Tools for watching politics and public policy

February 2018

By Jeff Gedmin

Some people get stuck on a painting they like. I got stuck several years ago on a method used by Harvard art historian Jennifer Roberts for absorbing a work of art. I’m convinced her approach teaches us something about how to watch politics and public policy, too.

Roberts has her students visit a museum to sit with a painting — for three full hours. Students resist mightily at first. Yet slowly they get the point. Only with time do certain things become clear: depth, texture, relationships, order, priorities; meaning and purpose.

In today’s ferocious and frenetic pace, it becomes arguably harder to see what's actually happening, and what’s most important. Not that this was ever easy. “We live so fast ... there’s no time to think.” That’s what American literary critic Irving Babbitt said — in 1908. Big change was afoot: assembly line production, electric washing machines, windshield wipers, hair dryers, and Swedish engineer Gideon Sundback’s “Hookless No. 2,” debuted in 1914, which soon became known as the zipper. This was also the eve of a great coming apart known as World War I.

How to sort, and see clearly today? Some people meditate, take a walk around the block, or listen to music in order to clear the head. It doesn’t matter how you get there. I do yoga an hour a day. Deep cleansing breaths help.

Here are three broad tips, which I’m convinced help one better grasp the ideas and trends most important in today’s dizzying churn and burn politics.

First, be self-aware. We all make assumptions, haven our own biases, and blind spots. Do we check ourselves? I once asked a CEO coach if there were any one failing common to the executives he mentors. His immediate reply? “Lack of self-awareness; most of my people,” he told me, “think they always have to be the smartest in the room.” Is it any wonder that, with all the IQ points in the world, hubris in business and politics leads time and time again to the downfall of otherwise effective leaders?

Which leads to the second idea: be conscious of what you know — and what you don’t know. We all get stuck in our respective silos. Work with a “full data set.” Re-read Nate Silver’s 2012 book, The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail – but Some Don’t. Read Tyler Cowen's blog, Marginal Revolution. The George Mason academic is a manic reader, commenting and summarizing what’s out there in politics, economics, history, psychology, music, food, you name it. I’ve always thought training for work in foreign policy ought to include the study of geography and anthropology. We tend to think of many of the world's problems as engineering problems. It’s just that time and again inconvenient matters intrude in our rational problem solving, things like religion, nationalism, tribalism, sectarianism, and narratives of grievance.

Which finally brings us to humility. Humility has nothing to do with being meek or indecisive. It's in essence the art of avoiding the disease of hubris, which blurs and blinds. Which makes one think of narcissism, too. Narcissism combines an exaggerated sense of one’s own abilities and achievements with a constant need for attention, affirmation, and praise. Narcissists never get the big picture.

But I digress. Or, perhaps not at all.

Like a painting well understood, space and perspective in politics allow us to see lines that connect. It’s the power of patience that gets us started.