Virtuous green politics and political conflict

“The dueling loops of the political powerplace”? It sounds more like a recent episode of Dr Who. Nevertheless, if we can get past that title, there are some very intriguing nuggets to be found in Jack Harich’s paper, which can be found here.

The problem that is addressed in the paper is framed in a way that is sure to attract curious greens: “The transformation of society to environmental sustainability requires three steps. The first is the profound realization we must make the change … The second is finding the proper practices that will allow living sustainably. The third is adopting those practices” (p.1). Harich suggests that we have the awareness (step 1), we have the technical answers (step 2), yet we resist change. This resistance to taking the third step to sustainability is a social problem and resolving it requires political leverage. However, greens are addressing this problem incorrectly, in ad hoc, instinctive ways. We need more analytical tools, which Harich endeavours to provide.

What Harich has done is to deconstruct the processes by which political support and power is gained in order to build an analytical model. He suggests there are two competing processes (“the dueling loops” of the title) in the political system, namely, a ‘race to the bottom’ based on falsehood and favouritism, and a ‘race to the top’ based on honesty and fair dealing. The difficulty for the virtuous politician is that the ‘size’ of the truth can never be inflated, whereas a lie can always be made into a bigger lie. Consequently the race to the bottom tends to dominate political life and this is accepted by many politicians on the basis that the ends justify the means.

Looking at the model that emerges, the key finding for Harich is that environmentalists are pushing on the wrong levers of power. The ‘classic activist’ approach to social change is to continually recite truths and spread knowledge about ecological problems, in an attempt to shame the political leadership into behaving better. However, Harich argues that this approach does not and cannot ever apply sufficient political pressure, simply because truth and knowledge can always be trumped by falsehood: opponents can always tell bigger lies.

What is needed to improve the situation is to work on two ‘high leverage points’ that the model brings to light, which are (1) citizens’ ability to detect political deception, and (2) citizens’ repulsion to corruption. Harich believes this to be an entirely new strategic approach.

This is interesting from a green point of view. Greens are often urged to be visionary, and to emphasise the positive aspects of the vision in order to win hearts and minds. Harich, in contrast, tells us that we must “lift the blanket of deception” and direct political education efforts towards “truth literacy” (p.24). We must think critically about the policies and programmes of opponents, and expose them for what they are; we must consistently challenge our opponents; we must not be afraid of conflict.

Following on from the model-building, Harich plugs all sorts of numbers into his model and generates some incomprehensible and very cool graphs, in order to work out the circumstances, based on the suggested strategy, in which virtue might possibly win out. I’m not sure the numbers are important, to be honest. Qualitatively, however, it’s an interesting systems approach to the complex problem of political strategy. It is perhaps based on a rather cynical view of powermongering, but who’s to say that is an unrealistic perspective?

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