"Yeah, but..." This is such a common, almost reflexively-used phrase in response to good news by some commentators on the left that it might as well be a single word - perhaps even a single syllable. "Yeabut." It's a perfectly legitimate qualifier when the comment that follows is actually relevant to the news being discussed - "Yeah, but the bill contained an amendment that limits its effectiveness." But when it's used as a means to change the subject completely - "Yeah, DADT repeal is great and all, but what about mountaintop removal mining, huh? Talk about that, hotshot!" - in other words, when the only caveat to a celebrated achievement is that something else exists that hasn't been accomplished, what you have on your hands is laundry list politics: The obnoxious pursuit of outrage at the cost of never capitalizing on victory.
This is not to say that all or even most people afflicted with laundry list syndrome are just rage-addicted perpetual victims who see winning as a kind of death - they're a sizable minority, but hardly the bulk of the phenomenon. Rather, the problem as I see it appears to stem from two perspectives that (as I explain later) stem from the same conceptual failure. The first:
- Sub-dimensional thinking. This is my overly cerebral way of saying "oversimplification," but the distinction is not gratuitous - there are very specific consequences to ignoring applicable political dimensions. Though the perspective may be simpler, the resulting picture often paradoxically appears more complex than it is because otherwise logical relationships are obscured or seem chaotic. Consider the following series of visual illustrations.
Suppose the above is a two-dimensional representation of a set of agenda items one is hoping to accomplish, with each node denoting a particular objective. Now, it is a very shallow, cross-sectional plane, so you cannot see anything in the foreground or background relative to these nodes, all you can see is that which exists in the plane - like in a microscope slide. Based on this visualization, what would you deduce about the relative priority of these items?
Naturally, you might assume the largest and most obtrusive is the most important, and focus more on those closest to it than those further away. But your attempts to address these issues based on this perspective are frustratingly ineffective - you find that the relationships you deduce are generally not quite as you think, and you have to keep reinvesting the same energy over, and over to protect gains already made and address new issues. This is the laundry-list view of politics - nothing is connected, so every issue has its own costly political overhead rather than being addressed in a holistic way. One can deal with this fact by looking deeper, or by inventing self-rationalizing betrayal mythologies that do nothing to improve your effectiveness. Let's look deeper.
Now suppose we extend our shallow 2D plane to a much greater depth - it's still two-dimensional, but objects in the foreground and background are projected on to the plane, as illustrated above. We now have more information, and can begin to discern clearer and more useful relationships. What deductions can we make based on this fuller picture? It appears that one of the nodes is far more important than the others based on the number of direct connections it has. Perhaps the largest is still important, given its enormous comparative size, but there is also this hub node that may deserve a great deal of focus as well.
When utilizing this deep-focus 2D perspective, one finds that the effectiveness of the agenda increases somewhat, but there are still a lot of puzzling failures and disappointments. We are beginning to distance ourselves from the laundry-list mentality, but there is still some of that going on because the systemic relationships between the issue objectives are still not clear. Once again, we can engage in self-justifying CTs and pathological betrayal theologies, or we can look deeper. Let's look deeper.
You'll have to forgive the relative crudity of this next model, I'm not using any kind of professional program to generate the dimensional geometries, I'm just drawing in MS Paint to give a rough idea of the concept. Basically, it contains all the same information as the above, only we see what's causing that information - we see its origins. Just realize that relationships are radically different when the perspective adds a new dimension:
From this perspective, the "central node" is seen to be almost totally irrelevant, and the largest node isn't connected to anything else - if you were to pour all of your resources to conquering it, you could not capitalize on that energy for any subsequent victories. So, as could be said of anything, it's important to understand the connections - the systemics - in order to achieve lasting, sustainable political progress. To make your efforts count, they must be calculated to address root causes of both problems and solutions, and efficiently deploy resources to have maximum impact.
In the visual metaphor above, this would mean focusing on the second largest node, which is much smaller than the largest and has far fewer connections than the apparent "hub" node, but would in the larger perspective be key to accessing the rest of the system. Were you to focus on the largest node, even if you were to succeed you would end up isolated; and if you were to focus on the apparent hub, you would discover it was an optical illusion and you had just wasted your energy.
So that is one type of laundry-list politics - failing to appreciate the dimensionality and systemics of the issue. Now for the second type:
- Inability or refusal to prioritize. For some on the left, politics is not about achievement, but about expression. In particular, expression of judgments and reactions. They regard activism as a series of conditional but nonetheless one-dimensional statements: If x, then y - this is the definition of morality for them, and if you follow the program, then you are a "true progressive." They find the addition of new variables disquieting, confusing, and corrupting - it smacks of "triangulation" or "capitulation" to them. "If x AND z, then NOT y" simply doesn't compute for them because x is present, so the core statement "If x, then y" must apply or else one will be deemed to have violated it. There is no recognition that "x AND z" is fundamentally different from x - no recognition that one number is different from another that is a factor of it.
For these people, prioritizing would be an abhorrent act of amorality, like choosing between one's children. They do not understand the roots of their own values, and how those roots ultimately converge on fundamental principles that not only tolerate, but frankly demand casuist ethics: If "standing up" for your issues is more important than actually advancing them, then you don't actually care about them - you simply worship them as ideal objects, and wish to preserve them in your mind far more than you give a damn whether they are represented in practice.
If one asks such a person what they stand for, they will not tell you their values - i.e., what moral postulates they apply in determining actions. Instead, they will recite a...you guessed it...laundry list of specific agenda items, legislative positions, and - if they're assholes - reel off a litany of grievances, perceived betrayals, and individuals whom they deem to be insufficiently committed to these items, whose motives they suspect, or whom they consider to be actively treacherous. They're not actually telling you anything by this, let alone engaging in productive thought - what they're doing is regurgitating the contents of their brains so that you can bask in the awesomeness that is them, and perhaps pay them the compliment of imitation. Basically religious proselytizing.
In reference to the illustrations above, a person who cannot prioritize either does not know or does not care that they can win two or more victories for the price of one - they would consider it "cynical" or a form of "cheating" to address the roots of issues rather than individually focusing on every single twig and leaf. Because activism for them is an expression rather than a constructive activity, victory is just another form of defeat - it temporarily dampens the emotional potency of their cause, and thereby deprives them of what may be a central motivator.
In such cases one might as well dismiss them, because they are quite happy to be inconsequential - merely expressing themselves fulfills them, and they couldn't care less whether anyone else benefits from what they're doing. It's the expression that matters to them. But at the same time, there are people who simply aren't aware that laundry-lists are not how things are accomplished - that politics in reality does not consist of discrete, non-negotiable items that you obtain by shouting louder, stomping your feet, and waving around signs more vigorously.
The first step to transcending the laundry list mentality is to know what it is you actually want. You can start with the litany of issue positions if you must, but start looking for commonalities between them - the connective tissue that reveals where it is your interest comes from. Do this repeatedly until you begin to recognize the nature of your own motives: Is it that you feel inadequate, and thus want to change the world around you in the hopes that it will change you in turn? Do you hate someone or something, and attack ideas and policies that benefit them or remind you of them? Are you afraid, and trying to defray your fear through a lot of pointless noise and self-distraction? Or do you actually see something larger than yourself? Do you see what fills the spaces between you and others? Do you understand its fluidity and living nature?
Once you know what you're about, then you can begin rationally designing your political program. If you are afraid, what is the root of your fear? If you hate, what is the root of your hatred? Not the object at which it is directed - it's never that simple. We never hate the objects of hatred or fear that which frightens us - it's things about them, things they do, reactions they cause in us. The deeper you examine, the more mutability you discover - principles of connection that reveal that that which we assumed to be absolute was fluid, that which we thought permanent, temporary. And vice-versa! And it's not a bad or depressing realization at all, because it creates far more possibilities than it limits.
But leaving aside the philosophy of it, you also come to understand the reality of what already exists and how others achieved it. Real historical accomplishments that most people gloss over with puerile fantasies of an angelic crusade against evil become understandable, manageable, and what's most important, replicable within suitable contexts.
I, for instance, stand for Liberty, Equality, and Opportunity - my signature line. Those three words encompass everything I stand for: Countless specific positions, countless potential legislative items, and innumerable opinions of political figures past and present. I don't have to memorize a laundry list, and I don't have to randomly select some cherry-picked example out of the ocean - I can just say Liberty, Equality, and Opportunity, and know exactly what I'm talking about. In fact, I wrote a diary about it a while back, so feel free to check it out. You can ask me to elaborate on the meaning, and I can - easily - because I'm beginning with the root principles of my politics and expanding outward rather than stumbling around trying to synthesize a million different agendas into a pithy statement.
So let's generate a small example of someone's political laundry list (real ones can run to hundreds of items):
- Guaranteed healthcare.
- Free college education.
- Save endangered species.
- Gay marriage.
- End capital punishment.
- Rebuild New Orleans.
- Net neutrality.
- Teaching evolution.
- Higher minimum wage.
- The DREAM Act.
If you were to hear someone advocate these issues, you would know their politics lean to the left, but you probably will not see any kind of coherent mission behind the litany of subjects. As a result, more often than not, they cannot prioritize them - they are struggling to express a unified agenda and failing to do so, ending up instead spewing out huge litanies of specific positions that are only loosely related at first glance. But look deeper.
- Guaranteed healthcare - Equality, Opportunity.
- Free college education - Equality, Opportunity.
- Save endangered species - Opportunity.
- Gay marriage - Liberty, Equality.
- End capital punishment - Liberty, Equality.
- Rebuild New Orleans - Opportunity.
- Net neutrality - Liberty, Equality.
- Teaching evolution - Opportunity.
- Higher minimum wage - Opportunity.
- The DREAM Act - Opportunity.
Judging by the deeper interpretation of this person's laundry list - and please, let's not quibble with the interpretation, it's just an example - they appear to value Opportunity most highly, then Equality, then Liberty. Perhaps this reflects their personal circumstances, where they feel the greatest inadequacy to be lack of opportunity, or perhaps it is just a reflection of their character to be more interested in that side of things. Others may be more interested in addressing Equality, and still others Liberty. Some may find them of equal interest, and possibly some who discover their interests to be imbalanced will decide that the three are equally important and deserve a conscious effort to address them all with equal vigor.
Whatever the case, it becomes obvious that the three are intertwined, and reflect an even higher principle - albeit one so abstract it's virtually meaningless to assert it beyond recognizing that it exists. We can just call it "freedom" for want of an equally universal, all-encompassing term - one that has gradually diverged from "liberty" over the course of American history and become a generalized term for democratic political virtue. This apex value is different in different societies - in some Asian cultures, for instance, the apex value might be "harmony," and in others (pick your usual suspects) it could be beauty, while still others are rooted in the ideal of happiness - but there is no mistaking ours. In this country, everything is defined in reference to freedom, even where it has been ruthlessly extirpated: Liberals fight to preserve and cultivate it, conservatives seek to pervert and co-opt it, and everyone, sincere or otherwise, wraps themselves in its iconography because freedom is our national postulate.
Now, one realizes there is a strangely Trinitarian relationship in that "freedom" as we've defined it cannot exist in the absence of the three stated principles, and yet the three cannot exist in isolation either - they naturally form a gestalten whole requiring a separate definition from its components and representing the essence of a living democracy in homeostasis.
There is not one progressive agenda item that is not derived ultimately from at least one of the three - liberty, equality, or opportunity. So feel free to use it if you find it helpful, or (perhaps more fun) go on your own exploratory adventures and discover the roots of what you do and why you do it for yourself. Now, that isn't to say I'm fundamentally motivated by support for liberty, equality, and opportunity - those are just the moral/philosophical derivations of my actual motives. In truth, I'm a little more human than that: I just fucking hate liars and bullies. Analyzing deeper than that becomes a trivial exercise, because beneath instinct there is only more instinct.
Whatever the origins of one's philosophy and politics, what matters is what you do with it. If politics is just another form of masturbation for you, there are far less selfish and socially corrosive ways to go about it than adding your voice to the Noise that pollutes our society, deforms our debates, and drains public energy from reform. Whatever you do, at least let it be the result of a conscious decision on your part, and not the default result of unexamined reactions.