The Fourth Profession:
Leftism as Prophecy
Peter A. Taylor
January 15, 2015
One should be pious, but not at all too pious.
— Johannes Kepler
We have too many messiahs.
— Nicholas Wade
(Update, 8-26-2016: Instead of reading this, go read the short, short story,
"Peculiar Creatures", by "G" at the Junior Ganymede blog.)
I'm going to take another stab here at making sense sense of the left vs. right political spectrum.
1. There is a Larry Niven story called "The Fourth Profession". (Spoiler alert!) The story involves a drunken space alien who gives his bartender a series of pills containing RNA that provides the knowledge of how to carry out various professions. As the alien gets progressively drunker, communication becomes more difficult, until finally he gives the bartender a pill that enables him to speak in tongues. The story ends with the discovery that this fourth and last pill was far more dangerous than anyone realized, and carried with it the ability to perform miracles. The fourth profession was "prophet".
2. I don't remember the details, but I once heard it said at some or another Unitarian Universalist church event that there were three levels of moral leadership in the Judeo-Christian tradition. On the first level, a moderately good man might be said to be "a good man in his day". On the second level, a better man might be said to "walk with God". But on the highest level, an exceptional man might be said to "walk before God".
One often hears at UU churches a quotation from Samuel Longfellow, "Revelation is not sealed." One also often hears a Theodore Parker quotation, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I note that the UUA Common Read Selection Committee has chosen Reclaiming Prophetic Witness, by Paul Rasor, for 2014-15.
Atheists such as Richard Dawkins are likely to talk about the "Zeitgeist" rather than "God", but these terms seem to be functionally equivalent in this context.
Is God's morality timeless, or is it a work in progress? And if it does change, what role does human moral leadership play?
3. I need to explain what I mean by "morality" and "moral leadership". "Morality" is an overloaded word, but for present purposes, it roughly means the answer to one of three questions:
An ordinarily good man may conform to the surrounding social norms, possibly balancing these against his own personal feelings. Conforming to social norms is "walking with God". An ordinarily good leader may set an example for others by putting his own feelings aside out of respect for the community. But the exceptional leader "walks before God" (i.e. ahead of God), ahead of the community, and alters the social norms.
4. If one is trying to walk ahead of God, an obvious question is how confident one can be that one is heading in the right direction? If I advocate changes to social norms, how can I be sure the results will be what I expect? Jerry Pournelle discussed "attitude toward planned social progress" (or "rationalism") as one axis of a political issue space. I want to put this in terms of "sociological confidence". Am I more inclined to be overconfident or overcautious in making predictions about the sociological consequences of changes to legal and moral rules? Overconfidence might mean thinking my intuition is reliable when I need to do some analysis, or thinking my analysis tools are reliable when I really need to do some testing. Overcaution might mean the opposite.
I have some heartburn over Pournelle's use of the labels, "rational" and "irrational". Pournelle puts hippies in with conservatives in having a negative attitude toward planning. I want to put hippies and conservatives on opposite ends of this axis because their reasons for disliking planning are opposite. Hippies don't think planning is necessary (overconfident), whereas conservatives don't think it's feasible (overcautious).
This "sociological confidence" axis resembles the stereotypical left-right spectrum of opinion, reflecting eagerness or hesitation in making radical social changes.
5. Pournelle's other axis was "attitude toward the State". I want to set this aside for now and instead, let's look at social status and motivated reasoning. What are some of the bases on which people make their claims of worthiness of high social status? I.e. by what do people set store?
Inheritance. Eric Idle pointed out on Saturday Night Live many years ago how easily Prince Charles could get laid.
Technical merit. People can brag about their military, commercial, or athletic achievements, etc.
Moral innovation. This is often quasi-religious. This is what I am calling the "prophetic" tendency, or "walking before God".
Obedience to tradition. This also is often quasi-religious. Theodore Parker accused Protestants of making a fetish of the Bible. Martin Luther and Michael Servetus made their public claims of moral authority based on adherence to the Bible, an unchanging old document, rather than obedience to the Pope or other contemporary authorities. The modern Tea Party movement claims to follow a venerated American tradition.
Loyalty to institutions or processes. This also is often quasi-religious. A Catholic might embrace Vatican II because he respects the Church hierarchy and trusts that the feedback loop between Popes and the College of Cardinals generally produces good outcomes in the long run. He might do this regardless of any Biblical or traditional basis, and despite a general skepticism towards moral innovation.
6. The internal structure of political movements can be described in terms of different classes of people with different principal motivations. These movements can be viewed as being made up of three tiers:
The upper tier consists of what Henry Sumner Maine called "wire-pullers". These are typically professionals, insiders who are motivated largely by money and power. Their motives tend to be simple enough that "economic" analyses such as Public Choice theory may be appropriate. These people identify groups of voters who can be manipulated easily (the "Baptists" in Bruce Yandle's "Bootleggers and Baptists" model), and figure out what kind of propaganda to feed them.
The middle tier consists of propagandists, people who may or may not get paid for their work, and who take their cues from the insiders (e.g. the "throne sniffer" media), but who are not really insiders themselves. They are motivated primarily by social status, either by trying to be seen as leaders within the movement or by making a big show of the movement's social superiority over other groups. The more extreme examples of this are sometimes described as "status whores".
The lower tier consists of the people to whom the propaganda is directed, followers who are motivated more by group identity (Orwell's "nationalism") than by status competition. They are interested in being members in good standing of the right social circle, signaling their agreeableness, but not particularly concerned with being seen as leaders. These are sometimes called "fashion sheep".
But leaders can't lead where followers won't follow. The followers may be willing to pay a price to be in the right circle, but the price they are willing to pay is limited. Similarly, the wire-pullers' ability to steer the status seekers is constrained by the latter's need to save face (they are loathe to admit that they were wrong), but the status seekers also tend to lose face if the wire-pullers lose too many elections. Each of these three tiers constrains the other two.
7. We could define a "prophetic" political movement as one in which the people in the middle tier (primarily status seekers) compete with one another on the basis of being moral innovators (i.e. "prophets"). A non-prophetic movement may have people in the middle tier who are proud of their heredity, their technical merits of several different kinds, or their traditionalism. We could also define movements whose middle tier members oppose or stand in contrast to the prophetic tendencies as "custodial" movements. Or, we could say that a political movement has "prophetic tendencies" to the degree that its middle tier members pride themselves on moral innovation, and has "custodial tendencies" to the degree that they pride themselves on their traditionalism, or at least avoid prophetic tendencies.
This is not a very clear distinction. The history of Christianity is a tug of war between innovators and traditionalists, with innovators often justifying themselves in terms of tradition, and traditionalists oscillating between competing traditions. Martin Luther made outward appeals to tradition, but he discarded books from the Catholic Bible, and his sola scriptura was unambiguously an innovation, as was abolishing bishops and calling for the priesthood of all believers.
How long does a policy have to be in effect before it becomes "traditional"? Do custodial political movements really even exist in the modern first world, or do we just have competing groups of would-be prophets arguing about which fork to take in the road forward? Ronald Reagan was a 1940s progressive Democrat, who signed the EMTALA bill into law, violating the 5th Amendment "takings" clause and undermining the proper functioning of hospital emergency rooms. Was he a genuine traditionalist, or would-be prophet who took an unpopular fork? Or a prophet in traditionalist clothing?
Instead of talking about movements this way, it might make better sense to talk about cultures, including large majorities of the supporters of all of the major western political parties. One might say that we have a prophetic, fissiparous, "Protestant" culture or a culture of protest. Any damned fool from Joseph Smith to Jim Jones can declare himself a prophet and be taken seriously.
The prophetic/custodial distinction depends on people's motives. Am I really appealing to an existing experience base, or am I claiming superior wisdom for myself, making up new stuff and dressing it up in old clothing (e.g. like NeoPaganism)? If I make appeals for social status (i.e. brag) based on my wisdom being greater than people in the past, I am in the prophetic camp. If I brag about the care I take in departing from the past (an experience base or "the wisdom of the ancients"), I am in the custodial camp.
This now gives me three political axes that I am trying to relate: a conventional "left" vs. "right" axis, a "confident" vs. "cautious" sociological confidence axis, and a "prophetic" vs. "custodial" status-seeking axis.
8. Any political movement that has human beings in it is going to suffer from problems associated with motivated reasoning. But different kinds of motivated reasoning are going to cause different problems and support different relationships. While is it logically possible that a person who prides himself on being a moral innovator might think that planned social progress is extremely difficult and dangerous, and possible that a traditionalist might think that planned social progress is easy, in both cases, the temptation to look for opportunities to stand out among ones peers is going to drive motivated reasoning in the opposite direction. Wannabe prophets are going to tend to think that their vision is clear enough to see a way to a better future, and wannabe custodians are going to tend to think that it is hard to improve on the wisdom of the ancients. The prophetic tendency will strongly correlate with the sociologically confident tendency.
The conventional "left" and "right" axis is not well-defined. In so far as "the left" is defined in terms of advocating rapid social change, led by visionaries, then my "sociologically confident" position is a necessary condition for being a leftist. No normal person is going to want to advocate rapid change if he believes that it is likely to result in a train wreck. Another necessary condition for being this sort of "leftist" (advocating rapid social change) is that one has to believe that rapid, beneficial change is possible. This requires such a "leftist" to hold the "unconstrained" ("romantic" or "utopian") vision of human nature described by Thomas Sowell in A Conflict of Visions.
If, on the other hand, we try to define "left" and "right" in terms of fixed policies, we are in for a frustrating time because, as the previous definition suggests, the policies keep changing. If we try to look at positions taken historically by political parties that identity themsleves as being toward the left or right, we run into John McCarthy's observation that these are largely the result of political contingencies, a string of unprincipled compromises that are held together largely by habit, institutional hysteresis, and the tendency for allied political activists to carry propaganda for one another. However, the desire for rapid social change does tend to lead to certain policies: prophets tend not to like either hereditary aristocracies or private property, both of which tend to get in the way of implementing their innovations. The modern left seems to me to be hostile to private property consistently enough that it is practically a defining characteristic, but this has not necessarily always been true. The French Revolution, the original "left-wing" movement, was hostile to private property, but the American revolutionaries invoked private property as a rhetorical weapon against monarchy. It is not clear whether the American Revolution counts as "left-wing".
9. So far, I have tried to present the prophetic and custodial tendencies in a neutral light. But there are several respects in which the prophetic tendency has greater downside risks than the custodial. The custodian, adhering to the wisdom of the ancients, is pretty much limited to claiming to be only as wise as the ancients. He can, at best, walk with God. The prophet, on the other hand, can hope to walk before God. Thus, while there is plenty of sanctimony in the custodial camp, the problem is worse in the prophetic camp. This phenomenon has led James A. Donald to define the left in terms of being "holier than Jesus" (see here and here). Note also David Harsanyi's term, "moral exhibitionism"; Dworkin Barimen's term, "Moral Peacock Olympics"; and the recent prevalence of "social justice warrior" as a term of derision.
There are several mechanisms potentially at work here. One is that, if there is "open entry into the role of opinion leader", this causes adverse selection: opinion leaders are self-selected for their tendency to be holier-than-thou to begin with. Another mechanism is that competition among the leaders tends to produce "a vicious cycle of ever greater holiness" even with restricted entry. Furthermore, people who set store by their departure from existing social norms tend to be more conspicuous than those who set store by sticking with tradition; being conspicuous is often largely the point. All of these things lead to visible "holier than Jesus" behavior being more closely associated with the prophetic tendency than with the custodial.
10. "The truth is what it is, but a lie can be designed for marketability; to go down easy and smooth, to fit existing misconceptions." — Alrenous
Alrenous has argued (here, here, and here) that the essence of leftism is sophistry, which he closely associates with democracy. For present purposes, "sophistry" is a kind of argument that is misleading in a plausibly deniable way, such as an invalid syllogism that is implied, but not explicitly stated. Sophistry has the same intent to deceive as a bald-faced lie, but it's more subtle. It's also hard to tell whether someone is being consciously misleading or is engaged in sincere self-deception, but what I'm refering to here is conscious deception. Sophistry is deniable, professional lying (e.g. Bill Clinton's "meaning of 'is'").
As with sanctimony, sophistry is too ubiquitous to be a defining characteristic of much of anything. There is certainly plenty of sophistry coming from traditional religious conservatives. But again, the incentives for sophistry and other kinds of intellectual cheating are different in prophetic vs. custodial movements, and the incentives in prophetic movements tend to be worse.
For one thing, prophets and custodians tend to approach morality differently. The custodians (traditionalists) mostly ask what the existing social norms are, where the prophets (moral entrepreneurs) ask what social norms ought to be. The traditionalists' question is a positive (factual) one, whereas the prophets' question is normative. Traditionalists who misrepresent existing social norms are misrepresenting facts (bald-faced lies), which is relatively hard to do without getting caught. Prophets who make normative statements about how social norms ought to change are offering opinions and speculations. Misleading statements about the reasonableness of opinions and speculations tend to be plausibly deniable (sophistry), and are unprovable (credence goods).
In so far as moral arguments depend on the morals' long term consequences, the would-be prophet has more incentive to lie about risk. Nick Szabo writes,
As Dawkins has observed, death is vastly more probable than life. Cultural parts randomly thrown together, or thrown together by some computationally shallow line of reasoning, most likely result in a big mess rather than well functioning relationships between people. The cultural beliefs which give rise to civilization are, like the genes which specify an organism, a highly improbable structure, surrounded in "meme space" primarily by structures which are far more dysfunctional. Most small deviations, and practically all "radical" deviations, result in the equivalent of death for the organism: a mass breakdown of civilization which can include genocide, mass poverty, starvation, plagues, and, perhaps most commonly and importantly, highly unsatisying, painful, or self-destructive individual life choices.
Prophets gain social status from claiming that they can forsee the consequences of their innovations, and that these results will improve their followers' lives. This puts them roughly in the same position as people selling AAA-rated tranches of subprime mortgage-backed securities. Yes, it's possible that the securities might pay off at face value, but it is certain that the seller has an incentive to exaggerate his confidence in them. This is especially true if the prophets are competing with other prophets; more so if there is adverse selection into the prophet business, as argued above. The prophets' followers are playing Russian roulette, and win or lose, no one will ever really know how many of the cylinders actually contained bullets.
In addition to the tendency for wannabe prophets within a political movement to be sophists, the wire-pullers also have a say. Power grabs (e.g. the American Revolution) typically require raising armies without government funding or authorization (e.g. the Sons of Liberty). Sophists can help do this. Specifically, sophists tend to help raise armies by flattering mobs, which tends to mean preaching populism and democracy. In addition, overturning the existing order is an easier sell if your movement is full of people who prefer prophets over custodians. Thus, we see prophetic tendencies, democracy, and sophistry correlated because they are all part of what Alrenous calls "the fossils of past power grabs".
Having to defend policies that involve the radical clearing away of existing institutions tends in general to lead to large amounts of sophistry. This conspicuously includes a tendency to make order (e.g. property rights, political power as property, family stability) out to be bad, and chaos (democracy, free love) good. Custodians, in contrast, gain from being risk-averse. So, while prophetic movements don't have a monopoly on sophistry, they tend to have a disproportionate share of it.
It may not be fair to use Progressivism to judge prophetic movements in general in terms of willingness to deceive. David Horowitz points out that part of the problem with those Progressives who are not religious in the conventional sense is that they tend not to consider lying to be a very great evil. In any case, Progressives tend to take the idea of class warfare too seriously, and consider lying about politics to be a legitimate ruse of war. Christians and Libertarians both think lying is a serious evil, and generally don't buy the "warfare" narrative. So Progressives are more likely to tell conscious lies than Libertarians, even though they are both arguably prophetic movements. It also matters that Progressive politicians are more likely than Libertarians to be serious about wanting to actually get elected.
Update: adrianratnapala at Robin Hanson's:
Most of the data on those plots can be explained by a rule that says "People who tell other people what to think for a living lean left. Nearly everyone else leans (nominally) right." ... People who tell other people what to think form a somewhat coherent social class with common interests.
11. Among traditionalists, competition tends to lead to stable feedback loops. Imagine some people from the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) competing with one another to see who can make the most accurate replica of Charlemagne's sword. They may spend a ridiculous amount of resources in this competition, but pretty soon the serious competitors will have converged to having some pretty good replicas, and having converged, there will be few further improvements that will be visible to the naked eye. Charlemagne isn't coming out with a radically different sword design every year. The traditionalists will converge and stay converged.
Prophetic status competition (for moral innovator status) tends to create unstable feedback loops. Each competitor is trying to get ahead of all of the others. This is more like a group of horsemen engaged in a steeplechase (an impromptu race, choosing an arbitrary church steeple as the goal). There isn't really a long term destination, only a process of each trying to get ahead of the other, regardless of what direction they're moving in.
Some famous examples of similar competition are Clark Gable's car being 1' longer than Gary Cooper's car, and the impractical length of the male long-tailed widowbird's tail.
12. Prophetic status competition, particularly if it causes an unstable political feedback loop, can result in a "degenerative ratchet" as in the modern USA, or in a worst-case scenario, a catastrophic "left singularity" such as Cambodia under Pol Pot. Islamic extremism has similar instabilities, leading to The Cycle of Righteousness and Rejection. It's easy to imagine this in terms of witch-hunting:
"I'm so holy, I'm sure I can find a witch in our village who needs to be burned at the stake."
"Oh yeah? I can find two witches!"
"Oh yeah?! I can find three witches!"
The ratchet tends to be degenerative because:
The wire-pullers are manipulating the process for venal reasons, sort of like in the South Park episode where the 2008 election is cover for a jewel heist. These wire-pullers correspond to Bruce Yandle's "bootleggers". This causes a trend in the direction of bigger, more out of control government, which provides more opportunities for graft.
An easy way to get people to follow a moral innovator is to enlist the support of the rationalization hamster. Traditional morals generally encourage people to resist various anti-social temptations. Successful "prophets" can overturn these morals by encouraging people to rationalize and yield to temptation. Easy divorce was sold as freeing people from bad marriages, but seems to have destabilized marriage in general. See also Robin Hanson's "Inequality is about grabbing".
Another easy way to attract followers is to appeal to their cognitive biases, formed in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptednes [EEA], 100,000 years ago. In the modern world, these biases are often maladaptations that a wisdom tradition has to restrain for the good of society. Many of the ideas that economists teach are deeply unintuitive to normal people. (See Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter or the lead essay in Thomas Schelling's Choice and Consequence). Wisdom and "prophetic" ambition often don't play together nicely.
James A. Donald argues that in large groups, without strong feedback signals from the environment, sane people move toward the consensus. Insane people don't move. Evil people lie and manipulate the consensus. Decision-making by consensus therefore tends to be dominated by the evil and insane. I note that my three classes, wire-puller, prophet, and follower, seem to correspond closely to Donald's evil, insane, and sane.
There are a number of reasons why this process of degeneration tends to resemble a ratchet. Part of the reason why there isn't a stable equilibrium is because the followers generally act as "conservatives" in the sense in which F. A. Hayek used the term. If you think of politics as a tug-of-war, Hayek's "conservatives" are like a heavy weight that drags on the ground in the middle of the rope. The weight causes friction, which slows everything down, but it has no prefered location, and it provides no restoring force once it has been dragged from its initial position. But friction retards movement equally effectively in either direction. The situation faced by someone who wants to reverse "Progressive" political and moral innovations is worse than that:
In fact, you can often distinguish between policies advanced to solve problems and power ploys pushed for the sake of more power, for that thrill of a boot stamping on a human face, because public-spirited policies inherently suffer from diminishing returns.
In contrast, grabs for power benefit from increasing returns.
Obamacare offers an example of the degenerative ratchet at work.
I don't think Obamacare is an albatross across the dem's necks anymore. In fact I think that particular tooth in the ratchet has already clicked home for them and that the legislation will never be repealed – exactly according to the plan of its enactors.
Update: Alrenous again in the comments at Land's place:
A vicious cycle here.
The Sophist develops rhetoric to evade or vitiate a moral system, for their personal gain. In this case Catholicism.
However, Sophists mainly live among each other, and the evasion system can be generalized. As a result, the Sophists develop more 'morality' in an attempt to control each other. In response, they develop more sophisticated ways of evading responsibility. In response, they develop more controls...
The religious trad stopped being competent some time ago. The world was theirs to lose, and they lost it.
13. At this point, I have several parameters that compete to try to capture the essense of the left-right spectrum:
Whether status competition tends to take the "prophetic" vs. "custodial" style. How open is the movement to moral innovation?
Thomas Sowell's constrained vs. unconstrained visions of human nature. How much room is there for rapid improvement? This is very closely correlated to the prophetic/custodial axis, and I believe is generally a consequence of it.
A "confident" vs. "cautious" sociological confidence axis. How much trust does a movement place in its sociological analysis tools? This axis is intended as an "improved" version of Jerry Pournelle's rationalism axis. This is also very closely correlated to both the prophetic/custodial and the constrained/unconstrained axes, and again, I believe it is generally a consequence of the prophetic/custodial tendency.
A political movement's attitude toward property rights. Rothbardian Libertarianism tends to be prophetic (ready to turn the world on its ear in the name of righteousness), but friendly toward property rights. However, this is an anomaly. The general trend is that people who want to turn the world on its ear don't want to allow your property rights to stand in their way. Thus, a cavalier attitude towards other people's property rights correlates with a prophetic tendency. But it could go the other way, because covetousness is a distinct sin from pride.
James Donald's "holier than Jesus" criterion of leftism. This is clearly distinct from my prophetic/custodial axis. Where he asks, "How holy are you?", I ask, "How does your holiness manifest itself?" But the questions are corellated as stated in section 9 because of adverse selection and competition.
Alrenous' sophistry criterion. As discussed in section 10, sophistry (and lying in general) is too ubiquitous to be a good test, but it does correlate with other criteria of leftism, including the prophetic tendency. In particular, posing as "holier than Jesus" will obviously correlate with sophistry.
I should also mention a possible universalism vs. particularism spectrum. Moldbug sometimes describes Progressivism as "Universalism". I tend to think of Progressive universalism as transparent posturing and double standards. I have further comments on universalism here. It's not clear to me how libertarian or Objectivist individualism ought to map onto a universalist vs. particularist spectrum. However, it does seem to me that dogmatic universalism takes one a long way towards being "holier than Jesus".
Note that the prophetic tendency is a characteristic of one element within a religious or political movement, the members of the middle tier, seeking social status as "opinion leaders". Self-deception can be pretty extreme among people who are engaged in it as a poorly supervised competitive sport. Michael Anissimov described this process as "ideological LARPing" (Live Action Role Play, often seen at science fiction conventions). Not everyone in a "prophetic" political movement is LARPing, but a lot of the leaders are.
So what's it going to be? Is Libertarianism left or right? What about the American Revolution? I'm still not convinced that there is a better operational definition of leftism than hostility towards private property, but that definition seems shallow. It doesn't offer much insight into what makes people and movements tick. A "prophetic" definition offers more psychological insight, but it requires knowing what's going on inside someone's head before he can be assigned a label. It also seems overbroad: by this definition, arguably everyone nowadays is a leftist, including the neoreactionaries (see the discussion of sanctimony in the comments here).
So I'm still going to go with "hostility to private property" as my favorite definition of "leftist", but I view leftism as almost entirely being a subset of a larger category of "prophetic" movements, whose characteristics leftists tend to share. I'm trying to think of a political movement that I would classify as "right-wing", that is hostile to private property. I can't think of one offhand.
Several people have argued that there are a number of different kinds of "left" that are only loosely related to one another. Economic left (anti-property), social policy left (sexual license), psychological left (prophetic competition), historical continuity left (who mentored whom?), transnational left (universalism), social class left (flattering the mob).... Maybe I need to celebrate the diversity, and resign myself to using subscripts to keep these different lefts separate.
Update: Devin Finbarr suggests: "Leftism is the process by which intellectuals try to obtain power by being holier-than-thou according to the evolving memeplex tradition arising from Christianity."
14. Given this understanding of Progressivism as a "prophetic" movement, which is holding the US (and Western civilization in general) in a degenerative feedback loop, what can people of good will do about it? A number of suggestions have been made, some more serious than others:
I'm not yet ready to give up on poking a screwdriver into this mechanism. It seems to me that these degenerative feedback loops can potentially be reversed, or at least inhibited, in several different ways:
The upper tier of a political movement ("wire-pullers") for example, through selective publicity, selective funding of political campaigns, or control of the bureaucracy and judiciary, may actively steer the movement away from things that threaten their interests. A possible example of this is the rise and fall of forced busing for school desegregation, which was directed by the courts, with little direct popular input. As Jim suggests, in extreme cases, a Hitler or a Stalin (a supreme wire-puller) may decide to close off unauthorized entry into the role of opinion leader, and murder anyone who tries to be too holy, whether they be to his left or to his right.
The lower tier ("followers") may notice perverse side effects of the competition and withhold their support. In terms of the steeplechase analogy, one can imagine spectators whom the riders are hoping to impress, but who may stop cheering, and start actively booing if they don't like the way the race is going. The steeplechase analogy breaks down because in a real race, the destination is agreed upon at the start. In a prophetic status competition, one may make "progress" either by moving towards a widely recognized destination or by choosing a "better" destination. The status-seekers may discretely change directions if the spectators start booing. After all, you can't be a leader if no one is following you. You can't be high status if everyone thinks you're a jerk. For example, the Ferguson riots may not play well in Peoria. If the prophets don't respond to election results, the wire-pullers will. They can only defy the voters up to a point.
The middle tier, like the upper tier, may also switch destinations because they find their interests threatened. They are also subject to preference cascades and network effects. On the one hand, with open entry into the role of "public sanctimony entrepreneur" (Handle's term), prophetic movements are fissiparous. You can have multiple, competing lefts simultaneously (e.g. Communism vs. Fabian socialism). On the other hand, the wannabe leaders are often competing to get in front of a common pool of followers, so they tend to want to converge on whatever their faction of followers is most enthusiastic about. Shannon Love wrote of a "Parliament of Clocks" in which the news media try to protect their credibility by forming and sticking to a consensus on how to choose and interpret controversial issues. Similar considerations apply to public sanctimony entrepreneurs. Prophets want their positions to be distinctive, but not too distinctive.
If we lump the members of the upper and middle tiers together as "leaders", our strategies for reversing the degenerative ratchet fall into two general categories: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down strategies typically involve worming one's way into positions of respectability within the establishment in order to influence the other leaders to behave in a benign way. Bottom-up strategies involve openly rejecting what currently passes for moral leadership, and encouraging others to do the same.
Should we be trying to persuade the leaders or the followers? My answer is to go for the followers. There is a large proportion of them who are already unhappy with their current leadership, and they were less invested in recent moral innovations than the originators were to begin with. As Moldbug put it, "...Fox News is not so much telling its audience what to think, as telling them they are allowed to think what they already think." The followers are more persuadable than the leaders because, despite all their faults, the followers have fewer conflicts of interest than the leaders do.
But regardless of which group we are trying to persuade, the most immediate problem we encounter in making our appeals is the fact that doing so is widely perceived as low status. It's hard to hold an intelligent conversation with someone who thinks that listening to what you have to say is going to cause him to lose his place in the social pecking order. Therefore, as Nydwracu writes, an important goal for reactionaries is to "break the association of Universalism [Progressivism] and high status." In fact, I would make the goal slightly broader. Progressivism is one particular "prophetic" political movement. I don't merely want to defeat Progressivism, I also want to change Western social norms in order to discourage all prophetic status seeking. I want to live in a society that systematically rejects wannabe prophets as leaders. Otherwise, whatever comes after Progressivism is likely to be just as bad.
So how do we appeal to disgruntled political followers? I think Nick B. Steves already proposed a good answer to this as "exit in place". In addition to the long term goal of breaking the association between "prophets" and high status, I also have the short term goal of protecting myself and my family from the social dysfunction around me. I want to surround myself with a bubble of sanity, where responsible people are respected and the irresponsible are shunned. I think of this as a "spiritual fallout shelter". The people I am trying to reach probably want more or less the same thing I want. Build the fallout shelter and they will come. Local zones of sanity can then be expanded in an oil spot strategy to achieve the long term goal of stopping the degenerative feedback loop.
Once significant numbers followers are moving in a different direction, many of the wannabe leaders are likely to race to get in front of them. It would be a sign of success on our part if the wannabe prophets want to join us, but I don't actually want them. I'm not just trying to steer a steeplechase in a new direction, I'm trying to discourage steeplechases in general. I don't want prophets leading a movement whose purpose is largely to teach people not to follow prophets.
The "spiritual fallout shelter" I want to construct probably amounts to a de facto church or religion. Nick B. Steves is Catholic, so he's already got one he's happy with. I want a new one. Another point of controversy is whether a healthy religion would be stable in the long term, assuming, for example, that a lot of people joined it during some time of crisis. James A. Donald argues that to stop the vicious cycle of holiness, we need an official state religion with an Archbishop and a Grand Inquisitor. On the other hand, the economics of religion literature (e.g. Laurence Iannaccone's Deregulating Religion) favors vigorous competition: state control over religion is bad for religion. I find Iannaccone more persuasive here. I'm hoping that we don't need a Grand Inquisitor, that all we need to do is persuade a large fraction of the laity to stop taking the self-appointed prophets seriously.
So I think I've found the secret of salvation in an old German drinking song, Im schwarzen Walfisch (No. 274):
Im schwarzen Walfisch zu Askalon,
Wird kein Prophet geehrt…
In The Black Whale of Askalon,
No prophet is honored…