August 23, 2023

Reflecting on The Scout Mindset: Why we need more scouts working on policy

Thinking critically and outside the box. Evaluating our current policy practices. Finding ways to pass policy without creating more complexities. That’s what reading week is about. Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset embodies Reading Week’s mission, so we figured it would be a great place to start our reflection.

Psychology plays a significant role in the policymaking process. Especially nowadays with the hyperpolarization of politics – not to mention legislation that should not be partisan in the slightest – understanding why people act and react the way they do is critical for success in designing policies.

In her book, Galef outlines two paths of thought: the Soldier Mindset and the Scout Mindset. We certainly see one mindset more than the other in our line of work.

The Soldier Mindset is exactly what it sounds like:

  • Reasoning for soldiers is like defensive combat
  • A soldier must decide what to believe by asking either “Can I believe this?” or “Must I believe this?” depending on the motive
  • As a soldier, being wrong means you lose – no ifs ands or buts
  • A soldier seeks out evidence to back their claim

Let’s be frank here: The American political arena is inundated with the Soldier Mindset – or at least what we see displayed through the publicized portion of it. Why? Because drama and combativeness sells; the media paints the Soldier Mindset as “sexy”. Though there’s no doubt that the Soldier Mindset has gotten out of hand in politics over the last decade, it’s something that’s been ever-present in the legal field – there’s always a prosecution and a defense, you’re always trying to beat the other side.

While our legal team here at IRG doesn’t practice law in a courtroom, at least not on a regular basis, it’s a concept that’s been ingrained in our brains: When a policy we support passes, it’s a win whereas anything else is considered a loss. We’re trained to not only argue our point, but to live, breathe, and defend it to no end. To our detriment as lawyers, and to our politics, the Soldier Mindset hamstrings our ability to compromise.

Against this backdrop, it shouldn’t surprise us that some of our most effective policies have been invented without the help of lawyers. It was organizers, not lawyers, who invented Secure Automatic Voter Registration, the gold standard of AVR.

This makes sense. Organizers are doing their work to better their communities – they’re on the ground on a daily basis and are forced to adapt in order to both pass their policies and improve systems. While lawyers came up with complicated systems that failed to register many more eligible voters while creating extra complexities, organizers quickly identified the how to meet the needs of citizens and election officials, accounted for the needs of marginalized groups, and created a policy that not only registered more voters, but did so in a way that was more secure, accessible and met political landscapes where they were at during a time when no one wanted to compromise.

This is otherwise known as the Scout Mindset. A scout:

  • Uses reasoning like a roadmap
  • Decides what to believe by questioning the truth behind it
  • Doesn’t view things as wins and losses, rather recognizes that there’s value in going back to the drawing board to revise a map that doesn’t get the scout to where they need to be
  • Seeks out evidence that will make arguments more accurate

Scouts overall value the opinions of others and base their beliefs in objectivity, discovery, and intellectual honesty. Sounds very different from the way politics is painted nowadays, right?

We actually find that political actors at the state level are often scouts. Take swing state secretaries, for example. If they don’t do the right thing because they failed to integrate new information that runs counter to their priors, democracy is done for. Their personal beliefs become secondary to the mechanics behind how their state election systems are run for the sake of maintaining secure and accessible practices.

Folks working at the federal level, where real victories and few and far between, gravitate toward soldier mindsets. They can afford to dig their heels in hard and stand behind their principles, at least they can and do so publicly.

Here’s the truth: The easy way out is to drink the Kool Aid behind your mission, no matter the cost. It’s easy for us to find or create polling that backs our missions, it’s easy for us to fall in lockstep with other big national voting rights groups because then we’re fighting as an army, it’s easy to defend a system that helps to register more voters, point blank. But in the end, does the ease of defending a policy make up for hundreds of thousands of voters left off of the voter rolls simply because we as lawyers failed to change the set course?

We found through our experience the answer is no. So while it’s the road less traveled, we choose to embrace the Scout Mindset.

Overall, this book helped our team to think critically about how our identities intersect with our work, acknowledging that to truly help modernize government for the betterment of people that we must hold our belief systems lightly in the process. It’s always a challenge to recognize when you’re drinking your own Kool Aid and as a result, it’s harder to make informed decisions about policy without confirmation bias. It’s easy to lose sight of doing what’s right for the greater good versus what’s right for the mission.

Galef helped our team walk away with tools to keep our mind open and recommit to  analyzing circumstances as they are. Let’s all take policy positions not because our organization decided it was a good idea many years ago, but because it actually meets the shifting needs of the people we are funded to serve. Let’s keep our goals in mind, and constantly re-evaluate if we’re getting closer. Sounds more like the tools of an organizer than the tools of a lawyer, right? We agree. We need more scouts doing policy.