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Sender: Bruce Schuman
Subject: The bottom-up definition and construction of political groups
Date: Fri, Apr 11, 2014
Msg: 100917

Greetings, Transpartisans. With misgivings and apologies for the length of this message, I thought I would defy the odds and post it as a whole, rather than sensibly breaking it up into bite-sized pieces. I'll take my chances on the reception, and maybe do what I can to cite some of these points later, in small chunks. Thanks for your patience and your presence here!


It's interesting and perhaps synchronistic that over the last several days, I had been looking at this same definition of "Transpartisan", as found here:

I was looking for books and lectures by Mark Gerzon and John Steiner, listened carefully to a YouTube lecture on leadership, found a lot of wonderful material, and saw in all of this a very broad basis for agreement, at least for myself. This is a rich and growing field, and there is much to learn or acknowledge in these materials. Perhaps more of this background should be explicitly included here.

In this message, in a spirit of co-creativity, and acknowledging this rich background, I want to offer a few thoughts that are emerging for me.


I have been thinking for some time that a politics based on the "explicit bottom-up construction of agreements" (i.e., based on specific points shared among specific people) might be very liberating. A couple of days ago, I wrote a longish article on this subject, entitled "What is a political group?", citing this below definition of Transpartisan, and reviewing definitions of terms like "alliance" and "coalition" and "party". This morning, I want to try again, from a slightly different angle and a sharper focus. Instead of asking the broad question "What is a political group?", I want to concentrate on the more specific issue of constructing (or defining) political groups "from the bottom up", in terms of specific agreements on specific points by specific people. This angle, I think, might open the way to a truly scientific approach to a new transpartisan politics - that I believe can help us avoid innumerable semantic issues that emerge when definitions are less clear. Starting from this foundation, we can then introduce some new possibilities for a new political technology that the growth of the computer world is making feasible for the first time.

This approach might also help clarify the somewhat confusing and fractious tension between "the individual" (libertarianism) and "the community" (communitarianism) - the primary theme of EJ Dionne's 2012 book "Our Divided Political Heart". Seeing a political or social group in this way enables us to say in simple terms what seems obvious: communities and groups are built out of individuals. It is our careless or poorly-defined use of these terms, I think, that lead to a lot of confusing and perhaps unnecessary disagreement. Let's emphasize individual freedom and autonomy as the building block, and construct the community, and all sense of shared responsibility and cohesion among people based on clear agreements among free individuals. The right approach is not "individual versus community" - it's "individuality within community in a balanced way", perhaps as per Amatai Etzioni. This might be an ideal flag for a transpartisan to wave.

"Etzioni's main idea is that individual rights and aspirations should be protected but that they should be inserted into a sense of the community (hence the name of the movement he created-Communitarianism). He argues that communitarian thinking developed in reaction to the "me-first" attitude of the 1980s. He has urged the movement to attempt to establish common ground between liberals and conservatives, thus bridging the continual division. In his book Radical Middle, author Mark Satin identifies Etzioni as a radical centrist communitarian."


If Transpartisan politics is revolutionary - and I would say it absolutely is - I would want to include in that revolution a specific acknowledgement of Einstein's famous quote - "Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them." This quote is perhaps a little vague - what does it really mean? - but my interpretation would include an awareness of specific themes in "group process" that I believe are not part of the present "political meme", and which, in my opinion, must be recognized and precisely clarified. It seems evident to me, given our premises and assumptions and traditional ways of understanding the process of democracy, that our current way of thinking about political issues and groups is riddled with semantic traps and vulnerabilities that are generally unavoidable. The problems are inherent in the semantics. No amount of civility alone can entirely get us through these problems. We have to address them or risk failure.

From my point of view, though highly desirable, Transpartisan initiatives are generally failing today - leading to the frustrated burn-out of the best visionaries who come into this work, and a common cynicism and doubt that goes with that failure. Taking a new approach, based on a strict semantic construction that can be defined with precision in the language of mathematical semantics and computer science, might be a critical step towards the real success and empowerment of this very idealistic movement. Let's consider some new and much more precise ways to think about these things.

So, with that said, a brief review of some insights and possibilities from the world of technical analysis.


The subject of "algebraic semantics" emerged for me in my undergraduate days, and over the years I grew with the idea that a precise semantics might be critically important to collaboratively developing "a world that works for everyone". I have continued to explore this theme, and last summer, I got involved with a listserv for computer professionals that deals with issues of semantic and conceptual construction called "Ontolog" - for "ontology". I discovered this mailing list by contacting Dr. John Sowa, author of a 1984 technical book entitled "Conceptual Structures". Dr. Sowa is a retired MIT professor and IBM researcher, generally credited with inventing the field of "semantic networks", and he is active on the Ontolog mailing list. I have found this listserv to be very instructive, in many ways, and I think it makes a lot of sense to apply basic principles of "semantic ontology" to the construction or understanding of basic political concepts. When I do a Google search for "semantic network", this is the second citation I find, -- right after Wikipedia: This is a big and technical subject, and perhaps foreign to most political thinkers, but it might be critically important in the creation of a workable new politics. Sowa's book is also cited in the Wikipedia definition of "abstraction".


The essential point is that scientific concepts can generally be distinguished from concepts in the liberal arts, because they generally have a strict and "grounded" definition. As concepts ascend in levels of abstraction (as per the taxonomic hierarchy "my German Shepherd dog Charlie", "all Germans Shepherds", "all dogs", "all mammals", "all animals", "everything that is alive"), they become increasingly subject to interpretation - and possibly multiple alternative interpretations. It is those "multiple alternative interpretations of the same word (or broad concept)" that can lead to significant disagreements, even among the best-intended ("If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, is it a duck?"). One issue that a transpartisan politics must address is creation of methods that "help people understand each other better" - often through traditional dialogue methods such as "respectful listening" and "asking questions" and "co-creativity". Looking for a solution to this problem, I have explored the concept of "resonant semantics" - following the idea of "resonance" (co-creative energetic affinity) among members of a group, when resonance involves the emergence of trust, cocreativity and real listening.


The fundamental issue revolves around the concept of a "private dictionary". If we are really listening to each other, I should do my best to understand the words you use in terms of your intended meaning, as best I can grasp it - instead of "projecting" a meaning into your words based on my own private dictionary, and perhaps seeing moral/ethical errors in your statements which arise when I plug in my own interpretation. Following some kind of resonant semantics is critical to the success of any discussion where issues might be heated and concepts defined in broad abstractions. A speaker should be guided in the same way, framing their ideas in the clearest and least-ambiguous way possible, to help avoid misinterpretation.


With all that said, I'm interested in exploring how it might be possible to build a political movement based on precise explicit agreement - at a large-scale level, perhaps involving millions of people. Perhaps we could begin to understand more clearly the meaning a few critical terms like "alliance" or "agreement" or "shared understanding" or "political party" or "transpartisan" if these terms were defined with explicit and strictly grounded definitions - instead of the traditional way of the "liberal arts" which tend to leave us without strict definition, hoping we can find some way to agree - and generally finding the issue confusing and fuzzy and very difficult or impossible. As E.J. Dionne says in "Our Divided Political Heart", in the USA we are "one nation conceived in argument". Maybe we can find ways to clarify and illuminate that creative conceptual process, in ways that are more constructive and lead to less collateral damage.

From my point of view, this new kind of strict definition might be an essential part of a new "political science of transpartisanship" - that I am inclined to believe is essential if this movement is to succeed. Without such precision, we will be falling into an old trap, and continuing with a failed "meme" that does not address Einstein's quote. In this case, the "level of awareness that created the problem" arises from the assumption that we don't need strict definitions, that such definitions are impossible anyway, and that, therefore, our only hope is to encourage something like resonance ("Kumbaya and the Rodney King solution") in the broad high-tension effort to understand one another at large scale (millions of very diverse people considering thousands of high-tension interconnected issues). It looks to me like the amazing power of contemporary computer networking can fully address this problem - and that we are silly and somewhat myopic (or "old paradigm") if we don't seriously explore how this might be true.

What is a political group? What is an alliance, or coalition, or political party? Are these things more or less the same thing, but at varying levels of breadth? Generally, the case can be made that all of these concepts involve some sort of membership within a group based on degrees of agreement. An alliance or coalition is formed when people or groups share some common points of agreement - maybe one point of agreement (though we are different in many other ways, we all advocate a specific legislative initiative), or maybe many (we share multiple points of agreement and ideology -for example, the Christian Coalition originally created by Pat Robertson, or the Liberty Coalition, as created by Michael Ostrolenk). A political group or coalition can be exactly defined by the positions held by its members. This does not have to be confusing.

What is a Transpartisan political group? If we need to define this term in a precise clear way, once we have a crisp logical definition of a political group, we can then offer specific descriptive attributes of this particular type of political group.


I am inclined to the view that the "fundamental indissoluble integral unit of any political group" (the fundamental building block from which the group is formed) is an individual human being. This has been my approach in database development, and it seems very defensible and intuitive (rather than saying, for example, that the fundamental unit is a policy or position or set of positions - which is another way to define the group). In this context, it would seem to make sense to create a way that every individual human being who wants to participate in an active and engaged form of citizenship should be in a position to fully define themselves, as an individual, insofar as possible in their own terms, and in any detail they choose. "I am a citizen, here is who I am, here is what I am interested in, here are the issues that concern me, and here are my positions on those issues." The individual might want to add "Yes, I am listening to you, I am influenced by you, I want to work together with you to resolve differences, and create solutions that work for both (or all) of us."

This process of self-definition, in crisp detail, perhaps subject to unifying standards (perhaps in the way that Twitter subjects all posts to a 140-character length, perhaps in the way that librarians catalog millions of books through a common system), could become the fundamental element in a broad process of coalition and party development. Define yourself in detail, as you wish, within a shared framework - and in a politically neutral way, this system, perhaps interconnecting millions of people, all of whom are entirely independent free-thinking individuals subject to no inherent grouping or assumptions whatsoever ("all people in X group are like this") - all participants would be automatically compiled into accurately-defined groups by their own choice through a simple "Venn diagram" kind of mathematical logic.

Put simply, "everybody who checks button X is a member of X coalition." If there are hundreds of issues in play, a system like this would clarify them all, in precise detail, all at the same time, in a fully holistic and integral way. Political coalitions and groups would have an exact and accurate definition, with no blurring or overly broad assumptions regarding "what the group thinks." Instead of cognitive overload, and the immediate blur of confusing emotion that often follows, a system like this could contain and manage huge variability in a stable and trustworthy way, opening the door to entirely new vistas in democratic self-governance.

This approach is very basic and very simple. It is natural and intuitive, and it's very do-able. Find a way to move this idea into the world at large scale, and a new kind of political movement would be born. Instantly, we would have a very broad and very accurate and detailed statement of agreement and disagreement on what might be hundreds of critical and vexed and interconnected issues. Points of agreement and disagreement would become clear and explicit - something that is inherently impossible in the muddy and fragmented (non-holistic, non-integral, overloaded and low-bandwidth) way we do things today. In the context of this new understanding, we might then undertake clear (and informed and resonant) negotiation on points of disagreement, looking for ideal solutions that benefit individuals and the whole in a balanced way.

Though their focus is global rather than national, see The Widening Circle for a political vision based on something like this approach, or their article "Imagine all the People" ine_All_the_People.pdf


In his their commentary on The Commons, in a video recently published by Kosmos Journal entitled "What's Next for the Global Commons", James Quilligan and David Bollier introduce a theme I believe may point towards the most powerful and feasible way forward for any emerging new transpartisan movement. They speak of a "new center of gravity" - emerging somewhat like a political party or third force - but not based on the assumptions and traditional framework of a political party.

This new center of gravity could emerge as a directly influential and powerful political movement not by building all the traditional elements of a political "base" - nominating candidates, trying to get on the ballot, raising huge amounts of money, trying to win elections - but simply as a coalescence of millions of well-intended people across the internet, who see clear ways to come together simply through clicking options on a keyboard that they can believe in, connected through something like a Venn-diagram logic, and who by sheer power of numbers could become a seriously influential force within the context of the existing Congressional and Party system. If we are following something like the Widening Circle vision, perhaps all these people would coalesce into groups that take the form of interconnected circles, perhaps parsed by criteria like particular issues or geographical regions.

These people might be thinking "We don't really need the party apparatus and all the mechanism of existing politics. Because of the emerging new power of the internet, we can now connect in powerful direct ways on our own, and we don't need to be constrained by this sick and corrupted framework in its present form. Let's come together in this new way - and as we grow, we can then revitalize and influence the existing system. We don't need to reject Congress, or the Constitution, or the electoral process. Instead, taking this new approach, we can embrace them all, and breath a new and vitalizing energy and influence into them." That, to me, seems like a far more viable strategy than hoping to compete with the massively funded (and, as millions of people think, corrupt) political structure controlling our lives today. This new approach would absolutely be a genuine and exactly accurate "voice of the people" - and could emerge not as a political party, but as a kind of universal people's lobby, dealing with every issue in the USA in an integral/holistic way, and influencing (and guiding) the existing system by sheer force of reason and numbers.


We are only beginning to understand the potential of the internet to transform politics. Groups like "Tech President" -- -- have been looking at this question for five years or more, and every political initiative in the USA today has some kind of internet presence. The Obama campaign of 2008 was described as "the best organized in history", and much of that power and organization flowed through the "My Barack Obama" ("MyBo") interface, that brought together 19 million Obama supporters.

In the 2012 election, the group Americans Elect - -- though they withdrew from the race and were seen as a failure by some - actually did manage to sign up 20 million American voters, who went through their very elegant and interesting sign-up process, and entered 25,000 questions and issues into their database. The leadership of Americans Elect - though they had a powerful internet system that attracted a lot of attention and participation, was still very much an "inside the box" (of the old prevailing political assumptions), and did not begin to utilize the organizing "people power" they had successfully brought together. Perhaps a new version of Americans Elect, aimed at the broad swath of "concerned citizens everywhere" could begin to utilize the tremendous and highly-detailed (and historically unprecedented) organizing power of the internet - to convene a new "third force" - concerned Americans regardless of "party" - who have stepped into a new form of political thinking, that fully engages the voices of American citizens in a detailed and precisely authentic way, that establishes common ground in a natural way, and all without making any confusing or overly-broad assumptions about what people want or what they believe. We have the capacity today to absolutely know what people want and believe - and it looks to me like this kind of politics is becoming fully feasible.


Bruce Schuman




(805) 966-9515, PO Box 23346, Santa Barbara CA 93101


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