The Situationist

Al Gore – The Situationist

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on July 11, 2007

al-gore.jpgDemocrats are feeling pretty confident these days. To begin with, the opposing team is beleaguered. George W. Bush, seven years after taking the Presidency, is not wearing well. His approval ratings are at an all-time low, and there is growing hostility and increasing defections from among erstwhile Bush supporters. Hard-core Republicans no doubt hope that someone else might be able to pick up the pieces and build a viable alternative vision and constituency. So far, however, their most promising presidential prospects seem to be stumbling out of the gate.

Meanwhile, on their own team, the Dems appear to have, not one, not two, but three plausible candidates. Clinton, Obama, and Edwards all bring impressive political pedigree to the starting gate. In terms of political horseracing, this seems like a good moment to bet on the donkeys.Democrats Republicans

Nonetheless, there remains a largely unspoken sense of disappointment among many Democrats that, although they may enter the winner’s circle in 2008, they might do so on the wrong horse.

To be sure, the prime contenders would be seen as an improvement over the status quo. Still, many moderates and liberals seem to believe that Al Gore would be best able to lead the U.S. in the right direction domestically, internationally, and globally.

There are many reasons why Al Gore is the focus of so much political buzz — counterfactual imaginings of what might have been in the 2000 election, two best-selling books, an outspoken, courageous, and prescient opposition to the war in Iraq, an Academy-Award-winning documentary, and Nobel Prize rumors are some of the key factors that have turned Gore from a wooden wonk into a charismatic prophet.


But there is something else that separates Gore from the field that we think is worth underscoring. Specifically, Al Gore is — dare we say it? — a situationist.

Situationism is devoted to gaining as realistic an understanding as possible about what is moving us, our institutions, and environs and, where necessary, challenging incorrect (albeit affirming) “common sense” or, as Gore might put it, “convenient falsehoods,” and re-imagining policy in light of what reason and science have to teach, no matter how discommodious. Doing so means looking at larger, systemic, root causes and avoiding the temptation to seize on seemingly clear, simple answers through myopic analysis. It means distrusting the naked eye and learning what one can from the telescope and the microscope, the zoom lens and the wide-angle lens. It means getting beyond the present and taking seriously the past for lessons, and the future for priorities. It means looking to the situation and not simply to the salient. Those, in our view, are the characteristics of Gore’s approach to policy, particularly in contrast to the norm among policymakers.

This is not just our opinion. It seems to be the implicit opinion of many who have written about him in the last several years.

Consider, for instance, Ryan Lizza‘s recent piece in The New Republic. As Lizza explains, behind Gore’s environmental and political positions are an uncommon attention to structure and systems:

Gore thinks in terms of systems. Gore . . . isn’t content merely to describe a problem but rather tries to understand the underlying structures that enable it. This was true of his early forays into ecology, his reinventing government effort in the Clinton years, and his strategic thinking on arms control and foreign policy generally. . . .

Lately, Gore has also taken a systems view of the Bush years. The story of the structural dysfunction behind the last six-and-a-half years begins, according to Gore, with a brief history of the relationship between the press and democracy. . . . “American democracy was intended to be a robust and vigorous multi-way conversation that individuals could join freely without any significant barriers. . . .”

“I don’t think the modern campaign process facilitates a genuine exchange of ideas. It’s multiple overlapping games of gotcha, and who can read the polls and the focus groups most skillfully and discern some new manipulative option that can be quickly parlayed into a couple of percentage points in the next poll and parlay that into great fund-raising totals by the end of the next reporting period.”

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recently described Gore’s penchant for addressing big questions and his distaste for simplistic answers this way:

Mr. Gore is passionate about the issues he is focused on — global warming, the decline of rational discourse in American public life, the damage done to the nation over the past several years. And he has contempt for the notion that such important and complex matters can be seriously addressed in sound-bite sentences or 30-second television ads, which is how presidential campaigns are conducted.

To be sure, many disagree with Gore regarding his data, reasoning, or conclusions (for one example of such disagreement, see video below).

Still, NPR’s Science Correspondent Richard Harris recently explained, for a non-scientist, Gore “does get the big picture very well. Most scientists say he really can see the forest for the trees.” In any case, our point is less that Gore is correct in the details and more that his agenda and his approach to policy questions is, as Robyn E. Blumner wrote in the St. Petersburg Times, driven by “science, facts and reality.”

As a situationist, Gore is reluctant to blame the individuals involved, and he is eager to point out influence of institutional dynamics that surround politicians currently enmeshed in the system. Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne writes:

[W]hen Gore is asked if any of the Democrats running for president were changing the system he holds in such low esteem, he pulls no punches. “They’re good people trapped in a bad system,” he says, “and I think it’s the system that needs to be changed and I don’t see them changing it.”

Thus, the problem is less about the dispositions of the individuals involved, who”are good people,” and more about the “bad system.” Similarly Lizza writes:

It’s almost as if [Gore] feels sorry for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the others, as if they are hamsters locked in the cage of a broken political process, a cage that Gore is all too familiar with and does not seem to miss.

[In Gore’s words, the political system] “is often a manipulative exercise utilizing the tools of persuasion that were developed by advertisers of commercial products in conjunction with psychologists and researchers who plumb the inner workings of our thought process . . . .”

“Both parties failed the country,” . . . . Once again, though Gore presents his critique in terms of a broken system, rather than bad actors. “I do not point fingers at individual senators or members of Congress or party leaders for their failure to speak up,” he says. I focus in [Assault on Reason] on the structural changes that made it more likely than not that they could get away with being silent.” He cites the pressure to spend time raising money and other factors that have led to the decline of real debate in the Senate and, again, the related problem of voters being isolated from a robust national conversation.

Relatedly, one reason that Gore has been willing and able to take a relatively situationist approach to policy issues is itself a consequence of his situation, free as he now is from the constraints of the political system. According to E.J. Dionne,

It’s entertaining to talk to Gore these days because he’s so clearly enjoying himself . . . During a 40-minute telephone interview yesterday, he did not speak as if there were focus-grouped sentences dancing around in his head. Nor did he worry about saying things that some consultant would fret about for weeks afterward.

Putting those points together might help explain Gore’s reluctance to enter the Presidential contest for 2008. Gore understands that one’s ability to lead the country in new directions is significantly limited by the powerful situational forces that determine which candidate wins an election and what a President can accomplish in office. He understands, in other words, that changing politics and public policy is less about putting the right person in a particular position than it is about altering the situational forces surrounding that position. Futhermore, he recognizes that his own ability to focus on situational concerns and his success in persuading others to do the same is dependent on his current situation outside the system.

Gore may be doing his supporters a big favor, then, by staying out of the race. If the situation is “leading” politics and politicians, then it may be more fruitful for Gore to change the situation than to become part of it. And, by that same token, Gore supporters might do him a big favor by looking less to the man and more to his message.

* * *

To read about Martin Luther King’s situationism, click here.

10 Responses to “Al Gore – The Situationist”

  1. Jason Chung said

    As I read this article, I cannot help but ponder the central challenge with being a situationist when occupying a powerful political post – that of context and distance.

    Politicians often remark that life inside the Beltway is suffocating, intense, ridiculously over-privileged and creates a bubble effect where outside realities rarely register. ( This bubble effect seems to affect all Washington insiders to a certain extent and robs the D.C. elite (at least over time) of the objectivity and distance necessary to realistically view situation and the true forces that drive institutions and individuals.

    Thus, an interesting dilemma to ponder is whether the situation that is the Beltway hinders situationism in politics.

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