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Cycles of History: Can You Force Them?

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Earlier this year, there was some discussion of Steve Bannon and his intellectual debt to The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe.  This began with an article last November in Time, and has resulted in intermittent discussion since. Howe himself wrote an article in The Washington Post last February, citing some of the high-pitched articles that had been written about what Bannon had learned from the book. The New York Times followed up in April with a piece that, while not a exactly a hatchet job, takes on specific excepts from the book in the light of the viewpoint of the cultivated Times audience (“Conform, or Else”).

Politico simply dismissed the book as “The Crackpot Theories of Stephen Bannon’s Favorite Authors.” Another putdown I have seen: “pop” historians. Anything not from a suitably pedigreed academic source is “pop.”

I had read The Fourth Turning shortly after it came out. I don’t consider the book to have “crackpot theories”, but I don’t see Strauss and Howe having attempted to be the next Nostradamus, either. Despite the subtitle of the book — An American Prophecy — the authors don’t provide any specific who, when or how. They were attempting to analyze history in terms of patterns and project them into the future. They examined Anglo-American history back to the 1450s. They say more about moving forces than how those forces will necessarily be directed, and avoid “see, I told you” political interpretations.

Nevertheless, their analysis of history has political implications. A cyclical pattern of history has a far different future than a linearly expansive pattern of history. Could the United States return to an era of deference to authority and high levels of social conformity? It is neither inevitable nor desirable, but it could happen. The current condition of the public square does remind me of the late 1850, when the nation became increasingly polarized. In 1856, when Representative Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner unconscious with his cane in the Senate chamber, Brooks became a hero in South Carolina.

Whatever the size of a person’s group, he or she is more likely to feel fairly treated in a High, where a shame ethos fosters togetherness and gratitude — and victimized in an Unraveling, where a guilt ethos fosters separation and blame.
The Fourth Turning, p. 112

I found the model of a shift back and forth between shame and guilt cultures particularly interesting, and having some degree of explanatory power. I can see why such a model might bother the people over at The New York Times; are we going to have to fight to defend our hard-won social gains?

Nevertheless, Strauss and Howe are not promoting a rigid pattern. There is no guarantee of what will happen, when it will happen or how it will all turn out. For example, the Civil War period broke the pattern; there was no Hero generation produced.

In the Civil War Saeculum, the Third and Fourth Turnings together covered the span of just one generation and produced no Hero archetype. By the usual pattern of history, the Civil War Crisis catalyst occurred four or five years ahead of schedule and its resolution nearly a generation too soon. This prompts the question: What would have happened if tempers had cooled for a few years, postponing the Crisis for another presidential election and slowing it down thereafter? … Imagine what might have happened differently in the South (which was devastated), in race relations (which reverted to Jim Crow), in the women’s movement (which collapsed), and to the Gilded and Progressive Generations (both heavily damaged by war).
The Fourth Turning, p. 262.

Here the authors directly address variations in the patterns. This also provides a cautionary note to those who would attempt to accelerate change in the hope of bringing about an earlier resolution. The requisite conditions for a satisfactory outcome may not be there.

This is where Bannon’s obsession with this book should cause concern. He believes that, for the new world order to rise, there must be a massive reckoning. That we will soon reach our climax conflict. In the White House, he has shown that he is willing to advise Trump to enact policies that will disrupt our current order to bring about what he perceives as a necessary new one. He encourages breaking down political and economic alliances and turning away from traditional American principles to cause chaos.
— Linette Lopez, “Steve Bannon’s Obsession with a Dark Theory of History Should Be Worrisome“, Business Insider, 2 Feb 2017.

So if Steve Bannon does believe that he should create disruption to accelerate the coming crisis, he needs to go back and re-read the book.

Written by srojak

August 6, 2017 at 7:30 pm

Thank You for Protecting Me from Myself

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Two very helpful persons at the Brookings Institution, Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, have written a paper calling for more professionalism and less populism in American public life. The title of the paper claims, “voting makes us stupid.” Really?

Of course, Donald Trump is a walking testament to the stupidity of voters. But their argument goes beyond this. Let’s examine the points in detail.

More Participation Will Not Be Beneficial

The authors go back to, of all people, the Founders as a source of the idea that the Constitution was set up to limit participation. This is true. The Founders feared mob rule almost as much as government tyranny.

Drawing upon ample historical experience, they worried that democracies were vulnerable to demagoguery and prone to instability. Although they insisted that republican government required direct public input, they also constrained and balanced that input.
— Rauch and Wittes

So can we look forward to a shift in the policy of the Brookings Institution to call for a reduction in open primaries and restoration of the selection of Senators to the states?

The People are Incompetent

This is always going to be a seductive idea to a think tank that considers itself a repository of public policy expertise, but leave that aside for now.

This argument actually goes back to Walter Lippmann. In Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann attacked “the doctrine of the omnicompetent citizen.” Lippmann called for a structure modeled on his idea of the British foreign service, where disinterested and independent experts provide policy options to elected officials.

However, there is no such thing as a disinterested expert. The regime Lippmann visualized quickly degenerates into a system where the experts exercise political control because they control the menu of options under discussion.

In practice, the British foreign service wasn’t that great a model. It really worked out like this:

[Bernard] was concerned that the FO [Foreign Office] produces only one considered view, with no options and no alternatives. In practice, this presents no problem. If pressed, the FO looks at the matter again, and comes up with the same view. If the Foreign Secretary demands options, the FO obliges him by presenting three options, two of which will be (on close examination) exactly the same. The third will, of course, be totally unacceptable, like bombing Warsaw or invading France.
Yes, Prime Minister

That is what is going to happen when unelected experts are in control of the policy menu. Even Lippmann had lost faith in experts by 1925, when he wrote The Phantom Public:

[Government] is also subject to the same corruption as public opinion. For when government attempts to impose the will of its officials, instead of intervening so as to steady adjustments by consent among the parties directly interested, it becomes heavy-handed, stupid, imperious, even predatory.

There is really no such doctrine justifying public participation in politics as based on an “omnicompetent citizen.” The authority of the people is not contingent on them passing some sort of civics test. The legitimacy of the government is derived from the consent of the governed. It is not derived from the consent of that subset of the governed that those governing consider qualified.

We have the right to grant or withhold consent, not because we are omnicompetent, but because we have skin in the game. We live with the consequences of government actions. It’s our blood and treasure on the line.

  • In 1953, an Anglo-American effort in Iran instigated the ouster of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. This was undertaken primarily because Mossadegh wanted to extract more concessions from the British. The participants in the American government believed that the British economy was unable to withstand these concessions. However, the end result included both the breakup of the British monopoly on Iranian oil trade and a price increase to show the Shah was not a puppet of the west. Thus, for all the broken china, this foolish misadventure did not even accomplish its original intention. Did the American people really want what was done in their name?
  • In 2016, the Obama administration committed the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 18% under the Paris Agreement. This commitment was made by executive order, bypassing the Constitutional requirement for treaties to be ratified by the Senate. The commitment, which has been revoked by Donald Trump, would have necessarily increased energy costs for American citizens in order to comply with the targets. Why did we want this? The Obama administration knew we did not, which is why it evaded review by our representatives in the Senate.

The People are Irrational

Sure, they are. But the professionals are people, too. How are they not any less irrational than the public at large?

There is a reason that David Halberstam titled his history of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in Vietnam The Best and the Brightest. The best and the brightest can also go wrong. And when they do, the move in greater unison than the public at large. They largely drink from the same wells of information and have similar outlooks. Groupthink is particularly prevalent among professionals.

The authors quoted Lee Drutman: “Informed, individualistic rationality is a chimera.” Actually, rationality in public life in general is overrated. One of the most rational politicians of the past hundred years was Neville Chamberlain. It is perfectly rational to want to avoid going to war to interfere “in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” But history demonstrated it was a bad idea.

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
— G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

More Education Will Not Be Helpful

More than what? In 1918, the National Education Association completed Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. This report called for seven objectives of secondary education, including Civic Education:

For such citizenship the following are essential: A many-sided interest in the welfare of the communities to which one belongs; loyalty to ideals of civic righteousness ; practical knowledge of social agencies and institutions; good judgment as to means and methods that will promote one social end without defeating others; and as putting all these into effect, habits of cordial cooperation in social undertakings.
Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, p. 13.

Yet, here we are 99 years later. Every year students are reported to be in greater ignorance of civics, politics and economics than last. Rauch and Wittes cite a survey showing that most respondents cannot name the three branches of government, identify the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or locate the entity with the power to declare war. Moreover, they cite the common belief that the government spends more on foreign aid than on Social Security or Medicare.

So how is this not an indictment of the existing education establishment? How has the education system delivered on the 1918 goals?

In Public Opinion, Lippmann famously wrote:

It is because they are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world, that governments, schools, newspapers and churches make such small headway against the more obvious failings of democracy, against violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three legged calves. This is the primary defect of popular government, a defect inherent in its traditions, and all its other defects can, I believe, be traced to this one.

The education system has had a century to remedy the “preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important.” It has not done so, and we can only conclude that it does not want to. Better to keep people in their state of supposed ignorance, and then tell them to leave public policy to the professionals. This is a scam.

It is manifestly unfair to fail to educate people to be effective citizens and then tell them that they can’t participate in political life because they are living in civic ignorance.

The Return of Intermediaries

Rauch and Wittes make the case for intermediaries in public. Political intermediaries can be elected officials or representatives of political parties. What they call a substantive intermediary has specialist knowledge of a policy area, such as health care.

Political intermediaries are necessary. Here is one Rauch and Wittes omitted: states. The several states are a necessary counterweight to federal power. It is more than time to rediscover the role of states in our political process.

The specialist intermediary would be of value. No one without specialist knowledge is going to make sense of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; I tried. It would be great to have intermediaries who could help the citizen navigate the issues.

The first logical candidate might be the media. Try spending a little less time on having two groups of mouthpieces talk over each other, and devote that time to providing information on how a segment of the economy works. If that seems scary, put on segments at 4 in the morning, when no one is watching anyway, and let us record them.

Want to discuss pricing of prescription drugs? Go through the history of the FDA and the decisions that were consciously made to make sure that new drugs were introduced in the US first. Follow the economic consequences of those decisions. Discuss the new drug application (NDA) process that generates enough paper to fill a semi-trailer. Visit ambulancechaser.com (I am not going to give them free publicity by using their real domain name), where people seeking victim status can be gathered into a class to launch a lawsuit.

Corporatism hated intermediaries and sought to get rid of them at every opportunity, leaving the individual citizens alone with the all-knowing, almighty federal government. We need intermediaries that Brookings hasn’t even thought of.

However, we also need to be able to trust the intermediaries. We require that they are giving us all the information, not just a limited and purposeful set of options (two of which are identical and the third totally unacceptable). We need intermediaries to watch the intermediaries.

Yes, the world we live in requires tradeoffs and choices from among the unpalatable and the disastrous. The belief that ordinary people cannot understand these issues in a nuanced way is a piece of received wisdom. Populism is a rebellion against this, an assertion that legitimacy derives from the consent of the people, whether or not the people express themselves in a way pleasing to those who would wield power over them. Thank God the American people have the sand to push back on the professionals who would undermine them.

Did Donald Trump Obstruct Justice?

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We had a fun argument earlier this week on CNN between Jeffrey Toobin and Alan Dershowitz over whether or not Donald Trump obstructed justice by his conduct toward former FBI director James Comey. You can see it here (4:43).

Toobin claimed that Trump obstructed justice:

  • That the alleged request by Trump to Comey to lay off investigating former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn would have constituted obstruction of justice;
  • That Trump’s firing of Comey was obstruction of justice.

Dershowitz disagreed. He argued that Trump had the constitutional options to order Comey directly to cease investigating Flynn or even to grant Flynn an executive pardon. Dershowitz cited the example of Caspar Weinberger, who had served as Secretary of Defense for Ronald Reagan and who had been indicted by Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh in 1992, accusing Weinberger of perjury and obstruction of justice during the Iran-Contra Affair. President George H. W. Bush pardoned Weinberger before these charges could be tried.

Dershowitz did not argue that Trump should get a free pass, just that his behavior was within his authority under the Constitution and did not constitute a crime. During the interview, Dershowitz said, “Impeachment is political. There is no judicial review of impeachment. You can impeach a president for jaywalking.”

I have to agree with Dershowitz, not just because of his reputation as a constitutional law scholar. Where does the FBI appear on the constitutional org chart? It is within the Justice Department, part of the Executive branch. The FBI is not an independent agency — does anybody really want it to be? (Anybody remember J. Edgar Hoover?)

As such, the FBI director serves at the pleasure of the president, who has the constitutional authority to dismiss the director for any reason, or no reason at all. This is not to say that there will be no political consequences for the president. Lyndon Johnson wanted to dismiss Hoover, but drew back from the political consequences [see Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, p. 529]. Trump went ahead and fired Comey, and he can live with the political consequences of having done so.

Abuse of political power is a perfectly good reason to impeach a president. Congress also has less extreme options at its disposal, such as cutting funding for the president’s programs and either refusing or delaying consideration of the president’s legislative agenda.

Criminalizing political behavior you don’t like is a bad road to go down. It would represent another step toward being a banana republic with no bananas.

In this case, it is political spinelessness that causes people to seek some artificial objective standard — never mind that it is not applicable. If you don’t like the man’s politics, come out and say so. Seek political means to counteract them.

And if you’re in journalism, and you are concerned that you can’t object to someone’s politics and still appear unbiased, you’re absolutely right. You have to choose your course and live with the consequences no less than a politician has to.

Written by srojak

June 10, 2017 at 3:06 pm

Personal Loyalty in Government

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CBS News estimates that about one-fifth of the country is solidly behind President Trump. Of this subset of the population, they report that 55% “believe government and law enforcement officials should take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution and president,” as opposed to pledging loyalty to the Constitution alone. Given an adult population of 209 million, by my reckoning, that would be 23 million adult Americans holding this belief. I find this deeply disturbing.

There are about 4,000 politically appointed positions in the administration. Those in the executive branch serve at the pleasure of the president.  Although he can dismiss them at any time, there can be political consequences for doing so. Managing a federal department is not the same as managing a family business. The removal of a highly respected senior staffer can demoralize those who had been working for her, unless there are reasons the survivors can respect and these reasons are communicated well.

A requirement of personal loyalty to an individual President would take the political appointees in the direction of a Führerprinzip, in that it would communicate that the will of the executive takes priority over the appointee’s concepts of right and wrong. Furthermore, the door swings both ways; an executive politically hostile to your interests as a citizen could also demand such loyalty from political appointees.

Attention, 23 million Americans: rethink this idea immediately. It would represent a significant further step to make politics “a civil war by other means,” and we are far along on that path already. The Constitution was designed to prevent a majority from running roughshod over a minority. It deserves the highest loyalty of those who serve in government.

Written by srojak

May 23, 2017 at 5:10 am

Flexible Or Unprincipled?

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There are a lot of questions out there right now. I have them also. Answers are not readily forthcoming, but can we refine the questions?

Who Put the Syrian Kids on Donald Trump’s Milk Carton?

Was the missile strike on Syria on 7 April an impulsive and emotional response to video evidence of suffering children? Assembling the available evidence since the 2016 campaign, it sure looks that way. But even if this is true, what can we take away from it?

It is highly unlikely that a sudden whim from the President provoked top-down assessment of an option to use force that had not be previously considered. More probably, a course of action involving missile strikes on Syrian government assets was already on the table, and the images of children suffering the effects of sarin broke through to executive attention and resulted in this course of action being considered where it wasn’t before.

This would indicate that there will be other opportunities for a person with an agenda and the right kind of supporting materials to influence executive policy in both foreign and domestic situations.

Where Is the Boundary between Flexible and Unprincipled?

The entire Trump presidency puts this question to the nation, along with related questions, such as, “Can a policy you disagree with ever be principled?”

Certainly, Trump has given every indication of having a very limited set of operating principles. We have every reason to believe that, if someone were to take a shot at him today with a rifle, by this evening he would have a new-found interest in gun control. Everything that had been said during the campaign about Second Amendment rights would be, in the immortal words of Ron Ziegler, rendered inoperative.

However, this is nothing new. We have more antecedents than just the Nixon Administration to recall in order to gain perspective. There are obvious similarities between Trump and FDR; I mentioned these a year ago. FDR was fully capable of meeting with six people, all of whom had mutually incompatible agendas, and have each of the six walk away from the meeting fully believing that, “Roosevelt agrees with me completely.” Then FDR would follow a seventh course, or perhaps do nothing.

Nevertheless, FDR was popular with the country. You can see the newsreels of people in the street crying when he died in April, 1945. Whatever he really believed, FDR conveyed the belief that the troubles of the people in the nation really mattered to him. The principles he publicly stood for were to try anything to get out of the Depression; it just happened that anything always led to an expansion in the role of the federal government.

The principles we have seen from Trump are counterpunching, strength and bellicosity. It would be helpful if we saw more of these principles at work representing the nation, rather than in the service of Donald Trump the person. This still would not satisfy those people who don’t want America to be about counterpunching, strength and bellicosity, but it would be a step in the right direction.

I should also point out that we’ve tried other approaches. The Obama Administration had entirely consistent and predictable responses to atrocities in Syria: Do nothing. These did not lead to a satisfactory outcome.

In a position of leadership, refusal to divulge principles is not an option. People will not suspend judgment because you withhold information. They will attempt to fill in the blanks themselves, deducing your principles from the available information. It won’t do to complain about the inferences people draw from your behavior after having refused to put your own word out.

Can Congress Stop Airlines from Overbooking?

Why not? Isn’t that fraud? The airline is representing it has seats available that it doesn’t really have.

I understand that the airlines will, in turn, claim to be subject to traveler games with multiple reservations and cancellations. There is a risk involved, where the travelers don’t want to get bumped and the airlines don’t want to fly empty seats around.

When you run a business, you bear business risk. We don’t let dry cleaners evade their negligence by stamping Not responsible for losses due to negligence on the dry cleaning tickets. They can try it, but it won’t hold up in court. Similarly, it is bad public policy to let the airlines dump the risk of matching capacity to demand on the consumers.

Are We Overestimating the Ability of China to Help with North Korea?

This question was raised on the BBC’s Dateline London show this week. The idea behind the question is that the PRC may not be able to influence North Korea as much as others in the world believe possible.

At the same time, people are calling for a diplomatic solution to the problem posed by North Korea’s nuclear aspirations. Even the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, has warned of a “head-on collision” between the US and North Korea. However, what a diplomatic solution would look like is unclear. North Korea expelled outside inspectors in 2003, formally withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. What can anyone reasonably offer Kim Jong Un in exchange for permanently scrapping his nuclear program?

Reviewing North Korea’s nuclear history reveals there has been little to no success in halting the country’s progress in its nuclear program. However, another detail that has not been addressed is hidden in the history: North Korea is unreliable and cannot be trusted. Every single deal that has been reached in the past has been broken by North Korea. With this in mind, North Korea’s demands for  recognition as a nuclear power and its promises to not use nuclear weapons recklessly or its ending programs in exchange for the United States and South Korea halting joint military exercises must be met with suspicion. This raises the question, how do you negotiate or make a deal with an actor you cannot trust?
— Kevin Princic, “North Korea: Navigating the ‘Land of Lousy Options'”, 20 Jan 2016 [http://blogs.shu.edu/diplomacy/2016/01/north-korea-navigating-the-land-of-lousy-options/]

China is definitely worth engaging, as China is North Korea’s windpipe. Anything China can do is a contribution. Nevertheless, the options are all rather bad at this point.

Is Kemalism Finished in Turkey?

General Mustafa Kemal took control of a national assembly that opposed the concessions required by the Allies at the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. He defeated the Allied forces, forcing a revised settlement at the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. In 1924, Kemal abolished the Caliphate and Turkey became a one-party republic. He proclaimed a program called the Six Arrows:

  1. Republicanism;
  2. Populism, here focusing on transfer of political power from aristocrats and tribal leaders to citizens;
  3. Nationalism,
  4. Secularism, separating national law from Islamic law and enforcing only the former;
  5. Statism;
  6. Modernization.

As an instance of both populism and modernization, Kemal required Turks to have last names. He changed his name from Mustafa Kemal to Kemal Atatürk (Father of the Turks). He invited westerners including John Dewey to advise the government on how to achieve modernization.

The referendum being held today asks the country whether the executive of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should be granted constitutional changes bringing all state bureaucracy under his control. The office of prime minister would be abolished and the president would have greater powers to issue decrees and dissolve parliament. He would also have greater powers over the judiciary.

As of this writing, with over 95% of the votes counted, the BBC reports that Yes votes are leading 51.4% to 48.6% for No.

Erdoğan has sought to reverse the secularism of Kemal while expanding on nationalism and statism. He has taken a hard line with separatist Kurds. In 2016, an attempted coup d’état of uncertain origin broke out in Turkey which was defeated. The Erdoğan government claims that the coup was masterminded by a former ally, Fethullah Gülen, now living in exile in Pennsylvania.

What becomes of Kemalism? There were some roots of authoritarianism in Kemalism; all evidence indicates that Erdoğan is returning to at least this level of authoritarianism. At the same time, he always has been more Islamist than Kemalism could tolerate. Early in his life, he was jailed and banned from political office for expressing Islamist political views. This ban was annulled by his allies in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 after winning a national election victory.

 

Truth, Justice and the American Politician

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There seems to be a lot of confusion and selective hearing about truth, particularly when it comes from politicians. Let’s step back and try to unpack all this.

Hillary Clinton Goes to Bosnia

Here is an excellent case study. In 2008, Hillary Clinton claimed:

I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.
— Hillary Clinton, speech at George Washington University, 2008.

In fact, nothing like that happened. Here is a video of Clinton’s arrival in Bosnia in 1996.

So did she lie? I do not believe that she did. Here rendering is not truthful, but I don’t believe it deserve the status of a lie.

Why do I say that?

I believe that Clinton had an image in her mind of the person she wanted to be, and she remembered what happened at Bosnia in 1996 in those terms. What actually happened was irrelevant.

Cognitive Dissonance

The theory of cognitive dissonance was first put forward by Leon Festinger in 1957. At the time, the idea was truly revolutionary, as psychology was in the grip of behaviorism. Festinger found behaviors that behaviorism could not explain. Subjects would change their opinions to achieve consonance with their previous behaviors.

Festinger, with Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, had written When Prophecy Fails, a book recording the beliefs of a small cult who had predicted a flood would destroy the world on 21 December 1954, both before and after the non-event. Not only did many cult members refuse to abandon their beliefs when the flood did not occur; they committed to them even more intensely.

Both women were greatly upset by the disconfirmation of the  morning of December 21, Edna Post being hit especially hard. Nevertheless, throughout the period of disconfirmation both these women unquestioningly accepted the messages, predictions, and rationalizations that Mrs, Keech and Dr. Armstrong worked out for the group. Both of them simply repeated the rationalizations of disconfirmation that the leaders elaborated and glowed over the wonder and beauty of the plan. Their faith, too, remained firm all through the time that we maintained contact with them. On January 24, Daisy while en route to Virginia wrote to one of the authors, saying, “Believe me, we certainly have had divine guidance all along the way. We get orders from ‘upstairs’ en
route.” And “Give our ‘best’ to the other two from Minneapolis, Tell them we know the future is ‘rosy.’ We’ve been promised many wonderful things and we still know who our Director is. We go as his guests — his representatives.”
— Festinger, et al., When Prophecy Fails (1956), p. 195.

The behavior of various public figures is often attributed to lying and covering up, but cognitive dissonance offers a better explanation and one that does not require mendacious intent.

It takes some degree of ego to run for national public office. A candidate has to appeal to others, raise funds for the campaign and prevail against hostile counteraction from competitors and their supporters.

Consider a newly elected Senator, arriving into what is often called “the world’s most exclusive club.” There will be overwhelming pressure to believe that he deserves to be there, reinforced by the bubble of staff that the Senator has accrued through the campaign. The realities of politics require that the Senator will have built a narrative about himself, his motives and his actions that can survive the attacks of others, armed with opposition research and seeking to show the voters inconsistent behavior in the Senator’s history.

Now, the Senator will not be able to obtain everything he wants; he must engage in barter and log-rolling, giving his vote on some issues on which he does not agree in order to obtain the support of others for items of higher priority. He must bring home patronage to influential constituents if he is to be re-elected. All these pressures reinforce the need for a narrative that can preserve his own self-image in the face of inconsistent behavior.

Thus, I find it hardly surprising that Clinton remembered herself coming into Bosnia under fire or that Jeff Sessions did not remember conversations with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings. These people construct narratives about themselves, remembering incidents in terms of the self-image they want to have. What actually happened is irrelevant.

It would seem a damn fool behavior to willfully lie about episodes that can be researched by the press or have video evidence on YouTube for anyone to find. I don’t believe the processing ever gets past the brain stem. The politician first deceives herself. She squeezes her memory of events, forcing them to fit the story about herself that she not only wants to tell others, but needs to believe about herself.

What’s Good for Me Is Good for America

I do not mean to exonerate people for this behavior. If my explanation is accurate, it is actually more disturbing than if the people involved had simply lied. It is saying that they can’t tell truth from falsehood. They have commingled their identities with the country. It speaks to delusions of grandeur.

The problem is not limited to government; private sector organizations also have to contend with it.

Billy Graham had a man named Grady Wilson who yelled “Horseshit” — however you say that in Baptist — at him whenever he took himself too seriously. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Graham organization has been so successful. I had a Chairman of the Executive Committee who used to blow a launch-caller at me. Every chief executive should find someone to perform this function and then make sure he can only be fired for being too polite. Since the leader must lead the battle against institutionalization, it’s to the leader that you should look for early signs of losing the war. Is he getting confused about who’s God? Polishing up the image instead of greasing the wheels? Preoccupied with the price of the stock? Listening to the public relations department? Short-tempered with honest criticism? Are people hesitating before they tell him?
— Robert Townsend, Further Up the Organization, p. 107.

In my experience, it takes an person of unusual moral strength to accept Townsend’s advice. The key difference being that when private sector organizations go senile, they ultimately fail and are replaced. They don’t take the whole country with them.

There is a great howling right now about truth and facts, but a failure to understand the human behavior that leads to the incidents we have observed. Perhaps it is comforting to think that we have been lied to and ill-served. We the People can believe a narrative about ourselves, that we have been taken advantage of by malicious operators. Throw the rascals out and get in a new lot. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Cognitive dissonance is not limited to people in power. Even nice people like you and I are susceptible.

Written by srojak

March 6, 2017 at 5:22 am