About a 12-15 minute read. There’s a lot going on these days. But a whip and a heavy hand won’t win the day for Biden with his unruly Democrats. The Dems need a “Cat Whisperer” who listens, understands the diverse points of view and communicates successfully with the mavericks – the Dems’ intractable herd of cats. A saying on my teeshirt says it all: “Real men love cats.” Is Biden up to the challenge?
Remember Robert Redford’s 1998 role as the Horse Whisperer? Never a whip nor a heavy hand. When it came to working with unruly horses, he was the master. The film’s based on a true story, the life work of Buck Brannaman. Buck’s skills in handling maverick horses grew out of the traumas he experienced and learned to deal with as a child. Cindy Meehl, the film’s director, told the story about when she first met Buck at a clinic for problem horses. She said, “It was the first time I had seen him and he showed me that everything I had been doing with horses was wrong. I was humbled. I realized he was telling me how to speak the horse’s language. They were not meant to be slaves.” Paul Harris wrote in The moving true story of Buck Brannaman, Robert Redford’s horse whisperer, is a surprise hit at the American box office:
“Far from ‘breaking’ horses in, Brannaman communicates with them….He looks at the world from the horse’s point of view, almost acting as a therapist to undo the mistakes or problems of their owners…. [Shapped by his childhood experiences, he uses] “his empathy with abuse to reach out and calm them down.” Meehl adds, “He says he does not have a special magical gift, but that he just works at it. Then he teaches you that you can, too…. People will cry watching the film because he is teaching them that they can be a better person.”
I couldn’t help thinking of the Horse Whisperer as I reflected on a conversation I had a few days ago with a friend about the disjointed chaos going on among the Democrats in Washington. I joked, “It seems like our only choice for government is between incompetence in one political party and corruption in the other.”
Certainly, the media is not being kind to Biden. Neither are his range-warring Democrats. It looks like the Democrats are dividing and conquering themselves while the GOP forges ahead, united by and behind Trump. The polls show, that at least for the moment, Biden’s lost support of a lot of Americans. A lot of excuses are given for his current plight; but, it seems to me, that it’s his “soft-touch” approach to his adversaries that paints him as a weak leader. Journalist Alexander Bolton wrote on October 15, 2021 about his meetings with cantangerous Democrat senators Manchin and Sinema. Quoting an unnamed Senator: “If [Biden] had been able to walk away and say I have a commitment to $2 trillion from both [senators] and now we’re working on the details, it would been like a sense of momentum: ‘The president’s magic of the Oval Office comes in once again,’ but instead it was like ‘There’s no magic in the Oval Office right now.’”
The practical problem with such a dilemma is that when we humans are aggravated and mad, and loose confidence in our government and its leaders as problem-solvers, we turn to authoritarian leaders to bail us out. And let’s face it, a lot of people are unsettled by the going ons in Washington, D.C. Former Secretary of Labor and now UC Professor, Robert B. Reich, points out in his latest book, The System – Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, “The anger, frustration, and cynicism is corroding the moral foundation of our society.”
Turning to autocratic leaders vents our frustration, at least in the moment. But a look at what’s going on today, backgrounded against the lessons of history, tells us that it’s really a bad idea. The autocrat’s first step is to smooth us into an oligarchy – a government by a few for the benefit of the few. The second step is outright dictatorship – an oppressive, despotic government. Check out my last blog, It’s Urgent: The Ongoing, “Slow-Moving Coup” Must be Stopped! By Us!
Before we give up and join the chorus of despair and cries we need a strong, autocratic leader (like our last President) to lead us to the promised land, let’s consider the following:
Like Brannaman, Biden’s experienced tragedies early in his life and his career that shaped his worldview and his responses to our unsettling world. When he was three, his father lost his business. His broke family moved in with his grandparents. Small for his age, he developed an early, humiliating stutter, which took years to overcome. A few weeks after his surprise election at age 30 as Senator from Delaware, his wife and daughter were killed in an automobile accident. The shock was severe and it took a lot of empathy and encouragement from others for him to continue as Senator. In 2013, during his vice presidency, his young son Beau died of cancer. It takes strength and courage to survive a string of disasters like that.
Differences in Conservative and Liberal Mindsets
For those among us who think that our President ought to be cracking a whip – or maybe at least duplicate Theodore Roosevelt’s bully pulpit – consider the following:
Authoritarianism doesn’t bode as well for progressives as it does with conservatives. Retired former UC Professor of Cognitive Science, George Lakoff, reasons in his Moral Politics – How Liberals and Conservatives Think that true conservatives follow a Strict Father Morality. He writes: “Conservatism, as we shall see, is based on a Strict Father model, while liberalism is centered around a Nuturant Parent model. These two models of the family give rise to different moral systems and different discourse forms, that is, different choices of words and different modes of reasoning…. The link between family-based morality and politics comes from one of the most common ways we have of conceptualizing what a nation is, namely, as a family. It is the common, uncurious, and automatic metaphor of the Nation-as-Family that produces contenporary conservatism from Strict Father morality and contemporary liberalism from Nuturant Parent morality.”
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt comes to a similar conclusion, which he expresses differently in his moral foundations theory. Liberals focus more on the individualizing foundations of care and fairness and conservatives focus more on group-binding functions of loyalty, authority and sanctity. Yes, conservatives are concerned about fairness. But for them, it’s fairness of opportunities, while liberals see such a narrow focus as disguising the underlying opportunity blocks that prevent fairness in results. You can glean the differences in their legislative agendas.
Of course, there are variations in how the elements of morality are bundled in each of us. We each are somewhat “bi-conceptual,” with some conservative and some liberal DNA in our veins, although we tend to lean one way more than the other. Professor Lakoff concludes, “Conservatives simply see the world differently than do liberals, and both have a difficult time understanding accurately what the other’s worldview is.” It takes a great deal of effort for us to accept facts as being true that don’t fit within our worldview. That’s why it’s difficult for us to communicate with each other on tough political issues. When it comes to politics, just getting the facts as we see them out to other people with the hope they will change their mind is, Lakoff says, irrational and not rational behavior.
That difficulty is exacerbated today by the Milgram Effect. You may remember Stanley Milgram’s 1960’s experiments on obedience to authority figures. Participants were told they were assisting in an experiment by rendering electric shocks to “learners.” The participants were told to gradually increase the voltage levels of the shocks on a leader’s command despite the learner’s painful reactions. In reality, the learners’ painful reactions were fakes and the shocks weren’t real; but the participants didn’t know that. The experiment, as have subsequent experiments, concluded that a high portion of the participants fully obeyed the instructions, the results be damned.
Prior to the experiment, Milgram polled professors and students as to the likely results. Less than 3% of those polled thought participants would inflict the maximum voltage. One professor pontificated that poor people, who he viewed as being more compliant, might – but, certainly, the well-educated would never succumb. The actual results? All of the participants administered 300 volt shocks, despite cries of participant pain, and 65% administered 450 volts, the ultimate shock. Milgram concluded:
“Ordinary people, simply doing our jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can be agents in a terrible destructive process, Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work becomes patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
Another unsettling conclusion of the study was that those people who refused to administer the ultimate shocks simply left and did nothing to stop the experiment or to check out the health of the learners. Like the good Germans during Hitler’s despotism who turned their backs on the gas chambers and concentration camps. Milgram’s experiments had understanding the Holocaust on his mind, a distant WWII memory for most of us reading this blog. But think about the actions of otherwise ordinary people during the January 6, 2021 coup attempt at our nation’s capital. Think about today’s political crises and the rush in several states to impose voter suppression by those who don’t support the party in power with little objection from the populus.
One of Milgram’s conclusions is expressed as the “theory of conformism.” His conclusion is that too many individuals in crisis leave the decisions to his or her group and its hierarchy. The group and its leaders become the individual’s “behavioral model.” Think today about the influence of Donald Trump and the capitulation of the Republican Party. And the functioning of today’s ruling oligarchy, the subject of my book, Democracy of Dollars.
In his The Common Good, Robert B. Reich, provides an eleven page list and analysis of government and corporate leadership failures and societal structural breakdowns that warp the behavioral model that influences our behavior, from Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 lies about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led to the acceleration of the Vietnam war, to the 2017 Wells Fargo scandal where top executives pushed employees to create fake accounts for customers to boost share prices. Had his book been written in 2021 instead of 2018, he would add Trump’s fake news scandal about the 2020 presidential election being stolen, which, despite the facts, has been adopted as true by the majority of Republicans.
“The common good is a pool of trust built over generations, a trust that most other people share the same basic ideals…. Trust can disappear altogether. If honest used car dealers can’t differentiate themselves from dishonest ones, they may figure there’s no point in making sure their cars are reliable. Eventually, no one trusts used car dealers. If a few members of Congress retire to become well-paid lobbyists for industries they once oversaw, other members of Congress will have fewer qualms about doing the same. Eventually so many turn to lobbying the the public stops trusting members of Congress to act for the common good when they’re in office.”
(With some 50% of Congressmen becoming lobbyists when out of office, this problem is a subject of serious concern in Democracy of Dollars.)
Reich concludes, and I agree, that after decades of exploitation of public trust, we’ve ended up with “whatever-it-takes-to-win politics” as our political philosophy, a philosophy that feeds on hurt and anger and scapegoating on women, religious groups, immigrants, the uneducated and poor, opposing political parties and anyone who is different.
Noah Millman refers to this philosophy as “identity politics,” a game conservatives play well and liberals seem not to play at all. He concludes that the GOP is “increasingly held together by identity rather than ideology.” That is evident in the remarks of Republican Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley’s acceptance of Trump’s endorsement for reelection in 2022. As reported by Alexander Bolton, Grassley, a critic of Trump and his claims of a stolen election, said:
“‘I was born at night but not last night,’ Grassley said at the weekend rally. ‘So if I didn’t accept the endorsement of a person that’s got 91 percent of the Republican voters in Iowa, I wouldn’t be too smart. I’m smart enough to accept that endorsement.’ “When asked in Iowa about Trump’s repeated attacks against McConnell, Grassley sidestepped the question. “’We Republicans have to stick together. We should do everything to unite each other,’ he said.”
Herding Cats is Tough
The Democrats operate like a herd of cats, an unwieldy, unmanageable group. The Democrats are a party that is more of a coalition of people with somewhat differing thoughts and objectives than a party of totally like-minded people willing to unit simply to win. A CNN poll shows that the party and the independents that lean its way are split almost equally between progressives who have a big agenda based on the liberal moral foundation of “care,” which provides a safety-net for Americans, and moderates who are concerned about spending and think a smaller safety-net would be better.
Bringing those coalitions together is Biden’s prime challenge.
Elizabeth Crisp writes in 5 Key Factors a Congress Works to Pass Biden’s Infrastructure, Social Spending Agenda: “Biden, who was in the U.S. Senate for nearly four decades before becoming vice president to Barack Obama for two terms starting in 2009, has been touted as a ‘dealmaker’ and ‘Senate whisperer.’ In recent weeks he’s taken countless calls among all factions of his party to try to hash out agreements on his agenda pieces. During a pre-recorded video message to the Democratic National Committee’s fall convention over the weekend, he stressed that Democrats can only pass his agenda through unity. ‘My message is simple, we need to stay together,’ he told the Democrats. ‘We won 2020 as a unified party.'”
Those among us who think an authoritarian approach with a whip in hand, or a strong word from the bully pulpit, wins have never tried to herd cats. Or have never tested out the effectiveness of problem-solving as a whisperer.
I’ve a teeshirt with a neat message: “Real men love cats.”
I think that’s Biden. Time will tell. But, I’m patient and in sync with the ongoing drama. I think Biden will prove to be a persevering listener, a master of the “soft-touch,” who like Brannaman brought the mavericks around by listening and speaking their language. I think Biden’s our Cat Whisperer.
If you’d like a signed copy of Democracy of Dollars: