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The Age of Imitation

June 9, 2004 Politics-2004 1 Comment

Funny how things go. I occassionally pick up a copy of Harvard Business Review and peruse it at the book store since I’m not fond of the $16.95 cover price, although I am appreciative of the insight the mag provides. In the June issue, Eric Bonabeau has a story entitled “The Perils of the Imitation Age” that covers so much ground in so few words I could seemingly tie this in with a plethora of pet issues of mine.

Although written with a primary focus on business and the nature of feedback loops as it pertains to such, there are a few examples given for the political realm, also. Its within this barely scratched surface of the topic that I first started applying the article to in my mind as I read. With each paragraph, the content seemed to weave perfectly with a lot of things that continue to bug me and leave me with the following quick observations for now ….

To begin understanding how Bonabeau applies his knowledge, bear in mind that he’s looking at how business can affect and account for the impact of feedback loops on its actions. What’s a feedback loop? A simple example can be thought of as a Bestsellers List of Books … or the movie box office results that come out each day. These are “beacons” by which some of us will potentially guide our actions and purchase decisions. If everyone else loves a book, it ranks highly, therefore more people buy the book.

Bonabeau notes four principles that drive the imitation force in mankind:

  • Safety – best summed up by a quote from Charles Roxbough: “for most CEOs, only one thing is worse than making a huge strategic mistake: being the only person in the industry to make it.” Think of the Homermobile (or the Edsel) if you must.
  • Conformity – kinda self-explanatory, I think.
  • Belief that the other guy knows better – I was distrustful of this one, but think about the example Bonabeau offers: “Put 15 people on a street corner staring into an empty sky and 45% of passersby will also stop to look upward.” Yeah, that I can see, now.
  • Greed – “We imitate the other guy because we want what he has.” Makes sense.
    What’s so unique now, that Bonabeau notes, is that while the drive to imitate has always existed, he notes that the means that give us the ability to imitate have grown, proliferating into ever more feedback loops that guide this along … internet surveys, Howard Dean’s fundraising “bat”, etc …

    There’s a lot more to what Bonabeau writes about, but what got me thinking was this …

    Ever go to see a sequel of a good movie? Ever seen one that was good? Sure, cast aside Rocky II, Empire Strikes Back, and a handful of others, and the rest are somewhat closer to Legally Blonde II or Spy Kids 3D in terms of quality. What went wrong? Inevitably, the complaint is that the producers (or writers, or the studio, or whoever) took the one scene stealer from the first movie and put it all over the place in the sequels (think Stiffler in the American Pie saga). In short, they forgot what made the overall movie as good as it was to presumably warrant a sequel and made it a caricature of itself.

    So why then, does my mind go from the realm of A Very Brady Sequel to the world of politics? Because I see the same thing happening.

    Also on my free reading list at the bookstore was EJ Dionne’s new book, “Stand Up, Fight Back.” Let me start off with saying I have nothing short of the utmost regard for Dionne’s writing. “Why Americans Hate Politics” and “They Only Look Dead” stand up as two of the better tomes on progressive politics from their day. So I had high expectations as Dionne promised to tell why Democrats need to unite and how we should move beyond the false choices of old arguments between moderates and liberals within the party.

    I was sorely disappointed.

    The rough gist of Dionne’s argument is that we need to accept our role as defenders of the institutions we have built up over time and be the party of M2EH: medicare, medicaid, education, health care.
    I can think of no worse recipe for disaster.

    Once more, the concept of issue ownership raises its ugly head, and Dionne plays along. Rather than provide a rundown of what has made the Democratic party historically great, it is now distilled into a precise methodology that any prospective party member can recite like the talking points they truly are.

    That’s not to say that we shouldn’t take pride in the institutions we’ve established as a party. But nowhere in Dionne’s thesis, do I see the need to recognize that every so often, a facelift is needed in the world of policy … solutions to problems from the 40s, 50s, and 60s do not necessarily stand the test of time now that we’re hitting 40, 50, or 60 years past enactment of such laws.

    Sidestep with me to one of the most oft-heard quotes I’m now all-too-familiar with from the Deaniac crowd: “I was never involved in politics before Howard Dean caught my attention, but he sounded so much like what a Democrat should sound like to me …” Quick, what’s wrong with that scenario? Yet, how many versions of that can we Dems claim to have heard? I’ve not been a Democrat, I’ve not been involved in the party, but what Howard Dean said strikes me as what a Democrat should say? By what standard?

    Think that’s an aberration? Try the usual stalking horse known as Markos Zuniga, then.

    Tomorrow is Democratic Party Meetup day, so make sure to attend your local event if possible. And let me suggest a topic, if I may:

    How to take over the Democratic Party.

    The more time I spend in DC, the more convinced (and annoyed) I am at the “establishment’s” reluctance to offer greater transparancy and offer supporters a real role in building our party.

    I don’t pretend to understand the machinations of the Democratic Party. It’s almost as if the complexity is designed to keep out the riff raff — i.e. people like me, who demand results instead of gladhanding and self-important titles. People who aren’t satisfied with mediocrity.

    So do it. Figure out how your local party runs. Find out how to elect yourselves to positions of authority. I’ve heard of people getting elected to county party positions with five measly votes. Change the local party culture. Learn how to win. And if your area is already Democratic, then learn how to win with better candidates and maintain your advantages while helping out Dems in less Democratic counties nearby.

    Amazing … “I have no clue how a party runs, but I know it needs to be taken over.” Once more, the caricaturization of politics rolls on.

    Yet, its not even a one-sided affair ….

    Take a look at the Bush-Reagan comparisons now unfolding. The Cliff Notes version goes that Bush(43) is just like Reagan in terms of tax cutting … nevermind that Reagan did some tweaking to the 81 cuts after it initially passed, having quite a few tax hikes on his hands, to be honest about it.

    Either way you look at it, the process is the same … we cut out the filler for the story we want to believe, and build a new image based on the remaining caricature. We’ve made the sequels worse (for both parties) than the originals. We’ve run around on this spinning wheel of a more and more limiting feedback loop that tells us what two-or-three talking points make a party what it is, and separated out the unnecessary complexity heretofore known as “errata.”
    It would seem to me that its a bad way to build a party, or even a campaign.
    I’m sure I’ll have a few follow-up thoughts on this over the rest of the week. Chew on this for now, though …

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  • Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

    1. Tx Bubba says:

      Excellent post. You’re obviously thinking politics wherever you go. :)
      I think when Democrats marry themselves to specific solutions, they’re doomed to become irrelevant. I think the same is true of the “tax cut” solutions by the Republicans. I listened yesterday to commentary on Reagan’s presidency, and I could not disagree with observation that Reagan changed the political discussion to conservative terms. Rather than Republicans trying to be Democrat-lite, you have had Democrats trying to be Republican-lite. More importantly, Reagan’s issues of cutting taxes has remained the starting point for much political debate.
      I’ve been voting Democrat for 20 years, after a stint as a Republican, and I changed because of certain values that I see represented by the party, values that have been evident in the solutions that they proposed to problems but aren’t the same as the solutions themselves. But I think many liberals (myself included) have so identified with those solutions that it’s hard to let go or at least reconsider.
      I think we could use a healthy dose of flexibility, of that FDR willingness to experiment to find the right solution.
      The problem is that we have a case trench warfare in politics. To move even the least bit from the current positions is unthinkable.

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