The Third American Revolution

Let’s forget Donald Trump’s bragging about things better left personal and insults masquerading as debates and consider instead what is really going on. We are witnessing the third American Revolution.

The first began in the 1760s with rival Boston street gangs joining to challenge the authority of a British governor. Unrest spread and years of requests were ignored and demands snubbed until the government’s legitimacy was lost. Only a third of the colonists supported the rebels but in any revolution that’s plenty. By 1787, a new state was in place.

The second revolution was also a slow-motioned affair. It began with the constitutional compromise that allowed southerners to keep their slaves. The deal was torn asunder as every new state sparked arguments regarding slave or free. Lincoln’s election was the last straw for those fighting to protect their economic and social structure from a government that threatened both. Over 600,000 Americans died in the ensuing struggle and many old wounds are yet to heal.

The roots of the third American Revolution lay in Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. In 1968, the wily presidential candidate determined that white middle and working class southerners were angry about the Civil Rights movement that was desegregating their schools, the Women’s movement that was tempting their daughters, social policies that were increasing their taxes, and longhaired students who were insulting their beliefs. Nixon welcomed white segregationists and blue-collar workers to what he called his “silent majority” that would “win back America.”

Ronald Reagan expanded Nixon’s constituency to white, God-fearing Christians who feared the widening gulf between what they saw on their televisions and heard from their pulpits. Rights to abortionists, then gays, then immigrants, signalled the road to perdition with the government doing nothing to stop it.

The shift from all in which they had once believed became more disturbing when the fading industrial revolution closed factories and real wages stagnated or fell. Debt rose to desperately hold lifestyles that had before been assumed. Then the World Trade Centre fell with the government having failed to prevent it. Iraq became a debacle with sons and daughters arriving home in flag-draped caskets amid government lies about why. Finally, in 2008, homes were taken along with jobs and savings while people watched their tax money bail out those who caused the crisis. People recalled Reagan’s exhortation that government was not the solution but the problem itself.

Fox News and radio screamers fanned the flames of discontent and the donor elite, epitomized by the Koch Brothers, tried to convince the Nixon-Reagan folks to continue to vote against their interests. The Tea Party gave voice to the angry and cheated who increasingly rejected those claiming to speak for the little guys but once in Washington voted with and for the one percent. The Tea Party, and to a lesser extent the Occupy Movement with whom it shared enemies, was Toto who drew back the curtain to reveal the rigged game.

As in the first revolutions, the elite has lost control of the narrative. Mitt Romney’s recent speech attacking Trump showed the old oligarchy playing the old game but Trump’s supporters listened to him like the colonists heard the King or the Confederates heeded Lincoln. Equally dismissive of the DC elite are those “Feeling the Bern.” Of course Trump spouts nonsense and many of Sander’s ideas are impractical. It doesn’t matter. While Hillary Clinton offers the old world view, Tea Party favourite Ted Cruz, Sanders, and Trump speak to the same rage; to the same people with nothing to lose who gathered on Boston streets and Gettysburg fields.

The Third American Revolution

(Photo: http://www.breitbart.com)

America’s third revolution has arrived. We can look back at the slow progress of the first two and identify tipping points where power shifted and a new order was born. Let’s consider now if the current nomination races represent a new tipping point or, perhaps, if that point is already behind us.

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Leadership and Narcissism

Leadership and Narcissism

The Canadian election is over and the American presidential campaign is heating up. Justin Bieber’s adolescent petulance has again made headlines and pictures of celebrities in Halloween costumes have been spamming my Twitter account. CEOs at Volkswagen, a couple of banks, an oil company, and those running Soccer’s FIFA World Cup have been behaving badly. Perhaps it is an appropriate moment to consider narcissism.

The word derives from the Greek legend of a handsome young man named Narcissus who fell so head over heels in love with himself that he devoted days to gazing longingly at his reflection in a pool. He eventually died and was transformed into the flower called narcissus.

Narcissism

(Photo: http://www.barrett.com.au)

In 1914, Sigmund Freud used the legend to discuss the problem of excessive self-love. In the 1970s, University of Chicago’s Heinz Kohut deepened our understanding by writing that all children have a grandiose sense of self and see others as merely pawns. Due to a trauma they may not recall, and may not have even been a negative experience, some people never move past that stage. Kohut dubbed the result a narcissistic personality disorder.

Those suffering from the disorder, he wrote, do not suffer at all. They thrive. They revel. They strut. They succeed and they celebrate. They are aware of their inflated sense of self while carefully calculating their interactions with others to advance careers that they see as their due. A narcissist is completely and sincerely convinced that their opinions are superior to all and so their world – be it a particular organization or company or even the broader arts, business, or politics – will be improved if others just got out of their way. A 2004 Harvard Business Review article noted that executives at Oracle described CEO Larry Ellison like this: “The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.”

A narcissist always makes a good first impression because he is irresistibly charming, witty, and confident. It’s an easy act because his life is a performance. He is often a loving spouse and parent, for example, as it allows yet another demonstration of his ability to master difficult tasks. He often gets things done at work because he swiftly clears aside obstacles whether they are people or established practices. If caught doing something unwise or illegal, critics are dismissed as jealous or mindless ‘haters’ and rules or laws as merely misguided impediments. Narcissistic leaders are capable of shoe shuffling mea culpas but privately smile at critics and criticism as bothersome bumps on the road constructed by poor souls who will eventually understand that all will be better when they are allowed back on the bridge with only their hands on the tiller. Consider Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton.

Washington University’s Erica Carlson writes that it is this combination of self-awareness and refusal to accept criticism or consequence that results in narcissists never believing that they need to change. Narcissists are incapable of change. The world must change to suit them and not the other way around. Consider Kanye West even before he announced that he would run for president.

Not all leaders are narcissists and not all narcissists are leaders. But, according to Dr. Thomas Paine, narcissists are overwhelmingly represented in leadership positions in sports, entertainment, politics, and business. Paine warns us to watch for a leader who is a charming conversationalist but always brings talk back to himself or his preferred topic. Watch for a leader who surrounds himself with sycophants and banishes those with long corporate memories and others who challenge his views or goals. Look out for the leader who can feign empathy but whose goal-driven actions aggrandize himself and his personal metrics of success while revealing no genuine concern for the feelings or even the lives of others. Watch for the leader who smiles at adversity with the confidence that he will weather all storms and emerge triumphant. Most importantly, he warns, watch for leaders who value their success more than that of the organization they lead. Consider Donald Trump.

Narcissism is more important than the Beibs or Kardashians. It is more important than measuring your personal rate of selfies per hour. Our intersecting worlds of culture, business, and politics matter a great deal and so the slippery slope from confidence to arrogance to narcissism among some of our leaders in each world matters. In fact, it is crucial.

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Rocks, Guns, and Unicorns: Today’s Campaigns Are Child’s Play

The longest Canadian federal election since 1872 is finally over. Thank goodness. The attacks on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau began before the writ was dropped with TV ads declaring him not ready and others showing wildly out of context quotes and clips. The New Democratic Party and Liberals launched their own ads and assertions that were equally nauseous in tone and questionable in accuracy.

The long Canadian campaign was nothing, of course, compared to the American four-year presidential marathon that became real fully two years before party nominations. Canadian negative campaigning also pales in comparison. Consider the House Benghazi Committee that was ostensibly created to investigate the deaths of four Americans in Libya in September 2012. Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy recently bragged that the committee’s sole purpose is to destroy Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

Today's Negative Campaigns Are Child's Play.

(www.faircitynews.com)

Negative ads and practices are used because they work. They have always been with us. In many ways, they are tamer now than before.

Consider Burr and Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton was the primary force behind the Constitution’s ratification and as the country’s first treasury secretary he saved the United States from bankruptcy. Aaron Burr was a senator and then Thomas Jefferson’s vice president. In 1804, Jefferson made it clear that he would drop Burr from the ticket in the upcoming election and so Burr ran for governor of New York. He lost by a wide margin; due mostly to vicious negative attacks launched against his character and lies told about his record. He blamed a number of people including Hamilton.

Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. In a New Jersey field they paced it off, turned, fired, and Hamilton fell. One of America’s most respected founding fathers died the next day. Burr returned to Washington and, with Jefferson’s blessing, served out his term as Vice President.

Canada’s history is less violent. In 1861, Conservative John A. Macdonald was running for re-election. Former friend and Reform Party candidate Oliver Mowat arranged to run in Toronto and, as was legal at the time, against Macdonald in his Kingston riding. Mowat had a number of scandalous allegations made against Macdonald and printed in newspapers owned by members of his party. (The Reform Party became the Liberals.) Included among those blatantly and unapologetically partisan papers was the Globe. It was owned and edited by Reform party leader George Brown.

Macdonald arranged his first public meeting. Mowat hired a group of young men who spread themselves around the back of the hall. When the meeting began, they instigated fights. They threw rocks at those on the stage. Macdonald jumped into the fray and threw punches along with the rest. Macdonald won the fight and election and later become Canada’s first Prime Minister. Mowat was later elected Ontario’s premier.

In the twentieth century, newspapers and money continued to wield enormous power. In 1950, young Massachusetts congressman John F. Kennedy was running for the Senate. His multi-millionaire father, Joe Kennedy, used various committees to quasi-legally funnel several million dollars to his son’s Quixote effort. Joe saved the Boston Post from bankruptcy with a $500,000 loan and then, two weeks before the election, saw the influential paper flip from supporting the Republicans to endorse his son. Kennedy defeated the far more experienced Henry Cabot Lodge by a narrow 52% to 49% margin.

Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson used one of the first negative TV ads in 1952. A carnival barker fields questions for a Republican candidate who, because he has two heads, offers two contradictory answers. The ad was clever but the Republican’s Eisenhower won the election.

http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1952/platform-double-talk

Things have become increasingly worse. It was believed that forcing candidates to say that they endorsed a particular ad would help. It didn’t. Some thought the backfiring of certain ads, such as the Conservatives making fun of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s face in 1993 would help. It didn’t.

Today we seem to be stuck with campaigns that demean democracy rather than elevate it. Canada’s prime minister, for instance, based much of his 2015 re-election bid on trying to divide and frighten Canadians. In the campaign’s dying days he spoke only of taxes and used a sophomoric game show gag to make his point while saying things about his opponents that were obviously untrue. It was embarrassing.

Meanwhile, the United States has Donald Trump saying demonstrably false and ludicrous things while firing shot gun blasts of negativity and yet polling far above his opponents. America also has the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United v. FEC ruling that declared money is free speech. It allows folks like the Koch brothers to buy Congressional seats in ways that would make 19th Century Robber Barons blush.

A glance back suggests that parties, candidates, and the wealthy are not about to change. Maybe it’s up to us. Maybe we need to become a little more discerning and ask the next question of candidates who insult us by reducing complex issues to simplistic sound bites and slogans. Maybe we need to reject those who use negative smears in ads, speeches, and debates by using social media to fact check and fight back. Truth may beat trolls. Maybe we need more journalists with the courage of comedians such as John Oliver to take on issues that corporate-owned media or ideological mouthpieces avoid. Maybe we need to respect our citizenship by more intentionally exercising it. We could begin by insisting that candidates and politicians address more than just boutique tax cuts meant to buy us and, rather, tackle substantive issues that challenge and improve us; all of us. We can do it with our tweets and blogs and donations and attention and attendance and, most importantly, we can do it with our votes.

I may be naive. But that’s okay. Hope is never a waste of time. I sincerely believe we can have an uprising without a coup. We can have a revolution without guns. All we have to do to be better is want better. All we have to do is demand better. In this way, history’s lessons will not be that resistance is futile but that better is necessary and change is possible. We’ll see.

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Recency Illusion, Leadership, and the Ladder from Cute to Scary

My favourite teacher of all time is a seven year old. I am absolutely gobsmacked when she adopts her serious, slightly condescending tone to tell me the proper way to toboggan, dive, catch a ball, or to inform me of the stars, animals, or myriad other things. She is so cute because of her assumption that because she has just learned something then it must be brand new. In 2005, linguist Arnold Zwicky developed a term for this assumption: Recency Illusion. He was talking about words but it can be applied more broadly.

While recency illusion is fun in children, it ascends the ladder to frustrating in teenagers. After all, those in their teens right now are the first to ever sneak a drink, skip class, have sex, experience heartbreak, love loud music, and write bad poetry expressing inescapable angst. Right?

Recency illusion escalates to interesting when dealing with things that don’t matter. We might think, for instance, that we have invented words. Consider the word “high”. It comes not from your son’s party last weekend or even 1967’s Summer of Love. It’s been traced to author Thomas May who wrote in 1627, “He’s high with wine”.

The phenomenon is also interesting when dealing with culture. I recall a young person asking in the 1980s, “Did you know that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” Last week I switched off the radio when a young woman with an effected vocal rasp (strike one) who seemed to anticipate question marks when approaching the end of sentences (strike two) was rhapsodizing about the history of the Civil Rights movement based on nothing more than just having seen the movie Selma. (strike three)

Recency illusion moves up the ladder from interesting to scary when demonstrated by adults with power. Marketers depend on recency illusion. Consider the phrase “new and improved”. Forget for a moment that if something is new then it cannot possibly be an improvement and only that we are saps for the word new.

Marketing guru Jamie Turner argues that the word new triggers emotions that lie in the sub-cortical and limbic parts of our brain. These parts respond not to reason but primal, instinctive impulses. We want the new product because it must be better. No matter how hard the more highly developed parts of our brain try to warn us, we are fooled anyway. Marketers know this and count on it.

Recency Illusion

(Photo: www.thewritingreader.com)

Even scarier and certainly more dangerous are leaders who believe that history begins the day they slide behind the big desk. Sometimes it is quite intentional such as the during French Revolution and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge coup when new leaders threw out the old calendar and declared it Year Zero.

Far more often, recency illusion is subtler. It’s revealed in a leader’s unconscious or unspoken Year Zero when words, behaviour, and decisions reflect a belief that every problem is brand new and unique, every flitting trend or fancy buzzword an exciting idea and essential option, and every constructive critic an enemy of progress. Consider the echoes of recency illusion in Tojo ordering the bombing of Pearl Harbour or George W. Bush being persuaded that American troops would be welcomed into Baghdad with cheers and flowers. Consider recency illusion on parade with last week’s no-brainer business decision that morphed into this week’s unintended consequences.

Leaders suffering from recency illusion are bereft of a sense of history and so are like amnesiacs acting as tour guides – constantly surprised, easily duped, and blind to sycophants. They are deaf to advice from those without selfish agendas but rich with genuine corporate memory. Even when lost in the dark woods of their own making, those imbued with recency illusion’s arrogance often refuse to learn because lessons come only to those with the humility to admit that, as George Harrison once sang, life goes on within you and without you. As always, it is the led and not the leader who pay recency illusion’s dearest price.

Seven year olds will always be cute, teenagers infuriating, marketers manipulative, and “experts” will always use new words to sell old ideas. That’s fine. But maybe all those in leadership positions should pause and wonder whether their actions reflect recency illusion.

Plus, as both Canada and the United States swirl toward choosing new leaders, perhaps our democracies would be well served if we were aware and wary of candidates using recency illusion to sell themselves and their ideas. Maybe that awareness will invite us to more carefully consider the past as prelude, test an offered premise, ask the next question, and ultimately, to make a better choice. And wouldn’t that benefit us all?

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