A "You Said It" writer last Sunday asked why local pundits' columns "do not reflect the fact that many western Coloradans are quite content to be some shade of "purple rather than bright "red" or "blue." The writer asked why centrist and moderate voters are overlooked: "Perhaps we ... just aren't very exciting." I gave this considerable thought.
Everything we do in politics — campaigning, organizing, lobbying, voting — is based upon the way we want to organize society. We must answer this essential question before we decide how to spend our political energy.
To me, the most useful tool to answer this question is philosopher John Rawls' "Veil of Ignorance."
If we were to design an entirely new society with the goal of fairness, we would need to minimize our own personal experiences, biases, and prejudices (Rawls himself admits we cannot eliminate them). So we should imagine ourselves in an original position behind a "veil of ignorance." Imagine you know nothing about the particular talents, tastes, social class, and positions you would have within a social order. This includes gender, race, nationality, and culture. You then choose the principles for distribution of rights, positions, and resources among everyone in this society.
But the veil of ignorance would prevent you from knowing what particular distribution of rights, positions, and resources you would actually end up with. In other words, you might find yourself with wealth, freedom, and security. But you might also find yourself as a low-wage worker who can barely afford rent. Or someone fleeing war or violence. Or prevented from opportunities due to race, religion, gender, or sexuality.
And so without knowing what we will be once we come out from behind the veil, we decide how to organize society.
My answer: Everyone should have the freedoms and resources necessary to make free choices. This isn't a passive principle: we affirmatively need things to feel secure in our lives and make free choices. This means stable and affordable housing; guaranteed health care; living wages; freedom of belief and expression; eradication of discrimination based upon gender, race, nationality, or culture; pure democracy without moneyed interests in control; and enough free time to raise children, have leisure and rest, and seek higher education.
I understand that inequality cannot be obsolete, and that there will be some winners and some losers in any society. But from behind the veil of ignorance, we certainly wouldn't agree to the society we have now.
We love to hear individual stories of giving to others, or of individual instances of justice. But we can't really comprehend organizing society in a way consistent with those stories. Anil Dash, an American entrepreneur and technologist, made this point excellently: "Most of what gets shared as heartwarming stories are usually temporary, small-scale responses to systemic failures. I wish we found it just as inspirational to make structural changes to unjust systems, but I don't know if our culture knows how to tell those stories."
And yes: I realize this sounds like pie-in-the-sky idealism. But if "liberty and justice for all" in practice is too idealistic, then why are we here? So let's spend political energy to make the ideal a reality.
As far as where to spend our political energy, we have two major mainstream political identities to choose from, and I don't have much faith in either at the moment. Mainstream Republicans often actively campaign against social supports, universal health care, affordable housing, and workers' rights. And mainstream Democrats, despite their claimed aims and some successes in those arenas, have also left working people behind in favor of powerful people and industries. Democrats' preoccupation with "innovative" industries and the professional class over ordinary people have resulted in the housing and homelessness crises gripping liberal strongholds like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and New York City.
In short, one party is against the steps I believe necessary to achieve justice, and the other says it wants to take those steps, but won't fully commit. And that's why I can't triangulate a position between the two parties. That's why I can't be a moderate.
So, to the "You Said It" writer (and others with the same questions): in order to end up with the "purple" policies you like, we may need to begin with bright "blue" positions so that the compromise is in the middle. So imagine yourself behind the veil of ignorance, and decide how you believe society should be built. And then let's work together to make that vision a reality.
Sean Goodbody is a Grand Junction attorney representing injured workers all over western Colorado. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.