Bernie Sanders and Magical Thinking

The real issue in the election is magical thinking. Bernie supporters (like the Trump supporters) have been sold a brand of magical thinking: free college, tax reform, trade protectionism to produce the old 1950s high paying jobs with benefits, isolationist foreign policy, all of which are simply not going to happen, as there is not a political path to deliver them, or in some cases, like starting a trade war with the world economy in poor shape, they are not even desirable, but likely catastrophic and not going to produce the good jobs anyway as automation is rampant.

What Bernie supporters I suspect (but may be wrong, not thinking I have the simplistic lock on reality) hate about Hillary is that she reminds them, by her record that politics is the art of compromise, of deals between interest groups and of trade offs, least worst options. They call this corrupt; I call it real world realism in a democracy with an electorate of conflicting interests. Just think of one of these real world dilemmas: fracking makes the US less dependent on middle east oil and hence has allowed President Obama to intervene less there. Are there alternatives: sure alternative energy is one promising long term option, way out of the dilemma and fracking really sucks. But in reality short term there usually the lesser of two evil choices. That’s life.

President Obama put it well when he said that the only problems that reach the President’s desk are the ones that don’t have a good palatable solution. Bernie would not be good at that role, at least based on his preformance in this campaign. Hillary is all about “tough choices” which is the real world. So hatred of Hillary is partly about hatred of a complex messy hard to be pure, tough choices world. Get over it already, and start working on creative solutions that do better than the tough choices. That is real hard work and high attention span. “long march through the institutions” as the 68ers put it in Europe. Oh and commit to turn out in mid-term elections: another sign of increased attention span.

But then I may be wrong and magical thinking delivers real results. Though in my 55 years of watching US and European politics I can’t recall a single instance of this; though I can recall magical thinking on the left, delivering Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush 2. And possibly President Trump going forward. It’s also called Murphy Law and the Law of Unintended Consequences.









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Truth, Dare, Fundamentalism and Uncertainty in the Crises of Friendship

I have been reflecting on the circumstances in which we break up a friendship over political differences. As this has happened to me several times recently in our fraught political climate. Logically the following may be going on and may even form one of our Top Ten Conflict Tips on the Crises of Friendships:

  1. I think my friend (and they think me) completely wrong and mistaken, either about the reality we are discussing (there is a real world out there aka RWOT as per Philip Kitchen’s Modest Realism), or the values we are applying to construe that reality and make decisions/takes stances on what it means and what to do about it.
  2. I think my friend may have a point (though I doubt they think I have one:) ) But I don’t want to admit this; so best to distance myself from having to confront this possibility.
  3. This is especially so if I am internally conflicted over the issue in question, suffering from cognitive dissonance, and my friend represents one of the two sides at war in my psyche. Or my friend may be in this position. Or both of us….
  4. I think there is no clear answer to the issue: the reality or the right values to apply to the situation are indeterminate and taking a strong stand on the issue as my friend is doing and/or is insisting I do, doesn’t work for me; or they are in this position.
  5. More generally: we disagree over whether reality and values are pretty indeterminate, always in some sort of flux and in need of constant questioning.
  6. I may therefore tend to continually examine my perspectives by seeking data that will contradict them; and my friend only seeks data that confirms their perspective aka suffers from confirmation bias, or vice versa: I go confirmation bias and they go disconfirmation seeking. Either way it has become an uncomfortable mix.
  7. My friend is some sort of fundamentalist, in that nothing, no new data would change their mind on the issue; or I am a fundamentalist in this sense and they are not. Or our fundamentalisms are different, profoundly in conflict with each other, so dialogue is hard.
  8. One or both sides can’t use the process discipline of this blog: trying to clearly establish the reality of the conflict, uncover our and their interests and ask what if to surface creative solutions to our differences is completely unacceptable to my friend and/or to me, so we cannot use what might be called “conflict algebra” to find a higher level solution that resolves our different takes on reality in ways that creatively meets both sides’ interests.
  9. Or something else I haven’t thought of yet….like our paths have profoundly part, and our time as friends is over for some reason unrelated to the issue of the conflict.
  10. This too will pass and our friendship will resume after the election season…..:) Especially if we declare on friendship adjourned rather than ended.
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This is How Fascism Comes to America: a Conservative View from Robert Kagan

Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing columnist for The Post.

The Republican Party’s attempt to treat Donald Trump as a normal political candidate would be laughable were it not so perilous to the republic. If only he would mouth the party’s “conservative” principles, all would be well.

But of course the entire Trump phenomenon has nothing to do with policy or ideology. It has nothing to do with the Republican Party, either, except in its historic role as incubator of this singular threat to our democracy. Trump has transcended the party that produced him. His growing army of supporters no longer cares about the party. Because it did not immediately and fully embrace Trump, because a dwindling number of its political and intellectual leaders still resist him, the party is regarded with suspicion and even hostility by his followers. Their allegiance is to him and him alone.

And the source of allegiance? We’re supposed to believe that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.

That this tough-guy, get-mad-and-get-even approach has gained him an increasingly large and enthusiastic following has probably surprised Trump as much as it has everyone else. Trump himself is simply and quite literally an egomaniac. But the phenomenon he has created and now leads has become something larger than him, and something far more dangerous.

 Republican politicians marvel at how he has “tapped into” a hitherto unknown swath of the voting public. But what he has tapped into is what the founders most feared when they established the democratic republic: the popular passions unleashed, the “mobocracy.” Conservatives have been warning for decades about government suffocating liberty. But here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms. As Alexander Hamilton watched the French Revolution unfold, he feared in America what he saw play out in France — that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.

This phenomenon has arisen in other democratic and quasi-democratic countries over the past century, and it has generally been called “fascism.” Fascist movements, too, had no coherent ideology, no clear set of prescriptions for what ailed society. “National socialism” was a bundle of contradictions, united chiefly by what, and who, it opposed; fascism in Italy was anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-Marxist, anti-capitalist and anti-clerical. Successful fascism was not about policies but about the strongman, the leader (Il Duce, Der Fuhrer), in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation. Whatever the problem, he could fix it. Whatever the threat, internal or external, he could vanquish it, and it was unnecessary for him to explain how. Today, there is Putinism, which also has nothing to do with belief or policy but is about the tough man who singlehandedly defends his people against all threats, foreign and domestic.

To understand how such movements take over a democracy, one only has to watch the Republican Party today. These movements play on all the fears, vanities, ambitions and insecurities that make up the human psyche. In democracies, at least for politicians, the only thing that matters is what the voters say they want — vox populi vox dei. A mass political movement is thus a powerful and, to those who would oppose it, frightening weapon. When controlled and directed by a single leader, it can be aimed at whomever the leader chooses. If someone criticizes or opposes the leader, it doesn’t matter how popular or admired that person has been. He might be a famous war hero, but if the leader derides and ridicules his heroism, the followers laugh and jeer. He might be the highest-ranking elected guardian of the party’s most cherished principles. But if he hesitates to support the leader, he faces political death.

In such an environment, every political figure confronts a stark choice: Get right with the leader and his mass following or get run over. The human race in such circumstances breaks down into predictable categories — and democratic politicians are the most predictable. There are those whose ambition leads them to jump on the bandwagon. They praise the leader’s incoherent speeches as the beginning of wisdom, hoping he will reward them with a plum post in the new order. There are those who merely hope to survive. Their consciences won’t let them curry favor so shamelessly, so they mumble their pledges of support, like the victims in Stalin’s show trials, perhaps not realizing that the leader and his followers will get them in the end anyway.

A great number will simply kid themselves, refusing to admit that something very different from the usual politics is afoot. Let the storm pass, they insist, and then we can pick up the pieces, rebuild and get back to normal. Meanwhile, don’t alienate the leader’s mass following. After all, they are voters and will need to brought back into the fold. As for Trump himself, let’s shape him, advise him, steer him in the right direction and, not incidentally, save our political skins.

What these people do not or will not see is that, once in power, Trump will owe them and their party nothing. He will have ridden to power despite the party, catapulted into the White House by a mass following devoted only to him. By then that following will have grown dramatically. Today, less than 5 percent of eligible voters have voted for Trump. But if he wins the election, his legions will comprise a majority of the nation. Imagine the power he would wield then. In addition to all that comes from being the leader of a mass following, he would also have the immense powers of the American presidency at his command: the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence services, the military. Who would dare to oppose him then? Certainly not a Republican Party that laid down before him even when he was comparatively weak. And is a man like Trump, with infinitely greater power in his hands, likely to become more humble, more judicious, more generous, less vengeful than he is today, than he has been his whole life? Does vast power un-corrupt?


This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.

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Insurgencies: 1968 and 2016

Historians will draw parallels between two years of US political insurgencies: 1968 and 2016. I was a witness to 1968 in Europe: the Paris Uprising that delivered nothing as De Gaulle used it to boost the Right. In the US it was the year Robert Kennedy was assassinated (funny no one bothers about conspiracy theories on that) and this took away politically savvy leadership of the Left. The Left duly lost its political mind, had a riotous Democratic Convention in Chicago (yes the whole world was watching and American voters didn’t like it at all), and President Nixon was elected (and it was only close because George Wallace the racist took 15% of the vote), and so started 40 years of rightward march towards inequality, only stalled in 2008, from a Gini Index of 35 to 45 today.

The Left meanwhile forgot about economics, haven’t had an original economics idea in decades, and ignored the real world of jobs and deployed the massive threat of sulky post modernism and culturism as its strategic response.

2016 will probably be known as the year of two insurgencies: one extreme reactionary and one faux revolutionary. They will change nothing. Trump will win the Presidency and the GOP will simply carry on plutocrating, making abortion illegal, deporting immigrants and business as usual, Wall Street will wobble and then realize the rich are still in control with one of them in the White House. With a few wars thrown after “deal making theater” from Trump in for the defense pork. All dressed up Nixon did as populist in “silent majority” garb. Fascism finally arrived in America wrapped in the flag holding a check book and a cross. Whether it’s 40 years of reaction, who knows.

And Bernie will have split the Democratic progressive opposition, as happened in 1968 and cost the election and objectively (whatever his subjective desires) delivered this. Mainly it is his “disciples” who have the “Messiah” complex; but I see signs the Ralph Nader virus is even getting to the otherwise decent Bernie, whose biggest real job has been Mayor of Burlington in a quiet year. Unlike Robert Kennedy (who had the Cuban Missile Crisis under his belt) he’s not used to this sort of pressure or power potential, I guess.

And historians may well repeat Karl ‘s comment Marx from the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon on these two years: “History repeats itself. The first time it’s tragedy. The second time farce.”

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Declining Conflict Handling Skills with Ageing

My late father always had a difficult strand, but it became worse with age, a higher proportion of whom he was, until in his 90s he could be very difficult to deal with, unable to meet his own interests in dealing with healthcare provider etc., though still in reasonable health, driving and wanting to and able to live alone until a few weeks before his death. My late in laws were both very reasonable, not difficult people until they were in their 80s, when they too became increasingly difficult and sometimes impossible.

So I was interested in what it is that makes this process happen. And I do know several people who have aged without this problem. My preliminary research (based on a desire to see what I can to head it off in myself) suggests the following possible cognitive causes and I leave it to the reader to follow up on any associated research:

  1. Self-censorship declines. There is evidence from brain scans that our frontal cortex, the executive part of the brain may atrophy with age, and this would mean that older people can blurt out things they in earlier life thought but didn’t express. The frontal cortex acts as a censor to help us fit in social settings and not offend and this declines in performance so our blurts hurt other and produce possible reciprocal unreasonableness
  2. Our Emotional Control over feelings of fear, anxiety, depression may decline for the same reason as our Self Censorship: reduced executive frontal cortex control. We become prisoners of our knee jerk feelings and inability to reflect before we feel or act.
  3. Our Theory of Mind of others worsens. This may reflect the decline in the performance of Mirror Neurons that seem to have some role in our ability to feel as others feel. They allow us to simulate others actions (they are motor neurons) and thus walk in their shoes. If our ability in this area declines with age, so will our Theory of Mind of others and our ability to de-center and see the other’s view point, a crucial quality in conflict handling effectively, will decline with very negative consequences for our social skills
  4. Neural plasticity. As the world changes, we need to adapt and understand a world increasingly remote from the one that imprinted itself on us when we were growing up, from our parents and our schooling and our experience of life. As the gap between how we constructed our personality and how the world is widens, then our ability to navigate the social environment will decline and we will become irritated by this navigational difficult and perhaps lash out at a world we find hard to understand or even more challenging: hard to influence. The neural plasticity, the ability to form new brain synaptic connections makes us an adaptive species, but this plasticity may decline with age so that also:
  5. Our Ability to Learn from Our Mistakes may also decline as neural plasticity declines, and also our ability to learn new things, new skills, though my father learned to write fiction and use a word processor in his 80s.
  6. Physical Decline and Pain restricts our mobility and is a source of anger and frustration. It may also mean we turn somewhat inwards and are less concerned about others, have less concern for other’s problems given our own.
  7. Use of Drink or Drugs to reduce the pain of ageing can exacerbate the problem. Drink is not a great help for many people’s empathy or connection to others though it can give the delusion of being powerful in this area. And drink fueled anger is not a pretty sight, or something that is easy to live with.
  8. Sexual Frustration: given reduced sexual feelings or performance and attractiveness, there may be difficulty in achieving the close emotional contact with another that provides solace for the above problems. Anger results and also increasing feelings of isolation. A friend of mine traveled from overseas to see his dying father in hospital and realized no one had hugged his Dad, so he gave him a big hug.
  9. Spiritual Focus would seem an obvious path as we age, but many are not interested, not equipped by education or earlier life experiences to consider this, which is also linked in Buddhism and other approaches to better more mindful control over our mind and body even if they are playing up or diminishing in performance
  10. Denial: And of course the biggest problem we face is denial that we are getting old, fear of acknowledging the limitations and therefore even more difficulty in slowing their onset, in navigating round them or in adapting to their inevitability without ‘raging against the dying of the light.’

So what is to be done? I guess physical exercise is so far the one proven way to slow cognitive decline, though healthy eating and avoidence of substance abuse no doubt helps too. I guess awareness of all these factors and perhaps even discussion of them with those close to us who may feel the brunt of these factor, may be useful. And I suppose a more spiritual and mindful approach to life can provide another channel, support a more introvert mental stance but there is also the danger in isolation that the factors above can accelerate and there is no feedback loop from others to help course correct. Any suggestions or insights into these issues would be welcome as I start to anticipate having to navigate this landscape, scary though that thought is.

And then there is Dylan Thomas’s reaction that maybe a little rage is fine: Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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Modest Realism in Conflict: Top Ten Conflict Tips

Modern political discourse in the US seems to have become detached from reality in so many ways in the current 2016 Presidential Election campaign and before. So I thought it a good time to post one of our Top Ten Conflict Tips; this time around how we can become more modestly realistic in conflict. Realism about the conflict landscape we face is one of the core principles of this blog. So here goes:

  1. We need to see that as the Jewish Torah puts it: “We don’t see the world as it is, but as we are”
  2. Accordingly, we need to become aware of our biases in how we perceive the conflict situation. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky revolutionized our understanding of our tendency to use mental short cuts that misrepresent the world, such as our tendency to ignore base rates or probability and prefer emotionally vivid but improbable stories, our mistakes in framing reality or anchoring in irrelevant frames and other heuristics we unreflectively knee jerk to. (Daniel Kahneman’s fine book “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow” covers this well.)
  3. One of our most prevalent short cuts is to distort the world via the lense of self-interest: portraying it in self-serving ways. Our forecasting often tends to be biased to what we want to happen, rather than what is likely to happen based on trends and data, for example.
  4. One way to overcome our blindness to our biases, is in a conflict situation to notice the biases of the other side, which we are usually quick to spot and then to assume and uncover identical if opposing biases in ourselves. Matthew 7.3 nailed this issue pretty well: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
  5. Once we are begining to uncover our biases and create a less biased picture of the reality we face, we need to become aware of another major bias: confirmation bias: selectively seeking only that data, which confirms our existing view and prejudices (the word prejudice coming from the Latin roots prae and judicium or pre-judgement.)
  6. To assist in overcoming our confirmation bias, I suggest an approach I call Reverse Bayesianism. Bayes Theorem suggests how much we might change our mind in response to new data. I suggest we flip this and explicitly list our beliefs (writing things down being another key principle of this blog) about a situation we face and then ask ourselves: “what data would make us change our mind about this?‘ And then go seek, go look for it, with an open mind to see if it exists, the very opposite of confirmation bias, a dis-confirmation bias. This is also consistent with Karl Popper’s view of scientific theory that it is always provisional and under scrutiny for testing. In politics, think your candidate is reliable and consistent? Go seek evidence they are not. Think the other side’s candidate is not reliable and consistent? Go seek evidence they are.
  7. It also helps, as Isaiah Berlin suggested in his famous insight: “The Fox knows many things, the Hedgehog just one” to use multiple lenses to see the world as a Fox, and try to understand it, rather than one blinkered ideological single lens as a Hedgehog. Different lenses not only for different situations, but different lenses for the same situation, to get more of a 3D take on it, more stereoscopy. For instance, look at an economic situation via the lens of Keynes, Marshall, Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, whoever.
  8. The aim is to achieve what Philip Kitchen calls Modest Realism: a take on reality that is provisional, but in which we grow the confidence to act, as we reduce our bias and gather a sound set of data that refine our multi lens view of reality. And of course there will be times of emergency or immediate threat when we have to act on our best flawed take as there is no time for much reflection. But avoid where possible the flawed syllogism: “We must do something; this is something; therefore we must do this.” Tempting though this is. Sometimes inaction is the best option….and rare is the conflict situation where a few minutes fast reflection is not possible.
  9. We should also learn from our mistakes, admitting when our take on reality was flawed and digging into the source of error to do better next time rather than making excuses or denying our error. Which is why writing down our assumptions explicitly is so useful: hard to fake success then. Create a conflict learning loop perhaps using the US Military’s After Action Review: looking at our assumptions about reality in the conflict, which assumptions worked well and why; which didn’t work out, were shown to be flawed and why; and what, in the light of these insights, would we do differently next time in terms of establishing the reality of the conflict situation.
  10. And in all of this I guess I maintain my stance of absolute opposition to the Post Modernist idea that multiple narratives exist (they do), but that none are to be privileged over any other. Which to me is clearly delusional: there are more accurate, more useful takes on reality (as we drive cars on crowded roads) and there are deeply useless, implausible ones. Reality does indeed bite at some stage as Orwell said, sometimes on the battlefield and almost always at some stage in any form of conflict, personal, economic, political, religious or indeed military.

I hope this is of some modest help in the conflicts you are involved in and also that it may guide your consideration of how you vote.:)

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Tomorrow Belongs to Trump?

My inner Cassandra fears that the combined effects of Trump’s evil political genius, the gullibility of great swathes of the American electorate, the Republican Party’s long term moral bankruptcy, the political campaign ineptitude of Hillary Clinton and the DNC, plus the political and historical naivety of the Bernie or bust brigade, not to mention the short sighted media promoting Trump will deliver us into this: mea culpa too. Watch it:


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