Writing about 2020 Democratic candidates on the FiveThirtyEight web site in January, Nathaniel Rakich makes the observation that “Really, party divisions unfold along two dimensions: ideology (progressive vs. moderate) and tone (establishment vs. anti-establishment). One of his points is that this is a far better predictor of primary success than strict ideology.
Voters are in an anti-establishment mood, in the United States and in other countries. And, voters are often willing to vote for a candidate who may not agree with them on all positions if they are more in tune emotionally with the candidate’s tone. At least three times in the late twentieth century anti-establishment candidates played a role in election outcomes. In 1968 third-party candidate George Wallace’s rabid campaign message struck a chord in southern and blue-collar midwestern states, and probably denied victory to Democrat Hubert Humphrey. In 1980 Reagan ran as a strong anti-government outsider and defeated Jimmy Carter, who also had run as an outsider in 1976. In 1992, Ross Perot fired up nearly 20 percent of voters in his independent quest for the Presidency, damaging the campaign of George H.W. Bush and helping to elect Bill Clinton.
In 2020 Democrats will reprise elements of the Republican primary campaign of 2016 with perhaps two dozen candidates fighting for voter attention. Candidates ranging from John Delaney and Howard Schulz to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders will represent a wide range of ideologies and tones
The dilemma for candidates is that the path to victory in politics is to build a big coalition; there is power in numbers. Trump won a victory in 2016 that was surprising—perhaps even to him—based on animating and aligning many different interest groups, from Reagan Democrats to pro-lifers, and Tea Party anti-tax voters.
Establishment Democratic candidates next year must answer the question of whether they can adjust their tone to appeal to anti-establishment voters while bringing the moderate and traditional establishment voters along with them; or whether they will suffer the fate that befell Republican establishment politicians in the runup to the 2016 election.
In a 1968 Science article, ecologist Garrett Hardin proposed the Tragedy of the Commons as an explanation for why otherwise reasonable and self-interested parties would destroy shared resources they each depended upon. In the absence of rules and consequences that dissuade others from “over-grazing” the metaphorical commons, each player has little choice but to do the same. Short-term interests, fear, and greed undermine the parallel imperative to invest in a healthy and viable future. Inevitably, win-win scenarios become win-lose and then lose-lose as the grass or oxygen or ozone or peace we all need disappears.
The Commons metaphor turns on the core dilemma – self-interest versus the greater good. Do I pursue my goals without concern for the well-being of the larger community, or should shared needs always take precedence over those of individuals? Showdowns are happening in every corridor and at vastly different levels of scale. Globally it’s around access to land, clean water, peace, wealth…you name it. Nationally we see the same dynamic affecting central issues like provision of health care and utilization of transportation infrastructures. Systems are pushed beyond their capacity, and the response of too many self-interested stakeholders is to take more, not less – to add to health care costs, to contribute their small bit to worsening gridlock and pollution.
Population growth, urbanization and technological advances are making us more interdependent than ever before, increasing the frequency and costs of these conflicts. How do we encourage people and nations to “raise their game”, to think about long-term consequences and shared interests?
It is time to crack the code on enlightened self-interest.
The debate about how to do this usually takes the form of whether to impose rules and sanctions or to trust self-organizing forces to maintain a sustainable equilibrium; government enforced intervention versus the freely operating forces of communities and markets reaching balance through self-regulation. Experience teaches that it is rare that one or the other of these approaches is sufficient, so the question becomes, what will help to mediate conflicting interests in situations like these?
Ultimately, we need to sever the illusory conflict between individual interests and those of the community. Increasingly, they go hand-in-hand: two sides of a complex whole. The faster people realize this, the less damage that’s done and the sooner good planning and repair work can begin. What breaks the logjam and allows people to transcend their either-or…win-lose …position is caring that is both thoughtful and compassionate. Reaching the point of informed caring happens in many ways, often quite naturally. Unfortunately, we are also very capable of resisting and avoiding this realization.
Here are five suggestions for how to encourage parties to break the bind of The Tragedy of the Commons:
1. Identification – when we objectify the other as separate from us, our family, tribe, whatever…it’s easier to not care about their fates. Constructively reframing this may take some creativity; each situation is unique. We need to care about the well-being of others and feel their losses as real and important. The NIMBY syndrome (not in my backyard) and the depersonalization of enemies allows bad things to occur without triggering the outrage and opposition we might expect. It’s not us versus them; it’s all of us together.
2. Transparency – seeing reality, having access to facts, #s, etc.. in real time allows us to know what is going on and to trust what we know. My old partners Don Tapscott and David Ticoll wrote in their book, The Naked Corporation, “If you’re going to be naked, you better get buff”. In an increasingly transparent world, there’s nowhere to hide your improprieties, and the chances of getting caught are much higher. This makes us more accountable, and in a positive sense, it influences us to pay a little more attention to our decisions and actions. Transparency breaks the game-theory standoff that escalates self-interested action taken in self-defense, just in case the other guy isn’t playing by the rules.
3. Understanding – people need to understand what is at stake and the ramifications of pursuing their self-interest. We can choose to alter our actions if we see the logic and benefits of one course of action over another. Decision-making in situations like urban development and the construction of pipelines can be counter-intuitive, and benefit from careful analysis and consultation. For example, population density (up to a point) turns out to be environmentally positive, reducing the need for cars and increasing the return on a shared public infrastructure.
4. Confidence – there needs to be a viable and acceptable option, and a path for getting there. Even if imperfect, we usually require more than “trust us” to change hard held positions, especially when there is fear and uncertainty. Leadership counts; being concrete and explicit is important. The next few steps need to be named. Without that, tribes will wage war against neighbors and overuse of scarce and non-renewable resources will continue unabated.
5. Accountability – we do some questionable things when we believe no one notices or cares, from online lurking to hand-washing in public washrooms (apparently much less frequent when alone than when someone else is there). Build a public, sharing aspect into the process, so others witness the decisions and actions taken by individual players. This can be tricky, as we are seeing with international agreements for peace and preservation of the environment. It is working a little better in the financial management of countries, witness positive pressures being applied to countries in the troubled European Community. Accountability is key, but it only works when it is enforceable and where the first four conditions are met.
While not easy, the five pieces provide a practical template to follow where Tragedy of the Commons conditions exist. There are many success stories to draw upon, and more waiting to happen.
We love our heroes. We hate to see them fall, but when they do, they fall twice as hard. Lance Armstrong’s achievements as a cancer survivor, competitive athlete and fundraiser place him in a rare class of his own. Revelations that he (may have) cheated to win, and pressured his teammates to do the same, are disconcerting. Graced with remarkable talents, it feels tragic to us that he would succumb to a desire to win at any cost. Dilemmas abound in this case, for Lance Armstrong himself, for the professional cycling world and the bodies that oversee it, for the charitable organization founded by him to raise money to fight cancer, and finally, for fans who find themselves torn, not knowing whether to criticize him for such a moral lapse or stand by him for his courage, accomplishments and contributions. Let’s take a look at a few of these.
Part 1: How he got into this mess
Why do people cheat? Dan Ariely’s latest book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, explores the slippery slope of rationalization that renders lying and cheating acceptable. Hardly a rational process, lying is strongly influenced by social and psychological forces. If we are surrounded by cheaters, if we feel justified to lie, it becomes easier to do so. Step by rationalizing step, Armstrong slid into the lie. He is torn between the desire to advance his own interest and win versus respecting common rules and honoring fair play. Recovering from life-threatening testicular cancer, he may have needed a boost. Most survivors of aggressive cancer treatment feel lucky just to return to a normal daily routine, let alone push their bodies to compete with the world’s top athletes! Where is the clear line between therapeutic drugs and performance-enhancing drugs? Does his health condition justify bending the rules? How much artificial assistance is defensible, and what is the likelihood of detection?
Armstrong is not the first and won’t be the last to feel the intense draw of temptation; from the corrupting power of the dark side of the Force in Star Wars to the mythic tale of Robert Johnson selling his soul in exchange for mastery over the guitar, we are all too familiar with the archetype of immense otherworldly ability-at-a-cost. What were some of the options Armstrong might have considered? Following the noble path of Selflessness (upper left quadrant), while admirable, is not an easy choice for fierce competitors, and clearly Armstrong is that! Shooting for the upper right box where Self Interest and Common Good intersect may be ideal, but perhaps not a real option here. The lower left quadrant, Foolishness, looks at first like a nonstarter, but a moment or two’s reflection shows that it happens all too often: remember Tiger Woods and Michael Vick? The final option, the one he appears to have chosen, is to do whatever it takes to win. Morality aside, outright pursuit of self-interest can be risky. Get caught, and the price you pay will be high. Armstrong got caught and is paying a hefty price for not managing this dilemma better.
Part 2: The outside-in perspective: cycling world and fans
How do we judge the choices and actions of others? Which is more important, intent or outcome; difficulty or result; style or substance? Is it ever OK to do bad things to achieve a greater good? Who decides when it is acceptable to reset conventional boundaries of right and wrong? If you could have killed Hitler in 1938 before the atrocities of the Holocaust occurred, would you have pulled the trigger? If you could hide the fact that you or someone else did something like this, would you, or is it more important that they be held accountable for the crime they committed? It took anti-doping agencies over a decade to finally render a stinging judgment against Armstrong, prompting a lifetime ban on any further competing and the retroactive loss of his seven Tour de France titles. Legal complexities and costs aside, this must have been a tough decision to take, given the predictable consequences to the man, the sport, the many fans, and the cancer cause for which his foundation has raised over $500 million.
This matrix looks at the dilemma from the perspective of the leaders of the eponymous Lance Armstrong Foundation. This cannot be easy! On the one hand, they will want to stand by the founder and through solidarity, preserve the integrity and value of the organization and its capacity to do good (the horizontal axis). But on the other hand, as evidence against Armstrong mounts, credibility and survival depend upon facing reality, and seeing that truth and justice prevail (the vertical axis). Where will they end up? The best outcome they can hope for at this point is a graceful exit and transfer of leadership (upper right quadrant). They have started down this path. Armstrong resigned as head of Livestrong on October 17th. Time will tell if the organization and Armstrong can successfully transition and continue to pursue their fund-raising and consciousness-raising work.
Part 3: How he deals with the mess he’s in
Lance Armstrong has announced he will not challenge or fight the charges. The emotional, reputational and financial costs are punishing (Forbes estimates his earnings in 2010 from endorsements and speeches were in excess of $17 million). While appearing to accept the verdict, he rejects its accuracy, stubbornly maintaining his innocence. He has just tired of trying to prove it. The operators of the Tour de France are so convinced of his guilt that they have decided not to pass along the title to any of the other top competitors from the seven years in question. Doping, they say, was rampant in the sport during those years.
How then should we depict Armstrong’s current dilemma? He has a lot at stake, and at 41, many productive years ahead of him. We could look at money versus reputation, or, personal needs versus those of his charitable foundation. Globe and Mail reporter Hayley Mick has an interesting take on it (Armstrong’s dilemma: Fess up or shut up), looking at whether or not he admits to his guilt, when and how. In her article published on October 23, she follows the fates a number of other high profile figures caught in similarly embarrassing transgressions, some of whom were forgiven while others were not. Bill Clinton famously abused the power of his presidential office, then admitted his guilt through a very public and painful process, and in time returned to great popularity and prominence. He found Redemption. Baseball’s Barry Bonds and sprinter Ben Johnson both were found guilty of doping, both denied wrong-doing, and consequently, remain Pariahs who have not been forgiven. While Armstrong may be looking for a Graceful Exit, his refusal to take any responsibility for the mess he finds himself in is causing him to Lose Credibility, and become a Pariah to his charitable foundation and the sport he loves. Simply denying guilt doesn’t make it disappear. When you have been caught red-handed, it’s too late to cover up; you need to acknowledge the facts, take responsibility for your part in how things turned out, and swallow your lumps. Admitting guilt is not always the opposite of protecting your reputation. Paradoxically, in cases such as this, it is the route you must follow if you want to recover it.
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