Power of the People

Ask any former living president, or read the dead one’s memoirs or presidential documents in the national archives, and you will find at least one thing they have in common: they came to understand their power was largely a function of the will of the people.  Yes, presidents do have specific constitutional powers, but without significant approval ratings they lose institutional support from federal bureaucracies and members of congress.  I expect our new president will become an historical touchstone for this reality. He enters office with the lowest approval ratings of any newly inaugurated president and those may prove to be the highest of his presidency. (See http://time.com/4636142/donald-trump-inauguration-polls-approval-ratings/.)  In the vernacular of Wall Street, he is a slam-dunk “short.”

That is not to say presidents don’t learn this and recover.  President Reagan, known to many as “the great communicator,” was keenly aware of keeping what he called “the common man” by his side throughout his presidency.[1]  He had polling, although it was fairly rudimentary by today’s standards, and he would even note in his diary how many people gathered on the sidewalks as his motorcade passed.  When the number of people who waved enthusiastically declined, he would take to television and give a national address, which were covered by the three big networks.  It worked.  Not only would the gears of government work for him, Speaker Tip O’Neill, his partisan nemesis in the House, had to make deals.

President Trump has neither the skills nor the temperament to manage this phenomenon.  140-character insults via Twitter will not endear him to the will of the people, nor has he surrounded himself (as other presidents have, including Reagan) with top-flight advisors and cabinet members.  Most, if not all of his cabinet picks are, at best, benchwarmers in the game of governing.  As attractive as ‘outsider’ status is during a campaign, it is crippling when the task of governing begins.  Just ask President Carter.

As I have written before, your future and the future of this country are in your hands.  And, although the challenge seems daunting at times, you and your family, neighbors and friends have the power.  (See https://www.indivisibleguide.com/web.)

Rejecting Trump at every turn will quickly degrade his power.  He will lose what I call referential power, critical to the support of those who actually make things happen.  I expect once Senator McConnell and Speaker Ryan get what they want from Trump, Mike Pence will be sworn in.  Pence may not be what many of you want, but probably no worse (and perhaps even better) than Trump.  And, 2020 will arrive before you know it.

[1] William Steding, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy: Jimmy Carter the Disciple and Ronald Reagan the Alchemist, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Ch. 6.
By |2017-06-05T21:49:07+00:00January 18th, 2017|General|0 Comments

The New Realities Part II: Referential Power

While mega-trends are producing hyper-freedom (see New Realties Part 1), the nature of power—how it is acquired and deployed—is changing as well.  Traditionally, power has been viewed as exclusively coercive—primarily through negative induction—to serve what the Athenian leader Pericles called “the most fundamental of human motivations: ambition, fear, and self-interest.”  Metrics of demographics, geography, and natural resources dominated.  As Thucydides observed during the Peloponnesian Wars, “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”[1]  Hard power dominated in a world considered zero-sum, where every winner was matched with a loser.  In the latter twentieth century, Harvard’s Joseph Nye introduced the concept of soft power that includes both positive and negative influence by non-matériel means in a plus-sum (win/win) interdependent world.  Today, the world is changing further still, moving toward new processes that recognize the disaggregation and diffusion of power in a global, as opposed to state-centric, framework.  At the center of this phenomenon are the relative decline of U.S. power and the rise of free agency that enables a third form of power: referential power.

The decline of U.S. power, even if only in a relative sense among other state powers, causes much debate and consternation. After the Soviet Union collapsed the U.S. stood as a unipolar power, unrivaled in hard and soft power.  Following 9/11, U.S. foreign policy entered a period of hubristic overreach that caused a self-inflicted degradation of power.  For many, even suggesting decline is profoundly unpatriotic and inherently foolish.[2]  If we are smart, however, it should not matter.  It is a waste of words and worry.  The paradox of power is that both too little and too much prove to be undesirable.  As foreign policy scholar Michael Mandelbaum recently illustrated, the “power problem” is similar to what economists call the “resource curse,” which occurs in countries that dominate a particular resource, like oil.  They invariably, as do countries with too much power (like the U.S.), adopt policies that weaken the state by over-reliance on the resource, or pernicious use of their power.[3] But again, this should not matter if we recognize our errors and master the concept of referential power.

So what is referential power? As an admittedly exaggerated illustration, consider what it would be like if all NFL football players immediately became unrestricted free agents and were allowed to form new teams without the influence or control of the NFL, team owners, or the players union. Alliances and teams would be formed around particular interests and capabilities without the constraints imposed by the deposed oligarchy.  Disaggregated and diffused ‘power’ in this sense would be recognized, accumulated, and realigned through negotiation by each player based on how they complemented each other’s skills and capacities—to win the next Super Bowl.  Power in this sense becomes referential, granted by and between participants who rely on one another’s skills and capacities to realize the highest and best application of their own.

In a much more gradual and constrained fashion, referential power is being deployed in the global system today, negotiated by both state and non-state actors around specific objectives that may be targeted at security, economics, or other social aims.  Actors are perfecting the art of coopetition, of competing to cooperate. China competes very effectively with the International Monetary Fund to cooperate with African political and business leaders on many industrial development projects.  According to Howard W. French of The Atlantic they do so without the heavy-handedness of the U.S. such that they are perceived as “our friends” throughout Africa.[4] As the metrics shift from demographics, geography, and natural resources towards intelligence-based metrics, so does the nature of power.  If the U.S. is to continue to enjoy a differential power advantage over the long term, our leaders must recognize this changing power paradigm. And, this model of networked, referential power can also be applied locally; you are your own free agent.

On the local level, following the mantra of think globally, act objectively, one must reconsider how to align with resources and authority to accomplish cherished goals.  Identifying like-minded people (through relational networks) and forming a special-purpose, objective-specific network that defines the objective, designs the solution, and drives implementation is the basis of transcendent objectivism; ad-hoc, organically formed alliances where power is granted referentially and resources and authority follow the solution to its realization.  Attraction, not coercion.  Government in this process is not a headliner.  It plays a supportive role.  Transcendent objectivism is a design that is scalable, up or down, locally or globally, among individuals or states.  At its core is referential power.

[1] John Baylis, and Steve Smith (eds.), The Globalization of World Politics (3rd ed.), (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 50, 167.
[2] For a recent argument against ‘the declinists,’ who question the enduring primacy of American power, see Josef Joffe, “The Default Power: The False Prophecy of America’s Decline.” Foreign Affairs, (September/October, 2009): 21-35.  See also, Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1987); and Jeremy Black, Great Powers and the Quest for Hegemony (London: Routledge, 2008).
[3] Michael Mandelbaum, “Overpowered: Questioning the Wisdom of American Restraint.” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2010): 114-119.
[4] Howard W, French, “The Next Empire.” The Atlantic (May 2010): 59-69.
By |2017-05-25T21:25:11+00:00April 25th, 2010|The New Realities|0 Comments

Natural Law and Destiny

Natural law—those rules and conditions that are validated by nature and resistant to human manipulation—suggests that the destiny of any civilization is determined within an impervious web of complex variables, which interact in a rhythm beyond the sensory capacity of man.  Among other things, they suggest we control much less than we believe we do.  But, there are some natural laws that include us as actors and offer guidance (if not inspiration) as to how we might succeed.  Ironically (and also naturally), they are ignored under the weight of egotism during times of prosperity, only re-emerging during crisis.  This group of Homo-natural laws (H.naturals) includes a navigational set that offer clues as to how we might better set a course toward success. They include maxims like “You are what you eat,” Your bike, car, motorcycle, plane, (etc.) will travel in the direction you are looking,” and “You will become what you talk/think about.”  They are the fiber in our concept of will.

As the current political, economic, and social crisis unfolds, those who understand the H.naturals will do well.  Those trapped in the egotism of yesterday will fail.  What we consume, where we set our sights, and our prevailing narrative will define an identity that will ride H.naturals to a new destiny.  As orator and perennial Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan claimed, “Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.” Notwithstanding its inherent Homo-centrism, Bryan’s claim recognizes the role man plays within the reality of H.naturals.  He offered these words in the late 19th century when America emerged as a player on the world stage—after another crisis: Civil War and Reconstruction.  Like then, H.naturals will prevail today; and they apply to all of us, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or national allegiance.  In other words, H.naturals don’t play favorites; the myth of American exceptionalism provides no surety of success.  Those societies who understand this will be the next great powers.  Those that don’t won’t.

It is critical then that we Americans consider carefully those matters that define us—that will conflate with H.naturals to set our course.  Here are some suggestions to consider as we re-design our future—our ameritecture.

  1. In the future, national power will be gained referentially; attraction will prevail over coercion.  The United States has the sole capacity via its military might to destroy any and every adversary.  This is a good thing, as long as we don’t use it—as long as we protect the myth behind the curtain of Oz.  Given this perception-cum-reality, it should not be surprising that our adversaries will choose alternative modalities to compete.  As we have seen, some will continue to choose violent means, albeit asymmetrically, through terrorist networks using improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers.  Others will buy our debt and subvert quasi-American institutions by offering more attractive alternatives to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Still others will look to exploit the weakness of our critical infrastructures through cyber-warfare to compromise our communication, power, and water systems. Boots on the ground, bombs in the air, and nation building, will not defeat these efforts.  Ironically, through our predominance, we have rendered them obsolete.  Today’s threats must be met by new means of power.  We can succeed if most of the world sees America as its advocate—as a critical factor in its success.  What Harvard’s Joseph Nye calls “soft power” must be applied through what I have termed enlightened altruism to defeat our adversaries. The people, from Xinjiang, to Naypyidaw, to Peshawar, to Abuja, to Caracas must all believe their future is better assured by having a positive relationship with the United States.  They must have a basis of attraction to grant power to America referentially. They must be our new advocates—they must have a vested interest in our security.  Every time we destroy another village, temple, or city our effective power declines and our national security is compromised.  This is not peacenik talk. This is the new global realism.
  2. Government is not the answer, people are.  Reagan had it half right: “government is not the answer,” but neither is it the problem, unless we allow it to be.  We make it the problem by the abdication of personal responsibility.  We ask it to do for us what we should be doing for ourselves.  Government’s role should be re-cast—limited—to providing basic public goods like security and the rule of law; to protect us from external threats and internal mischief.  While some government programs are arguably public goods, they diminish and at times subvert people and their communities.  And, they collapse under the corruption of government operatives.  Moreover, too many laws protect civil predators like health insurance companies and Wall Street grifters.  We must reject the constellation of false choices partisanship promotes. For example, healthcare is neither a right nor a privilege; it is a public good. We are all better off when our neighbors are healthy too.  But, it is a public good that is fiscally unsustainable under the legacy structure imposed by our government.  It is a prime example of a failed distribution system—one that can be fixed only if our leaders muster the political will to breakup the cartel that is strangling families and communities and return the power of choice to the people.
  3. Openness and inclusion is the soul of American liberty; fear is the tool of tyrants. America is the most open society in the world.  Both our beauty and warts are on display for all to see.  Notwithstanding frequent embarrassments, this allows a fluidity of ideas and opportunities unmatched in the global system.  We must fight to maintain this virtue in the face of those who seek to curtail it for their personal political, economic, or social benefit. Today, many extremists from many venues are attempting to close our society invoking fears of security, religious subversion, and racial or ethnic conflict.  As with all bullies, fear is their weapon, currently amplified in an environment of crisis.  They use glittering generalities and moronic simplicities while twisting historical fact to gain influence and serve themselves.  They claim they are patriots, but like the wolf in a sheep’s headdress, they are the enemy within.  They must be identified and exposed for what they are; they are America’s biggest threat.  Common targets for their ire are immigrants, although race and religion may be their true concerns.  While all historical data suggests immigrants are the lifeblood of the American system, these extremists would like to slit America’s throat with their jingoistic, ethno-centric, fear-based, vitriol.  Each of us must stand up to sit them down.
  4. If we do nothing else well, we will succeed if we do education well. In a global system intelligence trumps geography, demography, and natural resources.  Intelligence is everything. But, we must acknowledge there are different types of intelligence, each making their particular contribution to civil success.  Currently, there is significant and justified hand wringing over test scores in math and science as well as painful cuts in resources due to our financial crisis.  But if we compromise our capacity to generate future intelligence—comprised of both critical and creative skills—we will lose our competitive advantage and fail.  Budget cuts today are reflexively aimed at non-quantitative, non-analytical courses as if math and science is enough to face future competition in a global economy.  This is a potentially tragic mistake, especially considering our legacy-advantage of invention and innovation.  Many nations perform better at math and science, but none exceeds the United States in the creative application of intelligence.  We don’t need to be like everyone else.  We need to be like us.  We need to continue to invest in the engineer and the artist.  It is through both these skill-sets—the analytical and creative—that America will continue to lead the world.  We must apply both competition and cooperation—‘coopetition’—to leverage our intelligence and assure our future success.

We can’t control H.naturals, but we can make wise decisions on crafting our identity to maximize the likelihood of civil success.  We can summon our heritage of liberty and diligently protect our capacity to out-innovate the world if we take care to suppress those who have succumbed to fear and oppression.  We must understand that the world changes every day and that our old methods—particularly in the projection of power—may not serve our future interests.  Above all, we must take personal responsibility, possessed of both courage and humility, to make our world (however large or small) better every day. Our destiny depends on it.

By |2017-05-25T22:11:46+00:00March 21st, 2010|American Identity, General|0 Comments
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