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The Forward Formula

The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! [Dare to know!] Have courage to use your own understanding! — Immanuel Kant, "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" published in 1784


The painting is "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friedrich, painted around 1818. It's an iconic piece of Romanticism, depicting a lone individual standing atop a mountain, looking out over a turbulent sea of fog and mist.


By Joshua Peters

The current political landscape is shaped by a spectrum where most individuals lean towards moderate ideologies. Surrounding this moderate core are individuals with more distinct ideological preferences, forming the next significant group. At the extremes of this distribution lie the most concentrated groups, consisting of individuals with either far-left or far-right views, or those who find such extreme positions appealing.

As a result, the policies shaping today's political discourse often stem from these polar extremes. Engaging in the political process, then, necessitates aligning with policy positions that cater exclusively to the interests of either the far-left or far-right.

In response to this skewed influence, the Forward party has developed what we term “policy guardrails.” This structure is designed to counterbalance the outsized sway that extreme ideologies exert on our policymaking process.

The critical challenge now is to objectively distinguish between policies that cater solely to the extremes and those that reflect a broader political consensus. Achieving this requires converting our theoretical understanding of the political spectrum into actionable data.

Understanding the political spectrum as a distribution

The doubling of Americans identifying with the ideological extremes from 10 percent to 21 percent between 1994 and 2014, as identified by the Pew Research Center, highlights a significant polarization trend. This trend reflects Democrats shifting leftward and Republicans moving rightward, with diminishing overlap between the two parties. Despite this polarization, the overall ideological distribution among Americans still forms a bell curve, with individuals likely to form a consensus identifying as moderate, and smaller fractions identifying as conservative or liberal, respectively.


In 2021, Gallup's findings reinforced this distribution: 37 percent of Americans considered themselves moderate, 36 percent conservative, and 25 percent liberal. This data visualization continues to depict a bell curve, illustrating that despite the loudness of the extremes, most Americans remain moderate or centrist in their political views.

The Hidden Tribes study further corroborates this distribution through a clustering model that categorizes Americans by core beliefs. This methodology, too, reveals a bell-shaped distribution, suggesting a predominant centrality in political ideology among the U.S. population.

To transition from recognizing this distribution to defining policy guardrails and identifying a policy consensus through a data-driven approach, we must first understand the implications of this ideological landscape. The key lies in quantifying the extremities and the moderate core of the political spectrum. By analyzing where policies fall within this distribution, we can establish guardrails that exclude the polar extremes, focusing on policies that align with the broad consensus reflected in the bell curve's peak. This approach aims to mitigate the disproportionate influence of the far-left and far-right, encouraging policies that resonate with the general will of the people.

In practical terms, this involves employing statistical methods to analyze policy positions, public opinion polls, and other relevant data. By mapping policies against the ideological distribution of the electorate, we can objectively identify those that are too far removed from the consensus. The development of such a structure requires careful consideration of the criteria for inclusion within the guardrails, ensuring they are grounded in empirical evidence and reflect the nuanced spectrum of political ideologies in the United States.

Normal distribution and policymaking as methodological

The application of the empirical rule to the political spectrum is an innovative approach that leverages the mathematical properties of normal distributions to understand and navigate the complexities of political consensus and polarization. In essence, the empirical rule—which posits that about 68 percent of data falls within one standard deviation of the mean in a normal distribution—serves as a powerful tool for identifying the center of political gravity within a population's policy preferences.

In the context of political issues, if we consider each response to a policy question as a data point, we anticipate that with a sufficiently large sample, most responses will cluster around a modal preference. This aggregation of responses around a central peak is not a random occurrence but rather an indication of where the consensus lies on any given issue. Approximately 68 percent of responses, by the logic of the empirical rule, will align closely with this consensus, signifying a shared policy position preference.

Imagine that the nodes represent a random response to a political issue, which we can consider as a preference for a policy position. As we collect a sufficient number of responses, we would expect to see an increased frequency of responses beginning to cluster around a specific point in the distribution, marked clearly by its peak. This forms a visual representation of the probability density function. This will be our primary target in terms of identifying a population that can be said to be representative of a policy consensus.

Translating this statistical concept back into the realm of political ideologies, we can discern that political consensus manifests in policy positions that align with the peak of the distribution.

As we move away from this center towards the distribution's tails, consensus diminishes, and we enter zones of increasing ideological divergence. It is within these extremities—the far-left and far-right—that consensus is replaced by dissensus, marked by starkly incompatible views and policy preferences.

The delineation of our policy guardrails then becomes apparent: by identifying the points at which consensus gives way to dissensus, we can establish boundaries that exclude policy positions rooted exclusively in the interests of the political fringes. These guardrails act to truncate the distribution at its ideological extremes, preserving the integrity of the consensus by mitigating the influence of polarizing positions.

This method achieves a dual purpose: firstly, it provides a quantitative mechanism for pinpointing policy positions that embody a political consensus, leveraging the central tendency of responses as a barometer for widespread agreement. Secondly, it elucidates the boundaries beyond which policy positions diverge significantly from the consensus, serving the interests of the extremes rather than the people. By setting these guardrails based on statistical inference and a nuanced understanding of a political distribution, we create a structure for cultivating policy development that is both inclusive and representative of the broader polis, steering clear of the polarization that hampers constructive political discourse and policymaking.

Fact-value distinction

The intent behind establishing policy guardrails, as clarified, is not to stifle innovation or suppress the rich diversity of ideas that can emerge from any point along the ideological spectrum. Rather, the objective is to create a structured space within which political discourse can thrive, free from the disproportionate influence of those with narrowly self-interested agendas.

This approach acknowledges the value and necessity of ideological diversity, encouraging individuals to maintain and advocate for their unique perspectives. What it seeks to moderate is not the existence of varied ideas themselves but the manner in which these ideas are promoted and integrated into the broader political dialogue. The expectation set forth is one of mutual respect and constructive engagement, where ideas are to be defended with reason and evidence rather than imposed through sheer force of will or volume.

In essence, the policy guardrails are designed to cultivate a political climate where consensus and compromise are not just encouraged but seen as essential elements of governance. This structure supports the idea that while individuals are free to hold and argue for distinct ideological positions, the overarching goal should be to work towards solutions that are in the best interest of the people. This requires an openness to dialogue, a willingness to find common ground, and a commitment to the principles of democracy and representative governance.

By cultivating an environment where consensus and compromise are valued, the policy guardrails aim to ensure that political discourse remains vibrant and inclusive, effectively serving the needs and aspirations of the broader polis. This balanced approach offers a pathway to sustainable policy development and governance, where diversity of thought is harnessed as a strength rather than weaponized as a tool for division.

A new vision for policymaking

Reflecting on the discourse, I propose a metaphor to encapsulate our strategy: envisioning our political journey as an ascent towards the summit of a mountain. This imagery vividly illustrates our mission—to reach the pinnacle of effective governance. To navigate this terrain successfully, we employ guardrails, essential for keeping us securely on the path. The journey is dynamic, with the route sometimes veering to the right or left, but with our eyes fixed on the summit, these guardrails serve not as constraints but as guides, ensuring our steady progress towards our goal.

This metaphor underscores the essence of our approach to identifying policy guardrails and forging political consensus. Our methodology is anchored in data, drawing on quantifiable evidence from community feedback, public opinion research, and insights from experts. It's grounded in verifiable facts, ensuring that our conclusions are robust and repeatable. Moreover, it's centered on pragmatic solutions, empowering policymakers to address the pressing concerns of their constituents effectively.

By adopting this strategy, we embrace a grassroots approach, affirming to the polis that policy formulation is guided by the general will of the people rather than the whims of the ideological fringes. This method not only cultivates trust and confidence among the electorate but also reinforces the democratic principle that governance should reflect the interests and values of the people. Through this lens, our journey towards the peak symbolizes a commitment to a more inclusive, balanced, and responsive political discourse, one where every voice has the potential to contribute to the ascent.

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