Will US Mid-Term Elections become the Battle of Existential Threats?

In the July issue of the Analytic Insider, I hypothesized that in the months leading up to the November 2022 mid-term elections, Americans would turn away from their preoccupation with inflation, gas prices, COVID-19, and the availability of infant formula to focus more on what they perceived as “existential threats.” How correct was this prognosis? In conducting my own Foresight Analysis, was my understanding of key drivers correct?

For conservatives, the term existential threat often appears in discussions about:

  • Societal change that is fundamentally challenging our Christian values, long-established social norms and traditions, and even the “look” of the towns where we grew up.
  • Immigration policies that allow for an “unregulated border” with Mexico, allowing drugs, terrorists, and criminals to cross in growing numbers.
  • Abortion laws that do not protect the life of the unborn—and some would say even life from the moment of conception.
  • Gun control measures that undermine our second amendment rights to own guns (including assault rifles).

Liberals, for their part, have increasingly adopted the phrase when discussing:  

  • Abortion restrictions spurred by the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade, state legislation to disallow exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the mother; and federal law to ban abortions country-wide.
  • Gun violence threatening the lives ofour school children.
  • Climate change that poses a rapidly accelerating threat to the earth.
  • The right to vote—or even to have one’s vote counted–that is being eroded in many states.

Rating the Prediction

After peaking in June, the price of gasoline has declined for almost 100 straight days—from $5.02 to under $3.70, inflation eased but then rebounded, supply chain problems eased, and infant formula is available. Meanwhile, President Biden signed major bills into law that over time will mitigate the cost of living by increasing medical insurance availability, reduce the price of prescription drugs, and launch the largest green energy program in the history of the United States.

The biggest shift over the past three months, however, is the increasingly sharp debate over existential threats.

  • The Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has galvanized both the right (to legislate more restrictive abortion regulations) and the left (to challenge these state laws in court and implement executive measures to limit their impact). In many states, women are registering to vote in unprecedented numbers for candidates who believe women should have control over their bodies. Many Americans were stunned when Nebraska law enforcement authorities decided to prosecute a 17-year-old girl in early August with three felonies for using a mail-order abortion pill and burying the miscarried fetus. Senator Lindsay Graham’s proposed legislation to pass a nationwide ban on abortion after 15 days has further enflamed debate.
  • Volatile weather produced by global climate change is dominating the news with reports of massive floods, uncontrolled wildfires, and more recently crisis-level droughts in the United States, Europe, and China. Since the end of July, six 1,000-year rain events have hit the United States. Meanwhile, sections of Los Angeles are losing access to Colorado River water. Los Angeles, which gets 40% of its water from the Colorado, is imposing increasingly drastic restrictions of water consumption, especially in urban areas. An above-average season for hurricanes is predicted with at least four major hurricanes expected.
  • Mass shootings once again dominated the headlines in July. Seven were killed and many wounded at a July 4 parade in Highland Park, Illinois, just as coverage of the 10 shot in Buffalo and 21 killed in Uvalde, Texas was beginning to fade. In an 5-9 August Gallup Poll, 3 in 10 respondents said they fear for their child’s safety in school. Death threats are becoming common place, and as the political rhetoric heats up so does the potential for a political assassination.
  • A new gun controversy emerged in mid-August as Republican office holders and conservative commentators began making false claims that the 87,000 soon to be hired IRS agents will be carrying high-powered guns and taking guns away from US citizens.
  • Press attention is growing on the impact of voter restrictions in red states. In a 22 August NBC News poll, 21% of respondents ranked threats to democracy as the most important issue facing the country, followed by 16% who cited the cost of living, and 14% who said jobs and the economy.
  • Immigration is once again capturing the headlines with Florida Governor DeSantis’s move to fly migrants legally seeking asylum in Texas to Martha’s Vineyard and Texas Governor Abbott’s efforts to bus migrants to the Vice President’s home, Chicago, and other cities.

Early indications are that the growing polarization of society and the growth of an “us versus them” culture will stimulate increasingly angry political discourse. Tensions will be exacerbated by disinformation campaigns propagated on social media and broadcast channels and reinforced by echo chambers. The coming months could become the Battle of Existential Threats.

  • Politicians on the left and the right will be tempted to adopt Destructionist rhetoric by stoking fear (both legitimate and illegitimate), inciting anger, and motivating core constituents to seek salvation by voting for them.
  • A Constructionist “way forward” out of this conundrum would require new approaches for reducing the impact of disinformation campaigns. In addition, laws against threatening public officials need to be enforced more vigorously, especially in the wake of recent threats to assassinate the Attorney General and kill FBI and law enforcement officials following the FBI’s seizure of classified documents at the former President’s Mar-a-Lago estate. Other potential solutions would be to spur greater media coverage of constructionist solutions; elect new leaders committed to solving, not capitalizing on, the nation’s problems; and refocus public debate on the key drivers that are exacerbating the polarization of society (for a discussion of these key drivers see the May issue of the Analytic Insider).

You can learn more about the use of Foresight Analysis to anticipate the potential for dramatic political change in Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, 3rd ed. (2021)

Healthcare Analysis: United States vs. Iceland

Randy Pherson, Co-Founder & Managing Partner

Since 2020, I have documented my experience with healthcare systems, both in the United States (How to Get the Right Diagnosis: 16 Tips for Navigating the Medical System) and in Iceland (October 2021 Analytic Insider article).
 
Unfortunately, I was hospitalized earlier this month, and while a health crisis is never welcome, it provided an opportunity to apply my expertise once again to healthcare analysis. Having had recent hospital stays in both Iceland and the United States, I decided to assess the extent to which Iceland’s best practices are replicated by the US medical system. My disappointing conclusion is that, in many ways, the US system falls short, mostly for structural reasons.
 
My observations below are based on anecdotal evidence, but I suspect they reflect common experiences across the country because they are largely structural in nature. The five Icelandic best practices are: Incentivize doctors to avoid becoming captives of their specialty. Encourage all team members to challenge assumptions. Listen to and partner with the patient. Consider and test for multiple hypotheses. Foster a robust collaborative team effort. Overspecialization. Over the course of my sojourn in Iceland, I was attended by doctors representing nine specialties, but was impressed by the willingness of these doctors to think outside their area of expertise. The Icelandic doctors said they felt empowered by their system of medicine to consider the broader context of someone’s condition and were free to focus on getting the right diagnosis.

Unfortunately, US doctors are often prevented from thinking outside the “box” of their specialty due to fear of litigation and financial/professional damage.

Key Assumptions. With complex cases, it is important not to discard a hypothesis prematurely. In Iceland, two initial assumptions that made sense turned out to be wrong, and one that appeared implausible turned out to be correct. The team discovered these errors because a culture had been established in which anyone—regardless of rank—could raise questions and challenge expert judgment.

In the United States, complicated health care is put in the hands of specialists who rarely challenge the opinions of other doctors, especially if that doctor represents a different discipline. For example, pulmonologists are reluctant to challenge cardiologists, and infectious disease specialists do not outwardly challenge the recommendations of a rheumatologist. Many even are reluctant to question more senior doctors in their discipline. For legal and administrative reasons, doctors face strong disincentives to question another doctor’s key assumptions or analysis.

Listening.  In Iceland, the first question my doctors and nurses asked me was “How are you feeling?” When I mentioned a symptom that did not fit their pattern of what could be wrong, they explored the discrepancy and did not ignore it.

In the United States, almost every doctor and nurse wanted more time to consider inconsistent data but simply lacked the time. I could see them actively managing how much time they could take to listen (often restricted to 10-15 minutes) versus breaking loose from me to work their way through an intimidating case load. My experience with US health care is that healthcare workers are encouraged to increase revenue by processing more cases more quickly.

Multiple Hypotheses. In Iceland, the doctors and nurses worked as a group to generate a list of candidate alternative diagnoses (think of the TV show House). Instead of testing the hypotheses in a serial fashion, they conducted synchronous evaluations. As a result, the diagnostic process was much more efficient.

In the United States hospitals are similarly inclined to consider multiple potential diagnoses but more likely to test each hypothesis sequentially to reduce risk and legal liability. In my experience, out-of-hospital care is almost entirely based on a model of sequential treatment.

Collaboration. What impressed me in Iceland was the robust culture of collaboration demonstrated by everyone associated with my case. On at least three occasions, a panel of doctors, nurses, and even technicians convened to brainstorm diagnoses, decide on the best treatment, and estimate a discharge date. Over 18 days, I was seen by 12 doctors, and the transfer of knowledge was smooth and comprehensive. They managed to collaborate so effectively probably because their system was not driven by the need to optimize revenue generation.

Earlier this month in the United States, I was also treated by a team of 12 doctors, but they had to struggle more to collaborate. Numerous structural obstacles had to be overcome, including difficulties sharing information across various data systems, communicating with and engaging out-of-hospital consultants with in-hospital doctors, and administrative dictates that doctors stay within their procedural lanes.

In sum, my most recent health emergency reinforced my concerns—shared by most of the doctors and nurses I consulted—that the US system is fundamentally and structurally broken. The challenges US doctors and nurses increasingly face are driving many to opt out of the profession. They do not believe the system will be improved; too many are literally counting the days before they can retire. The implications for medical practice of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will seriously aggravate this problem. Learn what you can do as a patient to help overcome these challenges by reading my book, How to Get the Right Diagnosis: 16 Tips for Navigating the Medical System.

Has the Supreme Court Sparked a Battle of Existential Threats?

Over the past three years, the media has dramatically increased use of the term “existential threat.” I suspect this reflects the growing polarization of society and the growth of an “us versus them” culture, exacerbated by disinformation propagated on social media and broadcast channels and reinforced by echo chambers. The term and the threats cited could emerge as key drivers defining the political dialogue as the country moves toward mid-term elections in November. The early identification of key drivers is one of the most challenging—and rewarding—tasks in Foresight Analysis.

On the right, the phrase often appears in discussions about the following topics:

  • Societal change is posing an existential threat, fundamentally challenging our national heritage, Christian values, long-established social norms and traditions, and even the “look” of the town where we were born and raised.
  • Gun control measures pose an existential threat to our second amendment rights to own guns (including assault rifles). We need our guns to defend ourselves and our families and to resist an oppressive government should that day come.
  • Abortion poses an existential threat to life of the unborn—some say even from the moment of conception. The Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade opens the door to defend life by enacting legislation needed to outlaw abortion, contraception, and in vitro fertilization in all states.
  • Immigrants crossing America’s “unregulated open border” with Mexico pose an existential threat to our national identity, maintaining law and order, and keeping the cost of health care and social services in check.

Those on the left, for their part, have increasingly adopted the phrase when making the following arguments:   

  • Abortion restrictions spurred by the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade pose an existential threat to women’s rights to be in control of their own bodies. Not allowing abortions in the case of incest, rape, or risk to life or protecting life from the point of conception impose totally unacceptable burdens to women’s lives and livelihoods.
  • Gun violence poses an existential threat to everyone, including our school children and worshipers at churches and synagogues. The Supreme Court recently loosened open carry restrictions, and mass shootings with powerful guns are now so common that anyone could become a victim. Over the 4th of July weekend, the Gun Violence Archive reported shootings in nearly every state—including 11 mass shootings—killing 220 people.
    The right to vote is being rapidly eroded as many states are creating obstacles to registration and even allowing election boards to override the popular vote. This poses a fundamental threat to democracy and an existential threat to our rights as citizens. Americans could wake up in 2022 or 2024 living in a world where democratic norms and even the rule of law no longer apply, people’s votes no longer count, and long cherished freedoms are eroded by newly selected autocrats.
  • Climate change is accelerating, posing an existential threat not only to our children and grandchildren but even to current generations. The threat is not being addressed effectively, and the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Executive authority to limit carbon emissions could block global efforts not to exceed more than a 1.5 percent increase in global temperature. With this court decision, we are likely to approach in a few years—not decades–an irreversible tipping point in preserving a sustainable environment.

In the coming months, the rhetoric is almost certain to heat up in the wake of new abortion legislation spurred by the Supreme Court decision, continuing or even accelerating reports of mass slayings, a summer immigration surge, prohibitions on limiting carbon emissions, and mounting reports of voter disenfranchisement as the 2022 mid-term elections approach.

This focus on existential threats would be accelerated if current concerns about inflation, gasoline prices, COVID-19, and the availability of baby formula wane. That would require the Federal Reserve to get inflation under control, gas prices to fall as supply increases, COVID-19 to evolve into just another endemic flu, and baby formula to return to store shelves.

Under such circumstances, media reporting could shift to covering demonstrations and debate over what people proclaim as more pressing existential threats. The months preceding the November elections could emerge as The Battle of Existential Threats. Politicians on the left and the right could adopt Destructionist rhetoric by stoking fear (both legitimate and illegitimate), inciting anger, and motivating core constituents to seek salvation by voting for them. Most election ads would label the 2022 mid-term and the 2024 election as “do or die,” “us versus them” events that would do irreversible damage to society if the other side won. And whoever does win would find it almost impossible to reunite the country.

A Constructionist “way forward” out of this conundrum would require fresh leadership, new controls over the dissemination of disinformation, and a refocusing of public debate on the key drivers that prompted such polarization (for a discussion of these key drivers see last the May issue of the Analytic Insider). Key drivers cited in that article that deserve attention include:

  • Decreased trust in institutions and news reporting
  • The growing influence of social media as a political mobilization tool
  • Increased popular anxiety over social change, the pace of globalization, and introduction of new technologies

Learn more about the use of Foresight techniques to anticipate the potential for dramatic political change by reading Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis.

Is the United States Heading Toward Radical Political Change?

Is the United States Heading Toward Radical Political Change?

In Analytic Insider issues published in 2016 and 2020, we explored whether the American system of governance will undergo a major transformation in the coming decade. Using Strategic Foresight Analysis, I identified six drivers that played a major role in the 2016 presidential campaign and now appear to be even more influential today:

  • Increased popular anxiety over social change, the pace of globalization, and introduction of new technologies
  • Decreased trust in institutions and news reporting
  • Heightened focus on personalities rather than issues
  • The impact of big money in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling
  • The diminished influence of political parties
  • The growing influence of social media as a political mobilization tool

These forces and factors can be represented in large part by two independent spectrums (see graphic below). Each spectrum is defined by:

  • Who is best positioned to leverage political capital? Institutions (to include political parties and Congress) or personalities (to include wealthy candidates and major donors)?
  • How will decisions be made and future conflicts be resolved? Through democratic processes or by more authoritarian means?

Arraying these spectrums on an X and a Y axis enables us to generate four mutually exclusive stories or scenarios describing how the US political system of governance could change radically in the next decade.

Were the projected scenarios we developed in 2016 prescient or off the mark? Events of the past six years suggest that all four scenarios are just as—or even more—likely to describe how radical political change could come about. Their continuing viability indicates the quality and power of the initial key drivers. The question is: Which one best represents the future?

Scenario 1. Autocratic Rule: A Near Miss but a Serious Possibility

Growing levels of social discomfort and increasing political polarization has opened the door for the emergence of an autocrat—be it former President Trump or another who takes up his mantle, hailed as a “political savior” by a majority of the population. The events of January 6 almost made this scenario a reality. Last fall, Pro-Publica identified 48 Republican state and local officials as members of the militant extremist Oath Keepers group. A 13 May 2022 study by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights that tracks right-wing extremism found that 875 of 4,375 Republican state legislators surveyed (about 1 in 5) were members of 789 far-right Facebook groups such as white supremacists, anti-abortionists, Sovereign Citizens, and neo-Confederates. Not included in this far-right category were such groups as the NRA, pro-Trump, or Make America Great Again (MAGA) groups.

A key driver for these movements is the perceived “existential” threat to traditional values and ways of life. A key factor fueling this scenario would be the ascent of far-right politicians and administrators through elections and appointments who are willing to subvert established norms and laws. Such candidates would tap nativist sentiments, silence the press, offer simple solutions, subvert existing institutions, and create or spur social media outlets to promote their agenda and reinforce a cult of personality.

 Scenario 2. One Party Rule: Early Traction but Another Near Miss

When the Democratic Party gained control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress in 2020, enactment of a fully funded Build Back Better program could have generated substantial momentum for this scenario. But failure to pass the program in the Senate put the party into a tailspin. President Biden’s popularity has since fallen to 39 percent as inflation surges over 8 percent, COVID becomes endemic, and families face baby formula shortages.

In the unlikely event, however, that the Republican Party experiences dramatic losses in the 2022 or 2024 election, a Democratic resurgence could make this scenario plausible. Such a turn in events would probably be triggered by Democrats galvanizing support around perceived “existential” issues including abortion, voting rights, climate change, or the institution/promise of policies that offer economic relief to inflation (e.g., childcare support). In this scenario, over time the populace would opt for a more authoritarian—yet still “democratically” based—replacement for today’s increasingly dysfunctional two-party system.

 Scenario 3. Established Multi-Party System: Early Signs It Could Emerge

Over the past six years, the Republican Party has become increasingly divided. It could split into three factions: 1) one based on the MAGA politics of Trumpism, 2) a more traditional conservative faction, and 3) an evangelical Christian faction. Serious divisions are growing in the Democratic Party as well, as progressives champion more leftist policies and gain greater influence in Congress. Democratic centrists are increasingly being contested by progressives in primary elections. Any new political parties that emerge, however, would have to develop independent political machines and sources of funding, and instill new administrative procedures that allowed them to contest elections at the state and local level.

 Scenario 4. Celebrity Democracy. A Growing (but Sustainable?) Trend

As the influence of political parties wanes, candidates for elected office have increasingly been drawn into the political process from the ranks of millionaires, celebrities, or charismatic individuals supported by extremely rich donors. Witness ex-New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s run for the presidency in 2020 and the candidacies of TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick, and athletes Hershel Walker and Caitlyn Jenner.

In this scenario, democratic processes would be retained, but the ability of political parties to orchestrate who runs for elective office would erode. Success would be measured mostly by a candidate’s “popularity” and not his or her ability to govern. This scenario would become less viable if people concluded that celebrities were incapable of governing well.

A simple analysis of the matrix reveals that the more the key drivers propel US politics to the top-right corner of the matrix (and away from the bottom-left corner) the healthier the political system. The question is how will these drivers play out? A common mental mistake is to assume that change will be gradual or incremental. The coming years could prove that wrong!

Learn how to generate key drivers and use Foresight techniques by attending our Foresight workshop, The Impact of Global Climate Change on Law Enforcement and Security Forces to be held prior to the IAFIE conference in Treviso, Italy on 18-19 June 2022. Click here for details and registration.

How Active is the Insurrectionist Movement in the United States?

How Active is the Insurrectionist Movement in the United States?

For decades, I have tracked political instability and insurgencies around the globe, assuming that the indicators I developed would never have relevance for the United States. The events of January 6, 2021 led me to challenge that assumption, speculating that the same dynamic might now be occurring within our borders. I decided to apply the indicators developed for foreign countries in the past to our present circumstances in the United States.

Following the January 2021 attack on the Capitol, I surveyed a dozen colleagues, asking them to rate 19 indicators of incipient insurgency or insurrection (based on the definitions provided below) during the time period subsequent to the November 2020 presidential election. The matrix below organizes the indicators into five categories, and displays my colleagues’ responses over time. In January 2021, their informal, consensus view generated an overall rating of Medium as shown by the M in the chart.


DEFINITIONS

In January 2021, insurgency—or, in today’s terms, insurrection—was defined as “a protracted political-military activity directed toward completely or partially controlling the resources of a country through the use of irregular military forces and illegal political organizations.” Such activity is designed to weaken government legitimacy and control while increasing insurgent power, legitimacy, and control over territory or government institutions.

Insurrectionist activity is distinguishable from terrorist activity because terrorists do not seek to create an alternate government capable of controlling a given area or the country. Insurrectionists also can be distinguished from members of a political movement so long as those members do not aspire to supplant our democratic institutions with a new form of government.


Three months later, we reevaluated the indicators to consider what new information had been revealed by Congress and the press relating to the activities surrounding insurrection. The overall rating moved from Medium to High because four indicators’ ratings changed (as shown in red), resulting in 10 of 19 indicators now rated as High:

  • Oath Keepers cached arms in Arlington, VA for a quick reaction force that could be employed before and after the 6 January attack.
  • Some attackers had radios, gas masks, zip ties, body armor, night vision goggles, and bear spray.
  • The 6 January Congressional investigation uncovered extensive planning involving the White House and at the Willard Hotel and several states for months prior to the attack.

Another indicator was raised from low to medium to reflect subsequent reports of five deaths and more than 140 injuries to police officers. We encourage you to review all the indicators and generate your own set of ratings.

Applying this time-proven “indicators yardstick” to current political dynamics in this country strongly suggests that an incipient insurgency—or in today’s parlance, an insurrectionist movement—has emerged in the United States. The number of active proponents of insurrection may be limited to only hundreds or thousands of citizens, but scoping the size, motivations, and intentions of this movement is a critical challenge that merits further investigation by law enforcement and homeland security analysts.

Insight into how to use Indicators to track future insurrectionist behavior can be found in the Analyst’s Guide to Indicators.

The Ukraine Situation: Producing Analysis Using the Five Habits of the Master Thinker

The attention of the world is focused on Ukraine. If you were an analyst supporting the National Security Council in that region, you would be generating a lot of analysis on extremely short deadlines. In this month’s Analytic Insider, I review how you could leverage the Five Habits of the Master Thinker to assist you in this task.

The Five Habits were developed specifically to help analysts generate a rigorous analysis when there is insufficient time to engage in a Structured Analytic Technique exercise. The Five Habits are:

  • Challenge Your Key Assumptions
  • Consider Alternative Hypotheses
  • Look for Inconsistent Data
  • Identify Key Drivers
  • Understand the Overarching Context

Using the Five Habits of the Master Thinker, I have produced the following analysis. Bear in mind that this analysis was drafted on 21 February, and the situation in Ukraine is likely to change dramatically in subsequent days.

Challenge Your Key Assumptions. As of 21 February, the lead hypothesis is that Russia will launch a large-scale military invasion within days across Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders involving some 200,000 troops with the objective of installing a more Kremlin-friendly government in Kyiv. Key assumptions worthy of challenge include the scale and geographic breadth of the attack, timing, and the overall objective. Other assumptions to challenge are that only Ukraine will be targeted, that China is supportive, that Ukraine forces are unable to offer stiff resistance, and that an invasion must be launched within days or weeks before the ground is no longer frozen.

Consider Alternative Hypotheses. Challenging one’s assumptions allows one to consider a broader range of hypotheses such as:

  • Russian military activity will be concentrated in the east with the primary objective to convert the eastern provinces into a region responsive to Russian interests.
  • An all-out invasion does not happen; instead, we will witness a multifaceted campaign (including lesser attacks by Russian military and rebel forces, major disinformation and deception campaign, cyber attacks, political acts possibly including assassinations, and escalating diplomatic pressure).
  • Putin realizes that he cannot afford another Afghanistan, and concerns about internal dissidence and possible pressure from foreign allies dissuade him from a major invasion and spur him to negotiate a diplomatic solution.
  • Putin launches a large-scale invasion and as soon as sanctions are applied, he launches crippling cyber attacks on NATO states, including the United States, escalating the conflict into a NATO-Russian “soft war.”

The job of the analyst is to develop and track indicators for each scenario and monitor which one appears to be emerging as the most likely trajectory.

Look for Inconsistent Data.  Russian claims in the past week that they are withdrawing some troops from the border are easily disproved by satellite imagery and other inconsistent data that show by the movement of Russian forces right up to the border. The shipment of blood supplies to the border is an even more vivid example of inconsistent data. Looking ahead, potentially “good inconsistent data” would be a continuing failure to launch an invasion and the holding of a US-Russia Summit meeting. The analytic team must take care not to dismiss inconsistent data as noise because it does not support their lead hypothesis.

Identify Key Drivers. In an ideal world, any issue—no matter how complex—can be described in terms of four key drivers. In this instance, some candidate key drivers are:

  • Putin’s determination to reassert Russian dominance over its remaining non-NATO near-neighbors.
  • Whether NATO can remain united.
  • The impact of sanctions (threatened or imposed) on Russia, its economy, political stability, and military capabilities.
  • How the Russian people react to Putin’s actions, particularly if body bags start flowing home and the economy takes a dive.

Understand the Overarching Context. One overarching question is: What is motivating Putin? How has he balanced the costs and benefits to him and Russia of invading Ukraine? Or is he even doing that? Most likely he will be influenced heavily by how the four key drivers listed above play out. Are Putin and Russia rich enough to absorb the impact of sanctions? Would Putin calculate that delaying an invasion will increase opportunities to sow division within NATO?

From the perspective of NATO members, is it essential to stand up to Russia now to prevent future incursions across other borders? Can NATO members absorb the economic and political costs of dramatically increased gas and oil prices and cyber attacks on critical infrastructure? And perhaps most significant, can Germany and other parts of Europe find ways to live without the Nord Stream pipeline?

The job of the analyst is to understand and frame the issue for the decision maker in terms of the overall context of the problem. By focusing on the overarching context and the key drivers, the decision maker has a better chance of mitigating bad scenarios and enhancing the prospects of good scenarios.

The 2022 Mid-Term Elections: Another Surprise?

Cognitive psychology teaches that most people expect change to be incremental and that past patterns usually repeat themselves. With historical voting patterns favoring the Republicans, gerrymandering likely to increase their representation in the House, and inflation and high gas prices eroding support for President Biden, almost every political pundit is predicting the Republican Party will take control of the House and the Senate in the November 2022 mid-term elections. But What If? the electoral results defy all predictions (as happened in 2016 when Donald Trump won the presidency) and the Democrats retain control? How could we explain how everyone totally missed this call?

The focus of this article is to think outside the box and explore how such an unlikely scenario could come about. What are the key drivers that could spur a dramatically different election outcome with the Democrats retaining power? What are the indicators that would signal that such an unlikely scenario is beginning to unfold?

Hindsight analysis following the mid-term elections might posit that most Americans decided that allowing an increasingly radical right movement to take power posed an existential threat to democratic rule in the United States. They saw the danger in returning power to those who previously undermined democratic institutions and tried to block a peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected president.

A more compelling argument might be that Democrat candidates mobilized voters around three themes perceived as posing existential threats to American life. In 2016, Trump’s victory has been attributed to voters who saw their way of life as under threat; could this dynamic repeat itself but with a different set of voters?

Three Key Drivers
If Democrats should retain control of the House and the Senate, they probably succeeded by shifting the national narrative to three foundational, and for some existential, concerns:

Voting Rights. The US decennial census has opened the door to reconfiguring congressional districts. In 2022, many people of color will see their voices subdued if not muted by redistricting schemes now being implemented in the red states. For example, in Texas most of the state’s population growth is attributable to persons of color living in Democratic-leaning communities, but the Republicans redrew the map to give themselves both new congressional seats while reducing the number of competitive seats from six to one. In addition, perceived voter suppression legislation in many red states and what promises to be an intense debate surrounding passage of two landmark voter rights bills in Congress could spur democratic turnout. The rallying cry would be to overturn what was increasingly perceived as efforts by Republican office holders to continue the Jim Crow legacy and suppress the rights of minorities.

Income Redistribution. If Build Back Better is defeated in the Senate or only parts of the package are passed into law, this could spur an increase in Democratic representation to allow the Senate to pass the full package of benefits. Programs for subsidized child and elder care, Medicare expansion, the containment of prescription drug costs, and universal prekindergarten have majority support in the country. In this scenario, the rallying call would be that the rich should pay their fair share, fully funding these programs through increased taxes on those earning more than $400,000 and modestly raising the corporate tax rate. The need for income redistribution would become a front burner issue as popular anger mounted to rectify past payouts to the rich. The need to reinstate the childcare tax credit would become paramount.

Climate Change. In 2021, 30 percent of America has been significantly impacted by devastating and often unprecedented tornados, hurricanes, floods, drought, and wildfires. People have lost their houses, jobs, and have been forced to relocate or must consider it. Over 60 percent of Americans believe that action is needed to address the challenge climate change increasingly poses to their own lives, and those of their children and grandchildren. There is growing distaste for those who do not believe humans are primary contributors to climate change and refuse to recognize the consequences they have, or may soon, suffer. Anger is building over Congressional inaction, and people are looking to the Democrats to provide strategic vision and deliver much needed legislation.

In addition to the three perceived existential threats listed above, a Democratic surge at the polls could be bolstered by a Supreme Court decision invalidating Roe v. Wade, the “conquering” of COVID, a major upswing in economic performance, Republican calls for stricter immigration laws putting the Dreamers at risk, and indictments of those who orchestrated the 6 January insurrection (potentially including Republican members of Congress, associates of the former president, and even the former president himself).

Indicators for Anticipating the Unanticipated
Key indicators that would suggest the Democrats are headed for a surprising win in November include:

  • Large demonstrations and a proliferation of court cases targeting voter suppression laws and gerrymandering plans
  • Moderates on both sides of the political spectrum focusing on the threat posed by the far right to democratic institutions and the rule of law
  • Growing threats of—and the actual use of—violence by those associated with the far right to attack government officials and “establishment” politicians
  • Opinion polls reflecting a growing demand that the rich and large corporations pay their fair share
  • Democratic grass roots organizations raising substantial sums to support “bring out the vote” efforts
  • The promotion by Democratic candidates of specific and popular Build Back Better programs as key campaign themes
  • Inflation neutralized as a concern because it comes to be seen as the byproduct of a growing economy and is offset by wage increases
  • Campaigns to elect Democrats who will vote for legislation that reverses the impact of the Supreme Court’s nullification of Roe v. Wade
  • Sharp decline in oil prices
  • President Biden’s handling of COVID-19 being perceived as a success as COVID infections wane
  • Reinstatement of the child care tax credit in response to a strong public outcry following its termination in January 2022
  • Criminal indictments of the former president and his close associates

Is Western Civilization Confronting a Global Inflection Point?

As reported in the October blog, I recently spent three weeks in a hospital bed in Iceland. This time allowed me the opportunity to observe and reflect on some fundamental dynamics of our society. My key takeaway is that Western society is not paying sufficient attention to how dramatically the world could change over the next few years. As we head into the holiday season, we should take a moment to give thanks for the social order we all value.

Western civilization appears to be facing a global inflection point. The stresses are widespread—political, social, environmental, economic, and technological. More problematic is that society seems to be overlooking critical warning signs. Those who seem to have their heads in the sand are falling victim to two cognitive pitfalls: assuming the future will closely resemble the past and expecting that change will be incremental. In this article, I explore changes that we as a society should be taking more seriously as well as strategies for countering these trends.

  • Democracy Under Threat. The Congressional committee investigating the January 6 insurrection is finding increasing evidence that a concerted campaign had been launched to negate the peaceful transition of power to a new president. If Vice President Pence had not proceeded to count all the Electoral College ballots, then President Trump might have succeeded in propelling himself into an unconstitutional third term in office. Looking toward 2024, a serious concern is whether recent legislation in several states will result in state electoral boards countermanding the popular vote in their districts. Also of concern is a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll showing that 30 percent of Republicans believe further violence may be necessary to solve the nation’s problems.
  • Burgeoning Non-rational Behavior. Cultish beliefs and behaviors are being displayed by a large percentage of the population–including unsubstantiated claims of election fraud, QAnon conspiracy theories, and COVID-19 vaccination falsehoods. Disinformation has proved far more impactful than most expected, and commercial pressures argue against social media giants taking strong measures to neutralize it.
  • Accelerating Climate Change. The melting of ice in Greenland and permafrost in Russia are establishing negative feedback cycles that accelerate global warming in unanticipated ways. Some scientists are concerned that we may have reached a point where Greenland’s ice melt could spur a redirection of the Gulf Stream with dramatic consequences for Europe. The US Department of Defense released a study in October outlining 11 serious threats climate change poses to national security. The potential for climate change to have irreversible impact on current and future generations was underscored by the statement by the just-concluded UN Climate Change Conference that “no longer can anyone be under any illusion” that it is vital to “accelerate the momentum” globally for addressing the crisis.
  • Reimagining the Labor Force. Substantial defections from the workforce may not be an aberration but a reflection that large segments of the workforce have permanently rejected corporate America’s hierarchical structures, salary systems, and established central workplaces. Could new mechanisms evolve for replacing current salary systems with arrangements such as bitcoin, cryptocurrency, or bartering?
  • Accelerating Technological Change. Potentially explosive developments are fast approaching in the areas of Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, quantum computing, big data analysis, advanced materials, biotech, energy production and storage, and space industrialization. Many of these areas will enable or accelerate change and prove highly disruptive to our economic and social activities. People will find it increasingly difficult cognitively to keep up with the challenges; many may opt out or angrily resist the changes.

So, what is to be done?

How does one mitigate the negative impact of these trends? How does one respond to the destructionists who are promoting division and undermining our institutions? Counter arguments based on science and logic appear to have little impact. Once people adopt a false belief that is central to their identity, cognitive science argues it is almost impossible to talk them out of their mindset. Admitting one is wrong creates unacceptable cognitive dissidence, especially when one’s false beliefs are reaffirmed by media feeds. If being proved wrong or ostracized is a core fear for the destructionists, isolating them will make it worse.

A more promising strategy may be to pay less attention to the obstructionists who want to emphasize our differences and refocus the national dialogue on what needs to be done constructively move the country forward. Can we work cooperatively to promote a more just, fair, and equitable society? Can we devise new mechanisms and processes that promote collaborative behaviors that are more efficient and have positive impact?

Progress is being made in this direction. Witness the growing corporate emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusiveness; efforts to promote a meaningful dialogue on the local level to address neighborhood-police relations; and the work of the Problem Solvers Caucus in the US Congress. The challenge is to multiply such initiatives and not let the disruptive voices of destructionists distract society from what needs to be done to solve today’s mounting challenges. When you encounter negative destructionist rhetoric on the airwaves or social media, just turn it off. Focus instead on listening to and seeking positive solutions.

If our political leadership—and the media—fail to alert the general population to the dangers we face, civility and political order will start spiraling downward at an accelerating pace. Destructionism will come to predominate, with little hope of reversing the trends. The only viable antidote is to redirect our energies to implementing constructivist policies. The time for talk is over; each of us needs to commit to taking constructive action.

Two books that will help you gain a better understanding how cognitive pitfalls can “keep your head in the sand” are Heuer’s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis and Pherson’s Handbook of Analytic Tools and Techniques.

Best Practices in Medicine: Observations from Iceland

In 2020, I authored a book, How to Get the Right Diagnosis: 16 Tips for Navigating the US Medical System. It captured key lessons learned in 2014 following a five-year struggle with an undiagnosed illness. Little did I know then that I would spend the next six years dealing with a second undiagnosed illness!

Recently, while on vacation in Iceland, my health deteriorated severely. I was hospitalized for 18 days suffering from a rare form of vasculitis. During this time, I observed five best practices that should be emulated by every medical system:

1. Consider and test for multiple hypotheses
2. Encourage all team members to challenge assumptions
3. Incentivize doctors to avoid becoming captives of their specialty
4. Listen to and partner with the patient
5. Foster a robust collaborative team effort

Multiple Hypotheses. In Iceland, the doctors and nurses worked as a group to generate a list of candidate alternative diagnoses (think of the TV show House). Instead of testing the hypotheses in a serial fashion, they conducted synchronous evaluations. As a result, the diagnostic process was much more efficient.

Key Assumptions. With complex cases, it is important not to discard a hypothesis prematurely. In Iceland, two initial assumptions that made sense turned out to be wrong, and one that appeared implausible turned out to be correct. The team discovered this only because a culture had been established in which anyone regardless of rank could raise questions and challenge expert judgment.

Overspecialization. Over the course of my sojourn, I was attended by doctors representing nine specialties: rheumatology, hematology, infectious disease, cardiology, pulmonology, dermatology, oncology, gastroenterology, and internal medicine. In Iceland, I was impressed by the willingness of the doctors to think outside their “specialty box.” I suspect one reason for this behavior is that the practice of medicine is far less litigious in Iceland. In addition, my sense was that the doctors felt more empowered to focus on the broader context of my condition and more compelled to get the diagnosis right.

Listening Skills. The first question I was asked by doctors and nurses on every visit was “How are you feeling?” When I mentioned a symptom that did not fit their pattern of what could be wrong with me, they wanted to explore the discrepancy, not ignore it.

Collaboration. Lastly, what truly impressed me was the robust culture of collaboration demonstrated by everyone associated with my case. On at least three occasions, a panel of doctors and nurses convened to brainstorm diagnoses, decide on the best treatment, and estimate a discharge date. Over 18 days, I was seen by 12 doctors, and the transfer of knowledge among them was smooth and comprehensive. While in the ER and the hospital, I engaged in conversations with more than 100 medical professionals. Much to my amazement, they all appeared to be working off the same sheet of music. How they managed to collaborate so effectively was unexpected and impressive.

In sum, my recent health emergency in Iceland taught me a lot about what makes a medical support system work well….and I am alive today to tell the story!

The Case of Kabul: Foresight and the Hindsight Bias Trap

The chaotic evacuation of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan has generated a storm of speculation—some informed and some not—about what led to the crisis in Kabul and how it could have been prevented. In this special edition of the Analytic Insider, I collaborate with my German colleague, Ole Donner, to review how Foresight and Hindsight analytic processes are both used – with varying success– to assess what occurred in Kabul and why.

Many commentators appear to have fallen into the trap of conflating what is known today with what could have been anticipated before Kabul fell to the Taliban. The neurological processes for anticipating what is about to happen and for evaluating what has happened are quite different.

Our brain consists of millions of neurons and the connections between them. When we learn something, it changes which neurons are connected to each other and how. Our brain’s physical change is referred to as neuronal plasticity. This process takes place unconsciously and irreversibly changes the way we think about an event.

When using Foresight analysis to anticipate what is about to happen, the objective is to:

  1. Identify a set of key drivers (or key variables) that best frame the issue and will determine how events will play out.
  2. Give different weights to these drivers to generate a set of mutually exclusive but comprehensive scenarios or potential trajectories.
  3. Develop a set of indicators to alert decisionmakers to which scenario or alternative trajectory is beginning to unfold.

For example, in the weeks before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, many were asking the question: When will the Taliban take Kabul? Answering this question required analysts to select pieces of information from a sea of incomplete and contradictory data and then formulate a set of potential scenarios when much of the needed data for conducting the analysis was missing.

In the Kabul case, the scenarios most often discussed in the press posited different time estimates (weeks, months, and years) for when the Taliban would gain control of Kabul. Instead of trying to predict a date when the Taliban would take over (an almost impossible task at the time), a better approach would have been to identify the key drivers that would determine when a takeover would occur. Some examples of key drivers are: the will of government leaders and Afghan soldiers to resist the Taliban, the extent of popular support for the government and the Taliban, prospects for installing a transition government, and US willingness to increase or decrease its military footprint.

As a situation became increasingly fluid, a primary analytic function was to track the indicators relating to each of these key drivers and alert decisionmakers to which scenario or alternative trajectory was emerging as the most likely. For example, an indicator that there would be sufficient time to evacuate Americans and Afghans would be the successful establishment of a transition government.

Hindsight is a very different matter. If a certain event already has occurred, such as the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, that changes how we—as analysts, journalists, or politicians—look at that event. The challenge is to avoid the cognitive trap of Hindsight Bias—or at least mitigate its impact.

Hindsight Bias: Claiming the key items of information, events, drivers, forces, or factors that shaped a future outcome could have been easily identified.

Information related to the event, which may have seemed less important than others in a Foresight analysis, will suddenly take on enormous significance because—and only in retrospect—it clearly pointed to the event that occurred. Before the event occurred, this same information was just part of the background noise in a sea of other information.

The tendency to retroactively give undue weight to some items of information is the essential difference between how the brain processes data in Foresight versus Hindsight. After we know about an event, it is not possible to put ourselves in the same cognitive state we experienced before it occurred. The physical structure of our brain is changed by what we have just learned has occurred, and this neuronal plasticity cannot be reset.

The Hindsight Bias cognitive pitfall helps explain why some observers claim that an apparent “intelligence failure” such as the failure to anticipate the rapid fall of Kabul should have been easier to predict than may actually have been the case. Commentators and politicians who understand the difference between Foresight and Hindsight know to exercise restraint in assessing the success of predicting a complex event or anticipating a surprise development. They recognize that Hindsight Bias is one of the most important cognitive pitfalls to protect against.

For more information on Hindsight and other cognitive biases see Richards J. Heuer Jr’s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, (2007), page 161. To learn more about Key Drivers and Foresight techniques check out my Handbook of Analytic Tools & Techniques, 5th ed. (2019).