What took place in Egypt between Jan. 25 and Feb. 11, 2011, was a revolution, but it was non-violent and it joined together disparate ideological factions, rich and poor, old and young, Christian and Muslim. It gave the lie to the notion that moderation in politics cannot be a revolutionary force for transformative change.
In the United States, we have put far too much stock in the idea that identity politics boils down, in this aftermath of centuries of discrimination, to liberal versus conservative, with two diametrically opposed views on every policy. Conservative activists are “radicals” somehow intent on ruining the middle class, while progressive activists are “revolutionaries” somehow intent on waging a Marxist class war.
Neither of these accusations rings true within either of the groups accused in this way, and we are, as a people, suffering for the lack of a constructive, collaborative, pragmatic center. We cannot say all the spin and distortions are morally equivalent; the last two years especially have seen a kind of vitriol and isolationism among self-described conservatives that is not seen in progressive politics.
But Pres. Obama has seen a retrenchment on his political left that has made it harder to carry out meaningful reform. That matters to all of us, whether or not we are ideologically in tune with Pres. Obama’s specific policy model. We need constructive change in our public policy, and we’re not getting enough of it, because there is not enough constructive conversation in our public space.
Independent voters want something other than the ideological equivalent of trench warfare. They want to see imaginative, heroic civics of the kind we’ve seen blooming across the landscape of Egyptian politics in 2011. Egypt has taught an instructive lesson we would all do well to see: on certain issues, ideology must take a backseat to getting the right foothold, as a civilization, for humanity as such.
Liberals and conservatives can agree that what took place in Egypt over the last three weeks was a necessary and positive change in the human condition. They can agree that the US is better off when our close friends, among nations, abide by the principles of open democracy than when they are shameless authoritarians intent on forcing the human population into submission, extinguishing dissent, imposing hardship, living on borrowed time.
Liberals and conservatives can agree that humanity and liberty are both well served when children have enough to eat, have access to information, to education, to opportunity, when people are encouraged, regardless of origin, ethnicity or income, to realize what is best in their character.
If we fail to provide a means by which the vulnerable among us can thrive and prosper, if we fail to ensure that our industry does not degrade our future and our children’s future, if we fail to keep watch on political interests that are trying to buy their way into our process of government, then we forfeit much of what it means to live in a free society.
We lose our voice, we lose our access, we lose our capacity to make change happen when and where it is needed.
Corrupting influences are always drawn to the political fray, because big things get decided in the midst of all that back-and-forth, and when they get too deep into the policy-making process, when profit instead of principle, becomes the motivating factor in deciding how public policy is shaped, the democratic process, which is supposed to privilege dynamic change over retrenchment of interests, becomes sclerotic.
To undo that sclerosis of public conscience, we need to engage in revolutionary moderation—the art of finding common ground, putting the human terms that connect our competing political views ahead of those that tempt politicians to sabotage good policy in service of partisan or monied interests.
The revolutionary moderate is an inspired, rare and prophetic figure, the kind of widely relevant public intellect that comes to prominence at times of major historic transformation. If at the center of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, we could see thousands of such committed moderates, coming together in common cause to serve the wider interests of human dignity and freedom, without even seeking personal recognition, then surely the world’s oldest constitutional democracy can find that spirit latent within its political culture.
The 21st century is a complicated time of global interaction. Planetary shifts are taking place, and economies and political systems are becoming entangled in ways that will define human dignity and human freedom for centuries to come. We are faced with rising levels of scarcity of basic resources —food, water, fuel— and we are faced with the challenge of honoring basic principles of fairness, even as the world moves to a new paradigm of borderless competition.
We need to craft policies that work for everyone, that help to liberate human beings living in our society and in others, so they can take advantage of the fruits of 21st century communications and of democratic processes. This does not work if policies are built around 19th and 20th century ideologies.
We cannot recognize and reward human dignity if we refuse to recognize our common humanity, and we cannot build a stronger society by eroding the foundations of what allows us to build one according to our best instincts and our best ideas.
For conservatives bewildered by the speed with which young people enter into dialogue about policies that seem hyper-modern, liberally oriented and post-capitalist —free music, free content, patent-free open-source mash-ups, the recombinative DNA of the Internet age—, it may be necessary to look at 1) whether depth of knowledge is something more prudent minds can provide, and 2) the brilliant dynamism of such a model for meeting the demands of a genuine marketplace of ideas.
For progressive activists worried that too much deference to the private sector will necessarily erase centuries’ worth of civil rights gains, it may be instructive to look at how that entrepreneurial Internet-savvy generation prizes personal freedom, privacy and a right against intrusion by powerful interests, above affiliation with party or platform.
The 21st century is throwing worldwide practical crises at us, at unprecedented speed and with unprecedented complexity, but it also offers the opportunity to find that framework of inquiry within ourselves, wherein we are willing to ask first whether we are solving a problem, and only later whether we are striking a blow for one side or another.
If this is to be a new pragmatist age, in which imagination and citizenship go hand in hand, and the prophetic voices that will build our future are the revolutionary moderates most able to straddle the vast political divide and apply not only their own but our collective talents to the puzzle of survival, and survival with some freedom and comfort at that, then we have to learn that extremism is not a sign of strength and intransigence is not a sign of principle.
When independent means not willing to be bought or co-opted by special interests, partisan interests or blind dogma, then governing with the support of independents means doing what one believes is right in a way that allows for those who disagree about specifics to participate heroically in the work of building a better future.