People want stability. People want world peace. People want a simple predictable life.
Sorry folks, it’s messy. It’s always been messy. It’s always going to be messy.
But I have good news!
We are going to be okay.
Recently, I have spent a great deal of time answering questions and talking to my friends and relatives on both side of the isle about the strange times we live in. I suppose they believe that because of my degree, my previous job, where I worked or whom I worked for that I might have some insight. The fact is that I probably do know more than the average American for all the reasons listed above. But I don’t think my opinion, nor my viewpoint are terribly interesting.
My education and experience has led me to believe the world is far simpler place than the experts, political pundits, think tankers, news media outlet talking heads, internet blogisphere hooligans, and one issue zealots would have you believe it is. The 24/7/365 news, data or information comes from all angles all the time. The onslaught has folks thinking they have to be on top of things and if not, the world might end. The only people who have time to be informed and stay informed, to research the truth and know it to some level of certainty are paid to do that work. They are usually paid by someone more powerful who has important decisions to make and doesn’t have time to be informed and stay informed. When it comes to the daily life of the average US citizen, it is time to calm down, we are going to be okay.
During my career, I was blessed to spend time engaging in strategic dialogue with some of the most brilliant military and civilian minds. Further, blessed to take part in lectures by subject matter experts from around the world and some of the most powerful people on the planet. I had to be informed and stay informed to contribute. We had to listen, interact and open our minds to proffer solutions to complex ill structed national or global problems. Granted we were working from a national security perspective, but we incorporated all elements of national power: diplomacy, information, military and economics into our work. Our hard work was further sharpened by the fact that if there was a crisis, in our chose field or geographical area of study, we might find ourselves in the presence of very powerful people, giving our best advice. It was a wonderful time in my life, but that time is now long gone. All that work now sits in the recesses of my mind gathering patina.
The average American has very little classical training in how our government and the world works. Maybe they remember something from high school civics or college political science class, but it is gathering dust in the corners of their memory. As such, they struggle to figure out where we are and where we are going as a Nation. I don’t mean to insult anyone, sincerely I don’t. We have a well-educated population, but most folks simply have other areas of expertise. In this news saturated polarized environment, where someone is talking about our government 24/7/365, people gather their expertise from the wrong sources. It is like trying to become a mechanic by listening to “Car Talk” with Click and Clack. You hear a whole lot of innovative, simple and even crazy solutions to vehicle problems and you even learn a lot about vehicle maintenance, but you are not going to become a mechanic.
Even worse, people believe they must be informed and stay informed to a very high level of fidelity. It’s an unnecessary and unhealthy compulsion. Unless you are paid to do it for a living, have the proper security clearance and you have a need to know – there is no way you can read the actual reports given to our leadership at the national level. And unless you are educated in the field and properly trained, you simply will not be able to connect the dots between the elements of national power, international/domestic policy and how they relate to our national interests. Quite a few of our elected leaders, especially when they’re first elected, cannot connect the dots either. That’s why they have strategists and analysists on their staff who help them all day every day. Those strategists and analysists have the background, education and experience to do the job. They are paid to be informed and stay informed. They have access to the comprehensive reports and classified information (when they have a need to know) and know how to connect the dots. Their real job is to give their very best advice to senior leaders, whether or not those leaders follow the expert advice is an entirely different subject for another essay.
What the average American gets is only what can be published through open source media. It is never ever comprehensive. It simply could not be comprehensive, because classified or sensitive information is omitted. To do otherwise, would sacrifice our international competitive advantage or threaten our national security. So, you cannot get the comprehensive reports and you’re not trained to interpret them if you did. Okay, what can you do? First, calm down and trust that there are wonderfully talented hardworking patriotic experienced people running this country. I will explain who they are later. Second, you can stay reasonably informed. Third, you can form your own opinions. Fourth and most important, you can vote your conscience, not necessarily your party.
Most Americans get their news from a single source, be it a traditional news media outlet, a think tank, an internet news hub, an organization they belong to or from their political party headquarters. That’s bad. The better way to do it is to follow multiple sources efficiently. Again, you’re not going to get the whole detailed comprehensive truth. So, cover a great deal of territory in your news appetite and stop to drill down deeply for understanding on things that interest you or concern you personally. You must maintain an open mind. You must be a bit of a skeptic. You should consider the source of your information carefully.
Most if not all news media and internet news outlets sell commercials to raise the money they need to run their business. Yes, they are businesses. They are for profit and must turn a profit. Some are publicly traded, which means they have shareholders. That should tell you something. They are also on your TV, computer or mobile device 24/7/365. They must have something to talk about. The amount of actual news is now embedded in so much static and junk that it is hard to find. The personalities on the news are now more showman than newsman. They must get and keep your attention to sell commercials. They also sensationalize tragedy, and some believe they are partially responsible for copycat perpetrators of manmade atrocities. So, be careful! The truth is in what they say - somewhere.
Think tanks and organizations (places whose URL usually ends in .org) are places where wonderfully educated and classically trained strategists, analysts, economists, retired military leaders, scientists and experts in every field work. But they cannot be wholly trusted either. Why? Because they have an agenda. I don’t mean to say, they are doing anything nefarious. Certainly not, but you must realize they have an agenda before you consume what they are serving. They exist to further their own issue, from civil rights to climate change and everything in between. If you read their media, watch their shows or listen to their podcasts, you simply must remember where they’re coming from and through which lens they are interpreting things. Then you can make an informed decision about what information or data you are consuming.
Political parties are the least likely places to hear the truth. It is also, in there somewhere, but it is heavily flavored toward their agenda. Their job is to help their members stay in power. That’s it. It’s that simple. It is about money and power, and not necessarily in that order. At the local level, it is purer, and it can really be about people and issues. But the higher you climb, the more it’s about money and power. Keep that in mind and you’ll be able to see the “good” in what they do. And they do good things.
So, you might ask, “Where the hell can I get the truth?” To that I would answer, the truth changes. What was true yesterday, may be false tomorrow. We tend to sort the truth out over time. However, in the case where you look back to evaluate the past, you must also be careful. There are some dangerous people who would like to change our history as it is commonly agreed to have happened. These revisionists can be quite dangerous, so beware there too. If I had to answer the question of where to get the truth, I would say it takes work, usually in the form of reading, not watching or listening.
The media you read will almost always include a bibliography or some form or footnotes if it is good work. The best work is peer reviewed academic work, but that takes time and is not always current. Some of the best and easiest places to find out what’s really going on are on your payroll. Yes, you have good sources of truth you pay for, no kidding. Here are just a few examples. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a branch of the Library of Congress that provides objective, nonpartisan research, analysis, and information to assist Congress in its legislative, oversight, and representative functions. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an agency of the U.S. government that monitors and audits government spending and operations. The GAO tracks how the legislative and executive branches of the government use taxpayer dollars, and then reports the findings directly to Congress.
Now that I’m retired and have time, you would think I would regularly read such things to keep up with my old job. Nope, I do the same thing I’m recommending you do. You might ask, “Why?” Well the truth is, that we have wonderfully talented hardworking patriotic experienced people running the United States of America. They might be politicians, but usually they are not. They are careerist leaders that work in different branches, agencies or secretariats across our government. They toil daily to make sure their branch, agency or secretariat is doing the best they can for the American people. They are so talented, they know that whatever party gets elected, they’ll have a job. They also know that in 30-year career they will see elected and appointed leaders come and go. Their charter is to keep this Nation safe and prosperous. They have the luxury of looking 10, 20, or 30 years into the future, because they’re not personally worried about the next election. In a modest measure, I was one of these people. It allowed me to meet more of these people. A few are still my friends and because of their efforts I don’t worry about this Nation on a day to day basis. Really, I don’t.
So, how do I cope with the partisan angst, anger and turmoil and the 24/7/365 never ending dramatic showmen led news cycle? I spend about an hour a day total on the news and that includes sports. I probably spend five times that reading and writing things that make me happy. I read the news, I don’t watch it. I get my news from multiple sources, left, right and third party. I form my own opinions. If I find something unusually interesting or compelling, I do actual research. Then when it comes time, I vote my conscience, not necessarily my party. I write my elected representatives in Congress and even call them on occasion, so they know where I stand on certain issues. I do my part as a citizen, which is all anyone needs to do. But when it gets raucous, loud and venomous I take a deep breath and remember we are going to be okay.
When my friends or relatives believe the world is coming to an end, because their party lost an election or a big vote on a certain issue, I say, “We will be okay. Trust the American people.” That usually doesn’t work, so then I use a metaphor, usually I say something like:
“Think of our Nation as a car rolling down a road. If we keep it on the road, we will arrive at our destination. I’m not sure what our destination is, but I think we all hope it’s a more peaceful and prosperous place. I believe previous Nations perished, because they went too far in one direction for too long. Their people put their trust in a single leader or group of leaders who never made a course correction and before long, they wrecked. I trust the American people to keep us out of the ditch on either side of the road. The truth is, if we go too far left we wreck it and if we go too far right we wreck it. When Barak Obama was elected President, it was because the American people corrected our course after eight years of driving to the right. When Donald Trump was elected President, it was because the American people corrected our course after eight years of driving too far left. You don’t have to like either man. It’s okay if you’re upset either won. The fact is that the road is wide and as long as we don’t wreck it, by going to far in either direction, we will be okay.”
Some have asked me why I have faith in the American people. Still, others think I’m crazy when they hear my metaphor. Most want to know how and why I am at peace with it all. Usually, their next question is where the metaphor came from. Well I developed it over time, but here’s the initial thought that spurred further research and helped me relax and have faith. I took a very general look at the executive branch over the last 158 years, roughly Civil War to present, for a small caveat I was making in an academic paper on another subject. I was pleasantly surprised. Taking a big picture look the executive branch, by party and philosophy I saw that it has swung left and right in a semi-alternating fashion. The American people have consistently exercised their right to vote and kept us in the middle of the road for over 158 years. One party has held the oval office 71 years and the other party 87 years, that’s a 45% to 55% split. Seems like every time we’ve got the Nation moving too far toward one ditch on either side of the road, the American people vote to correct our course.
So, those wonderfully talented hardworking patriotic experienced people running the United States of America help elected and appointed leaders, that come and go, plot our course over time. Meanwhile, the American People keep the car on the road and out the ditch on either side. Like it or not, our Nation was built on compromise between differing sides, differing peoples and the different branches of our triumvirate government. No one wins absolutely. We must work together to keep it on the road. Whether we get to a more peaceful and prosperous place remains to be seen, but I am hopeful.
In conclusion, I recommend that you try to stay reasonably and efficiently informed. You should always be skeptical of public open source media. You should talk to diverse peoples and share opinions. You should consume information from multiple sources. You should keep an open mind and think for yourself. You should do all this, so that you can form your own opinion. Then you must vote your conscious, not necessarily your party.
If you do that, we will be okay.