Democrats & Liberals Archives

The Politics of A Small World

I just got done reading a book by Mark Buchanan called Nexus : Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks , and it raised some interesting questions for me about how politics operates nowadays. If you don’t recognize the short hand, let me explain.

When mathematicians talk of Small Worlds, it's not Disney displays, but the kind of part chaotic, part orderly systems that allows us our six degrees of separation between any two people on the planet. Such things are possible, despite the counter-intuitiveness of such a system. The reasons may interest us who talk of politics.

First, we must understand that people associate neither completely at random nor, in a way to where a person's acquaintances and friends could be predicted over a lifetime.

Certain unlikely, or unthought-of connections exist between people, and this vastly reduces the distance between any one person on the face of the planet. Small Worlds balance on the boundary between chaos and order, neither random nor nonrandom, but bringing together elements of both.

But what does Six Degrees of Separation have to do with anything? The key lies in how those six degrees are possible. Namely, the strength of weak connections. Studies have shown that most people who got their jobs with the help of people they knew were only somewhat friendly or familiar with the person who hooked them up. The secret in there was one important bit of information: The closer you are to another person, the closer you are likely to be with the people they know. The people you're less familiar with, less connected with are the ones whose influence takes you to new places, putting you in contact with people you don't know already.

Why is this important? Because the tighter a political community becomes, the more likely it is that it's activists are preaching to the choir, rather than gaining converts.

The GOP has run right into this, creating echo chambers of vast proportions, where likeminded folks bounce the same notions back and forth. It has become harder for them to break out, to get people outside of their political domain to take what they say at face value.

The world of the GOP has become steadily more esoteric from the outside world. The GOP leadership maintains and encourage this tendency. It's convenient for those who want to avoid accountability by creating a siege mentality. It's convenient for those who want greater control over the ideology of the party members, and a better ability to enforce purity in the ideology. This, taken far enough, though, eventually creates an isolated party core as those with weaker connections to the center of the party splinter off in other direction. Ultimately, the road of orthodoxy is the road of fracture and schism, as small disagreements about interests become intensified into breaking points.

There are those who have looked on admiringly at the GOP political machine, with its ability to motivate followers and get candidates into offices both elected and appointed. Unfortunately for them, they have failed to count the cost of such a machine to policy and political stability within the party. Some measure the health of a party with it's ability to take firm stances on issues, but the fact is, being able to accommodate a certain range of views is in fact healthier.

The NRA, Club For Growth, Cato Institute, Neocons and other groups may enjoy the perpetual hardline stances on their issues that the leaders have taken up, but the rest of us, including many Republicans are beginning to feel that these issues have been taken too far. Republican politicians are beginning to take the heat on this, and are breaking with their leadership on important issues. They are beginning to see the limits of their power, and the hardline institutions that have backed the Republican Revolution are beginning to work at cross purposes. Frustrated at what should be the height of their power, they're kicking at the windows, breaking them out, the rigidity of the power structure poorly absorbing the stresses that the different parts of the Right Wing are putting on the Republican party.

The Democrats can take advantage of this in the years to come, but first, they have to stop treating the Republican Revolution as if it were a permanent reality. If we are to win as a party, we must exploit the strength of weak connections to an greater extent.

By weak connections, I do not mean issues people don't feel all that excited about, or even issues we don't have much in common about. No, what I'm talking about here are the ranges and minor commonalities of our political relationships with those to our right and our left. Weak means distant rather than lacking in power.

As such, it may mean making compromises on certain issues rather than taking hardline stances. Our party's pro-choice position is one part. We should allow pro-life Democrats more prominent roles, while making our policy more friendly to alternatives to abortion. Challenge those who would have us outlaw abortion to set up orphanages and better adoption and foster care systems. Invite moderation from the other side. At the same time, we should preserve choice until America as a society decides against Abortion. Safe, legal, but rare, as Clinton put it. This may not please the most hardline supporters of abortion, but it should be less of a roadblock to those moderates who are not rigidly pro-life, but see today's practices as excessive and inhumane.

In short, it should take a point of rigid opposition from our opponents, and allow us to engage voters who are not all that comfortable with it. This is just one area where we can successfully fine commonalities with voters to our right, and seeking out these kinds of friendly, if distant relationships can benefit us. But that's not all we should do, really.

We should not give up on our ideals, or take our party from its central core philosophies either. We must learn to eloquently present our ideas about how society should be governed, and establish closer ties in the hearts of moderates and independents to our agenda. Great changes have already been wrought in this country's culture, changes that go unacknowledged by a conservative culture that's unwittingly been carried forward by it.

The country is more liberal in many ways than that the previous generation handed to us, though the backlash of the Reagan and Gingrich Revolutions have papered it over with supply-side thinking and free-market philosophy. We must use that to our advantage. In many ways our party, our liberal tradition, is stronger than that of the conservatives. It addresses many issues directly that the Republican party's ideology only tries to rationalize away.

Which brings me to a point that I think is important: persuasion is a dynamic act. It is not simply speaking one's peace, it is the active effort to change a mind not already allied with your own. We must recognize that cheerleading speeches directed at the party rank and file are not the way to bring voters back to our party.

For example: on pollution, we must recognize that the conservative interests have put many people in the position where they think that the health of the environment must be traded for jobs, because of the expense of cleaning up the output of industry. If we are to unstick Americans from that position, we must compel a change of that attitude.

First, we can describe how pollution and environmental destruction literally impoverish us, with the expense of chronic health problems, the reduction in property values, and the overall diminishing of the quality of life. The, if the issue of jobs is raised, we should look into the management of the factories, and see if executives are raising their own wages. If they've got the money to do it without loss of jobs, that would be a fair thing to point out, and one that will put the people who run these businesses on the spot. Then, we should point out places where both environmental interests and economic are being satisfied. Nothing succeeds like success, and if people get the impression that there's a better bargain to be struck, they'll take it. Finally, we should hearken to a time where decisions were not just made on the basis of dollars and cents, but good sense and morals. It should be shameful that we've put the dollar ahead of good judgment and good actions.

We should not lie to do this. We should take the truth as our basis for operation and bend it as little as possible. In dealing with weak ties, where trust is not absolute, we should take care not to encourage people to back off from their tenuous connection. Spin is high effort, high cost, and quick way to lose people's faith.

We should also respect our audience, treat them like they're smart, moral, adult human beings. This is critical, because people in this country do not like to act from a position of being intimidated. We must make their choice to go along with us their choice.

In the end, when taking advantage of the loose ties that bind us to each other at distance, we must be willing to concede that our control is not absolute, that it can never be. We must be willing concede that consensus must be built, not demanded. But we must also be courageous enough to stand up for what we believe in, and eloquent and honest enough in its defense that we move our society to a better place, rather than let consensus become the friction for any meaningful movement of policy.

In short, what Small World Networks tell us is that we must do more than take a stand to win in today's politics. We've got to create a movement, and bring along as many folks as we can.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at May 26, 2005 10:09 AM