Summary: Today’s post by Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) applies the analytical tools of strategy and tactics to American politics. At the end is a primer on grand strategy.
Juan Cole (Prof History, U MI), one of our most perspicuous observers on the Middle East, ran a blog post the other day that illustrates why conservatives have such a strong hold on certain segments of our society. The item featured a map showing average life expectancy by state, and Cole’s summary was:
With the exception of Utah, there is a pretty strong overlap between lower life expectancy and deep hostility to the Affordable Care Act. Those who need it most are most opposed to it.
Fair enough. But why? Although one can sympathize with Cole’s frustration, his conclusion illustrates why liberals are struggling so hard:
Know what that is called? Fatal stupidity.
So long as liberals have that attitude, they will feed the very movement they so righteously denounce. It wasn’t that long ago, for example, that Rick Santorum was making a credible run at the GOP nomination by shouting at his audiences:
They think we’re stupid!
Boyd suggested four elements of an effective grand strategy. You can look them up at Patterns of Conflict slide 139 (PDF here). The second is:
Pump up our resolve, drain away adversary resolve, and attract the uncommitted;
Politics is all about grand strategy, about attracting the uncommitted, particularly the swing voters who hold the key to most elections. Telling yourself — that is, locking in your orientation — that they don’t agree with you because they’re stupid will probably not produce effective campaigns.
[Note: I’m not making any statement about the ACA. I’ve been on government-sponsored, single-payer health programs (TRICARE and Medicare) for a while, and they seem to work for me. But, of course, the ACA is not a single-payer program.]
(3) A primer about Grand Strategy
“To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War, circa 500 B.C.
To understand the nature of grand strategy is to see that we’re doing it badly. The late American strategist Col. John Boyd (USAF) said that a grand strategy focused our nation’s actions — political, economic, and military — so as to:
- Increase our solidarity, our internal cohesion.
- Weaken our opponents’ resolve and internal cohesion.
- Strengthen our allies’ relationships to us.
- Attract uncommitted states to our cause.End conflicts on favorable terms, without sowing the seeds for future conflicts.
In his essay on grand strategy, Chet Richards quoted Boyd as recommending a “unifying vision” (killing every potential enemy is such a vision, albeit a mad one):
A grand ideal, overarching theme, or noble philosophy that represents a coherent paradigm within which individuals as well as societies can shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances — yet offers a way to expose flaws of competing or adversary systems. Such a unifying vision should be so compelling that it acts as a catalyst or beacon around which to evolve those qualities that permit a collective entity or organic whole to improve its stature in the scheme of things.
— ”Patterns of Conflict”, Chart 143
One of Boyd’s closest associates, Chuck Spinney, summarized Boyd’s concept:
… grand strategy is the art of pursuing national goals in a way that improves our nation’s fitness to shape and cope with the conditions of an ever-changing international environment. A nation’s grand strategy is about its organic vitality and growth … or in Sun Tzu’s words, it is the “road to survival or ruin” over the long term.
For More Information
For all posts about this topic see the FM Reference Page:
Posts about the Democratic Party:
- America gets ready for new leadership (or is it back to the future?), 14 November 2008,
- The Democrats believe we are stupid. Are they correct?, 19 December 2008
22 thoughts on “Why liberals lose: weak strategy”
John Boyd defined three hierarchical levels of conflict: the moral, the mental and the physical, and he placed the moral level on top. Your analysis suggests that liberals fail by making an inadequate moral case for their policies. Juan Cole’s conclusions “they’re stupid” targets the second — and lower — level of Boyd’s hierarchy, the mental level of conflict. Since the moral level if much more significant than the mental level of conflict, the conservative’s rejoinder “They think we’re stupid!” works wonderfully well.
Perhaps liberals should re-frame the debate from dry statistics or individual “rights” to a larger question of whether we as a society want to move forward towards civlization or backwards into barbarism. Letting our own citizens die of illness when our society has the money to save them is the sort of thing primitive tribes do to their elderly — i.e., exposing sickly infants and letting wild dogs tear them apart, or sending old people out onto ice floes to die because they’re a burden to the tribe.
George Lakoff wrote a fine article in which he discusses the difference in moral outlook twixt liberals and conservatives: “Why `Rational Reason’ Doesn’t Work In Contemporary Politics,” Buzzflash, February 2010.
When I was a participant in some “dissident” discussions back in the 90s about internal reforms in the bahai community, Juan Cole was one of the leading intellectual dissidents that people looked to for leadership (he had done leading edge work in translating “scriptural” material from farsi and arabic that was problematic to the bahai establishment). Cole, while usually right on broad principles, continuously engaged in the kind of self-defeating crapola pointed out in this blog article.
The left has several big problems (mainstream american liberals/progressives). First, it is full of the same kind of group think that the right is full of, particularly at the extremes. Second, it has accommodated itself to the establishment, so its most radical ideas never get tried. Third, it has become “infected” with postmodernism (the “mean green meme” and “boomeritis”) and narcissism/nihilism. This typically appears as political correctness and thought policing, liberal expressions of tribal group think and witch hunts.
Before one can do a strategic analysis one must understand the terrain.
Dr. Thomas Sowell in his book Conflicts of Visionpostualtes a number of precognitive assumptions that effect public debate on issues. He thinks understanding these assumptions is necessary to the intellectual terrain.
Precognitive – before researching or thinking through the often unrealized assumption.
On of his points is that left and right in Western contemporary society assume that people in general have about the same average level of intelligence. But the left would see a much larger spread than the right.
Without checking their assumption; for the left it was so obvious as to not need stating, that effective national health care can be designed by the people at the higher end of spread and that the people at the lower end need a national health system to ensure that effective heath care choices are made for them
Without checking their assumption; for the right it is so obvious, as to not need stating, that for people on higher end are acting with gross hubris if they think that could design such a system, and that most of the people at the lower end are perfectly capable of making effective health care decisions with out the structure of National system.
So Sen. Santorum says They think we’re stupid! he is making a statement that resounds with the way his audience perceives the other side.
And Dr. Cole saying Know what that is called? Fatal stupidity. he is making a statement that resounds with the way his audience perceives the other side.
So both sides plan selling their view need to tailor their arguments not just for their own group but to appeal to the others assumptions. Calling someone stupid is a poor choice of tactics, no matter how much Dr Cole and friends are convinced it is true, and allows Sen. Santorum and friends to take advantage of resentment that would extend beyond the portion of the population that is naturally inclined in his direction
(Of course it would have been nice if both sides had challenged their own assumptions before the process started.
Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings
Thanks for posting this interesting comment! I agree, esp about the foolishness of responding with insults. However politically effective (a loud growllll or 2-minute-hate probably would work as well), they corrupt our thinking.
One detail, however:
That belief is based on evidence of the past 50 years, as all of our peers have some form of universal health care coverage. Most with mixed public-private systems. They provide health care to all, most as well or better than ours (measured by outcome metrics), at 1/2 to 2/3 of the cost. (see The core truth about our health care system
It’s taken a remarkably effective propaganda campaign to hide this simple fact from the American people. As such the health care battle might be the inflection point for the Second Republic, showing how easily our minds can be shaped. No people so easily manipulated can retain anything but a sham form of democratic government.
For more information about health care on the FM website:
Pingback: Why liberals lose « Fabius Maximus | Universal Health Care Advice
Here’s the problem. The reasons right wing Americans oppose healthcare are paranoid, non-factual, and incoherent. Any attempt to pretend that this triad of characteristics shows intelligence will fail because it is obvious to an objective observer that they do not. Liberals do not fail because they are too honest, they fail because they try to work with conservative frames. Liberals should instead insist on using liberal frames, and furthermore should realize that they will never escape the hatred of conservatives, no matter how meek they try to become.
This is more of that us vs them crap that IMO totally ignores the point of the article. If conservatives really are hopelessly stupid hate filled morons, why don’t you just round them all up and put them into camps for liquidation?
First, I don’t suggest that because I don’t believe in putting people in concentration camps. Second, I did not say that conservatives are hopelessly hate filled morons, just that their reasons for opposing ACA make no sense, and that liberals cannot stop conservatives from hating them by acting conciliatory. It seems to be Obama could have been more effective if he had realized this earlier on.
There is also another aspect to this study that I find a little off. Many people seem to think it means that working class people are more opposed to ACA than the “middle-class”. I don’t believe this is accurate, actually poorer Americans, on the average, like liberal programs, and wealthy Americans, on the average, dislike them.
I have personally experienced the “nationalized” health care system in Spain and see no significant problem with it. The doctors and people that work in the system are some of the best and most decent people on the planet. They are screened at the undergraduate level for competency, and the good ones are tracked into medical training paid for by the public (no large debt). The have actually retained a strong sense of community and compassion, whereas in the USA everything about life, sickness and death is tainted by money, spiritual toxicity and organizational/political dysfunction.
A third perspective, for instance anarcho-libertarian (anti-statist) or integral/holistic, would tend to agree (with Lakoff) that theoretically the left should work from its own frame, and not be “captured” by the frame of conservatism. However, when Lakoff put his theory forth to the establishment dem-libs, they didn’t exactly embrace it with fervor. On the contrary, they attacked it viciously on the basis that it would put them at least at a serious short-term disadvantage. One could wonder if that was merely a short term problem, and a matter of turf wars over who has influence amongst them dem establishment, and if so, perhaps Lakoff’s ideas would eventually gain more traction.
However, the question remains as to how effective the liberal-left/postmodern/green paradigm actually is (not its policies, for as FM points out, the data clearly shows that nationalized/single-payer works fine in ALL other developed countries). From within a liberal frame, there is typically little or no possibility of admitting that there are flaws in the liberal paradigm. (I personally see liberalism as containing deep flaws as well as as greats truths) To those “invested” in the liberal paradigm, the underlying meta-values typically go unexamined. At the postmodern end of the liberal spectrum, appalling levels of narcissism, nihilism, political correctness and thought policing prevent necessary forms of deep self-examination and self-correction (OODA loop).
As an aside, I wonder if Boyd himself would have proposed using OODA as an effective way of understanding the whole of human nature and social change processes? It is a system theory, and reflects the memes of a pragmatically materialistic, military culture that is tightly focused on performance and success.
Since most of the rest of civilized life is not based on warrior culture, there needs to be a theory of how meaning is constructed in non-military culture that honors and incorporates the truths OODA, but does not rely on it as a “one truth above all” anti-pattern.
“I wonder if Boyd himself would have proposed using OODA as an effective way of understanding the whole of human nature and social change processes? ”
Probably not. That’s a weird idea. Like proposing to build a moon rocket with just a hammer.
“whereas in the USA everything about life, sickness and death is tainted by money, spiritual toxicity and organizational/political dysfunction.”
I’ve often wondered about this too from a different perspective. Why are we so afraid to die? Why do we spend so much money to avoid meeting our maker? This is why I stopped believing that crap about us being a judeo-christian nation. Maybe we were once. But now?
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?
As with most articles here, Mr Fabius Maximus can describe in intricate detail all of the varied and complex problems of society, but offers either vague solutions to those problems or none at all.
Liberals lose because they don’t have a good strategy. Ok. The same could be said of any loser in any competition anywhere. What do you think should be their strategy?
As the author of the original post, I’m confused. I didn’t say that liberals lose because they have poor strategy, and I can’t find anything in Fabius’s remarks saying that. Could you please help us out a little and elaborate?
By the way, what is wrong with trying to define a problem, even if you can’t offer a ready-made solution?
Chet, sorry for confusing you with the site’s generic pen name (or whatever it is).
Definition of the problem is the first step, and indeed a very important one. I would very much like to see you take the next step.
(1) As Chet notes in the comment below, he is the author of the post. That’s clearly stated in very first sentence:
(2) “Definition of the problem is the first step,”
I’ve said that on this website dozens of times. Probably scores of times.
(3) “As with most articles here, Mr Fabius Maximus can describe in intricate detail all of the varied and complex problems of society, but offers either vague solutions to those problems or none at all.”
False. For a list see the FM Reference Page America – how can we stop the quiet coup now in progress?, section 12: About Solutions. You’ll find this list (not vague):
Todd Guthrie’s claim “Mr. Fabius Maximus can describe in intricate detail all of the varied and complex problems of society, but offers either vague solutions to those problems or none at all” is simply counterfactual.
FM in the above comment points out that the solution to America’s health care problems is well known — it’s the kind of nationalized social health care (some single-payer, other systems a mixed private/public system, but with heavy government regulation) that has been implemented in essentially every other developed nation on earth.
The evidence for the success of this model of national health care is so overwhelming that it hardly requires reiteration. but here’s the most glaringly obvious chart, the one that really serves as a smoking gun for what’s wrong with the U.S. medical system and how to fix it. A graph of percent of GDP spent on health care per nation. Notice anything about that chart? One nation spends ridiculously more than any other first-world country — America. Yet we get less. for it than any other developed nation. Take a look at this chart of infant mortality by country. America is way up near the top, far below countries like Germany or France that spend vastly less per person on health care than America does. Or take a look at this shameful chart of life expectancy per country — once again, America is down far below countries that spend enormously less per capita on health care.
Not only has FM clearly and straightforwardly identified the solution to America’s broken health-care system (a nationalized single-payer or mixed public-private heavily government regulated system of the kind found in Spain or France or Germany or the Netherlands), the overwhelming consensus among health care experts is that this is the correct solution. See, for example, “Health care’s disquieting truth,” by Arnold Relman, M.D., New York Review of Books, 30 September 2010. That article basically says the same thing FM is saying.
The bizarre claim that FM is not offering any solutions to the problems he analyzes so thoroughly contradicts the facts that the only reasonable explanation for this kind of doublethink is, as FM has remarked, the incredible effectiveness of the propaganda which bombards U.S. citizens inside their media bubble.
@Chet, Fabius Maximus, & Thomas More
Maybe I’m starting to understand why Liberals lose.
You know that the healthcare system is bad, and you know that a much better one exists overseas, but I’m having a really hard time seeing the way from point A to point C. I’m just trying to avoid underpants-gnome logic here, and not assuming that identification of the ideal state is the last step necessary before achieving it.
No disrespect to the three of you though, as you all make completely valid points.
PS, we have a similar problem in California – that is the inability to reach a consensus about building the nation’s first high-speed rail line despite an abundance of successful examples throughout the industrialized world. There are probably many other examples of the same phenomenon occuring in the USA, and it would be nice if we could identify that in-between step between vision and reality.
From the George Lakoff link from Thomas More http://blog.buzzflash.com/contributors/3014
“The conservatives are not fools. Because their highest value is protecting and extending the conservative moral system itself, giving Obama any victory at all would strengthen Obama and weaken the hold of their moral system. Of course they were going to vote against every proposal and delay and filibuster as often as possible. Protecting and extending their worldview demands it.
Obama has not understood this.
We saw this when Obama attended the Republican caucus. He kept pointing out that they voted against proposals that Republicans had made and that he had incorporated, acting as if this were a contradiction. But that was to be expected, since a particular proposal that strengthens Obama and hence weakens their moral view violates their highest moral principle.”
If I read all this correctly (on average) the Republicans don’t agree with “ObamaCare” not because of the “Care” part but primarily because of the “Obama” part.
I don’t know if it can be done in practice in the current condition but if the above is truly the case then would the solution be just to replace the labels and keep the content the same? Just call it Patriot-Care or whatever and make Republicans planned it. Or make it at least appear they did it. The Republicans may never give Obama credit for all this, but at least things get done. And the intelligent well-informed will know.
I don’t believe you correctly understand the situation. It’s not that “Obama” is in the name. The GOP opposes it because passage of ObamaCare would be a political victory. They seek to defeat him by rending him politically impotent. That’s why they loved this policy package when implemented by Romeny but hated it when proposed by Obama.
Yes that is what I meant. That Obama would have to sacrifice a political victory for a moral one and have enough trust in the people that most of them would be smart enough to recognize this at least those amongst his own followers.
Saif Katana’s comment reminds me (again) of the inadequacies of my replies to comments. Most of my co-authors could do this much better. My first thoughts were wrong and shallow. My second were, too. Fortunately I waited to reply, posting something somewhat sensible.
It would be great if we lived in a world in which his advice worked. Like that of Jesus, turning the other cheek and all. But we don’t. Instead politics is a conflict, and we must rely on the US Marines to protect America.
We can only wonder about alternatives. Is this a natural state? The world runs this way for the same reason wheels are round, not square. Or is this a state of the world we can change, perhaps taking dozens — or scores, or dozens of scores of generations to change.
Thanks for the reply. There is a lot to say about this issue and I have been wondering whether to reply or not. If I could say something that would the present the dilemma very clear in a way people on this forum could instantly understand it. And then I remembered a saying of John Boyd as well as some other insights (based on my reading of ‘Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd’ by Osinga and the material on this site http://dnipogo.org/john-r-boyd/). Therefore my apologies for the late reply.
Finding the right balance between all these matters is very difficult. But who said it was going to be easy? What a wretched state to be in where the people despise and curse their leaders and their leaders despise and curse their people.
The essence of moral conflict lies in overcoming (1) Menace (perceived threat to survival and security) (2) Uncertainty & (3) Mistrust with (1) Initiative (2) Adaptability and (3) Harmony (see Osinga Figure 5.7 page 172). One of the keys essential to overcome is mistrust. If the people don’t trust each other and the leadership and people don’t trust each other something is seriously wrong. It has to change somewhere. To borrow the analogy of the conceptual spiral, just like our understanding is never complete it doesn’t mean we don’t understand. Understanding is like a spiral starting small at the bottom and increasingly growing in diameter while growing to the top. Likewise trust is something which has to grow in this manner.
“She works with the mind of the people. She is good to people who are good.
She is also good to people who aren’t good.
This is true goodness. She trusts people who are trustworthy.
She also trusts people who aren’t trustworthy.
This is true trust.”
– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (part of) Chapter 49
Trust has to start somewhere. Thus we must trust those who aren’t trustworthy. Obliviousness is where we all start, trusting people. Then it is severely broken many times and we are stuck with a lot of mistrust. After that with wisdom and strength a higher level of bittersweet trust can be regained by “trusting people who aren’t trustworthy”. This is very difficult to pull of successfully, but I don’t see any other way. I realize the wording is very ambiguous.
I definitely agree that force is necessary in our universe were conflict is an essential part of existence.
“Si vis pacem, para bellum” / “If you wish for peace, prepare for war” is a well known example.
Boyd explained that we could find balance between the destructive and constructive in a conflict. Decide upon a constructive National Goal and Grand Strategy, embrace the naturally necessary destructive for the Strategic Aim, Strategy, Grand Tactics and Tactics. Then maneuver conflict can be used to quickly collapse the opponent without inflicting “too much” casualties and destruction as practically possible. In this manner the constructive upper level can be in harmony with the destructive lower level.
The essence of the Art of War is thus not death and destruction but life and creation. One who truly understands the Art of War is like a skilled captain of a sailing ship (“the stargazer”) on the ocean. He is able to use the destructive nature of the waves, currents and gusts and channel them into something creative.
Furthermore for Appreciation and Leadership (the opposite of “Command and Control”) some qualities are essential (1) insight & vision / superior orientation (2) focus & direction (3) adaptability (4) security.
Of the four there is one which is very rare amongst leadership today, maybe even more than the others and that is security. Leadership desiring and craving for constant career success will become extreme dependent upon many parties and will therefore lose their security. Without security they become predictable and lose their adaptability. The love of luxury will eventually lead to a love of property and power. Ironically the love of leadership itself is the greatest danger to any leader. All else being equal, the best leaders are those who least desire it. And the worst leaders are those who desire leadership.
This is why I think Boyd was the “Ghetto Colonel”. Cutting his dependency and thus cutting his enslavement on wealth, status and position (as best as he could) gave him the security and freedom (adaptability) essential to do what he needed to do.
Col John R. Boyd, USAF
[July 1, 2007 – Of all the things Boyd wrote or said, we probably get the most requests for his “To be or to do?” invitation. Although Boyd associated with many junior officers during his Air Force career, there were a few, perhaps half a dozen, that he had such respect for that he invited them to join him on his quest for change. Each one would be offered the choice: Be someone – be recognized by the system and promoted – or do something that would last for the Air Force and the country. It was unfortunate, and says something about the state of American’s armed forces, that it was rarely possible to do both.
Boyd’s biographer, Robert Coram, collected the invitation from an officer who got it and selected the “to do” option, and he confirmed its essence from several others. CR]
“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.” He paused and stared into the officer’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?
I believe the original nature of mankind is good. This is a value judgment and cannot really be conclusively proven of course. Even if we don’t know the answer to the question whether the natural state of mankind is like this or that. Even if we don’t know conclusively where we came from, we can envision where we have to go. We do all know the choice we have to make for ourselves. We cannot choose for others, but we can choose for ourselves, And in the end that is the only thing that matters. “To be or to do. Which way will you go?”