It Won’t Matter

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There’s an old saying that generals prepare to fight the last war, not the next one. And like most old sayings, there’s a kernel of truth packed in with the cliche. Case in point? The Democratic Party is preparing to fight the 2020 presidential campaign with the tools and assumptions of a now-dead American political past. Trump, together with constant support from the Murdoch media empire, has changed the way politics is done in this country.

Democrats seem incapable of understanding that basic truth. They seem to believe if only they disclose the right information to the public, Trump will resign, like Nixon did, or Republican elected officials will turn against him, like they did against Nixon during Watergate, or that he will be roundly turned out of office come next election.

Breaking news: There will be no silver bullet. Richard Nixon is no longer the president. Trump seems to have no dedication to civic principles, no personal sense of shame and doesn’t behave like Nixon would have done. Our electorate, media and political institutions don’t behave the way they did 50 years ago either.

Evidence? The Mueller Report changed nothing. Evidence of Trump’s long-lasting and deep corruption changed nothing. His dog-whistle calls of ‘nationalism’ and racism changed nothing. His ignorance of world events, macroeconomics and even basic governance have changed nothing. His demonstrated inability to articulate ideas has changed nothing. His overwhelming narcissism, sexism, bigotry changed nothing. His anti-democratic predispositions have changed nothing. His self-evidently staged inch-deep patriotism? Nothing.

Other than ulcers and teeth grinding among those already predisposed to vote against Trump, there’s only been marginal electoral movement. Yet, Democrats behave as though continuing to point out more of these now well-established truths will somehow make Trump’s unsuitability for the presidency obvious to either him, in which case he’ll resign, or to other Republicans, in which case he’ll lose support in the legislature, or to the electorate, in which case he’ll automatically lose in 2020.

Spoiler alert: It won’t.

We’re not in 1972 anymore. We’re not dealing with civic-minded, well educated, rational members of Congress. Today, we’re dealing with a religiously-fueled personality cult. Trump could literally shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose any support. And by literally, I mean literally.

It’s just a little over a year until our next presidential election and if I had to set odds right now on a Trump re-election, I’d put it at 50-50, or better. Time to wise up, Democrats.

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This, You’ve Got to Know

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Sadly, I never took a single course from the late William Ker (Sandy) Muir but (not sadly) he absolutely changed my life and how I live it.

Muir was a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, when I was an undergraduate. Our paths crossed many times in my several years at Cal; he often met with incoming students when I worked new student orientations and I was mesmerized by him. He walked in on metal crutches, slowly, carefully. He’d had polio, I was told. (Later in life, I understood he used a wheelchair to navigate the hilly Berkeley campus and its labyrinthine halls.) He stood ramrod straight at the lectern, weaving engrossing stories in stylish but spare prose.

He had a sincerely warm manner, blazing smile and inviting personality. New Cal students loved him and I became a fan.

But, you know, I was busy at other matters and never took his classes.

It wasn’t until years later, as a grad student studying negotiation, I came across Police: Streetcorner Politicians, his amazing book that blew my mind. In it, Muir talked about the limitations of coercive power (i.e., force) and how it, paradoxically, puts those who employ violence on behalf of the state at a distinct power disadvantage.

That book got me thinking critically, for the first time, about the limits violence puts on those who employ it, rather than those upon whom it is employed. Many times, Muir shows, by outlining the 4 paradoxes of force (the Paradox of Dispossession, the Paradox of Detachment, the Paradox of Face and the Paradox of Irrationality), that those with the most power can be put at a distinct disadvantage. Furthermore, those attempting to coerce others into specific actions must use wisdom in addition to threats of violence and physical strength (or weapons), or they will be, at best, ineffective, or, at worst, dominated or dead.

This book completely changed my conception, not only of negotiation strategy, which had been the point of reading it, but also of interpersonal relations. Thanks to Sandy Muir’s brilliant study of the Oakland Police Department, I think very seldom of coercion as a negotiation (or personal) approach and am almost impossible to coerce in negotiations.

(How I wish Muir had been consulted by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al., before they unleashed all holy hell on Iraq – but that’s another story.)

Sadly, Sandy Muir passed away last week; one of his great professional achievements is duly noted and my personal appreciation for him hereby expressed.

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Gettysburg, Still

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind. – Proverbs 11:29

It was a late spring morning, still early enough in the day and the year to be cool. The Gettysburg Battlefield National Park had its share of visitors, as it has had every single time I’ve visited, but was not yet crowded on this off-season day. We got our map from the visitors center and made our way to the parking area near the old observation tower, a good place to get some perspective on the site of this horribly bloody American Civil War battle.

We were just orienting ourselves when several large buses pulled in next to our car and unloaded hundreds of men and women in camouflage fatigues. They assembled smartly for a talk about the battle, which had taken place almost 150 years ago. The speaker discussed the positions of the forces, relative size and strength, leadership, movement, tactics, and so on. He took some questions, then went on to describe the horrific nature of war in those days, what the battlefield was like for the men fighting and dying, what it must have sounded, smelled and looked like.

The speaker then went further, deeper. He discussed the social and political context of the Civil War itself. The clash of egos, the carnage of a society grinding against itself, the insanity of neighbors and brothers fighting each other, the resulting destruction.

The camouflage-clad audience was rapt.

Turns out, this group was the graduating class of West Point. And, I came to find out, it’s an annual pilgrimage. The United States Military Academy, in order to train the next generation of our Army’s leaders, still requires cadets to take a trip to this place, and to learn its lessons.

I’ve rarely been more gratified by or prouder of my country’s armed forces than I was at that moment.

History is not just reviewing dusty, old facts. It is fully living in the present, understanding that where we are today is dependent on where we’ve come from.

To show proper appreciation for the great, indeed complete, sacrifices of our brothers who fought and died at Gettysburg, we must all – as West Point cadets do – learn the lessons that are still there for us.

We cannot continue to divide ourselves, particularly over trivialities, and expect to survive.

Do we need another Gettysburg to finally understand this lesson of our history?