What we're about
This is a meetup started as a group for people in the Philadelphia area who are concerned with the current political turmoil in America, but who also feel that the prevailing liberal-vs-conservative political paradigm is unnecessarily limiting our ability to think rationally about politics & search for policy solutions. Since we shifted to mostly online meetups in 2020, we've opened the group up to people everywhere. If you like to talk politics but you've got some eclectic or moderate views that leave you feeling out of place at most of the activist groups, party meetings & political rallies in your area, this meetup is for you!
However, if your political views put you on the far left or far right of the political spectrum - i.e. you're a socialist, anarchist, fascist, or religious fundamentalist - please go elsewhere. Also, if you consider yourself a moderate Republican or moderate Democrat but your views are just generic talking points you've gleaned from listening to the pundits on Fox News or MSNBC, this group is not for you. It may seem uncharitable to exclude people, but from past experience our discussions just don't work very well with these folks, since they tend to see all of our problems as the result of only one of our political parties - i.e. they're not "agnostic".
"Political Agnosticism" is a term I came up with back in 2015 to represent a non-dogmatic approach to politics that acknowledges uncertainty and the validity of multiple perspectives, and looks for practical solutions without worrying about adherence to an overarching political ideology. The purpose of this agnostic, skeptical & free-thinking approach is to avoid treating politics as a "culture war" based on group identities or a clash of "political religions" based more on devotion to a party than knowledge of the issues. Instead, when we cover a political issue, we look at what experts in various disciplines know (and don't know) about it, tease out the ethical implications, note the tradeoffs between different policy approaches, and then look at potential solutions that encompass everything we've learned.
The only political values that are prerequisites for members are a belief in civility & tolerance towards those we disagree with, a belief in traditional civil liberties like the freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of association, and respect for institutional norms like separation of church & state, academic freedom, press freedom, government transparency, and due process. These principles of an "open society" form the preconditions for the existence of a non-partisan political forum like ours.
We are affiliated as an independent salon of the Burke-Paine Society (BPS), a national organization that takes its name from Edmund Burke & Thomas Paine, two Enlightenment-era political thinkers that exemplify the conservative & progressive strands of the "classical liberal" tradition. The BPS is based on 4 core values - Inclusiveness, Empathy, Intellectual Curiosity, Humility - and is committed to 3 objectives: (1) rebuild cross-partisan trust, (2) redefine the national identity, (3) ignite a political renaissance. To learn more, visit their website: https://www.burkepainesociety.org/
Our general approach to politics is based on a concept we've borrowed from another organization, the Circle of Reason, called "pluralistic rationalism" – i.e. a personal commitment to reasoning, regardless of one's worldview. We start by assuming that reasonable people can differ in their cores values, whether it's framed as a preference for freedom vs security, tradition vs progress, individualism vs communitarianism, meritocracy vs egalitarianism, patriotism vs cosmopolitanism, etc. However, this approach is also premised on the belief that we should all commit to following the rules of logic & evidence-based reasoning. "Pluralistic Rationalism" is based on 3 tenets that are complementary to the core values of BPS - they are: (1) Factualism (as opposed to Denialism) for sourcing knowledge, (2) Skepticism (as opposed to Dogmatism) for vetting knowledge, and (3) Moderation (as opposed to Emotion) for expressing knowledge. To learn more about "pluralistic rationalism", see the Circle of Reason's website: http://www.circleofreason.org/
We are committed to creating a space for non-partisan political discussion based on intellectual honesty, mutual respect & civility. That means adopting the conversational principles of charity & good faith, avoiding name-calling, and trying to understand the best arguments that can be made for each side.
The goals for this meetup group are as follows:
(1) We try to understand why people - including ourselves - are predisposed by inherent psychological traits, cultural milieu & life experiences to have different moral intuitions & political orientations. We generally use a mix of the Big Five personality traits & Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory.
(2) We look at moral philosophy to try to better understand how moral axioms logically connect to one another and form ethical systems like deontological ethics, utilitarianism, and contractarianism. We examine how these ethical systems form the basis for political philosophy, legal philosophy, and normative theories in the social sciences.
(3) We try to increase our level of rationality by learning how to spot logical fallacies, cognitive biases, flawed statistics, and irrational forms of thought like conspiracy theories & moral panics. The work of the "rationalist community" (e.g. Robin Hanson, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Scott Alexander, Julia Galef, Spencer Greenberg, Tim Urban) is a big influence in this area, although the "post-rationalists" (e.g. David Chapman, Kevin Simler, Venkatesh Rao, Sarah Perry) occasionally offer an interesting supplement.
(4) We try to educate members on both the fundamentals and the latest research from the social sciences, and we discuss how this relates to current events & trending political topics. Aside from looking at academic research, a lot of our reading material comes from data/explainer journalism sites, econ & policy blogs, as well as the major public intellectuals & pundits from across the political spectrum.
(5) We try to imagine alternative types of political & economic systems that could provide better outcomes for the future based on both theory & empirical data. This often involves looking at various "maps of the policy landscape" like the Cato & Fraser Institutes' Human Freedom Index, SPI's Social Progress Index, the Economist's Democracy Index, the UN World Happiness Report, and others.
(6) As part of our effort to break away from the narrow range of ideas represented by the two major political parties, we often look at constellations of ideas that could be described as syncretic, contrarian or heterodox. This often involves looking at ideas emerging from various blogosphere niches like market urbanism, civic hacking, ecomodernism, effective altruism, futurism & strategic forecasting, and the rationalist & skeptic communities. We also look increasingly to intellectuals who've been excluded from academic orthodoxies or "canceled" in mainstream media outlets, such as the scholars associated with Jonathan Haidt's Heterodox Academy and Peter Singer's Journal of Controversial Ideas, Keith E. Whittington's Academic Freedom Alliance, Yascha Mounck's Persuasion, Jeffrey Gedmin's American Purpose, the legacy outlet journalists who've recently moved to Medium & Substack (e.g. Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Michael Tracey, Jesse Singal, Katie Herzog, Matt Yglesias, Zaid Jilani, Freddie deBoer), and the centrist faction of what used to be called the "Intellectual Dark Web" (e.g. Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christina Hoff Sommers, Cathy Young, Alice Dreger, Debra Soh, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Coleman Hughes, the various writers at outlets like Quillette, Unherd & Areo Magazine).
(7) In order to do our part combatting political polarization, we borrow ideas from a range of organizations that are currently working on enabling mutual understanding & civil dialogue, such as Andrew Brummett's Burke-Paine Society, Frank Burton's Circle of Reason, David Blankenhorn's Braver Angels project (formerly Better Angels), Alexandra Hudson's Civic Renaissance, Liz Joyner's Village Square, Joan Blades' Living Room Conversations, John Gable's AllSides team, David Nevins & Debilyn Molineaux's Bridge Alliance, Lisa Swallow & Kareem Abdelsadek's Crossing Party Lines, Tim Dixon & Gemma Mortensen's More In Common project, David Brooks's Social Fabric Project (a.k.a. Weave), Gary Kasparov's Renew Democracy Initiative, Charles Wheelan's Centrist Project (now called "Unite America"), Irshad Manji's Moral Courage Project, the newly founded University of Austin, the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), and others.