If you’ve got a jaundiced view on governmental politics, just look at business politics.
I get drawn into a lot of presidential candidate conversations by my friends. Though I often just listen, I’m eventually asked about my perspective. Inevitably, eyes roll and sometimes bring laughter at my sanity response, no matter their party or orientation. Furthermore, if the colleagues are intrigued, I add an inevitable caveat that applies to any candidate’s disposition. So how do I maintain political sanity, especially when, like today, I’m not thrilled by any of the political candidates? The same way I maintain balance about inept organizational managers.
You have to be able to think far outside the 21st century to gain a strong sense of reality in presidential politics. In the Federalist, James Madison argues that it’s nonsense to expect that “enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust (the nation’s) clashing interests.” His rationale? “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” I’d call this an understated warning–but reality.
Our nation has survived and continued to prosper, even though some of our presidents have brought very little to the party. Skip the popular views and the last 25 years, but if you know your history and trust historical insight, Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, James Garfield and Warren Harding weren’t much. None, like a couple others from the last 75, years were what could be called enlightened. They all failed to make significant contribution to the life of the nation.
Yet, the nation survived.
The least worst
I quit searching for the best to vote for more than 30 years ago when I created a new decision frame. Obviously, I’m not a political tribalist: I don’t just vote for Republicans or Democrats. That approach to voting sickens me. Framing my selection in terms of the best to vote for, with all the demands, intelligence and political savvy to get something of significance done, left me frustrated. So instead of identifying the candidates great intentions, I reframed my search into the opposite frame: determine the horrible intentions of each candidate. That brought a great deal of different and even unique information to the fore, making my single vote selection less frustrating. When you approach the issue from this position, you’re looking at different information about each candidate. He’s going to focus on social issues, dedicate more troops and treasury to the Middle East, provide more tax credits to the ultra-rich, support overweening business issues, etc.,etc. When I identify what I perceive to be the candidate’s negative intentions and compare them, my choices become very clear.
Certainly there are other issues such as the ability of the client to build coalitions and actually govern in grid-lock. But my approach gives me still other bits of useful information. It’s overly simplistic, but there you go. It has value especially because it provides readily available insight for decision making. In fact, I’ve found it an especially helpful model for today’s election.
It also illustrates the power of framing. You know framing. . .it’s all in “how you look at something.” Frames inevitably cause you to look at some things and ignore others. Few people pay any more attention to this automatic mental process than they do to walking. However, framing provides us with much-needed simplicity. Thus, whenever faced with complex problems I try to identify, think through and when necessary redo my frame. So I switched my frame from the “great things” to the “horrible things.” Look out a different window (frame) and you’ll see something different.
It’s not just candidate disposition
It’s rare for the media, whether writers, newscasters or crazies, to think beyond candidate disposition. Our culture strongly implants the belief that people make decisions the way they make decisions because of who they are–their disposition. “Successful people are ambitious and motivated.” “Poor people are lazy.” “People who hurt others’ feelings are jerks and not brought up well.” That success reflects one’s intelligence and failings reflect one’s ignorance or stupidity is a strong piece of the Protestant ethic, an ethic which has quietly driven American culture since the Pilgrims. So it’s not surprising that from childhood we believe that behavior is caused solely by a person’s disposition, what the psychologists, Nisbett and Ross, call the fundamental attribution error.
This deeply held conventional wisdom is profoundly flawed. That fact doesn’t go down well. In fact, a huge majority of people reject it wholesale. And. . .they have a perfect right to be wrong. To be explicit, human behavior, decision making and even values are best understood by the situations and contexts in which we find ourselves. In other words, the demands, rules and stimuli of the culture of which one is an actor has immense impact on the individual’s behavior.
One of the most intriguing examples of this is the presidency of Harry Truman, who followed FDR shortly before WWII was over. A high school grad who was eventually promoted to a colonel during WWI, he owned a haberdashery, went bankrupt once, and was viewed by many as a Missouri hick. Yet today, Truman is inevitably viewed as one of our ten greatest presidents. What drove him to make so many contributions, including the Marshall Plan? It is arguable that the context of the world of his presidency required him to make decisions and provided him with the intellectual help and insight that made him great. It’s true, and even obvious, that the contexts, the situations of our lives can make us or break us. And thinking it’s all about each person’s disposition is a gross oversimplification. Again and again this uniquely American individualism is wrong-headed, and the situations in which we find ourselves are key to understanding our successes and failures.
So in my voting choice, I want to know how the dispositions (their intents both great and horrible) will interact with the situational impacts of our nation and the world over which they have no control. And that’s not very easy to figure out.