The Trouble with (the Word) Politics
The Trouble with (the Word) Politics
A note from Jacob
Yesterday a man walked by my house while I was trying to fix our broken fence. (Before you get too impressed, it’s still broken. I’m not a renaissance man like Gurbanguly or anything.) We got to talking and after exchanging a few pleasantries, he asked me, “so, what do you do?” Full disclosure: I dread being asked this question. It is difficult to find just one or two words that describe the kind of work Perch Perspectives does. My instinct was to say something like this to the man: “well, I started a company that helps people understand what risk is and how to manage it when making business or political decisions.” That’s a bit much to throw at a random dude walking by on a Sunday morning though. So, cringing on the inside, I went with, “I’m a political analyst.” A familiar, stupefied look came over his face. “Huh? A what?” (Here we go again, I thought to myself.) “You know,” I demurred, “I help businesses and organizations navigate political risk.” He paused again and said, “Well I don’t quite know what that means, but I’m a painter. See you ‘round.”
My favorite example of this conversational difficulty occurred last June in Singapore. I was speaking at a conference about how the U.S.-China trade war is going to affect the future of high tech and especially 5G and communications technology. My friend and former colleague Phillip Orchard was at the conference with me, and at one point we were schmoozing with a small group of attendees and I overheard someone utter the dreaded “What do you do” question to Phil. Phil stumbled through an answer about how we were geopolitical forecasters. The asker of the question seemed to get really excited and said that was wonderful and how happy he would be to connect us to some of his connections also doing similar work in the Philippines. When I asked Phil about the conversation later that afternoon, he told me that the asker of the question had latched onto the word “forecasting” and wanted to connect us with folks doing weather forecasting in the Philippines. That night, the forecast was cloudy with a high chance of multiple beers.
Analyst, writer, consultant, forecaster, economist, strategist – all of these words describe the work that Perch Perspectives does on any given project. The problem comes, I think, when the word “political” gets invoked alongside them. If I had told my friendly neighborhood painter that I was a data analyst, my hunch is he probably would have been able to process that information more readily. Data is just a fancy word for really large bits of information, so a data analyst is someone who makes sense of large amounts of information. Politics is a much harder word to define. It is also an intensely personal word. If my interlocutor does not glaze over after I tell them I am a political analyst, usually the next question is which political party or which presidential candidate I support with my work. I try to be as honest as I can in those moments – I’m a registered independent, I only talk about who I’m voting for after I’ve had some whiskey…and that’s not the kind of political work we do. At which point they usually become just as confused as the painter.
Before humans had politics, we were all just members of rival nomadic tribes, a zero-sum species concerned with survival by any means necessary. Thousands of years ago, some of our ancestors decided to give up some of their “freedom” (such as it was) so that they could live in a world that was a little more predictable and a little less nasty, brutish, and capricious. Politics in a nutshell is the business of figuring out what freedoms we give up and what benefits (or restrictions) we get from our governments in return for them. In that sense, politics is the geography of communities. In the same way that a country’s mountains, rivers, climate, resources, and borders affect how a country looks and feels, so too does a political community’s laws, traditions, languages, and culture define how the community will evolve and behave. Our job as political analysts is to dive deep into the historical, cultural, geographic, and economic forces that impact how different political communities interact, cooperate, compete, and fight with each other, and to use those insights to help our clients mitigate risks and capture opportunities.
The first and hardest part of political analysis is admitting that you don’t actually know anything. That’s not just a throw-away line. It’s the first thing we do with every client project we take on. We write down all the things we think we know and then we rigorously research/test/analyze them to see if they hold water or not. Often times, they do. After all, we’ve been doing this for a long time, and we like to think our intuition has sharpened over time. In plenty of instances, however, the results of a project end up completely contradicting our original assumptions. This is a particularly hard thing to do because politics is not just the context in which human community occurs. We all have our own individual political positions and letting go of one’s politics often feels traumatic because our personal politics is, in a very real sense, a moral compass for what constitutes justice in our respective communities. You cannot do good political analysis, however, if you go in knowing what you think the answer to the question should be. To really understand politics, you have to be able to leave that compass at the door without also becoming a sociopath.
To grasp just how difficult this is to do, consider the following thought experiment, taken from Richard J. Heuer’s hugely influential “Psychology of Intelligence Analysis.” Take a look at the following image (courtesy of Heuer):
Unless you are a genius or have seen the figure before, you probably didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. But now go back and look at the picture again and take a closer look at the last word of the second line and the first word in the third line of the triangles. See it now? In Heuer’s own words, “we tend to perceive what we expect to perceive.” Our brains organize information in patterns, and once our brain has settled on a pattern, it is incredibly difficult to change it. That is why we crave television shows and movies and books – stories are just a way of ordering information so that our brains can make sense of events that happen because if events have no meaning, we’re back to an apolitical stone age and beating each other in the head with clubs so we can have a better cave than the next tribe over. Fear is the mind-killer in Dune, but patterns are the mind-killer for political analysts. To be a good political analyst you have to train yourself not to indulge in the natural human impulse to think that because you’ve seen a similar situation before that you can apply the lessons garnered from that experience to the present issue. Remember: A good political analyst doesn’t actually know anything…and learning how not to know anything is really hard.
The next step of political analysis is fairly easy and straightforward by comparison and has been best summed up by an unlikely character. Ernest Hemingway once wrote the following: “A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge.”
First of all: Obviously women can do this too! Ernest was a product of his time. Second of all: When people like to say something isn’t hard to understand, they often say, “well it’s not rocket science.” Here is the deep secret nobody wants to admit: nothing is rocket science. Sure, some things are harder to learn or understand than others, but at the outset of any project, no matter how smart or knowledgeable you are in a given field, it is not possible to know everything there is to know about it. Even by the end of a project, you will not be able to get your hands on every piece of data you needed for a definite answer. You will have to be able to make inferences along the way and “show your work” without succumbing to insecurity. That can either be a source of paralysis or excitement, and for a political analyst, it must be the latter. Like good writing, good political analysis is not the result of spontaneous generation. It is the product of experience, of knowing what questions to ask and where to look in order to rapidly assimilate new knowledge and then communicate large amounts of information and how that information intersects with political forces quickly and clearly. It is human nature to fall back on what we think we know. A political analyst knows what he or she doesn’t know – and isn’t afraid of rolling up their sleeves and learning something new even if it challenges previous patterns. Even if it is rocket science.
We don’t use our political insights to make massively profitable financial bets. We cannot make 5G telecoms gear, we are not medical experts, and I can’t even tie my shoelaces without making bunny ears. We are rigorously and completely focused on understanding politics so that our clients can make better financial bets, anticipate (and mitigate) geopolitical tensions, and stay ahead of political transformations both at home and abroad. As Mike (our CEO) often reminds me – the kiss of death for an analysis company like ours is “the squirrel syndrome,” running around and chasing every squirrel you see because it seems like a good idea at the time. We know what we are good at and we do it well, even if I can’t seem to find an easy two-word formula for expressing that to the random painters who walk by my house on the weekends. I’ve already been droning on too long, so this is the part where I close by saying that if you think a deeper awareness of politics is something you or your company might value, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org, and in the meantime, thank you for continuing to read along and for spreading the gospel of Perch.