neighbor to practice trombone when the second neighbor is out of the house?  Can they practice elsewhere?  Can they soundproof a room to practice in?  Can the second neighbor wear earplugs or headphones?  

After the brainstorming phase comes the negotiation process.  You might ask, how reasonable is it to practice the trombone in a house with neighbors who can hear?  How reasonable is it to be annoyed by a neighbor practicing the trombone?  Who, if anyone, deserves compensation for changing their behavior?  

These are valid questions, but this level of ethical reasoning is insufficient for a harmonious society.  Just like the other constructive principles, practicing ethics is about going beyond the minimum obligations.  It shows us opportunities to foster goodwill and friendship, which entails humoring people and accommodating their sensitivities even when you’re not obligated to.  

Not every negotiation needs to end in a quantifiable transaction.  If you show you’re willing to go out of your way for other people, they’ll do the same for you, in their own fashion.  That’s much more valuable than getting things our own way all the time.  After all, we can’t do everything by ourselves.  It always helps to have people looking out for us.

How do we make this happen?  

Building a healthy democracy starts with standing up for those constructive principles.  Ethics will be particularly important, because the main obstacle we face is ideological conflict.  

Don’t settle for a solution that makes winners and losers, even if you’re one of the winners.  Stick up for the people in other groups who feel threatened by the policies that your group promotes.  Talk with them and explore the possibilities.  Learn what they value and what they fear, and think about how you can both get what you want.  Show them that your side has reasonable people, that negotiation is possible.  Talk with the people in your own group, and suggest modifications to accommodate people from other groups. 

And if you get stuck, ask for help, from me or someone like me.  

As you do this, politicians who exist to “protect” people from each other will quickly start losing their appeal, because people will realize protection is not what they need.  People will demand politicians who seek out the constructive possibilities, negotiate terms, work out the plans, and implement them conscientiously.  

Politicians will cease to be the authority and instead become a profession like any other.  They will act as the experts of integrating input from a wide variety of sources and reconciling conflicts.  Democracy will thrive, and humanity will turn its talents towards more constructive pursuits.

Eventually, at long last, we will have a world we can all be proud of.  

Final thoughts

Maybe you humans will end up destroying each other.  Maybe the fabric of society will unravel, or you’ll use nuclear weapons on each other and drive a mass extinction event.  Or maybe you’ll be stuck as you are forever, in an eternal ideological stalemate.  You and I may never get to live on an Earth suffused with prosperity, safety, vitality, and harmony.  

In the event of nuclear war, you’ll know where to find me.

But if humans as a species choose not to take advantage of these gifts I bring, these concepts to understand one another, these Visionary Vocabularies, then I must warn you that the gifts carry a terrible curse if left unused.  

If you remain on your current path, you will live your lives as before in a dysfunctional society wrought of frustration and scorn, but now burdened with the knowledge that a better world with a healthy democracy is not merely theoretically possible, but practically feasible.  Whether you can live with yourself by continuing to wring your hands or shake your fist, instead of helping to build that world, is up to you.  

Your excuse that mutual respect is futile, and not worth pursuing, is now gone.  I leave you with only the choice, the responsibility, and the consequences.  Those I cannot and will not take from you.

No need to thank me.  It’s my pleasure.

If this article resonates with you, please share it with anyone who will listen–and especially anyone who won’t.

37 thoughts on “Democracy Is in Danger, but Not for the Reasons You Think

  1. Unfortunately, it stopped being about working together for the greater good probably with the end of the Cold War. At this point it’s just all about one side taking all that they can. It’s easy to do that when you start to amass more power than the other guy. It’s easier still when you rile up your side to hate the other guy. It’s also achievable if you are ruthless enough.

    I wrote a whole article a little while back about the Romans deciding that the Carthaginians needed to be not just defeated, but eradicated. Once that was done, you didn’t hear too many complaints from Carthage any more. About a millennium later Genghis Khan decided that the Empire of Khwarezm needed to be not just defeated but annihilated for thumbing its nose at him by mistreating his ambassadors. Unless you’re a Central Asian history buff, I’m guessing you probably never even heard of that empire. After Khan was done, neither did anyone else. The list goes on and on. The Teutonic Order wanted the pagan Slavs converted or killed. Those that weren’t killed in the winter wars finally vanished when the last pagan leader decided it wasn’t worth it and converted. Then we can talk about the English conquest of the British isles and the European conquest of the new world. When it was all over, anyone who objected was either dead or silenced.

    At this point, we stand on the cusp of 1/2 of America trying to destroy the other half completely. The other side can object all it wants and say this isn’t fair all it wants and complain all it wants, but in the end, it has been shown to be essentially powerless. If you get almost shut out at the ballot box, you can’t succeed in the jewelry box, and they’re going to take the soapbox away from you, where are you?

    • I’m not sure those historical examples are entirely applicable here. We’re not dealing with empires, or conquest for its own sake. We’re dealing with fear.

      The people opposing you think that they’re right, and that the people they disagree with are knowingly wrong but too selfish to admit it. They fear your power (despite the power they themselves wield) and what you’ll do by trying to turn your beliefs into policy (or absence of policy). Therefore, they feel compelled to give you no quarter until you give up. They also fear any speech that might lead people to sympathize with you, so they are quick to publicly deny that you have any redeeming qualities or that they themselves have any flaws, although they are more willing to admit such things to people they trust to be on their side.

      Is that not a mirror image of how you regard them?

      I suspect you’ve been encountering only those obnoxious people I mentioned in the article. If you attend some Braver Angels debates, you will find the people who respectfully disagree with you. They want to understand the sacrifices you are and aren’t willing to make, and they want you to understand why they feel differently about those sacrifices. Mutual understanding and respect is necessary if we’re to build a world where we don’t have to make so many of those sacrifices. What do you think?

      (To be clear, I’m not saying that good and bad don’t exist. I’m saying that when two groups of people believe so strongly that they are good and the other group is bad, that should give us pause, unless we are possessed by hubris. The humble and intellectually honest thing to do is to seek out someone reasonable from the other side and explore our perspectives together to figure out the extent to which either of our approaches are good.

      It’s quite effective for most concrete disagreements; I do it all the time here on Ethics Alarms.)

  2. “The work of democracy sounds like a great idea,” you may say, “but it will never succeed, because the people on the other side do not want what I want. There are no solutions that satisfy them that are also acceptable to me.”

    Consider this, though… how much do you actually know about those other people, and what they really want?

    I think I know pretty well. And, it is a real problem that I don’t think you do justice.

    One side values form; the other values substance.

    Speaking broadly, the Republicans value form; the Democrats value substance.

    The Republicans will accept a bad outcome if it results from following the rule of law; the Democrats are unwilling to let the law stand in the way of a good result.

    Conservatives will cheer on Dobbs because it corrected a legal mistake; Liberals (progressives) do not like Dobbs because they think the right to obtain an abortion should be available uniformly throughout the nation.

    Conservative oppose student loan forgiveness because it runs afoul of basic principles of law and accountability; liberals (progressives) favor it because it accomplishes a good thing even if it is a legally dubious course of action.

    To boil it down a little further: one side believes the ends justify the means, while the other side believes that the means justify the end.

    Another contrast: one side values the individual over the group; the other values the group over the individual.

    It is one thing to work with an opponent when both sides agree on the rules of the game. In many ways, sometimes it seems as if not only do they not agree on the rules of the game, they are not even playing the same game.

    I don’t fear people on the other side, and I don’t necessarily dislike them. But, I do know that many of them have a fundamentally different conception of the role of government in society.

    -Jut

    • Charles Krauthammer, may he rest in peace, said it best: conservatives think liberals are wrong, liberals think conservatives are evil.

    • You raise a good point. Let’s assume, then, that one side values the integrity of the process (the rule of law) over the outcome, while the other side values the outcome over the process. What now?

      Now we use the Reconciliation Method.

      Step 1: Understand one’s own values.

      Why is the rule of law important? It establishes predictability, i.e. trust. Trust is the foundation of civilization, on which we build institutions that create far greater prosperity than we could hope to achieve otherwise. The enforcement of laws that keep that trust is what makes society as fair as it can get, because everyone knows what they are permitted to do and what others are permitted to do in response. (That’s just off the top of my head; did I do it justice?)

      Step 2: Understand others’ values.

      Why would people sacrifice rule of law to get results? Well, for one thing, their experience with law has not been as encouraging as yours. They have not felt the law as a tool of ethics. They have felt it as an instrument of corruption: it has restricted where they can live, whom they can marry, how they can present themselves, and what they can do for a living; it has subjected them to arrests, fines, and prison disproportionate to their crimes or for no crimes at all; it has failed to punish those who commit crimes against them; and it has done this all to allow the people who make the laws to benefit from the economic and cultural work of the impoverished and disenfranchised, without offering them a choice or any meaningful compensation that would allow them to prosper, become independent, and assert their own voice. In a word, exploitation.

      You might disagree with this interpretation of events, but save it for Step 3. Step 2 is all about understanding what other people fear and what they care about. People fear corruption, they care about prosperity and autonomy, and they are willing to sacrifice the rule of law for it because from their perspective the law-as-an-ethical-tool didn’t exist to begin with, and might never exist. It was only ever corruption, and the best they can hope for is corruption in their favor. (This isn’t what everyone thinks; this is just the extreme perspective that politicians exploit.)

      To elaborate, when people see a system as corruption, they may fight it by using turmoil, in the form of political violence. However, they may also fight corruption with corruption in turn, attempting to beat their oppressors at their own game of warping the law and employing deception to suit their own goals rather than those of the oppressors. I don’t think that’s a good idea, and I don’t think that’s what most people truly want if they think about it clearly, but I can certainly see why people would try it if they didn’t realize anything better was possible. That’s why I’m teaching people the Reconciliation Method.

      Step 3: Frame the situation constructively.

      The exploitation and corruption I described in Step 2 is well-documented in U.S. history all the way into at least the second half of the 20th century. That sort of thing leaves self-perpetuating aftereffects unless people deliberately do something constructive about it, which is what I’m trying to help with. You might disagree with the significance of the objective events, but for our purposes that’s not an important point to argue.

      What matters here is that to move forward, people have to trust that in the future the law will be a basis for ethics rather than for corruption. They have to see that they can benefit from the law when they invoke it in good faith, not just when they use it as a weapon.

      “The Republicans will accept a bad outcome if it results from following the rule of law; the Democrats are unwilling to let the law stand in the way of a good result.”

      Can you provide examples where Republicans would accept an outcome that goes against their ideals because it accords with the rule of law? That would be a good demonstration of how Democrats can benefit from using the law in good faith.

      Can you help offer people a path to prosperity and autonomy–not just welfare and mediocre education–that doesn’t involve corruption? Or are you more concerned with whether or not you owe it to them? Because that’s the kind of thing that makes people resent the rule of law. “We are not required to help, so we won’t.” This is why people back corrupt politicians: they promise to deliver.

      If people don’t see a way to get what they value through honest means, they’ll turn to the government.

      Does that sound like a fair description of the problem?

  3. Brilliant!

    You are SPOT ON…. I think everyone in the world should read this. Starting with every virtue signaling “I voted” person on either side.

    I hope to meet you one day! This is the best thing and most hopeful thing I’ve read in ages. Gives me hope for the future… even if we destroy each other, with this kind of thinking, the rebuilding will be, or could be amazing!

    I’ll share something I said which totally back fired on Facebook….

    Abortion issue:

    I proposed, “How would our talks about abortion be different if we looked at those with whom we disagreed as caring people?”

    “what if we saw those for abortion as ones who truly cared for the health and well being of women? What if we saw those who are against abortion as those who cared for innocent lives with no voice?

    “would we not approach the subject with softer hearts, less defensiveness, and an openness to empathize and LISTEN to the other?”

    Well I was not prepared for what came after. A full on attack of me, and the right on being evil humans who want women enslaved and who hate women and who are just white men promoting slavery of women.

    Oh and I was a Trump lover asserting “there are good people on both sides” LOL!!! The main person who was triggered ended up telling me to F*ck off! And “i’m not even playing your game” (though she posted probably 15 more posts.”

    Anyway, your post really is brilliant, kind, compassionate and would be highly effective.

    you have encouraged me to seek to understand some people atm who are on our HOA board who are not being kind and trying to push political agendas. I need to find out their fears… I have not cared, and wanted to stop them.

    Thank you.

    • That disgusting experience should tell you all you need to know about the other side. They are hateful, vicious people who would just as soon see the last conservative hung by the entrails of the last Christian. I’m beginning to think enough is enough and we need to turn to some harsher measures.

    • Well I was not prepared for what came after. A full on attack of me, and the right on being evil humans who want women enslaved and who hate women and who are just white men promoting slavery of women.

      Did any of them accuse you of wanting to butcher babies ?

    • Thanks so much, Mary! I’d love to meet you as well.

      I’m sorry you ran into that hostility. People can definitely feel threatened by the possibility that they aren’t as unambiguously righteous as they think they are. Sometimes they need extra reassurance that they’re not “bad people”, even more than the kindness and compassion you expressed, before they can do as you recommend and approach the subject with softer hearts, less defensiveness, and an openness to empathize and listen to the other. (The Deconstruction Method often helps in such cases: 1. Make them comfortable. 2. Make them think. 3. Make them choose.)

      It’s great that you’re inspired to listen to the feelings of the people on the HOA board, and I’m happy to have played a role in that! Best of luck establishing mutual respect and understanding, and feel free to reach out if you run into any issues.

      I’m glad that you’re not letting belligerent comments deter your kindness! We need more people like you joining conversations to show people how empathy works.

  4. I had a hard time with at least some of this post. You keep referring to solutions, which do not exist in politics.

    I understand you do address the fact that these “solutions” do have costs associated, but it feels like the major problem in politics is being glossed over. There are no solutions, only trade-offs. Therefore, pretty much every decision that government involves itself in will result in winners and losers being chosen, chosen by the side with more people and implicitly backed by the threat of violence.

    The goal, in my opinion, should be to limit how often the government needs to be involved, at least at a federal or, to a lesser extent, state level where the cost of avoiding bad legislation becomes prohibitive. But once someone, even someone firmly for liberty, is put in a position to govern, they are given a very big hammer and everything around them starts to look like a nail.

    I guess my point is that we need to recognize that democracy cannot solve anything. It can only choose one thing over another, and we should be extremely hesitant to do that unless it’s the least worst path.

    • This zero-sum view of society and government relies some major assumptions the nature of human happiness.

      Conflict between people’s desires will exist in every society. Government is, in theory, the institution that ensures those conflicts are resolved without violence (or possibly with controlled violence, depending on what form the government takes).

      Alright, let’s say that the government makes a decision defined by tradeoffs. As a result, some people get more of what they wanted, and some people get less of what they wanted. Maybe the government used eminent domain to tear down a neighborhood so a new highway could go through that space. The winners get a new highway. The losers lose the neighborhood that they wanted to keep.

      That’s not the end of the story, though! What happens to the losers? They get compensated for their loss, and they move somewhere else. Maybe the government can even help them put that money towards the creation of a new neighborhood. Sure, they probably have great sentimenal attachment to the original neighborhood, but if they cannot keep it, they will build something else that makes them happy, just as humans have done for millennia. It’s up to the rest of us to make sure they can do that. It would be shortsighted to say, “Oh well, they’re the losers. Somebody will always been unhappy, so there’s nothing we can do about it.”

      Negotiation isn’t about trying to get as much as possible from someone while giving them as little as possible in return. If you do that, nobody’s going to want to deal with you if they have a choice, and if they don’t have a choice then they’re going to try and undermine you so you can’t keep doing that.

      Human happiness isn’t about getting exactly what you want all the time. It’s about making something that pleases you out of the opportunities you have. We can’t give people exactly what they want all the time. But we can make sure they always have opportunities and the ability to take them and make something they can be proud of. Part of framing a situation constructively and finding mutually satisfactory outcomes is being able and willing to recognize satisfactory outcomes even if they’re not exactly what you had in mind.

      That’s my paradigm of politics. What do you think?

      • Not a zero-sum view on politics in the strict sense. I think that governmental policies can, on the whole, provide more value than the cost. Rather, we need to drop the idea that government can provide solutions. “Solution” implies that there is a right answer that will resolve issues, neither of which is true in politics.

        I think that method of thinking leads exactly to where you seem to be, politically speaking. My apologies if I’m reading too much into your posts, but you seem to be of the mindset that all we humans need in order to be our best selves is the right ideas being put into place as governing principles.

        I reject that philosophy. I have no idea “what [people] want all the time” and I know I can’t provide it. I can bring to the table (political, economic, social) what I want, and can work with others at that table to compromise with what they want, as far as I know it, but my primary responsibility in my limited capacity to judge what is best for me, much less for other people, is to look out for my wants. And respect that others are doing that for themselves.

        So to your point, government exists to monopolize violence and help smooth over those instances in which compromise isn’t easily reached. However, once you get in the mindset that you’ve got the best ideas for how to accomplish that, it’s far too easy to become the moral busybody described by CS Lewis, who is much worse than the tyrant who will sleep or tire.

        For all I know, we have the same mindset when it comes to governance and self-governance, and I’m just bloviating. It just bothers me when people start to see government as a way to solve humanity’s problems, because it seems so incredibly short-sighted and dangerous.

        • We might be on the same page, then. By using the word “solution” I didn’t mean to imply that there is an objectively right answer that can be found for any disagreement. Just because something is a solution doesn’t mean it works for everyone, even if it’s a constructive solution. (I’m not sure if there’s a better word than “solution” to use in this context.)

          The government cannot simply solve all of people’s problems and get everyone what they want. That said, I hold that the resolution of a conflict should not leave people to suffer if there’s a feasible alternative. Sometimes it’s the government’s role to prevent that suffering, but other times it’s more effective for the government to step back. Sometimes it falls to other institutions like charities, scholars (the grounded ones), cultural groups, or the community at large to help people move forward with their lives.

          I fully expect the constructive outcome of many policy discussions to be “the government will make no policy on this issue, and instead the people will solve the problem themselves.”

          (There’s a couple of books on this subject I suggest: The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century by Carne Ross, and You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen by Eric Liu.)

          Does that make more sense?

    • It’s not obvious? Everyone wants their children to get a good education. Some people were afraid that their children wouldn’t get a good education if children from other ethnic groups were in the same classroom. The solution that the country ended up going with was to demonstrate that people didn’t have to be afraid of that, that children can learn with each other and make friends with each other regardless of ethnicity, and that society can be better off for it, with greater communication and understanding. I guess I’m not sure what your point is.

        • Well, the powers that be didn’t deliver on the “equal” part, so people felt that if all the kids went to school together, the powers would have an incentive to make sure the schools were good. Again, what’s your point?

          If you don’t put more work into your rebuttals, I’ll start disregarding them. My time is limited, so I prioritize engaging with the most serious and insightful criticisms. That way everyone involved learns something.

      • Everyone wants their children to get a good education is an assumption that does not stand the test of reality.

        Some parents don’t give a crap about the education their kids receive as long as it does not impose a cost on them. It matters not if they are rich or poor, we have parents so focused on their careers they see education as something to be outsourced and at the other end of the income spectrum we have parents that don’t care if their kids cut school as long as they stay away during the day so mom can socialize with others.

        This is from experience and not merely conjecture. I can say from my own early education, my parents who were public school teachers did push education excellence for my older brother. They made sure he was in advanced classes and met with his teachers. They and my brother engaged in lengthy discussion but had no time for the other two sons. I suffered from entering school to soon at 4 years old and I struggled with math through high school. I read above grade level because I had things to read. Had my parents not been English and History teachers those books might not have been available for me to read. I advanced in reading on my own. Nonetheless, when I tried to discuss what I had read there was never any time. So, unfortunately people pay great lip service to the value of education but their is a continuum that exists among parents who want the best education possible and those who value it only if it is free and does not require their participation.

        My point is that making universal value judgements is fraught with pitfalls

        • Yikes, that’s terrible that your parents weren’t supportive of your education! I’m sorry you had to grow up with that, and I’m glad that you were able to develop your mind in spite of it.

          The universal values I describe are only applicable to civic-minded people, people who actually care about the wellbeing of society. The motivations of individuals are a different set of concepts, and for selfish people those motivations are all they have. If we have to inspire selfish people to start standing for constructive principles by showing them how it will build a world where they themselves are better off, then that’s what we’ll do. I suspect that many people are already standing for principles, though–they’re just doing it badly.

          The people who don’t value things like providing children with an education are likely (and hopefully) few in number and may not care enough to actively oppose educational initiatives. However, if there aren’t enough people who care enough about education then we need to address that factor separately, by influencing cultural paradigms and social norms. It’s quite common that a societal problem requires multiple angles of approach, and that should not deter us from putting in the effort to tackle it.

          In short, yes, there are people who don’t care about the wellbeing of society or building a world we can all be proud of. I think most people do care, but the plan for changing the world does not hinge on that assumption being correct. It will just be more convenient if it is. How does that sound?

          • EC, Trust me when I tell you that my parents were very civic minded progressive people who were champions of the civil rights movement in mid 60’s. My point is that it was assumed that I should be just as brilliant as my older sibling without any encouragement. They are brilliant, my brother is brilliant the others should be as well, so they were off to save the world. They made choices and imperfect people make imperfect decisions about priorities. In my case, had I been born in January rather than December and entered school at 5 the following school year my added early development might have changed things dramatically.

            I learned more from them through observation than by formal training. Do not read my statements as an indictment of their parenting. My point is that every family chooses its priorities and does so based on its understanding of its capabilities and those of its members.

            If those in poverty wanted their kids to advance, they would ensure they went to school every day, used public libraries and other available resources instead of complaining about others holding them back.

            • Ah, thanks for clarifying.

              “If those in poverty wanted their kids to advance, they would ensure they went to school every day, used public libraries and other available resources instead of complaining about others holding them back.”

              That assumes that they have confidence in the education system, or in the economy. They won’t push their kids to make an effort if they think that effort will be wasted on a hostile job market. Don’t mistake resignation for disinterest. When people see that better is possible, the ones who aren’t already on board will start getting invested. I think you underestimate humans, and that means something coming from me.

              There are indeed some people who really have no ambitions for their descendants, but again, they are not likely to actively oppose improvements to the education system. I’ve got an article on education coming up which will clarify my perspective on this point. In short, it’s fine if many people don’t pursue specialized careers requiring advanced degrees. Communities need people who can provide support in other ways. However, that’s not an excuse for neglecting discipline and a foundational education so people can at least understand the basics of important topics. School is for more than just “advancing”.

              Does that make more sense?

              • “That assumes that they have confidence in the education system, or in the economy. They won’t push their kids to make an effort if they think that effort will be wasted on a hostile job market.”

                I say that is a cop out.

                When the thought leaders drive nice cars, have wads of cash, and plenty of bling (both precious metals and females) hanging on their arms the message is that sports or drugs are the ticket to success. Who is telling them that the job market is hostile to them? If they are being turned down for various jobs, why is it someone else’s fault that another person got the jobs? Where are those thought leaders when it comes to telling kids what it really takes to succeed? The problem is that too many thought leaders and influencers make their money by selling the excuse of racism to them.

                Learning takes place everywhere and children learn what is easiest to understand. How does a child reconcile the idea that wearing your pants around your knees and every other word is mutha fucker may play well with your peers, but it is damaging to your prospects in the job market.

                Kids will adapt to what they see works and unless we are willing to take all these kids born into poverty out of that environment and put them in military academies or something of the sort that provides discipline and an appropriate ladder for them to demonstrate success, they will continue to be told they have no chance in life by developing a marketable skill set by their peers and adults who bleed them for power and profit.

                I spent five years teaching and talking to inmate students at Maryland Correctional Institution, Roxbury and MCI learning what makes many of these young men tick. Most of them initially thought the world was against them for various reasons. When confronted with alternatives they never thought possible, the roads to achieve them and then coupled with opportunities for them to prove their worth, most about 80% developed a significantly different outlook on what they could achieve. It takes a couple of years for each man to get there but this is my evidence that the learning that takes place in communities mired in poverty is a significant part of our chronic racial divisiveness.

                • So we show them a world where they are in control of their own success, a world where responsibility pays off one way or another. There are people in and adjacent to poor communities who want to help create those healthy environments. They can do it if we support them.

                  You’ve identified factors that contribute to the problem, but for some reason you seem to just stop there instead of exploring ways to address those factors. It reminds me of an article I read chastising Luke Skywalker for using the Force to pull his X-Wing a few feet out of the swamp, losing his concentration, and then just giving up. Is there anything more important we could be doing with our time than helping humans learn how to help themselves?

  5. Everything EC states is logical and rational. Unfortunately, until both sides have suffered sufficiently high enough costs will they be willing to come together at the bargaining table. My cynicism makes me believe that it is unlikely that a side whose goal is global political domination- Marxists- that we will come together to solve the problems facing the average American family.

    Ideologues are not interested in solving community problems they are drawn to power because it benefits them. Thus, the motivation is not there to work collaboratively.

    I will admit it he error of my beliefs when the American oligarchs and Marxists demonstrate behaviors that prove me wrong by showing an openness to conflicting perspectives an a desire to accept the idea that helping others advance cannot be at the detriment of those who have.

    The best we can hope to achieve in the near term is to come to an agreement about the future of United States regarding whether we end our grand experiment in being a Constitutional Republic in which citizens grant power to the governing body or do we adopt the idea we are global subjects who must acquiesce to the rule of the corporate oligarchs who manipulate the rules through their unhealthy influence in the democratic process.

    • I think you may have overlooked something. The oligarchs and the Marxists may lead the Democrats, but they derive their power from their followers’ belief in them, just like any other leader. There’s no need to wait for them to do anything.

      Reach out directly to the followers, the people who are the average American families. They’re certainly interested in solving their own problems. If we can show good faith in solving those problems effectively, they have no reason to continue following the people who say all the validating words but who don’t pursue effective solutions. Come to Braver Angels, and help people see that the people can negotiate with each other about policy when politicians fail to do so.

      • EC

        I commend you for your work here. Your flowchart makes a great deal of sense. My skepticism is based on the notion that while many American families want solutions to problems but because some require trade offs that will impact their own incomes no level of empathy and understanding will move them off their positions. There are places where both sides can come away feeling a winner. Unfortunately, on most issues the harder you push your “rational” solution the more entrenched the other side becomes.

        Your approach requires both sides to be Braver Angels. Because the need for affiliation is a strong motivational force too few are willing to become social outcasts in their primary social circle and will not be accepted by the other side either.

        I often wonder if the increase in mental health issues and teen suicide are not an outgrowth of the political balkanization of society. These people are left adrift looking for acceptance but each group demands total fealty to the ideology or else. Until we recapture the youth and give them something to believe in that allows them to feel that they alone control their well-being these kids will be easily manipulated by forces that want them simply as a means to power.

        • I get a strange sense that your points point to their own counterpoints.

          “My skepticism is based on the notion that while many American families want solutions to problems but because some require trade offs that will impact their own incomes no level of empathy and understanding will move them off their positions.”

          So we address the income issue, either directly through compensation or indirectly by figuring out what they wanted to use that income for. Our better world should have some way of rewarding people for helping make it possible.

          “Unfortunately, on most issues the harder you push your “rational” solution the more entrenched the other side becomes.”

          So we don’t push. We use the deconstruction method. 1. Make people comfortable. 2. Make them think. 3. Make them choose.

          “Your approach requires both sides to be Braver Angels.”

          Not everyone needs to be a Braver Angel if we teach people how to act as ambassadors. We can facilitate conversations between regular people without those people even meeting each other.

          “Because the need for affiliation is a strong motivational force too few are willing to become social outcasts in their primary social circle and will not be accepted by the other side either.”

          Having ambassadors means people can keep their affiliations. If they want, we can also help them find new ones. Remember, though, the whole point of this is to create mutual understanding and respect. If we still have groups who hate each other and anyone who associates with the other group, then we still have work to do.

          Don’t forget that peer pressure can work in our favor. If we find key people who are open to reconciliation, they’ll bring more and more people in until the holdouts find themselves having to explain the importance of hatred to a world that has moved past it. (That’s got to be demoralizing.)

          “Until we recapture the youth and give them something to believe in that allows them to feel that they alone control their well-being these kids will be easily manipulated by forces that want them simply as a means to power.”

          So… let’s do that, then.

          Wouldn’t it make sense to put in the basic effort to push through these problems so we can build world we’d actually want to live in?

  6. EC,
    Are you willing to concede there comes a time when the entire notion of working together for mutual benefit problem solving is a non-starter?

    For example, imaging bringing your proposal to the uniformed little man with the mustache?

    Imagine a steamroller inching towards you with your proposal in hand while you beg the driver to stop and listen, just hear me out please, let us work together, I see the good in you, my ideas work, etc.
    The driver is not listening, he has a job to do and doesn’t really care if you are flattened while finishing his important work, and in fact some drivers kind of like it that way.

    • Sure, that will happen occasionally. It’s not nearly as common as humans seem to think, though.

      Humans as a species never learned to negotiate effectively on policy to find mutually acceptable solutions. Most humans aren’t sociopaths; they’re just not very clever or perceptive because nobody taught them how to be. If they feel threatened and someone offers to help them, they’ll pledge allegiance to a sociopath without even realizing it. It doesn’t help that they never really got the hang of that whole “love thine enemy” thing, either. (I owe a lot to Ender’s Game. If you want to well and truly defeat an “enemy”, you have to understand them so well that you can’t help but love them, even as you fight them.)

      And the ethical response to the steamroller driver isn’t to throw him under his own machine, either. It’s to put him in a joint lock and say, “alright, we can do this the civilized way, with talking, or we can do this your way, with the steamroller.” And you work out a deal, and you keep an eye on him. If he breaks the deal and tries to steamroll you again, then you break his limbs and offer another deal, or you deal with someone else from his side who isn’t evil. “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

      Is it possible to meet someone you absolutely can’t coexist with, someone whose desires are completely incompatible with yours and who isn’t willing to accept compromise? Sure. Some people are completely fixated on a motivation to the expense of all else, including ethics. I call those people Homunculi, for a number of thematic reasons.*

      If you can’t trust someone to abide by an agreement or you can’t establish a mutually acceptable agreement with them in the first place, such as if they’re a serial killer, you need to contain or eliminate them somehow. Society as we know it survives because most humans aren’t like that. However, it will not continue to survive if people assume that anyone who disagrees with them is a serial killer (or an evil steamroller driver, or a uniformed little man in a mustache) and deal with them accordingly because that’s all they know how to do.

      Most of the time you’ll find that the person on the steamroller is Austin Powers, waving at you to get out of the way because you’re just standing there screaming fifty feet ahead of him.

      *A cortical homunculus is a distorted model of a human, shaped to illustrate which parts of the body have the most brainpower devoted to sensing or controlling those parts; my Homunculi are distorted people obsessed with their own motivations, which are defined in part by experience and influence. Also, “homunculus” literally means “little man”; my Homunculi are diminished people because they do not transcend their selfishness. Furthermore, some prominent characters from the manga Fullmetal Alchemist are homunculi themed on the deadly sins; my Homunculi are defined by the motivations in my toolbox of concepts, which share that theme.

  7. … The real threat to democracy is that the only way you know how to deal with political disagreement is to crush the other side with propaganda and votes, instead of working with them to come up with policies that neither of you object to.

    That’s a false dichotomy. There’s at least one other: drive the others out, and/or swamp them with your own. The former was used to manufacture a solid U.S. rebel support base, and later in the “Curley Effect” in Boston. The latter, “electing a new people”, was done in the Floridas, Texas, the original Oregon Territory, California and Hawaii, and appears to be happening right now at porous U.S. borders.

    … When you get creative together, you can practice skills that help communities change, adapt, and thrive while holding onto what is most important. You can come up with outcomes where no one is cheated or abandoned…

    Well, no. That simply does not work without at least two more things, logically and chronologically earlier:-

    – There must be solutions to be found, ones that are logically and physically sound.

    – There must be players in the game who want to play by those rules, who do not just want to scoop the pool, i.e. you cannot have players for whom avoiding compromise is itself “of the essence”.

    On that last, I once heard a story about a mother who tried to head off an argument between her little son and daughter by asking the daughter which of two treats she wanted. The little girl replied, “I want his”.

    … Instead of hiding behind empty abstractions and platitudes, candidates will run for office by expounding on their skills of policy negotiation and implementation.

    But skills of policy negotiation and implementation are empty abstractions and platitudes, to the righteous and uncompromising. Think William Lloyd Garrison and “A Covenant with Death and an Agreement with Hell”. I do not say that this one or that one is such, nor that I would know them but by their fruits, but I know that there are such.

    The work of democracy is easy once you know the trick.

    That’s like an extrovert telling an introvert that socialising is easy once you know the trick. It sort of is, in the sense that even an introvert can do it just like that once he knows how, but not in the sense that it has no cost to an introvert. The work of democracy costs you working in the heat of the kitchen, which is no cost to some, much to others, but easy enough either way.

    I don’t want to play! Telling me how, or making it easy, isn’t helping.

    We value triumphing over scarcity to achieve prosperity. We value triumphing over disaster to achieve safety. We value triumphing over stagnation to achieve vitality. We value triumphing over conflict to achieve harmony. People don’t disagree on these fundamental values, no matter what planet they’re from.

    Oh? Some have preferred that there be scarcity so as to gain power over have nots. Some have preferred that there be disaster so as to be rescuers. Some have preferred that there be stagnation so as to sit in high places without fear of fall. Some have preferred that there be conflict so that Iago’s occupation’s not gone.

    • “That’s a false dichotomy. There’s at least one other: drive the others out, and/or swamp them with your own.”

      That… was already one of the options. Is that not just a rephrasing of “crush the other side with propaganda and votes”?

      Yes, we are relying on the assumptions that there are mutually satisfactory solutions in most cases and that most people will chose those solutions if they know they’re available. The preponderance of evidence I’ve seen indicates those assumptions are true. The idea that most people are just selfish and/or evil and inherently opposed to compromise is so cynical it wraps back around to being naive. Humans as a general rule are willing to learn how to identify with each other and work together. What they really want is almost never inherently opposed to collaboration, and even when it is, it’s still possible to change that by showing them new experiences. The people who are too stagnant to change at all are, by the same token, largely ineffective at pushing their own stagnant agenda in the face of a broader society which is already living out a healthier alternative.

      “But skills of policy negotiation and implementation are empty abstractions and platitudes, to the righteous and uncompromising.”

      Sorry, I still don’t quite understand this point. I’m saying that the job of a politician requires negotiating with stakeholders and crafting specific policies that reconcile people’s interests as much as possible, and that those take serious skills that most modern politicians don’t seem to have. You say that some people won’t accept anything less than exactly what they want. Well, some people are serial killers. Not every adult human is mature enough to live harmoniously with society. That doesn’t mean we can’t do better than we have been.

      “The work of democracy costs you working in the heat of the kitchen, which is no cost to some, much to others, but easy enough either way.”

      Fair point. Not everyone has to actively do the work of democracy. That’s what community leaders are for. We all have our roles to play. Your role may not be that of an ambassador. Feel free not to step up. The reason this will work is that not everyone is like you (or like me, for that matter).

      “Some have preferred that there be scarcity so as to gain power over have nots. Some have preferred that there be disaster so as to be rescuers. Some have preferred that there be stagnation so as to sit in high places without fear of fall. Some have preferred that there be conflict so that Iago’s occupation’s not gone.”

      Another fair point, but a weak one. Those people will have to watch as their power wanes, as their followers leave them, and they will join the new world or be left alone in their crumbling palaces. A leader’s power comes from the credence of their followers, and these leaders have chosen to consolidate that credence in self-fulfilling prophecies of contempt and distrust. The thing about self-fulfilling prophecies is that once you see them for what they are, you have a choice of whether to let them continue. When we show people they have a better option, most of them will choose their own wellbeing and walk away from their exploitation.

      As I understand it, you essentially say, “Slavery will always exist because some people just want to own slaves.” The counterpoint is that when everyone else rejects slavery as unethical, the slaveowners’ only hope is to convince people to fight on their behalf. That happened once, but it need not happen again. Not when we can offer those people a better deal. Before this war spills over into the physical world, I intend to win it within people’s minds.

      People never tell me it’s not worth doing. They just seem to think that the proper response to an obstacle that fazes them is to declare it impossible, rather than to ask how it might be overcome. That’s part of the reason why humans still haven’t solved these problems. However, the more effective humans have a saying: “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

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