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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Prisoners on both sides

With a guestimated net worth of $200 billion, Vladimir Putin has been described as ‘maybe’ the richest person on Earth. Step aside, Jeff Bezos. Of course, we’ll never know the truth. There’s no doubt, however, that like many oligarchs in Russia, Putin has done very well for himself. I find it interesting that, wealthy though he may already be, he’s just orchestrated constitutional changes that could see him in charge of the country for the rest of his life. I ask, “why?” Why would he feel the need to remain in power? Is it lust for power or is something else at play?

I expect that Putin has done a fair amount of looking around in recent years. He must have seen what happens to deposed dictators who have amassed great personal wealth from corrupt activities. Hussein. Gaddafi. Marcos. Which country would give him refuge? None that I can see. His fate may mirror that of Czar Nicholas II, whose own cousin, King George V, refused him refuge. What would happen to all the wealth he has accumulated? If he is swept aside, for certain, significant steps will be taken to recover ill-gotten property on behalf of the state.

As chief warden, Vladimir Putin has ironically created his own prison. He must remain in power or risk losing everything. In my view, he has no other choice.

Donald Trump became president by adopting a strategy with two key elements. First, divide the country into two opposing halves, one a ‘victim’ of the other. Then work to assure that the ‘other’ doesn’t show up on election day. Apathy is a wonderful tool when employed properly. Only 55.7% of eligible voters participated in the 2016 presidential election. 46.1% of these voters chose Donald Trump. This means that just 25.7% of eligible voters chose the current president. While it appears that much of Trump’s ‘base’ remains loyal to him, his divisive strategy in 2016 leaves the potential size of his available support in 2020 limited by definition. By adopting an “us or them” tactic, he has successfully alienated half of the voting population. With Hillary Clinton as his opponent, herself not a unifying party candidate, Trump was successful in exploiting apathy on the part of Democrats at the voting booth.

Success in the advance polls is not an indicator of success on election day. The key to success is in the turnout. Bringing out your supporters, and depressing (or suppressing) voter turnout on the other side, is what wins elections.

Trump currently appears to be pursuing the same strategy for the 2020 election as he did in 2016. Why? Why does he persist in starting a race with a maximum potential of less than 50%? Why would anyone opt to handicap his upside? My best answer is that he no longer has a choice. He made his bed in 2016 and he has chosen to sleep in it. This was not entirely inevitable, though, as the opportunity to unify and lead the nation over the past six months has been real and significant. Had Trump chosen to re-frame the Coronavirus crisis as an opportunity, his chances for re-election would have been much greater than they are now. Unfortunately for everyone, that opportunity was frittered away, and he, himself, remains a prisoner of that choice.

His appeal to the base is so well defined that any effort to broaden this appeal risks the optics of betrayal. He committed himself and feels there’s no going back. By all estimates, he’s done nothing to bring more supporters inside the tent, leaving 25.7% of eligible voters as his top end… unless he can tip the scales on voter participation, bringing more of his supporters to the polls, and fewer of those for Joe Biden.

Among non-voters in 2016, 55% identified as Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents. In contrast, just 41% of non-voters in that election identified as Republicans or Republican-leaning independents. This difference is huge. This difference is why Donald Trump is the current president. If the Democratic party can set aside its internal ideological segmentation for one day in November, Trump will be a one-term president. Fool me once, shame on you… Unfortunately, the old adage may once again be proven true: “I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

But I digress. My point here is that, like Putin, Donald Trump has locked himself in. He has no choice in strategy. While many pundits describe the country as paralyzed by Trump’s actions and inactions, I think it’s fair to say that there are prisoners on both sides. I give Putin better odds for success, but wouldn’t trade for either man’s position.

Speaking of prisons, Mass Incarceration, has risen to new heights as the answer to crime, leaving American society, itself, imprisoned. More than 2,600 of every 100,000 adults in the United States are within the correctional system (prison, jail, probation, or parole). For context, this compares to just 450 per 100,000 adults in Canada. I can hear Malcolm Gladwell chanting in the background, “Tipping Point! Tipping Point!”

Those in power have decided that prisons are the best way to deal with crime. They are willing to spend great sums of money to “get rid of the problem”. The problem with their thinking is that it’s limited in scope and creates more problems than it solves. It does not consider that recidivism is much higher for those sent to prison. It does not consider that criminal behaviour peaks at the age of 17, and tails off dramatically by the age of thirty. It does not consider the social costs beyond imprisonment, including poverty in affected families (which in itself contributes to generational cycling of poverty, crime, prison, poverty, crime, prison, and so on). It does not consider the loss in productivity to the economy for millions of affected people, and for the millions of members of their families. Failure to understand and quantify the full cost of mass incarceration now confronts decision makers with the need to ask and answer the question, “is there a better way?” The correctional system must be re-imagined from the ground floor up, starting with social programs, education, and equal rights.

This anchor is a heavy one for society to carry around. When the number of people in the correctional system creeps up as a proportion of the total adult population, there comes a (tipping) point where the rest of society also becomes imprisoned. Everyone pays for these decisions. There are prisoners on both sides.

Mutually Assured Destruction is the doctrine where opposing sides are locked in a stand-off from which an attack by one would result in equal response by the other, assuring total destruction of both sides. WarGames, the 1983 Matthew Broderick movie, explored the escalating nature of thermonuclear MAD to the point of discovery that, the only way to win was “not to play”. Participants on both sides of MAD are each prisoners of their own decision “to play”. For the modern-day domestic version of MAD, please refer to the NRA.

Pi equals 3.14, but pi is not equal to pie. Winner-takes-all is a concept that leans heavily on the premise that the size of a pie is fixed and that the event is, by definition, necessarily one of competition between winners and losers. What this mindset fails to consider is that πr2, not π, defines the size of the pie. The wider the radius, the greater the number of participants, contributors, and beneficiaries. Pies are not necessarily fixed in size. Zero sum in an optimal and productive relationship does not exist. This is especially so for international relations, where the win-lose proposition ultimately leads to a lose-lose outcome. Win-win negotiation can be the only strategy for success. Zero sum creates a prison of choice, and there are prisoners on both sides.

Every decision I make creates the potential for my own imprisonment. Every choice I make takes one or more options off the table. Education or early entry to the workforce. Stay home or travel. Tucker Carlson or Fareed Zakaria (easy choice). Mask or no mask. Haagen Dazs or an hour on the bike (not always such an easy choice). Sleep or play with words (it’s now 3:21 a.m.). Wrestle with idiot pigs or stay off Facebook. I do like to wrestle with pigs…

Many words later, here’s the thing.

Judging idiots… no, judging fools… no, Judging Others… as easy as it often seems to be, creates an idiotic and foolish prison for me. When I do so, a door is closed, and opportunity is lost – opportunity: for dialogue; for learning how and what others think; for productive cooperation; and for the potential to create something of lasting beauty.

By one choice or another, we are all in a collection of prisons… some our own creations, others imposed on us.

Note to self: choose wisely. History is a harsh judge.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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