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Hope, Change, and that Political Fog of Enthusiasm

Public policy possibilities are often developed and discussed within a fog of enthusiasm. It’s not that the people who advance them do not think at all about their possible practical consequences. But they tend to think a lot more about the consequences that are favorable to their goals–about what will happen if everything goes according to plan–and a lot less, if at all, about the ones that are not. They thus do not spend too much time thinking about the potential difficulties of implementing a policy possibility; or about the possible unintended–and possibly very undesirable–effects that its implementation might have; or about what might happen if everything does not go quite according to plan. And while they sometimes recognize that there are people who oppose their policies, and that these people might have very different interests, beliefs, values, and goals than their own, they tend to dismiss these people, along with their interests beliefs values and goals as ‘unenlightened’ or ‘false’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘immoral.’ And they never quite understand that a policy that would oppose the possibility that they are trying to advance might be just as positive and appealing and inspiring to their political opponents as the one that they are trying to advance is to them.

We might very well regard policy possibilities that are developed in this way as hopeful. But we should not regard them as thoughtful. And we should not be too surprised if they often turn out to be actually less effective when it comes to achieving their own goals than doing nothing at all.

The fog of enthusiasm is great for rallying people to a political cause, for getting them to support a public policy, for getting them to vote, and for getting them to get out the vote. But it is not so great for developing thoughtful public policy. And this may be one of the reasons why we so often find our politicians abandoning policies that they championed during their political campaigns once they assume the responsibilities of the office itself. IF public policy discussions are very different in this respect. They are not about rallying people to a political cause. They are not about getting them to support a particular policy. And it is not for nothing that they focus upon areas of concern, instead of areas of hope. IF discussions are about helping people to think about policy possibilities pertaining to an area of concern well before they might be called upon to adopt one in that other fog of enthusiasm called ‘a political crisis’. The aim of our policy discussions is to help people to thoughtfully explore and develop contrasting possibilities for public policy pertaining to a given area of concern, so they can understand the concerns and interests behind them and make thoughtful choices about them.

This is why IF facilitators do not try to bring their discussion groups to consensus. It is not surprising that facilitators of discussions that are intended to garner support for political candidates and their policies try to bring their discussion groups to consensus. But once we recognize that people who have different interests, beliefs, values, and goals will most likely also have different political hopes and dreams, it should become clear that trying to bring a group to consensus–or to frame certain public policy possibilities so that they seem hopeful, or appealing, or positive–is to take a position in the political fray.

Politics is about who gets what, where, when, and how. So it is not too surprising that politicians talk enthusiastically during their political campaigns about hope and change and policy possibilities that will enable their supporters to get more of what they want once they are elected. IF policy discussions talk a lot about public policy possibilities too, and some of the policy possibilities that we describe in our reports could lead to change and to some people getting more of what they want if they were implemented. But IF does not have a policy position in any of the areas of concern in which we conduct projects and publish reports. Our reports and discussions are truly non-partisan. And this means that their purpose is not–and, indeed, cannot be–to change public policy. For there are at least two contrasting approaches to public policy in any area concern:  We could change our policy or we could keep it the same. These approaches are anchored to different political traditions. What seems hopeful and positive to one of them often seems hopeless and negative to the other. And while IF is dedicated to thoughtful discussion of a wide-range of public policy possibilities, it is difficult to see how IF could possibly aim at changing our public policies–or at keeping them the same–without taking sides with one of them.