A politics of percept vs. a politics of concept

A week or so ago, I tweeted a somewhat rambling thread about how to really resist Donald Trump and his kind. We’ve reflexively focused on acting through the Democratic Party, whether that means strengthening it in its current form or transforming it into a more leftist institution. I’m not opposed to either of those strategies; my issue is simply that neither addresses the real problem in American politics, which is the ugly and ever-widening rift between both sides of the political spectrum. I suppose we could imagine that through some incredibly potent rebranding and messaging efforts, grounded in real organizational change, the Democrats might persuade another 30 to 40 percent of the electorate that their philosophy and policies make more sense, reducing the enraged right wing to a fraction of the populace without much real power. Consider me skeptical, though.

The rift and the anger aren’t going to disappear because we win enough elections. In fact, they’re going to continue to make winning elections prohibitively challenging. And even in a world where Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan’s ineptitude and callousness were sufficient to hand Democrats a series of landslide victories over the next three years, I am doubtful we would see any the kind of cultural shift we need to help create a sustainable future for our country and the rest of the world. As it stands, victory on either side is going to breed untenable resentment on the other, and that resentment is going to make it near-impossible for the left to meaningfully demonstrate that its policies work better. As we saw during Obama’s tenure, even if life for most Americans improves under a Democratic president and Congress, almost half of them are too invested in the culture wars to buy it.

The point I was trying to make on Twitter is that to change things — and to change them in a sustainable fashion — we need to move away from the realm of argument, the realm of concept, and into the realm of percept. This is a frequent refrain in Marshall McLuhan’s work, as he describes the mental shift necessary to adapt to an electrically connected world; it is also a fundamental tenet of Buddhism and other Eastern belief systems. (McLuhan was quite right when he said that over the last few decades, the West has begun to Easternize.) An interesting thing about Buddhism — and by the way, because of my new meditation habit and the associated studying I’m doing, I’m gonna be super annoying and for a while will probably begin many sentences with some version of that phrase; feel free to correct me, obviously, if I say something dumb or wrong — is that the Buddha made a point of not trying to convince others to follow his path. He told them to try it and to see if the path convinced them. Concept is about trying to articulate an idea; concepts are always imperfect, because no piece of reality can be truly conveyed in language (or a picture, or any other representation). Percept is direct experience, much harder to argue with. I can tell my 6-year-old that it’s 28 degrees Fahrenheit outside and he needs to put on his jacket and gloves because otherwise he’s going to get cold and be unhappy, and he just says no, he won’t, and then we have a fight. Or I can let him go outside without his jacket and gloves, and he can get cold and be unhappy and come back in and put them on of his own accord.

A workable politics is going to depend more on creating experiences where citizens are involved in developing solutions and can observe processes firsthand, instead of relying on news outlets and elected leaders to route information to them. By its nature, this politics must be predominantly local. I’ve got lots more to say about this and will pick it up again later.

Holler at me by email if you wanna talk.