The Lesser of Two Evils

On a forum I frequent, someone recently posted a question I’ve heard before, in various forms, especially the last three years, that question being:

“Why is it that presidential elections always feel like choosing between the ‘lesser of two evils’ and not ‘the better of two good candidates’?”

The sole respondent at the time wrote back had replied:

“The failure of the two-party system because of polarization and tribalism reinforced by closed primaries.”

True,  I thought, as far as it goes. But I can’t help wondering if attributing our meager choices to a moribund two-party system, tribalism and closed primaries doesn’t completely miss the underpinning problem. 

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Each choice is a direction, conscious or unconscious

As social critters, our propensity for concerted action (read that cooperation) may be our most critical success factor. I think the often uninspiring choices we have for president (and Congress, for that matter) may actually be grounded in that phenomenon, demonstrating that almost every success can wind up being a double-edged sword. Work with me, here.

Structure and Purpose...

Successful actions, (including successful cooperation) tend to be repeated, precisely because they are successful. Group cooperation multiplies our individual success by leveraging the power of numbers. It’s why we join organizations in the first place. To leverage the power of others as a means of advancing our own. The resulting organic structure…or organization…is greater than the sum of its parts. This is true of all organizations. 

Over time, organizational success leads to stable structure and the appearance of permanence. Humans, after all, love the notion of predictability in an uncertain universe. To the extent that organizations with a semi-fixed set of goals represent the promise of success and predictability, they also acquire a degree of legitimacy in our eyes. As a result, we tend to stick with them, out of habit, laziness or motivated cognition.

Insofar as political parties are organizations, these same dynamics apply to them. And as with any other organization, this includes the emergence of a distinct culture,  and the ideological schisms accompanying them , to which the questioner on the forum I began this post with alluded. These days, that divide has multiple components.

No longer simply a matter of the policies  relating to domestic governance and foreign and military affairs,  politics increasingly embraces a range of social issues and identity politics. Matters we used to think of purely as personal preferences and tangential to if not  inappropriate to  the business of running (what used to be) the most powerful nation on Earth. 

Sadly, the political shorthand of “right and “left” as political positions have taken on deeper tribal meanings and personal significance than at any time since (at least) the Great Depression.

There are probably multiple causative factors that have giving rise to the vituperation characterizing our political dysfunction. Surely the accelerating rate of change first popularized in the Tofflers’ Future Shock is part of it, exacerbated by both political party’s willingness to consistently distort facts to fit their own narratives. (One much cynically and flagrantly than the other. You know who you are). But whether we’re talking about corporate America, political parties or the various arms of governance, sooner or later, a phenomenon called the Organizational Paradox sets in.

Structure and the Organizational Paradox

As alluded earlier, organizational success is the reason the structure achieves the appearance of permanence. Humans love the notion of predictability in an uncertain universe. To the extent that organizations with a semi-fixed set of goals represent the promise of success and predictability, a sense of legitimacy is one of the natural spin-offs. So long as we perceive our interests coincide, we tend to view them favorably, overlooking their imperfections as instruments of our collective will.

There are, however, some downsides to organized behavior in any form, whether it’s a government, a political party, a tribe, or a corporation. Over time, a successful organization acquires a life of its own. Due to a concept called emergence, the relatively simple goals and structure grow increasingly convoluted. Over time, the organization’s goals wind up defaulting to those of the leaders who stand most to gain by the policies they pursue.

In essence, someone in power (or wanting more of it) co-opts the organization’s original intent and substitutes their own objectives. This is usually done subtly and in stages. Like allegorical frog in water brought to a slow boil, we often don’t notice until it’s too late.

It also begs another question. How do we avoid the Promethean tendency to become the victim of our own cleverness to our collective ruin? This is not simply a question of nuclear war, or climate change, it is the emerging perils of how robotics and genetic manipulation (to mention just a couple) might end our interesting if imperfect run of hegemony.

The Outline of an Imperfect Solution...

There is but one answer, in my opinion, and an imperfect one at that. In order to avoid the tendency of organizations (and the leaders thereof) to sub-optimize organizational goals in favor of their own, we must become our organization’s conscience. Not some of us or even most of us. All of us. We must all become thoughtful, foresighted stewards of the public good, personally responsible for the outcomes of the governments/organizations purporting to represent us.

We are responsible for the outcomes of all! (Photo courtesy of Unsplash & Austin Kehmeier)

I’m painfully aware that we have rarely been able to do this…individually or collectively, for very long. Our inability to sustain a profound sense of stewardship does not bode well for our survival as a species. But in common with most willing to sign up to risk their life in defense of our nation, I retain a measure of cautious optimism.

For all the self-appointed and/or de facto Bernie Bro’s out there, I suspect this is what he and all the other self-appointed missionaries of “revolution” really mean when they advocate revolution. But as Bernie and almost everyone I talk to seems to miss is this revolution isn’t a switch from capitalism to socialism or any other “ism.” Rather it is the deep-seated, unshakable realization that we are one, all of us and that ultimately, none of us are safe if one of us isn’t. Until we can not simply embrace but celebrate the responsibility and freedom that coexist in that simple truth, we will continue to flirt with oblivion.

D.B. Sayers is a retired Marine officer, former corporate trainer and the author of four books currently in print with two more on the way. You can join his tribe on this page, in the upper right. 

For a more detailed examination of the Organizational Paradox, see West of Tomorrow, pp 246-256.

# MAGA is a Mirage

Sorting Through the BS...

Recently, I ran across a post on Medium a forum I frequent that suggested that our 45th president didn’t have much in the way of redeeming value, but that one thing that he does well (and the most probable reason for his election) was  marketing.

The post went on (it was good post and I read it all the way through) to suggest that his ability to reinvent himself through reality TV was his special and most relevant competence. One which permitted him to succeed when any thoughtful reading of his competence and/or character demonstrated he was unqualified and a likely unmitigated disaster.

She got a lot of comments. (Write a Trump post on any forum & you’re sure to get a lot of responses). She got the usual number of “me too” reactions, as well a number of “Trump no matter what” respondents. But what amused most was the died-in-the-wool progressives who insisted 45 is an aberration who succeeded in selling the U.S. a bill of goods.

Nobody asked me, but I think 45 is a logical result of our times. He did not invent reality TV; he was simply perceptive enough to figure out how to leverage it. What thoughtful people already realize is that we are in the midst of tectonic shifts in the paradigms govern pretty much every aspect of our reality. These paradigm shifts cut across how we relate to each other socially, economically, politically & personally. These shifts are magnifying each other in ways that have no precedent in history. For the record, it isn’t like we weren’t warned. The Tofflers saw this coming in the late ‘60s, which is why they wrote Future Shock, which was published in 1970.

The Way ahead...?

Now, fifty years later, are we not in the no man’s land between yesterday and tomorrow, with (if we’re brutally honest with ourselves) no clue what’s next? The old models simply don’t work as well as they used to (or at all) and the new ones are still in the prototype phase. Which is to say, that the way ahead for the world generally (and liberal western democracies in particular, assuming they survive) isn’t particularly clear. One could say, the  way ahead is actually most like wilderness, with no roadsigns.

Our closest analog for today, the Industrial Revolution, was a jolting experience in it’s time, but is dwarfed by the changes we’re confronting now. None of the leaders we have (or who are offering themselves as future leaders) have a full solution, yet. We’re going to need an eclectic approach to solving the problems confronting us. I’m going to humbly offer that the best answer is likely to lie somewhere between the progressive vision of a bulletproof safety net and unrestrained, exploitive, (and extractive) capitalism. Our global role, similarly, probably lies between an outward looking foreign policy in which we are the single, indispensable nation-state, and an introverted, self-involved nation that can’t find Myanmar on the map.

For the same reason, you can't build a fire with yesterday's ashes, the way ahead is not behind us.

What we must not do, IMO, is pretend that the past is the future. It isn’t. 45 hasn’t had an original thought since the Beatles brayed out “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” Yes, yes, Beatles lovers, many of their later compositions were nothing short of genius. My point is, #MAGA is a socio-political mirage. Or a bit more metaphorically, the ashes with which you can’t build tomorrow’s fire.

We will need the best of all our minds working toward a just, though imperfect society. Facts, truth & imperfect good ideas must have a place in the crucible of free thought, not to mention a modicum of humility that acknowledges none of us have all the answers. I submit that digging in on either the talking points you can hear on Fox News or MSNBC is probably not going to get it done. We need the best of both. Just one broken-down, baggy-eyed old Marine officer’s opinion.

D.B. Sayers is a retired Marine officer, former corporate trainer turned full-time author. He is the author of four critically reviewed works and has three more in various stages of completion. You can follow Dirk’s work and stay up to date on them by joining Dirk’s Tribe on any page of this site.

Living in the 21st Century

Somewhere West of Maybe...

Like it or not all of us find ourselves as part of a discourse that simply won’t go away. We are in the midst of what can only be described as tectonic change ushered in by a combination of technological advancement and social change both driven by and facilitating further change. Whether we will survive this period of adolescence remains to be seen. It’s not a foregone conclusion that we will.

The good news is, we get a say in whether and how we survive. And that’s the bad news, as well. We’d all like to believe that the collective consciousness of many is wiser than the conscience of one. One could say the jury’s still out on that one…

ALERT! America wants a divorce…

I'm leaving you, Donald!

Sexy Lady Liberty

AMERICA:     “I’ve had it, Donald…pack your trash! You were charming, at first, but you’ve gotten complacent and really gross.

DONALD:      “Do you mean gross-icky or gross like fat?”

AMERICA:     “Both, you ignorant blimp! You looked like a slob at the Queen’s state dinner. Even when we dress you up, you look like a slob! And what’s with you and Vlad?”

DONALD:      “Well, I can’t help—”

AMERICA:     (Solicitiously) “I know, Donald. I really do.” (Frowns) “Funny you should mention that…”

DONALD:      “Mention what?”

AMERICA:     (Pats him on the shoulder) “That you can’t help yourself. We’ve all noticed.”

DONALD:      “Nobody else can help themselves! Have you seen my rally crowds?”

AMERICA:     (With a sigh of resignation, realizing he doesn’t get it.) “Like the circus, you mean? What was it PT Barnum used to say? ‘There’s a sucker born every minute?’”

DONALD:      “You know you love it!”

AMERICA:     “Not really. You’re week-old nachos and guacamole, left in the refrigerator.”

DONALD:      (Whining) “But you like nachos and guacamole—”

AMERICA:     (Sighs) Yes, Donald. It’s not bad at all fresh, but it doesn’t age well.”

DONALD:      “But I’ve made you great, again!”

AMERICA:     “No, Donald. I was always hot. You, on the other hand?” (Walks away, shaking her head).

A retired Marine officer & corporate trainer, Dirk is on his third career as an author. His books include: West of Tomorrow, a tale of corporate intrigue, betrayal and renewal, Best-Case Scenario, first volume in a coming of age series & Through the Windshield, a collection of short fiction. Due out in fall of 2019 is Tier Zero, Volume I of the Knolan Cycle, a tale of first contact between Earth and the Knolan Concordant.