Tag Archives: leadership

Analog Candidates For A Digital Age

Let me begin with an admission: I am old. The same age as Bernie Sanders, actually, and just a couple of years older than Joe Biden. I know firsthand that age bestows a number of benefits along with the gray hair and sagging skin: more tolerance for the foibles of others, a broader context within which to analyze thorny issues, greater appreciation for the complexities of the world.

When we are determining which candidate the Democrats should nominate to occupy the Oval Office, however, those benefits must be weighed against some undeniable negatives.

First and foremost is political reality. If a Democrat wins the 2020 election, he or she needs to be seen as a possible– or likely– two-term President. Thanks to Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate, we have ample evidence that the GOP will do everything in its power to run the clock out on a President in his last–or only–term. (Ask Merrick Garland if you don’t believe me–or look at the overall pathetic performance of Congress in Obama’s last term.) It’s much, much harder to pursue that strategy with someone who is potentially a two-term President.

Someone who assumes office at the age of 78 or 80 is not a two-termer.

Second, the world into which someone was socialized matters. A lot. The reality we occupy growing up shapes us in ways we only dimly recognize. Joe Biden’s hugging and physical demonstrativeness is just one example; I love Biden, and I recognize his behavior as fairly typical of affectionate men of his and my generation. We all grow up unthinkingly accepting the social norms of the world we were born into as “the way it is,” making it very difficult to realize that “the way it is” isn’t anymore.

As a consequence, my generation has difficulty fully understanding and adapting to a world that is profoundly different from the world of our youth, not just because of  generational social change, but because of the way those changes have been magnified and their speed accelerated by the Internet, social media and technology generally.

What younger folks find intuitive is anything but for those of us who grew up with landlines attached to the wall, shelves of encyclopedias for information, and service station attendants who pumped the gas and cleaned our windshields. I’m an example: I am not the Luddite some of my age cohort are–I use an iPhone and laptop, I read on a Kindle, and I review research studies about the sometimes convoluted ways in which technology and social media are constantly changing social norms–but none of this comes easily or naturally, as it so clearly does to my students and grandchildren.

Nor does my understanding go very deep; like most of my generation, I rely on younger people if I need to go beyond superficial knowledge of how it all works.

If Russian bots are exacerbating America’s tribal divisions, those dealing with the problem need to understand what bots are, what they do and how they are deployed. If virtual currencies like Bitcoin are threatening to destabilize global monetary systems, they need to understand how those currencies work, how they are generated and why they have value. And that’s just two examples.

Thirdly, and much as I hate to admit it, age takes an inexorable physical and mental toll. I’m a pretty high energy person, and I am blessed with excellent health. But there is absolutely no way that I could discharge even the purely physical requirements of a job like the Presidency. (My theory is that Trump’s well-documented aversion to actually doing any work is partly due to his age and poor physical condition.) And numerous studies definitively show that on nearly every scale of intellectual capacity, people over 70 have less flexibility and less to offer than younger generations. 

There comes a time when we older folks need to yield power to the next generation. We can still offer our hard-earned wisdom, and we can still play an important advisory role. But existential threats like climate change need to be addressed by those who will live with its effects; racism, sexism and other bigotries can best be dealt with by people who have grown up seeing mothers who are doctors, lawyers and CEOs, and interacting with friends and classmates of many races, religions and sexual identities.

America owes huge debts to Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. We are safer thanks to Biden’s wisdom on foreign policy and exceptional service in the Senate and as Vice-President. Sanders’ 2016 campaign almost single-handedly demonstrated the hollowness of Democrat’s “Republican-lite” policies. His is no longer a lone voice–virtually every Democratic Presidential candidate in 2020 has adopted his progressive perspectives on healthcare and economic fairness.

That said, it’s time for the party’s elders to step back and give day-to-day management of government to a new generation. Fortunately, the Democratic Party–unlike the GOP– has an exceptional young bench.

To coin a phrase: it’s time for a (generational) change.

 

 

 

It Isn’t About Moderates and Progressives

Democrats are constantly arguing about whether the party should support moderate or progressive politicians. It’s an argument that illustrates Americans’ tendency to prefer nice, neat labels to the messiness of reality: most people hold a variety of positions that can’t all be neatly shoved in a drawer marked “liberal” “conservative” “socialist” and so forth.

Thinking people are hard to pigeonhole.

A paragraph from a column written for the Indianapolis Recorder by my SPEA colleague Marshawn Wolley  illuminates the real issue. It’s leadership.

Voters deserve officeholders who are willing to lead–mayors and governors and Presidents who are willing to stake out reasoned positions on issues (most of which are actually ideologically neutral), willing to explain their reasoning to the public, and willing to go to bat for them.

The context of Marshawn’s column was the upcoming mayoral election in Indianapolis, where a reasonably popular Democratic incumbent will run for re-election in a city that is reliably blue. Here’s the paragraph that caught my attention.

Personally, I think the mayor’s popularity is deceptive, and perhaps even soft in the Black community, and our times do not favor political moderates. The mayor didn’t show up on mass transit, the IPS referendum and was late on living wages for city workers. Mass transit was the biggest policy issue that could impact social mobility in a generation. He didn’t lead here. IPS is not called Center Township Public Schools — it’s called “Indianapolis” Public Schools. When the mayor’s Office of Education Innovation is approving charter schools they are happening in the IPS district. He was wrong to not weigh in on the referendum. While he eventually got around to supporting living wages, Black Democrats, who really need to speak out more, argued that a balanced budget couldn’t happen on the backs of workers. Each of these issues were rallying cries within the community and he missed them — bipartisanship and a balanced budget don’t drive people to polls.

I think Marshawn has confused a fear of staking out a leadership position (and thus becoming a target for criticism) with philosophical “moderation,” but the rest of his indictment is spot on.

Reluctance to exercise leadership is a liability, and not just within the Black community.

Another excellent example of this mayor’s allergy to getting “out front” of important issues involves the State DOT announcement earlier this year of its plans to “repair” the interstates that carve up Indianapolis’ downtown. The state’s plan would double down on ungainly remnants of a fifty-year-old bad decision that  impacts walkability and intrudes on five historic neighborhoods. A significant number of residents and businesses have come together to make the case for rethinking those highways; I’ve previously posted about the details of the “rethink” arguments.

Favoring a particular configuration for downtown interstates is not politically conservative, liberal, progressive or moderate.

The Mayor was finally persuaded to write a letter to the state’s DOT, supporting the ReThink plan, but has otherwise been invisible on the subject–just as he was invisible on mass transit and the IPS referendum.

It’s highly likely that political calculation drives this reluctance to engage; after all, when you take a stand, someone will disagree. Why take a chance of pissing people off when the political landscape looks advantageous–when the odds of re-election are in your favor?

On the other hand, that impulse to win office by “laying low” raises a question: why do politicians run for offices like mayor and governor if they don’t have a vision for improving their city or state? Why do they seek office if they aren’t interested in leading their communities in a particular direction? Do they view these offices merely as stepping-stones to something else?

Timidity isn’t the same thing as bipartisanship. It isn’t the same thing as moderation, either. Inaccurate labels just confuse the situation.

 

 

The Science of Stereotypes

When you look at the history of human conflicts, it sometimes seems as if most of them can be boiled down to battles of “us versus them”–however the relevant combatants are defining “us” and “them.”

Anyone who is, or has ever been, part of a group marginalized by a particular society knows the sting of the stereotype: In the U.S. it has been”scheming” Jews, “sissy” gays, “shiftless” blacks…In our trips to Europe, Spanish people have warned us against “thieving” Moroccans, a Hungarian expressed disdain for “dirty” Gypsies, and in a small town in Northern England, we were told to beware of people from Yorkshire.

Anyone with two brain cells recognizes how ridiculous it is to apply sweeping generalities–positive or negative– to any group of people. That said, it is clear that even nice people have implicit preferences for those with whom they identify. That undeniable human tendency raises two questions: why? and how do we overcome a deep-seated trait that–whatever its original utility– is increasingly counterproductive?

A recent article in The Conversation looked at the science of stereotyping.

As in all animals, human brains balance two primordial systems. One includes a brain region called the amygdala that can generate fear and distrust of things that pose a danger – think predators or or being lost somewhere unknown. The other, a group of connected structures called the mesolimbic system, can give rise to pleasure and feelings of reward in response to things that make it more likely we’ll flourish and survive – think not only food, but also social pleasure, like trust.

But how do these systems interact to influence how we form our concepts of community?

Implicit association tests can uncover the strength of unconscious associations. Scientists have shown that many people harbor an implicit preference for their in-group – those like themselves – even when they show no outward or obvious signs of bias. For example, in studies whites perceive blacks as more violent and more apt to do harm, solely because they are black, and this unconscious bias is evident even toward black boys as young as five years old.

Brain imaging studies have found increased signaling in the amygdala when people make millisecond judgments of “trustworthiness” of faces. That’s too short a time to reflect conscious processes and likely reveal implicit fears.

These studies, and many others like them, can help us understand distrust and fear of the “other.” They also explain the innate preference for people with whom we identify:

As opposed to fear, distrust and anxiety, circuits of neurons in brain regions called the mesolimbic system are critical mediators of our sense of “reward.” These neurons control the release of the transmitter dopamine, which is associated with an enhanced sense of pleasure. The addictive nature of some drugs, as well as pathological gaming and gambling, are correlated with increased dopamine in mesolimbic circuits.

The good news is that biology is not destiny.

Even if evolution has tilted the balance toward our brains rewarding “like” and distrusting “difference,” this need not be destiny. Activity in our brains is malleable, allowing higher-order circuits in the cortex to modify the more primitive fear and reward systems to produce different behavioral outcomes.

Research has confirmed that when diverse people work together–in business, or on a common problem–they are more innovative and productive than more homogeneous  groups. When people of different backgrounds socialize, they stretch their frames of reference and reduce their instinctive suspicions.

Of all the damage done by Trump voters, perhaps the very worst has been their willingness to reward political candidates–including legislators–who appeal to crude stereotypes and enthusiastically encourage fear of “the other.”

Humans can learn. To be human is to have a choice. We can tame our destructive instinctive responses. But in order to do that–in order to be more humane and less primordial–we need leaders who model our preferred behaviors and call on us to be the best version of ourselves.

Those are the people who deserve our votes in November.

Tribalism Versus Americanism

Permit me a “Sunday morning meditation”…

We Americans are a cantankerous and argumentative lot. We hold vastly different political philosophies and policy preferences, and we increasingly inhabit alternate realities. Partisans routinely attack elected officials—especially Presidents—who don’t share their preferences or otherwise meet their expectations.

Politics as usual. Unpleasant and often unfair, but—hysteria and hyperbole notwithstanding– usually not a threat to the future of the republic. Usually.

We are beginning to understand that Donald Trump does pose such a threat.

In the wake of Trump’s moral equivocations following Charlottesville, critics on both the left and right characterized his refusal to distinguish between the “fine people” among the Nazis and KKK and the “fine people” among the protestors as an assault on core American values. His subsequent, stunning decision to pardon rogue sheriff Joe Arpaio has been described, accurately, as an assault on the rule of law.

It’s worth considering what, exactly, is at stake.

Whatever our beliefs about “American exceptionalism,” the founding of this country was genuinely exceptional—defined as dramatically different from what had gone before—in one incredibly important respect: for the first time, citizenship was made dependent upon behavior rather than identity. In the Old World, countries had been created by conquest, or as expressions of ethnic or religious solidarity. As a result, the rights of individuals were dependent upon their identities, the status of their particular “tribes” in the relevant order. (Jews, for example, rarely enjoyed the same rights as Christians, even in countries that refrained from oppressing them.)

Your rights vis a vis your government depended upon who you were—your religion, your social class, your status as conqueror or conquered.

The new United States took a different approach to citizenship. Whatever the social realities, whatever the disabilities imposed by the laws of the various states, anyone (okay, any white male) born or naturalized here was equally a citizen. We look back now at the exclusion of blacks and women and our treatment of Native Americans as shameful departures from that approach, and they were, but we sometimes fail to appreciate how novel the approach itself was at that time in history.

All of our core American values—individual rights, civic equality, due process of law—flow from the principle that government must not facilitate tribalism, must not treat people differently based upon their ethnicity or religion or other marker of identity. Eventually (and for many people, reluctantly) we extended that principle to gender, skin color and sexual orientation.

Racism is a rejection of that civic equality. Signaling that government officials will not be punished for flagrantly violating that foundational principle so long as the disobedience advances the interests of the President, fatally undermines it.

Admittedly, America’s history is filled with disgraceful episodes in which we have failed to live up to the principles we profess. In many parts of the country, communities still grapple with bitter divisions based upon tribal affiliations—race, religion and increasingly, partisanship.

When our leaders have understood the foundations of American citizenship, when they have reminded us that what makes us Americans is allegiance to core American values—not the color of our skin, not the prayers we say, not who we love—we emerge stronger from these periods of unrest. When they speak to the “better angels of our nature,” most of those “better angels” respond.

When our leaders are morally bankrupt, all bets are off. We’re not all Americans any more, we’re just a collection of warring tribes, some favored by those in power, some not.

As the old saying goes: elections have consequences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missing the Point

In the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accords, apologists have gone into overdrive. Even those who recognize that climate change is real have pooh poohed the significance of our withdrawal; after all, the goals were voluntary and weak, and anyway, America’s cities and states are stepping up to the plate, so we’ll probably make our goals even without participating in a formal agreement.

A recent article in Time is typical of the many arguments that what looks like a sow’s ear might really be a silk purse in disguise:

Trump knew his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the climate agreement would provoke global outrage, and it did. For Trump, the economy is the priority. But Trump’s promise to revive the coal industry isn’t going to happen; instead, the opposite will occur. And it’s safe to say that by 2020 — the earliest date that the U.S. can technically withdraw from the climate pact — Trump could point to his decision even as he points at all the shuttered coal plants, and say: “See, I told you we didn’t need the Paris deal. America’s emissions went down regardless, and our economy became stronger without it.”

Let’s parse that paragraph. If Trump knew the decision would provoke outrage, he should have recognized that such outrage would make it more difficult to achieve other goals, both domestic and international, so why do it? As even the apologists have conceded, the targets we had endorsed were entirely voluntary; the administration could simply have ignored any that they felt were bad for the American economy.

What we’ve seen of this deeply disturbed man suggests that he withdrew because it would provoke outrage. Trump likes to stir the pot, and he desperately needs to be the center of attention. Achieving his goals quietly (assuming he has goals unconnected to his ego), without fanfare, doesn’t feed his narcissism.

And what about that statement that the economy is his priority? Where’s the evidence that Trump has even the slightest understanding of economic policy? His insistence that he will bring back a coal industry that even coal company CEOs admit is no longer viable should have been a clue to his cluelessness.

And arguing that we will meet our emissions goals without being party to the Paris Accords misses the point. The point is: symbolism matters, and it matters a lot.

When President Obama led the negotiations that produced the Paris Accords, he was signaling that the United States remained the world’s leader. He was demonstrating this nation’s willingness to work with countries around the globe to address common challenges, and our willingness to do the hard work of analyzing relevant science and working through thorny political barriers in order to hammer out an agreement.

Obama’s commitment to the process sent a message to the rest of the world, and it was a message that enhanced American stature and our ability to exercise global “soft power.”

The message sent by Donald Trump’s exit from that hard-won agreement was exactly the opposite: America is no longer a steadfast global presence, no longer a source of reassuring leadership in a dangerous world.

Under a volatile, unpredictable, and profoundly ignorant President and his cabinet of intellectual and moral pygmies, America is withdrawing from global leadership. (As Angela Merkel put it, in her typically understated way, America is “no longer a reliable ally.”)

Whatever the practical effect of withdrawal on our ability to fight climate change, the symbolism was devastating. Far from making America “great,” it diminished us and significantly weakened our influence around the world.

It was yet another unforced error by a man who tweets them daily.