Problems v Constraints
a general model of politics
Politics is the art of the possible. Unfortunately, that does not stop people from trying! “Impossible politics” is common in an age of upheaval.
When faced with political questions, ask yourself the following question: “Is the underlying issue a problem, or is it a constraint?” Meaning, is it something that can be solved or avoided, or is it a limiting factor that can only be managed?
This post begins by identifying two political constraints. It then combines them into an all-purpose political model.
Its purpose is to help identify common ground for political problem-solving.
CONSTRAINT I: SOCIAL FRICTION
“Us/them thinking” is hardwired into humanity.
People sort the world reflexively into “us” and “them”
Unfortunately, “us/them thinking” creates social friction.
No two people draw the “us/them” line in exactly the same place
Social friction is here to stay. Its continuous presence is a political constraint. It is not a problem to be solved or avoided, but a limiting factor that must be managed.
CONSTRAINT II: “WHO DECIDES?”
“Us/them thinking” features heavily in humanity’s efforts to manage social friction. It wears many labels, but it runs on just two parameters.
“Us/them,” with one set of rules for us (and a separate set for them)
“Live/let live,” so long as “they” don’t bother us too much
Unfortunately, “Who gets to decide who is us, and who is them?” is a society-destroying black hole of a question.
Who decides “who decides?”
Who decides, who decides “who decides?” and so on.
The link between “us/them social managing” and “Who decides?” is another political constraint. One leads directly to the other. The link is permanent. It is not a problem to be solved or avoided, but a limiting factor that must be managed.
POLITICS AS A COMBINED MAP OF CONSTRAINTS I AND II
It is helpful to combine constraints I and II into an all-purpose political map. Not a compass, which is useful for plotting political differences, but a map that measures political similarities.
These similarities will help us identify common ground for political problem-solving.
First layer of the map:
Read the map clockwise.
Constraint I is italicized. It runs from top-left to center-right.
Constraint II is underlined. It runs from bottom-center to top-left.
But also, keep in mind
The overlap at the top left is significant.
So is the gap at the lower right.
Causal arrows have been added. They link each of the five clock elements to the next. Constraint I arrows are green. Constraint II arrows are blue. The gap arrow is red.
The arrows highlight the political futility of trying to defuse the C2-C1 overlap. All “us/them” attempts to manage social friction fall into the same trap. They force the “Who decides?” question to be answered in one of two ways.
The result? C2-C1 collapses into another closed loop. That is, every attempt at solving politics with “us/them” messaging fails, because it force-loops straight back into C1.
The C2-C1 loop looks like another political constraint. Once invoked, the problem it creates cannot be solved.
But can it be avoided?
Remember, from the perspective of political problem-solving as a whole, the C2-C1 loop is just a part of a bigger picture. The C1-C2 loop on the opposite side of the political map is open, not closed.
That is the red arrow’s significance.
Before going on, let’s use our political map to visualize why every “us/them” political solution must fail.
As the cycle repeats, it degrades.
Each completed C2-C1 loop sparks a nastier, smaller round of “us/them” thinking. That breeds sharper disagreement, and moredangerous social friction, and more stringent attempts to manage that social friction.
But as cycle follows upon cycle,
“Who decides” how that social friction should be managed?
Who decides “who decides?”
Who decides, who decides “who decides?” and so on,
More and more of society’s energy gets wasted chasing unanswerable “who decides” questions, instead of being used to keep society running. First slowly and then suddenly, things begin to fall apart.
Orbital decay sets in. The society-destroying black hole looms a bit closer...
“Why should we care about political constraints?” You ask. “Us/them politics has gotten humanity this far. It’s a tough slog, but it’s the only game in town. Why not just accept the game and keep playing as usual?”
First, because all “us/them” politics must spiral into the society-destroying black hole. When it does, the results tend to be, shall we say, personally unpleasant.
Human societies collapse whenever the dominant “us” coalition
loses its ability to keep “them” at arm’s length
fragments itself by defaulting on its own promises
suffers both fates at once
Being there at that time is not something most people are equipped to handle.
“Okay, but supposing we retreat to a more philosophical plane,” you might say. “Human history is turbulent. Fortunes rise, and fortunes fall. One coalition fragments, and another emerges. Yes, occasionally huge bubbles form, persist, and then burst, but the overall picture is one of exuberant, continuous rebirth,” you might say. “Win some, lose some. We can’t change it, so why worry?”
That brings us to our second reason, that great and growing double-edged sword:
(End of Part I)
P.S. Remember the red arrow.