The Pig People Dont Talk to the Chicken People

Peter Teague

It was three years ago, when I first came to work in a New York foun­da­tion, that I learned that the pig peo­ple don’t talk to the chick­en peo­ple. You guys are work­ing on the same prob­lems, with the same root caus­es,” I said. So why don’t you work togeth­er?” The chal­lenges they were tack­ling seemed sim­i­lar: fac­to­ry farm­ing, moun­tains of waste, the dom­i­na­tion of lit­tle guys by the big guys. But that’s not how they act­ed. I soon learned that the pig peo­ple and the chick­en peo­ple don’t talk to the cow peo­ple either, and the cow peo­ple have nev­er talked with the peo­ple wor­ried about over-graz­ing, or breast can­cer or the war in Iraq.

And so it goes in pro­gres­sive Amer­i­ca today. We are ori­ent­ed towards prob­lems, issues and com­plaints. Our pol­i­tics are defined by frag­men­ta­tion rather than uni­ty. To the extent that we think beyond what and who we are not, we tend to focus on the things that sep­a­rate us: issues, iden­ti­ties, demo­graph­ics and geog­ra­phy. We then orga­nize our­selves into ever-nar­row­er frag­ments with rigid cat­e­gor­i­cal boundaries. 

Why? I’ll ven­ture to name a few reasons:

  • The mis­tak­en belief that things get more man­age­able the more nar­row­ly we focus on them.
  • The mis­tak­en belief that peo­ple act in their ratio­nal self-inter­est (as we define it) if giv­en appro­pri­ate facts.
  • Hos­til­i­ty to new ideas. 
  • Fail­ure to ques­tion basic assump­tions and orthodoxies.
  • Fear of imag­in­ing plau­si­ble alternatives.
  • We have for­got­ten who we are.

We have a pret­ty great sto­ry to tell. The coun­try was found­ed by pro­gres­sives and it is pro­gres­sives who have strug­gled to make it bet­ter. They fought to abol­ish slav­ery, enfran­chise women and end child labor. The pro­gres­sive impulse brought down the orig­i­nal rob­ber barons, and reined in cor­po­rate greed. Pro­gres­sives came up with an authen­tic response to the Great Depres­sion and coaxed the coun­try to con­front the dan­gers of insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism. Even now, in our weak­ened state, we are the ones press­ing for an econ­o­my that works for every­one; a democ­ra­cy that hon­ors equal­i­ty and respects human rights; a for­eign pol­i­cy that val­ues glob­al inter­de­pen­dence over uni­lat­er­al­ism and peace over war; and for vital com­mu­ni­ties and the right rela­tion­ship to the earth that sus­tains us.

But some­how we’ve lost the nar­ra­tive thread that ties it all togeth­er. We have to learn to tell a bet­ter sto­ry. We have to be bold and inspir­ing, to shift our ori­en­ta­tion from prob­lems to solu­tions. We have to under­stand that the val­ues envi­ron­ment in which we are oper­at­ing is increas­ing­ly hos­tile to the pro­gres­sive project. And we have to learn how to nav­i­gate in that envi­ron­ment as we seek to trans­form it over time. 

We need a pol­i­tics in which the cur­rent par­ties’ agen­das become irrel­e­vant and both Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans are forced to gov­ern as pro­gres­sives, in the same way that both par­ties are now forced to gov­ern as con­ser­v­a­tives. Elec­toral pol­i­tics are ulti­mate­ly an expres­sion of under­ly­ing cul­tur­al dynam­ics. Long-term cul­tur­al trans­for­ma­tion, there­fore, must be the first pri­or­i­ty, with elec­toral pol­i­tics as one vehi­cle we can use to achieve that goal.

This is all achiev­able, but we don’t have much time. Sci­en­tists roll out one hor­ri­fy­ing sce­nario after anoth­er about the immi­nent col­lapse of nat­ur­al sys­tems. And we can’t wish away the fact that a grow­ing num­ber of lunatics have weapons of mass destruction.

What’s real­ly amaz­ing is that cur­rent polit­i­cal dis­course – and the media that pro­mote it – car­ries on as if these facts don’t mat­ter. The world could end and we’d still be talk­ing about which politi­cian is more God-fear­ing, whether Michael Jack­son is a ped­erast, or what GM’s share price is on the Dow Jones.

And there’s the open­ing. We have the chance to be rel­e­vant because no one else is being relevant.

When we stop wor­ry­ing about a lot of seem­ing­ly sep­a­rate prob­lems, we begin to real­ize that there are peo­ple out there who are think­ing seam­less­ly and bril­liant­ly, tak­ing action to trans­form cor­po­ra­tions, com­ing up with whole new ways of con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing prob­lems and imag­in­ing solutions. 

Civ­il rights lead­ers in Cal­i­for­nia, for exam­ple, are propos­ing pub­lic invest­ment in a clean ener­gy econ­o­my as a solu­tion to the mass impris­on­ment of young African-Amer­i­can and Lati­no men and oth­er deeply root­ed prob­lems affect­ing our inner cities. A small but grow­ing num­ber of cor­po­rate lead­ers are com­ing to under­stand that the whole sys­tem must be turned away from its blind and mechan­i­cal dri­ve for prof­it. And we are build­ing a crit­i­cal mass of pro­gres­sives who are re-ori­ent­ing their work, appeal­ing to shared val­ues, speak­ing to aspi­ra­tion and offer­ing solu­tions instead of problems.

Some­thing nascent and pow­er­ful is hap­pen­ing out there. We need to keep watch­ing, trust­ing our intu­ition and nur­tur­ing it as it opens.

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