Much like Disney making Star Wars, we don’t have a plan to thwart the rising tide of authoritarianism
Honestly, this month was pretty overwhelming. A lot going on at work, but even more going on in the U.S.—a lot of good news short term, but not great otherwise.
It’s great that the Biden Administration is beating COVID; I just wish they were defending democracy as effectively. There’s all kinds of skullduggery going on in DC, most notably the Republicans’ resistance to investigating their attempt to violently overthrow the U.S. Government on January 6. But the real action is happening in the states, where Republican-led state governments apparently are pursuing the same political principle that prompted the American Revolution: Parliamentary Supremacy.
Parliamentary Supremacy was the principle that guided British government in the 18th century: lacking a written constitution, and definitely not on board with royal supremacy, the British viewed Parliament itself as the supreme law of the land. The British Parliament was no paragon of democracy back then: it was horribly gerrymandered before that even was a word, and the electorate was embarrassingly small. But it was absolutely confident in its right to power, no matter about some group of colonial hicks in the wilderness thousands of miles away who thought their opinions should have some sway in laws passed relating to them.
Republican state governments are moving down this path, setting themselves up as sovereign above their own populations, trusting to gerrymandered districts and conservative courts to back them up. We all talk about the wave of voter suppression laws Republicans are backing, but sometimes lost in that are the other measures they’re taking, like purging GOP election officials who followed the law and their integrity. In Arizona, the GOP legislature voted to curb the electoral powers of the Secretary of State—a Democrat—only until 2022, so they can give the powers back if a Republican beats her.
In Missouri and Florida, GOP legislatures have gone even further. Their state constitutions permit for laws to be passed by referenda, and in the past election cycle their citizens voted to expand Medicaid and permit felons to vote, respectively. How have the legislatures responded? By refusing to pass the laws needed to implement the referenda.
To be clear, I’m not a big believer in referenda. They tend to be poorly phrased and ill-considered in context with other laws on the books. I prefer my politics to be handled by competing elites who regularly submit their work for the review and endorsement of the people via democratic elections—you know, a democratic republic.
But if your state constitution provides for popular referenda, you’d better goddamn respect the goddamned referenda. The will of the people is the highest law, and all that. A legislature that will look at a referendum and say, “well, that’s just their opinion” feels no accountability to the state and people they’ve sworn an oath to.
If the vote suppression and manipulation of the counting by compliant election officials don’t work, Republicans are preparing themselves simply to say that the “certification” of an election by the legislature is the real electoral decision—the voters’ choice is just… advice. They will field test this approach in 2022, and if they get away with it and retake the House, then in 2024 Dems can win the votes for House, Senate, and Presidency and still be declared the losers. And we will stop being a democracy.
At this rate, we’ll already be able to say by the end of 2021 that about a dozen U.S. states no longer are democracies in any meaningful sense of the word—they’re more like herrenvolk democracies, where only the “true citizens” of the preferred in-group have any influence over a one-party government. This minority of states has enough power to take over the federal government through quasi-legal chicanery. I would dearly like to see some international democracy organization like Freedom House do a state-by-state breakdown of the state of democracy in the U.S., as opposed to treating our continent-sized country as just one polity.
So, what’s the plan? You’re asking me? Let’s talk Star Wars instead.
The Big Idea
A few weeks ago, legendary director J.J. Abrams, who famously helmed both The Force Awakens to great success and The Rise of Skywalker to—well, mixed reviews—made an extraordinary statement:
“You just never really know, but having a plan I have learned – in some cases the hard way – is the most critical thing, because otherwise you don’t know what you’re setting up. You don’t know what to emphasize. Because if you don’t know the inevitable of the story, you’re just as good as your last sequence or effect or joke or whatever, but you want to be leading to something inevitable.”
Star Wars fan or not, I urge you to read the article. It’s a model for understanding why planning matters.
I’m sure a lot of disappointed Star Wars fans read this piece and said, “Are you fucking kidding me?!? You’re saying you took a multi-billion dollar enterprise—and my childhood—and you fucking winged it?!?”
Well, yeah, looks like it! Disney decided to have three different directors make three different movies, presumably so they could accelerate the production process. Abrams nailed The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi’s director, Rian Johnson, made a critically-acclaimed movie that at the same time moved away from much of what people traditionally associated with Star Wars. The third film’s director, Colin Trevorrow, was writing Episode IX, called Duel of the Fates, when he left Star Wars for still-unclear reasons, and the baton was passed back to Abrams to make Rise of Skywalker instead. Abrams certainly couldn’t have had a plan for the trilogy since it was never meant to have one guiding creative vision, but he does claim to have had thoughts on what Episode IX should look like, and we have to take his word for that, whether we like that vision or not.
What I loved about this article is that it combined two things I’m passionate about: Star Wars and planning. I spend much of my days trying to convince people that plans don’t need to be restrictive and limiting—that’s what bad plans are. Good plans are liberating—they give context to what you’re doing so that you can take the initiative to adjust when necessary. The distinction between the two generally is the degree of collaboration involved in the planning process.
Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “Plans are nothing, but planning is everything.” What he meant by this is that yes, the plan will fall apart as soon as it encounters reality, but the process of people sitting together to work through their understanding of a problem, and the best approach to solving it, allows everyone involved to figure out the best thing to do when the plan goes to hell. Ike’s greatest planning achievement, D-Day, succeeded because, despite everything that went wrong, thousands of young men understood what they were supposed to do and why. Knowing that, they could carry out their mission even when unable to communicate with others; or, if unable to carry out the intended mission, they could figure out the next best thing to do. That combination of well-informed small choices was enough to succeed, and that’s how great plans work.
So what makes for great plans, and what should our current leadership—or designers of future Star Wars sagas—think about in future planning? I’ve taught planning, but I can’t fit a full training course into a MSU article. I can, however, offer some thoughts.
Backwards Planning: The first sign of a bad plan is one that starts from where you are and moves forward. This type of planning wraps you up in today’s challenges and doesn’t think about what’s needed to really get where you want to go. Good planners imagine what success would look like, and then work backwards from that to figure out how they get there from where they are now. This approach is more likely to show you gaps and obstacles, and not get hung up in immediate concerns about your current situation, where your end goal might seem insurmountable. Ike got a very specific end-state: “the destruction of the German armed forces.” He just had to then visualize how he achieved it.
In Star Wars, this would have meant sitting all three sequel trilogy directors down at the beginning and saying, “how does this trilogy end?” Each director could then go off and make their own movie confident that it was leading to an agreed outcome that came together as one saga.
In current American politics, Democrats are arguing about their understood end-states, they just don’t realize it. Some accept they no longer are dealing with an opposition that’s following the rules of democracy; others are committed to believing we are still working in a two-party democratic system. Some others are looking to a democratic socialist future. They need a shared understanding of what they want the U.S political system to look like in 5-10 years.
Assumptions: people in planning processes have an amazing ability to state opinions as if they are facts, like “the Afghan government will curb corruption.” When planning, it’s essential you distinguish facts from assumptions. There’s nothing wrong with assumptions—we live our lives around assumptions, like that the people we say we’ll meet will show up on time—but it gets really dangerous when assumptions get confused for facts. Good planners are clear about what their assumptions are, how they will test them, and what they will do if the assumptions prove wrong.
One assumption might be, “all my beloved older actors will live long enough to finish my Star Wars sequel trilogy.” If you take that as a fact, you might be up a creek when, say, Carrie Fisher dies. If you recognized the possibility she or Harrison Ford or Mark Hamill might not survive, and you know the end state of your plot, you can develop an alternate story line that gets you to that end without relying on that actor.
Another assumption might be, “the Republican Party will or won’t be a credible partner in a democratic two-party system.” Whichever one you believe true, it’s smart to have a plan to know when you’ll decide you’re wrong, and what you’ll do in that case. Senator Manchin, call me for help on this.
SMART: any plan needs a whole series of actions that, synchronized together, fulfill the plan’s ultimate goal. When assessing a particular idea for an action, it’s a good idea to ask, is the action Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely?
SMART goals for the Star Wars sequel trilogy would be: Rey is or isn’t forming a new Jedi Order; Finn is or isn’t Force-sensitive and following Rey; or Poe is or isn’t replacing Leia as the political leader of a new republic.
SMART goals in Democratic politics could be: count on good policy and Trump craziness to keep college-educated whites in your corner to buoy you in the 2022 and 2024 elections; or start preparing for massive civil resistance in anticipation of democratic election results being overthrown by GOP minority governments.
Narrative: Much of the planning in our lives is what the military would call “tactical” or “operational;” I’m making a plan to do this thing, and when I’ve done it, I’m done. This is what we’re used to because it works in most things, but it fails governments and individuals at the strategic level. It doesn’t work for governments because while we know no state lasts forever, none of us plan to see ours end on our watch. In relations with other states, it’s very hard to “plan” relations with, say, France, when we’ve had good relations for 200 years, and hope to have them for another 200. It doesn’t work for people because, well, our end-state is death, and though we’ll all “achieve” it eventually, we actively plan against that. And in our relations with others—well, how do you “plan” for an “end-state” in your marriage?
“Narrative” is the planning short-hand for a plan to achieve and maintain a certain situation, like great power status or personal success. It’s called “narrative” because it frames strategy from the question of, “how do you want to be perceived, and what will you have to do to achieve that perception?” It’s how you tell the story of yourself that you want others to believe. An effective, if slightly morbid, approach to this in your personal life would be to write your own obituary, and then figure out what you need to do to be that person.
Democrats clearly are torn over their narrative just now. Some just want to create a calming narrative that it’s been a little crazy with Trump, but overall things are normal, and we’re going to pursue good, normal policies to build popularity in our existing, well-functioning political system. Others are ready to say we’re in a cold civil war with a violent extremist opponent, and we need to act accordingly. Which narrative you choose shapes your actions.
Fortunately, it’s very clear you can’t mess up the Star Wars narratives with just some controversial movies. I think Abrams came perilously close in Rise of Skywalker, which became almost totally Rey-centric. Star Wars at its core is about the families we make for ourselves, and Rise of Skywalker really imbalanced that theme by focusing too much on Rey while marginalizing Poe, Finn, and Rose. I think the other key narrative of Star Wars is that’s it’s a multigenerational family experience, so I think the other way you’d ruin it is through R-rated films with graphic sex or violence. PG-13 is as edgy as it needs to get.
Sorry, probably none of this is going to help deal with Joe Manchin. But it sure would be a good idea to have a plan that doesn’t depend on him or Kyrsten Sinema.
Next edition, brace for a deep dive into security sector reform with a book review.
Security Sector Reform
Diaspora cultural groups are great. They really are! But as an Irish-American, when I hear about diaspora groups doing paramilitary training… I have questions.
Meet the Pennsylvania state senator who’s a good case study in Christian extremist insurgency. He’s with WHISIS—The White State.
White supremacy is deeply tied to violent rightist extremism, but that doesn’t mean all violent rightist extremists are white. It’s not my place to psychoanalyze this phenomenon, merely to note its existence.
Most ideas marketed as “Uber for X” are bad ideas. Security is no exception.
Overall, journalists are failing to recognize the danger our country is in. This Pennsylvania news team is setting the right example.
Congressman Chris Maloney has lessons learned from 2020 for Dems: 1. A lot of Trump voters won’t talk to pollsters; 2. Not doing enough to shore up vulnerable candidates; 3. Too much spent on legacy media and not enough on social media. I’d add 4. The Dems unilaterally gave up their ground game for COVID precautions.
Yale Professor Timothy Snyder wrote the incomparable “On Tyranny,” and he’s still right in his nightmares right now. The Big Lie is an attack on the core of our country more dangerous than 9/11.
Building bridges doesn’t just demand the courage of combat engineers. Nathan Bomey talks about how you approach divides with opponents productively.
What’s the big deal about Critical Race Theory? It’s the intellectual underpinning behind the idea of systemic racism, and systemic racism is a direct attack on white self-identity. Adam Harris has a good take on it.
Now that I’m doing MSU monthly, and I no longer need the old “Welcome to the Party, Pal” section for writers just starting to see America’s dangers, I need to cut back on the amount of mainstream media I throw at you, lest this become an unwieldy newsletter. But occasionally I’m going to see something like Max Fisher’s “Belonging is Stronger Than Facts” in The New York Times and pass it on.
Dan Drezner needs to be another exception, reminding us that a lot of people find they can live just fine in an authoritarian state. But he’s not a total pessimist. And at least we aren’t dealing with zombies.
Okay okay okay two more! Read about how a GOP whackjob thinks the COVID vaccine makes you magnetic, then marvel at how Trump supporters keep falling for con artists.
Barack Obama once told supporters in the Bronx that if they really wanted to help him, they’d move to North Dakota. But see how in Texas, an influx that’s probably left-leaning likely will entrench rightist power.
Take a look at the best 2020 electoral analysis yet. BLUF: voting surged, Trump made surprising but insufficient inroads among Blacks and Hispanics, and college-educated whites broke for Biden.
Marc Elias is the judicial sword and shield of voting rights. His take on the Big Lie is worth a read.
Dan Pfeiffer has great advice on how not to be a well-intentioned spreader of disinformation. For the love of God, learn how to screen-shot!
Vox’s Sean Illing asks political scientist David Faris about his level of concern regarding American democracy. Faris: “My current level of concern is exploring countries to move to after 2024.” But where does he think democracy will hold out, if not here? Europe? Have you seen how Europe is doing?
It is really depressing to think we need The Carter Center involved in U.S. domestic politics, but at least Nathan Stock had a good plan and put it into action. Sadly, it looks like Carter Center struggled to find a conservative partner to cooperate with.
Finally, you will find few braver Americans than Ralph Puckett. Read what the 94-year-old Medal of Honor recipient has to say, and draw your own conclusions.
Other ideas or contributions for MSU? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow MSU on Twitter @MoreStableUnion. Share with all your friends so they can subscribe at morestableunion.substack.com. Please get vaccinated and enjoy your summer!