We probably aren’t going to solve ISIS while waiting for an oil change.

I was sitting in the car mechanic’s waiting room getting an oil change. There was complimentary coffee, gritty and stale, and a muted TV in the corner. A morning news show was rolling footage of ISIS. The images of that ominous black flag and trucks of young men brandishing a hodgepodge of automatic weapons then transitioned to a story about new developments with Greece’s massive fiscal problems and tenuous relationship with the EU. After this, images of a village somewhere in Southeast Asia, roofs being the only thing visible above flooding, prompting the caption, “Is Climate Change Real?”

There were four others waiting, eyes also fixed on the screen. The next segment brought about a preview for the first Republican debate of primary season that night. Despite it being 7:30 AM, a conversation about the debate got rolling, spurred on by the previous images of a globe in turmoil.

I didn’t contribute but opted to listen to these four residents of Frankfort, Kentucky attempt to solve the world’s problems—literally. Each of them thought they knew exactly what needed to be done to solve the problem. This or that candidate would be tough, never standing for this type of chaos. Just more troops here, and another bomb there. A harsher word to Russia and a couple of more threats to Assad in Syria. More money to this place and less to another.

If only things were so simple. If only we could have the silver bullet for safety and prosperity in the world. But this just isn’t reality. When it comes to foreign policy and the presidential election, I am only sure of one thing: no one sitting in a mechanic’s waiting room in Kentucky has much of a clue.

To see the evidence of this, we should look no further than Barack Obama’s presidency. He came into office on the heels of George W. Bush trumpeting a dramatic shift away from the foreign policy of the previous administration that saw the US get involved in two costly interventions in the Middle East. Withdrawing US troops from Iraq and repairing relationships in the Middle East with the hope of then pivoting focus towards Asia highlighted Obama’s hopes. However, the Arab Spring and subsequent rise of ISIS has prevented him from fully shifting the focus of US foreign policy. And so it goes in an endlessly unpredictable and complex world.

In a fascinating piece by Jeffrey Goldberg over at The Atlantic, we see this unpredictability and complexity laid bare. The reader is given a window into the world of doing foreign policy on a practical, not rhetorical, level. It is one thing to make promises and champion broad, righteous ideals in an election, but an entirely different beast when it comes to executing these things in real time and space.

“I also believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.”

Even an idealistic, optimistic, Nobel Peace Prize recipient must come to recognize the limits and complications of foreign policy.

It is because of this that I am wary of foreign policy conversations during presidential elections, especially the primaries. The easiest time to talk about foreign policy is during an election. Ideas don’t have to be executed, everything is hypothetical, rhetorical ferocity that panders to a specific voting base is a plus, and you have a relatively defenseless sitting executive available for critique.

Where does this leave us, the voter without the Ph.D. in international relations? Given that foreign policy is a massive part of the job of the president, though, we have to make judgments somehow.

A good first winnowing metric would be a demonstrated knowledge of global politics. Candidates like Donald Trump are immediately disqualified by this metric, not being able to answer simple questions about international affairs. Not every candidate needs to be a scholar on every minute detail; this would be impossible, of course. However, a working knowledge of major regions and major players in those regions is not too much to ask. To make good foreign policy decisions, one must start with a solid understanding of simple facts.

Acknowledging that not every candidate is going to be an expert on everything, it’s vital that they surround themselves with advisors who do have the experience and expertise. With the quantity and magnitude of decisions that the president must make, the few people who will have their ear must also be reliable, operating out of reality not ideology. Here we knock out Ted Cruz who chooses to have top advisors who accuse President Obama of being a Muslim and in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood.

While I don’t want to take a cheap shot at these two specific candidates, I think that it is important to point out where clear judgments on foreign policy can be made. There can be genuine disagreements on policy and positions, but where we can draw lines as voters, I think we should. Starting with a reasonable base of knowledge and operating in the realm of reality are two places that I will draw a line.

From here, I want to look for a candidate who doesn’t oversimplify, who communicates with nuance, who doesn’t make sweeping pronouncements, and who acknowledges the best in an opposing position – a tough find these days. Foreign Policy is unpredictable and difficult. I want a candidate with enough courage to just say so.

You Can’t Shortcut Complexity

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard “Bernie is a socialist” or “Trump is crazy” or “Ted Cruz is a Tea Partier” as justification to not vote for them, I would have many more dollars than I currently have. I get the sentiment. People with similar perspectives will feel emotional resonance with the statement and probably nod in agreement. Without a moderate option in this presidential election cycle, there is a heightened tendency to retreat into rhetorical echo chambers.

But there’s a major problem with these statements: they’re shortcuts. These labels carry connotations and implications but communicate little substance. The statement “he’s a socialist” could mean a hundred different things and be received in at least as many ways. Same for the statement “he’s crazy.” The more vague the statement, the less it actually communicates. Most of the time, these statements communicate more about the ideology, identity, and emotion of the person speaking them than they do about the subject matter.

Shortcuts in thought and communication aren’t bad. In fact, they are good and necessary. Just think of how much work we would have to do if we didn’t take mental shortcuts? We create frameworks of thought and rely on others to aid us in this process all the time. If we didn’t, our time would be consumed making even the most menial decisions and we would never get anything done. We have to be able to mentally categorize and simplify in order to effectively reason through big issues.

The same is true with communication. We build frameworks of language and rely on others to do the same. If we had to exhaustively re-define all of our labels every time we communicated, we’d still be living in caves. Where problems start to arise, though, is when we rely on these shortcuts too much – when they become assumptions rather than frameworks of interpretation.

To consider oneself a Republican, Democrat, Conservative, Liberal, Progressive, Libertarian, etc. can be helpful. They each provide some sort of framework to process the political landscape. They provide principles and values that assist in making decisions about complicated issues that we may not have any first-hand experience with.

But the world is more complex than our words can handle. Because the purpose of these shortcuts is to minimize complication, any use of them as an absolute is a misuse. It is asking them to do something they can’t do.

When shortcuts become absolutes in politics, we speak of the values and principles as the realities themselves rather than the issues that are supposedly being addressed. Citizens and politicians support policy because it is “conservative” or “liberal” with little regard to the actual impact of the policy. We build categories and labels to help us visualize the world, but too often, we become slaves to those labels, answering to ideology rather than reality.

In politics, ideas and principles are never abstract. They must be worked out in real time and space. This is why refusing to vote for a candidate because “they’re a socialist” or because “they’re crazy” is problematic. If a goal of politics is to figure out how to bring together the complex web of institutions, communities, and systems in our country then speaking in shorthanded absolutes is rarely helpful.

However, this is really hard in our political culture. We rely on shortcuts to the point of them becoming identities. This is a major contributor to the current polarization of our political discourse. We have turned guiding principles into absolutes and become prisoners to our own frameworks. We have to break out of this prison we have built for ourselves. Specificity in support and critique is one of the most radical political actions one can take in this election cycle.

So if you think Bernie has terrible ideas? Great. Tell me why. If Donald Trump scares the hell out of you? Have at it. Convince me without echoing his hysteria. In a haze of ideology, platitudes, and coded language choosing to engage on a different rhetorical register is a giant step towards healthier political community.

Fodder. 2016-04-04

Each week in this space we will have a post compiling a few things we have been reading, watching, and digesting that week that have helped us process our political moment. It will be everything from news stories and op-eds to poems and creative non-fiction. Enjoy the first post of Fodder!

The Primary That Disqualified the Qualified – Robert Draper, The New York Times Magazine

“Whether anyone noticed it at the time, the electoral outcome of the 2013 shutdown would have direct implications for the 2016 Republican presidential field. As Republican anger over Obama’s perceived inability to lead both at home and abroad gave rise to the summer, fall and winter of Trump, it became harder for the candidates in the establishment lane to extol the virtues of sensible governance….Besides, as Trump’s ideological waywardness would attest, Republican voters did not seem to be fixated on whose portfolio was the most conservative. They wanted to know who was spoiling for a fight.”

Changing Positions: A Meditation for Campaign Season – Richard Chess, Image Journal

A poet’s reflections on the current campaign season. “I want to believe a politician can grow a heart wider and deeper than the heart he was born with, the heart she has borne for decades. I want to believe that a narrow and hardened vision can be replaced with a vision of a nation moving toward tenderness.”

Why People Are Confused About What Experts Really Think – Derek Koehler, The New York Times

“Government action is guided in part by public opinion. Public opinion is guided in part by perceptions of what experts think. But public opinion may — and often does — deviate from expert opinion, not simply, it seems, because the public refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of experts, but also because the public may not be able to tell where the majority of expert opinion lies.”

The Obama Doctrine – Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic

(note: this piece is a long one, but is very worth the time commitment if U.S. foreign policy is important to you)

“If you are a supporter of the president, his strategy makes eminent sense: Double down in those parts of the world where success is plausible, and limit America’s exposure to the rest. His critics believe, however, that problems like those presented by the Middle East don’t solve themselves—that, without American intervention, they metastasize… George W. Bush was also a gambler, not a bluffer. He will be remembered harshly for the things he did in the Middle East. Barack Obama is gambling that he will be judged well for the things he didn’t do.”