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.