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"A dog fight at Kit Burn's" by James McCabe (1868), via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain     

Don’t have a dog in the fight

The best political insights come from people who don’t have a dog in the fight. The secret to good political analysis is not caring about political outcomes, too much.

If this sounds callous it’s because we have bought the idea that political experts should care deeply about the future of the countries, ideas, or political trends they follow. They are expected to want liberal democracy, human rights, free markets, and the end of poverty. These can be good things, but the role of a good political analyst, journalist, or observer is not to save the world, but to call it like it is. Political analysis has no room for activism.

If someone is too wedded to the success of a nation, a political party or a world view, their advice is useless as a basis to make important decisions. In fact, following the advice of these people can be outright dangerous for whatever plans you may have that hinge on accurately anticipating political events.

In these days of polarization, trying to remain impervious to political events can be an unpopular thing to do, but frankly someone has to do it. There’s a reason why doctors are taught to maintain clinical detachment from patients, or that journalists must remain impartial – it’s a proven best way to do the job. Most US diplomats are stationed in a country no more than four years because they are meant to understand the culture just enough to benefit America’s interests, not root for it.

Of course we can all stand for something. I may like living in democracies where my rights and free speech are mostly respected, but that does not mean I believe democracy will prevail or work best in every country. Many places will remain dictatorships long past our lifetime, whether we like it or not.

So what to do? First, understand if you have what it takes to assess politics dispassionately. If you’re someone who needs to feel like you’re always on the “right side of history”, or you’re constantly rooting in politics for the “good guys”, you’re doing it wrong.

You must be able to set aside your preferences and appreciate the savvy political skill of a Benjamin Netanyahu courting Arab voters in Israel, or a Fidel Castro managing to stay in power for decades. If you are easily offended by the unscrupulousness of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or Russia’s Vladimir Putin, you may be too biased (it sounds crazy, but it’s true). If it’s any consolation remember that, whatever happens, it is good to live in interesting times.

Find someone else. Bottom line, if you don’t have the stomach to do this right, find someone who does and listen to that person. What to look for: 1) Make sure a political advisor’s money, reputation, job, or future prospects do not hinge on a political outcome or worldview. 2) Look for someone considered an outsider to the issue at hand. It helps if this person has changed political camps at some point in their lives. This gives them valuable perspective. 3) Look for someone unafraid to explore the uncomfortable, unpopular realities of a country or ideology, and who is not afraid to speak up. 4) Beware of most economists. They make the mistake of seeing politics as noise or unnecessary friction. In other words they have a hard time accepting human nature. 5) A good advisor must understand that the world is made up of shades of gray.

The goal is not to be cynical, but in truth there are worse things in life than a little cynicism. As Dutch writer and New York Times editor Ian Buruma once wrote: “true believers can be more dangerous than cynical operators. The latter might cut a deal; the former have to go to the end – and drag the whole world down with them.” A true believer is a good thing to be if you’re an activist, a soldier, a salesperson, an athlete, or even the founder of a small startup. It’s a fatal flaw if you’re someone’s advisor.

What I’m (Re) Reading

The Dictator’s Handbook (Public Affairs 2011) by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith should be required reading for anyone old enough to understand the word “power”. This is a book I consider earth shaking because the authors disabuse us of any illusions we harbor about how power really works.

For those who grew up in or have lived in places with dysfunctional politics, the book will confirm many things you instinctively understand. After reading this book – if you really absorb its lessons – you will never look at politics the same way again.

Don’t be fooled by the title. This is not just a book about dictatorships. It looks at how leaders of every stripe (including democrats) behave, and why they are ultimately driven by political self-interest. Despite what most people like to think, politics is not really advanced by ideology, nationality, or economics.

The Dictator’s Handbook leaves us with precious lessons: 1) “Politics is about getting and keeping political power,” 2) “Political survival is best assured by depending on few people to attain and retain power,” 3) In politics “all that varies is how many backs have to be scratched and how big the supply of backs available for scratching,” and 4) “In politics, coming to power is never about doing the right thing. It is (ultimately) always about doing what is expedient.”

The book also highlights something many liberal democrats struggle to understand about the longevity of dictatorships: namely that rebellions are never led by people who are too comfortable or too hungry and destitute. Those who are “coddled or immiserated” tend to obey. People who fail to accept and come to terms with these lessons have short-lived political lives.