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Imagine a bold and inspiring political entrepreneur rising up in reaction to the current mess and expanding political swamp in Washington. Imagine a whole new breed of leader with visionary ideas for bringing the best talent in the country to the task of solving domestic problems. Imagine an articulate leader fully committed to restoring global leadership by championing the traditional American values of individual freedom, justice, and human rights.

I write from the perspective of a communicator, not a political ideologue. I am a pragmatic, problem-solving oriented centrist. Sadly, both parties have become hopelessly polarized. One is desperate for legislative success at any cost. The other can’t seem to find a unified set of policies and vision for the future. And the administration is well on its way to building an autocracy by ending past global commitments and dismantling core government and social institutions.

Consider this: Can an American version of what happened in France happen here? Can a smart, visionary, nonpartisan, and articulate new leader with a forward-thinking and pragmatic set of fresh ideas find the support of enough disillusioned citizens and forward thinking donors to win the presidency?

My suggested talking points?

  1. I imagine a federal government with a bottom-up approach to problem-solving. I want to bring a core of proven and experienced experts into communities to research and find real solutions to real problems,
  2. By doing this we will bring back as many businesses and lost jobs as possible. But we will also study what “start-ups” are feasible and find the right people to develop them. These could be sustainable energy groups, modern thinking retailers, infrastructure construction projects, and other new ventures that can grow out of local human resources and talent.
  3. We will also help fund nearby schools and colleges to provide the necessary training for all these ventures.
  4. We will also use this same experienced expert consultant model to help public schools understand local neighborhood needs and design customized curricula that lead to realistic student successes.
  5. This change in approach to problem-solving will also gradually enable reducing the size of the federal government without hurting the delivery of essential public services or gutting vital institutions.
  6. That said, we simply must restore American global leadership by rebuilding the state department, bringing back highly experienced diplomats, and re-energizing citizen diplomacy initiatives.

The bottom line: A pathway to an effective smaller and leaner federal government, as well as the restoration of a values and equal justice based approach to world leadership, just might be possible with a whole new breed of nonpartisan and fresh thinking American leadership. Write your own suggested talking points, and let’s get started.

Trying to understand all the parts and implications of the evolving House and Senate tax bills has been an exercise in futility. Reporters and legislators alike have been guilty of selective communication. Some by intent. Others because of deadline pressures and confusion. Making matters worse, what is emphasized and what is blurred or omitted varies with communicators and audiences.

  1. Citizen voters. It seems elementary that ordinary citizens whose lives will be changed by such sweeping pieces of legislation should have an opportunity to fully understand the content and make comments. In fact, one might even assume that every legislator would feel personally obliged to hold hearings to explain all of what is being considered, and then to eagerly listen for good ideas. Some ideas might even lead to useful changes. Listening before deciding always goes a long way toward gaining acceptance for later decisions… especially when its anticipated that the final product will not please everyone. But could all this just end up a total waste of time? After all, politics today has become little more than a high stakes money game.
  2. Donors. It’s clear that donors are at the top of the important audience list. And taking care of  the high stakes ones has become a matter of political job security. Those with the deepest pockets will certainly be intensely interested in anything to do with taxes. What helps businesses, large and small, will determine their expectations. As a result, statements that may reach average voters back home will be extremely content selective, while direct channels to significant donors will remain open 24 hours a day.
  3. Lobbyists. Special interest lobbyists constitute another audience with job security implications. Their daily work amounts to researching and supplying a constant stream of information and data that supports clients’ interests. But also the volumes of detailed background information they gather along the way saves legislative staffs huge amounts of time. In fact, lobby firms sometimes will even write early drafts of bills, and may even be allowed to comment on or edit later drafts. The bottom line is that lobbyists have become much too interconnected with daily operations to be denied significant final influence. So much for draining the swamp.
  4. Legislative colleagues. All this said, would it not also be politically wise to give colleagues from both parties an opportunity to read drafts and discuss them in committees and hearings. After all, if anything backfires or crashes later on, a few timely compromises now might save the day. Yes, but the fear today is that this kind of open discussion will release too much information too soon, and then those poor citizen’s back home might actually find out exactly who and what money interests are actually restructuring their lives.

The truth today is that in this instant news, polarized, and money dominated society, meeting the endless needs of big donors and ever-present lobby firms has become the name of the entire political game. As for selective  communication about tax cuts and its consequences, those whose lives will be most changed may have to wait a long time to know and feel the full impact of what really happened to them.

 

Autocracies happen gradually. The first indication is that a significant number of citizens are feeling ignored by the current political system, are gradually becoming angry, and will soon be ready to respond to a new and out-of-the box leader.

  1. The first step is that someone outside the political establishment with at least a modicum of performance ability and an abundance of political ambition begins to promise “I know how to make your life better, and only I can make it happen!” This becomes a theme, and is endlessly repeated at every opportunity.
  2. Next, many people in society’s mainstream begin to notice some signs of an emerging autocrat, but chose to think that “it can’t happen here.” (Consider Germany during the 1930’s)
  3. The “only me” message is reinforced by attacks on the free press. This tactic first creates a cloud of uncertainty about finding truth in a cluttered and confusing news environment, but soon morphs into charges that the press generates “fake news” simply to make trouble and advance itself.
  4. Next, the court system is attacked as ineffective and too political. The purpose is to warn the public that some exceptions to normal legal processes might be necessary in order to get essential changes made quickly.
  5. The competence of current agencies and departments long-established to investigate internal and external wrong-doing will also be challenged. This is a move made to eventually gain control of what and who these units will investigate.
  6. Key experts and top positions in other important government departments and institutions will also be eliminated. The justification for this is that the new leader has plans to solve the major domestic and world problems, and so these positions are wasteful and no longer needed. (In the US this has included the state department, homeland security, consumer protection, environmental protection, and more.)
  7. The way has now been cleared to bring people into the government based completely on their personal loyalty and wealth. These oligarchs have no expertise for their assigned positions, but it no longer matters because one person will be making all important decisions.
  8. The new leader’s family will also enter government. They, along with the other oligarchs, will use their new-found celebrity to further enrich themselves. And it won’t seem to matter that their inexperience often leads to inept and often embarrassing behavior.
  9. Eventually every important social institution will be systematically weakened, either through cuts in funding or executive orders. This will include public education, universities, charities, the arts, and much more. A nation is only as strong as its institutions. But an autocracy can only survive if it weakens them.
  10. After a few months, important allies around the world will begin to ignore all the “me first” initiatives and start to make other commitments. New partnerships, trade arrangements,  environmental agreements, and defense treaties will replace old ones… and a whole new generation of world leaders will begin to take center stage.

The big lesson for us is that a nation is only as strong as its most effective and active institutions. To seize control autocrats must weaken them. But as a consequence, they will eventually find themselves isolated… and their countries in deep decline. And, yes, all this is already happening here.

If you do not want to discuss or deal with a difficult controversial issue, what tactics can you use to blur, confuse or divert the situation?  Recent lessons from the digital and social media revolution would indicate you have at least four options:

  1. Label the entire situation “fake news.” When there is a report President Trump doesn’t like he simply calls it fake news. It’s a tactic that can be effective because people generally feel overwhelmed and confused by the deluge of 24/7 news. Experts are constantly disagreeing and lies are flying about everywhere. So don’t try to explain the issue. Rather just label it fake news. And while doing so is imprecise and generally inaccurate, it often will sound true enough.
  2. Divert attention to another situation. When a headline confronts you with an issue you don’t like, quickly attack something or someone else. Angry tweets are effective. This will direct news media attention to the subject of your tweet and away from your issue. For example, if you are president Trump, you might suddenly divert attention to North Korea by attacking its leader. Or, you might suddenly demand that the justice department investigate the democrats.
  3. Make fun of the person or situation. Your objective here is to control the headlines by making light of the situation or humiliating the person standing in your way. For example, name-calling sometimes works. You might label a political enemy “crooked Hillary.” Or try labeling someone “shorty.” In other words, by humiliating another person, you are able to bring the focus of attention to yourself. This tactic can only work when your objective is to appeal to your base of support… people who will applaud your boldness and overlook your cruelty.
  4. Give a garbled explanation, and sound confident doing it. An example is the Speaker of the House asserting that his tax cut plan is primarily aimed at helping the middle class. With this tactic assertions are made without addressing the many exceptions, or how others will benefit much more. For this tactic to work explanations must be incomplete, and can even be incoherent. People no longer listen to detailed explanations. They most likely will only hear your assertions, and then be persuaded by your enthusiasm.

On the surface, people should see right through these tactics. But with today’s endless glut of information, many will not. If truth is to be found, the responsibility has shifted to media consumers. People must learn to balance their input, understand the realities of the digital age, and carefully analyze everything they hear. And this will require a major emphasis on Civics and Media Literacy education in all of our schools and community groups.

Experience teaches that once someone speaks in anger, and then repeats it many times, it is all but impossible to “walk it back,” or soften it enough to make a difference. With that in mind, it has really been interesting to watch and listen to Mr. Trump on his recent trip to Asia.

Many foreign affairs analysts were hoping that our president would “walk back” much of the mean-spirited ranting he had been aiming at China. During the campaign he attacked its monetary policies and trade practices many times over. On this trip, however, he tried to walk back all that he could by congratulating China on successfully taking advantage of its trade advantages… but then he blamed past US administrations for creating the problem.

Before arriving in South Korea he tweeted that North Korea’s leader was short and fat. But later he walked this back and softened his past name-calling by suggesting that there might be the slight possibility of a negotiation. Of course, he added a few softened threats at the end.

The real question is this: Can a simple walk back provide the needed space for reaching an interim ceremony-only agreement, or at least a quick hand shake? Experience suggests that this kind of ceremonial agreement might be possible, but it will be very temporary. Later when professional diplomats gather to work, all bets will be off. Longer term communication possibilities will have already been defined by past rhetoric and behaviors.

Make no mistake, longstanding values, repeated statements of beliefs, and widely observed behaviors clearly demonstrate how much a person can be trusted. And it’s trusting that leaders will do what they say and make good on their promises that increases numbers of followers.

So did walking back any of his words change how the world will view Mr Trump? Experience suggests that it’s not likely. Mr. Trump must have concluded this because he headed off to the Philippines to meet with an autocrat while most Asian nations stayed behind to work out a new multilateral trade agreement, with China being the likely winner.

Speaking of autocrats, in a brief encounter Mr Putin apparently said flatly that Russia had nothing to do with hacking or influencing the US presidential campaign. And, of course, Mr. Trump quickly announced that he believed him.

It is not surprising that in the months ahead our president will be dealing with many different autocrats. And he has been consistent in his admiration for their control and style. So did his walking back rhetoric lay any foundation for making America great again? Or even more to the point: Did he make you proud by advancing your “idea of America”?

 

 

Last week the senate committee on foreign relations met with both the secretaries of defense and state. I watched what seemed like endless give and take as these two powerful men sat next to each other answering probing questions.

The purpose of the meeting was to hear the administration’s perspective on authorizations for the use of military force. However, it seemed to me that the senators were really looking for ways to recapture their constitutionally defined “checks and balances” role.

Each secretary carefully made the case that in today’s rapidly changing world the president simply must have the power to strike quickly, especially when an adversary is seriously threatening us. The senators’ concern, however, was that this authority has amounted to giving presidents the power to engage in small adversary-related battles and air strikes at any time most anywhere in the world. And this is happening right now in Africa.

In today’s social media, 24/7 news, and Internet connected environment it seems reasonable to conclude that sorting out the details related to writing a military strike authorization policy might be next to impossible. But as various verbal challenges went back and forth across the room, it soon seemed apparent to me that the real agenda here was unspoken, and would remain so: Can this particular president be trusted to address these increasing threats carefully and intelligently?

Sitting next to each other these secretaries were explaining what to many would seem obvious: Modern presidents will likely face these split-second life and death decisions more than once. But right there in front of everyone was a secretary of state who reportedly had recently labeled his boss a moron, and was now trying to describe why such a president should have the power to authorize military strikes… even nuclear ones. Was this more reality TV, or what?

For people to feel confidence in high stakes leaders there must be a level of trust that can only be earned over time by demonstrating a strong moral character, solid and relevant experience, obvious high intelligence, and a record of good judgement. This is just common sense… and an often demonstrated communication 101 principle.

The presidential election literally shocked me into focusing on understanding the evolving role and power of digital media in leadership.  Looking back, however, I can now see that my interest in media actually began when I was a teenager, and then gradually evolved through several extremely disruptive communication revolutions.

In the late 1950’s I thought the highest calling in life was to be a rock’n roll disk jockey. I was growing up in a working class setting in central Pennsylvania just two hours down the road from Dick Clark and American Bandstand. And I was mesmerized by it all. Announcers somehow could sit alone in a studio unable to see their audiences, and yet still be able to delight millions of people! This seemed magical to me.

Later on at American University in Washington I worked at the campus educational radio (later to become “public” radio) station where program hosts were learning how to delight audiences by appealing to their imaginations. They would read imaginative stories, describe beautiful landscapes, broadcast live performances with colorful descriptions, and generally ask their audiences to sit back and paint mental pictures. It was here where it really sank in that this radio thing was much more than rock’n roll!

But then I had my first encounter with television in 1966 at TCU. Here it became immediately clear that TV’s potential was even greater than radio’s. It could produce an even bigger impact by creatively combining camera movements, picture editing, dramatic sound, and other electronic surprises. TV was able to select what people saw and didn’t see… and then control pacing and timing to produce a completely engaging and often captive dramatic experience. Many viewers admitted they were drawn into this experience so completely that they became unaware of the people around them and would completely lose track of time.

About this time, Marshall McLuhan, a media scholar at the University of Toronto, was describing TV’s growing power in rather compelling ways. His basic observation was simply that when television came into the family, politics, education, government, foreign policy, religion, journalism, etc., all of them went through radical changes in how they functioned. In other words, the medium itself was often more powerful than its content.

It was easy for me to see that when the TV set came into my house it changed the way we arranged the furniture in our favorite room. That alone changed how we spent huge amounts of time. Many families would now be robbed of critical bonding time, leading some analysts to think that this change in interaction might account for reported increases in family problems. In fact, some observers argued that regular viewers were very likely to become more emotional, less rational, and even more prone to resort to violence when provoked. This “you are what you eat” theory of communication is an over simplification, but its overall implications are still worth thinking about.

Fast forward to the current digital and social media revolution and analyze for yourself the time we are now spending with computers, multiple social media platforms, sophisticated cell phones, and the Internet…  and the likelihood that all of these are radically changing society and individuals once again.

There is much to question about the consequences of less human face-to-face interaction, too much information to process, constant challenges to personal values, tendencies for repeated lies to sound true, bewildering changes in leadership dynamics, and the impact of these and other current issues on everyone’s overall sense of well-being.

This must be how I became obsessed with media!