Saturday, July 02, 2005

Persuasion, Democratic Party Strategy, and "Wicked Problems"

As usual, Chapomatic has provided food for thought, this time with a mere link.

Brian Leiter, who teaches philosophy and law (Jurisprudence and Evidence), has recently blogged on the wisdom of engaging in persuasion, as opposed to the focusing of one's energies on coherently staking out a position, regardless of its supposed persuasive qualities. He dismisses (correctly) the notion that all positions have two legitmate sides. He does this by delineating the differences between "hard questions" ("What is Foucault's view of the cognitive and epistemic status of the claims of the human sciences?") and "easy questions" ("Are Bush's economic policies in the interests of most people?"). Of this latter category, he writes: "These questions, and many others, are easily addressed in the blogosphere, since there is no serious--or at least no honest or intelligent--dispute about the epistemic merits of the possible answers."

It is precisely this dismissive attitude that Marc Danzinger, a.k.a. Armed Liberal, at Winds of Change takes issue with, essentially characterizing Leiter as an ivory tower elitist:

"And note if you will that it applies to Duncan Black, Tbogg, Yglesias (all too often) and others on the's a variant of "I just can't believe you aren't bowing the ineffable rightness of my positions" that we're used to seeing from the smart fat guy in the isolated cubicle - the one who knows more than anyone else about the fine points of the interactions between the Venice Specific Plan, the California Coastal Act, and Los Angeles planning law, or multi-threaded processing on early x86 chips, or the student films of George Lucas, or prewar Hegelian theory in the works of Luk√°cs."
Danzinger wants Leiter to come out of his tower, uh, "cubicle", and talk to the regular folks and persuade them, even if that means slightly altering his position(s) -- moving to the middle as it were. Leiter sees such talk and political moderation as a fruitless enterprise, that the masses who love Bush live in a place where no rational argument can penetrate. Danzinger responds to this sentiment in his comments section that Leiter's position is essentially a cop out which forgoes the opportunity to advance a progressive ideal or idea:
"The issue is with people - people who may actually have good ideas - who are unwilling to roll up their sleeves and recognize that having the idea is about 10% of the process; getting it diffused and adopted is the balance. And what these people {like Leiter - ed} tend to do is to casually dismiss - out of some style or motive I don't understand - everyone who doesn't immediately start singing in key with them."
I agree entirely with Danzinger on this key point. And if the Democrats want to win, they are going to have to go in this direction. They Democratic Party leadership must find common ground with the working class and its New Deal ideals. In fact, finding that common ground between the self-interests of nation and the self-interests of the working class is the foundation of the New Deal. Any substantive rebirth of the Democratic Party has to occur at this nexus.

Leiter believes that anything other than a hardline position on key issues constitutes unprincipled compromise and he sees universities as citadels of truth that should remain elevated above popular attempts to get the academy to bend to folk wisdom. I can live with that. And to be fair to Leiter, he openly admits that ideas in his blog would make for bad electoral strategy -- we need Dean, etc., to grok this point -- bigtime.

Leiter sees his blog as merely better arming those who already agree with him. That's ok, but as he says, it won't win elections. The Deaniacs could have been the best informed volunteers in American political history; they could have posessed the sharpest forensic skills since Lincoln and Douglass. And none of that would have forestalled Dean's Iowa debacle. It wasn't the scream and the chattering class that did the Dean campaign in, it was Dean's and the Deaniacs' inability to connect with voters. Connection and the fostering of voter rapport doesn't come from better sales materials or a better pitch, it comes from creating the perception in the voters' minds that they have been listened to. For one brief, shining moment, the Kerry campaign did just that. Kerry sat in the town halls, the fire stations, and the homes of Iowans and listened and then thoughtfully responded. He won the caucuses in a huge upset. And then hubris and isolation set in until his November defeat.

If Dean's appearance last week on the Daily Show is any indication of how the 2006 message is going to be crafteded and disseminated, we're going to get creamed again. Jon Stewart gave Dean no less than three chances to ennunciate a clear message on how the Democrats were different than the GOP and Dean whiffed it three times, responding with the usual vague boilerplate and some shit about "hope."

In short, the Democratic Party must clearly research the economic needs and desires of the working class and build out from there. That should be easy. But the party of Biden, Dodd, Lieberman etc. which is so beholden to the ruling class and so out of touch with its Jeffersonian/Jacksonian/Rooseveltian roots to the point that they went along with a bitch of a bankruptcy reform law indicates they have a long row to hoe.

There is, however, one arena in which Leiter's hardline, citadel approach makes for good politics and Danzinger's inclination for "moderation" makes for bad.

Where Leiter delineated between "hard questions" and "easy questions", Danzinger, cribbing from Horst Rittel, writes of "wicked problems" and "tame problems."

"Tame problems may be quite complex, but the lend themselves to analysis and solution by known techniques. A traditional linear processes is sufficient to produce a workable solution to a tame problem in an acceptable period time, and it is clear when a solution has been reached."

A "wicked problem" is one where:

"requirements are volatile, constraints keep changing, stakeholders can’t agree and the target is constantly moving, in all likelihood, you are dealing with a wicked problem. If considerable time and effort has been spent, but there isn’t much to show for it, there is probably a wicked problem lurking somewhere. "
In short, Danzinger conflates Leiter's "easy questions" ("Was the U.S. justified in invading Iraq?") with Rittel's "wicked problems" to make the point that reasonable people can disagree, and making the overarching point that it is foolish and arrogant for those of us who are futher to the left than Danzinger and his fellow moderates to be so strident in our criticism and reluctant to entertain alternate positions.

This is almost reasonable. Until one considers one key point of Rittel's which Danzinger did not cite along with the ten characteristics of "wicked problems":

"The appropriate way to tackle wicked problems is to discuss them. Consensus emerges through the process of laying out alternative understandings of the problem, competing interests, priorities and constraints. The application of more formal analysis tools is impossible before the problem can be articulated in a concise, agreed upon, well-bounded manner. In other words, the problem must first be tamed."
Again, here's Leiter's whole list of "easy questions" which Danzinger wants to re-label as "wicked problems":
Was the U.S. justified in invading Iraq?
Are Bush's economic policies in the interests of most people?
Is Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection a well-confirmed scientific theory?
Is there a social security "crisis"?
If these are indeed "wicked" as opposed to "easy", then the Bush Administration and the GOP have certainly not followed the prescription for "taming" these problems. There was never a legitimate discussion of the war, the economic policies e.g. tax cuts and massive deficit spending, nor discussion of the social security "crisis." In a similar fashion, the Bushies are willing to be fuzzy on evolution so long as it suits their political needs.

There has been no discussion of constraints, alternate understandings, competing interests, nor priorities. What we have had is ramrod government which the Downing St. Memo crystallized so perfectly. That is, make the decision and sell it by any means necessary. The decision was made to invade Iraq, cut the taxes for the super-rich, dismantle Social Security, ignore global warming, give a sop to the credit card industry, and an even bigger one to Big Pharma. So the intelligence was "fixed", the numbers were cooked, the findings rewritten, and key data withheldheld from the public, all in concert with carefully stage managed events where no dissenters were allowed, and with assistance of bribed "journalists" (Armstrong Williams) or "journalists" (Judith Miller) who were fed the same stove-piped crappy intel that the Office of Special Operations was shilling.

The problems were deliberately kept "wicked" in order to divide and conquer. They were kept "wicked" in order to evade accountability -- "We operated on the best intelligence/information we had at the time." The "taming" of any of these issues would have necessarily blunted the Bush Administration's warped agenda and so "taming" was out of the question from the beginning. Result: one huge pack of wicked and destructive lies. There's nothing vague nor fuzzy nor difficult here. You can either confront the truth of Rove & Company's manipulations and concurrent squashing of the most mild dissent or not. Just like you can either see the truth in evolution or not.

And on that score, I want the citadels of truth to keep up their arrogant ways. I want the citadels, the universities, and other keepers of the democratic torch to call bullshit on any behavior which seeks to thwart the democratic process. It's vital, and in the long term, it's good politics for the Democratic Party.