Category Archives: Strategic advocacy

Teaching strategic advocacy

Following up on our workshop with Evergreen faculty last week, Roger Conner, Ted Whitesell and I are expanding and updating our website on teaching and learning how to be strategic. Here’s the text of the new home page:

About teaching strategic advocacy

How best can people learn to be effective change agents?  This website is for information about and discussion of teaching strategic thinking and action.

Policy advocates attempt to alter the arc of history, changing the course of events on matters important to the community. Some who engage in such advocacy are paid professionals. More are individual citizens and members of organized groups. Some are agency staff who find themselves in situations where they may affect outcomes.

Successful advocates know how to be strategic: They know what to do and when to act in complex situations with uncertain outcomes. Many courses and texts explain how to analyze a policy problem or explain why things unfolded the way they did, but few teach how to alter what is likely to happen in the future. People usually acquire that ability, if they do, through a process of long experience of observing others and trying (and often failing) themselves. In our experience, however, we have found that these skills can be taught, expediting learning them more quickly and completely. Curriculum for this teaching is a work in progress. We welcome your participation by replying on these pages or on the discussion page.

So far, this website includes

-Roger Conner, Ben Shaine and Ted Whitesell, project coordinators

An example of a useful exercise in seeing from the other’s perspective

How the Repubican base feels now, from the Greenberg, Carville and Siefert study
How the Repubican base feels now, from the Greenberg, Carville and Siefert study

See Edsall’s Opinionator  commentary today and the linked report by Greenberg,  Carville, and Seifert, “Inside the GOP: Report on focus groups with Evangelical, Tea Party, and moderate Republicans” for insights into perceptions underlying Republican animosity toward the federal government. I suspect few liberals are aware of these.

On a similar note, morning I enjoyed talking with a professional financial adviser this morning about his view that the Ryan budget provides a solution for most of the country’s problems.

Such views are quite different from mine, but I can see my own perceptions adjusting as I know these others better. How best to convey to students the benefits and power that come from an in-depth understanding of the other side that almost always changes your own perspective, as well as providing strategic insights into how to influence the situation?

The notion that your own position can be & should be adaptable/flexible seems key is often not understood, and that adaptability/flexibility is not the same as weakness/collapse.

I don’t yet know how to teach this, except through the physical analog of Aikido. How else can it be done well?

Engaged and detached

David Brooks
David Brooks
Josh Haner photo/NY Times

In his fine April 29 column, “Engaged or Detached?,” David Brooks says that the person who writes about politics and policy has a choice: She can be an engaged activist supporting a cause, who “provides arguments for the party faithful and builds community by reminding everyone of the errors and villainy of the opposing side.” Or she can be detached, more a teacher than an activist, “shaping people’s perceptions of underlying reality and hoping that she can provide a context in which other people can think.” Or somewhere on the continuum between these two. He concludes,

The detached writer understands that, at the top level, politics is a bipolar struggle for turf. But the real fun is down below, sparking conversations about underlying concepts, underlying reality and the underlying frame of debate.

Not fair! — Brooks is giving the detached writer all the fun. Engaged activists deserve it, too. In my experience, the strategic advocate frequently does this sparking and reframing, morphing and broadening her coalition, open to questioning assumptions. I saw Mo Udall, congressional leader of the historic Alaska lands act conservation effort in the 1970’s, do that with his Lincolnesque humor.* Similar to the writer, the engaged activist works within a continuum between mobilizing the faithful and exploring curiously for ways to blend with others and move in new ways.

* “A Lincolnesque leader is confident enough to be humble — to not feel the need to bluster or dominate, but to be sufficiently sure of one’s own judgment and self-worth to really listen and not be threatened by contrary advice.”
Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe; Lincoln’s Obama; Newsweek (New York); Nov 24, 2008. cited at


Now “trials,” taken en bloc mean a disharmony between the self and the world with which it has to deal. Nothing is a trial when we are able to cope with it efficiently.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness. Jack Books, 1930, 353.

So, according to Underhill, a difficult situation is defined as disharmony between self and world. Difficulty is not inherent in the situation, but in the actor. Efficient action involves eliminating or disolving that disharmony. Those who live efficiently are not under stress.

Compare, from Wikipedia:

Efficiency is the extent to which time or effort is well used for the intended task or purpose, or the ratio of power consumed to useful power output…

Efficiency …is often used with the specific purpose of relaying the capability of a specific application of effort to produce a specific outcome effectively with a minimum amount or quantity of waste, expense, or unnecessary effort. …In general, efficiency is a measurable concept, quantitatively determined by the ratio of output to input.

… the term economic efficiency refers to the use of resources so as to maximize the production of goods and services.

A next step in this investigation is to similarly compare concepts of “power,” including from, e.g., Thich Naht Hanh’s The Art of Power with that in physics and in politics. The goal here would be to explore if it’s useful to  see two parallel constructs of being and action in these terms. Call them the sacred and the profane? Or the mystical and the economic? I wonder whether Eliade gets into this. (It’s been forty years since I read The Sacred and the Profane.)

It’s not just that the two ways are different. What’s interesting is the ways they are similar. For example, in Aikido these terms are both structural-mechanical, in the anatomical and physiological sense, and emotional-spiritual, in the sense that Underwood and Thich Naht Hahn use them.

Are the similarities just analogies arising from abstractions in our heads, or do they reflect something basic in the real world? The engineer might call the mystic’s language imprecise and meaningless. A mystic might see the engineer’s concepts as a reification and oversimplification of a broader view that incoporates them, what Eliade would call mythological, “tied to cosmic structures and rhythms.”

What happens when both viewpoints are held simultaneously without conflict? The disharmony disappears, efficiently.

Leighton The Return of Persephone 1891
Frederic Leighton, The Return of Persephone (1891)

Intuition, uncertainty, doubt, trust, confidence & happiness

Excerpts from today’s reading  (boldface mine):Minding the Markets book cover

Doubt, trust, and confidence are subjective mental states which intertwine with the stories we tell ourselves about what is going on. Economic life involves human relationships of exchange of longer or shorter duration. Such relationships are accompanied by the stories we tell ourselves about what is happening to them and the mental states that are stimulated. At their simplest, human relationships of exchange involve a story being told to create a belief that continued attachment to the relationship will be excitingly rewarding or a source of danger and disadvantage. The word ‘credit’ is actually based on the Latin verb ‘to believe’.

In summary my argument is that what happened in the recent financial crisis (like in many before) was the product of a shift in mental states.

organizational failures followed from the power phantastic objects exert on mental states and the way institutions have increasingly stimulated this power for advantage and then increasingly become ruled by it.


Hsee, Christopher K., Luxi Shen, Shirley Zhang, Jingqiu Chen, and Li Zhang. “Fate or Fight: Exploring the Hedonic Costs of Competition.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 119, no. 2 (November 2012): 177–186. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.07.005.

Contrary to lay intuitions, we found that individuals in an unequal assignment condition, including the disadvantaged individuals in that condition, were happier than individuals in an equal competition condition, but that this effect held only if the inequality was irreversible, the advantaged and the disadvantaged were segregated, and the disadvantaged were given some enjoyable alternative resource to consume.

current research advances the peace-of-mind notion that irreversible fate prompts one to make peace with it and feel happy. Furthermore, it breaks down the peace-of-mind idea into two different varieties: choice-free peace and opportunity-free peace. Although previous research has documented extensive evidence for choice-free peace, the present research offers initial evidence from a controlled laboratory experiment for opportunity-free peace.


Dane, Erik, Kevin W. Rockmann, and Michael G. Pratt. “When Should I Trust My Gut? Linking Domain Expertise to Intuitive Decision-making Effectiveness.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 119, no. 2 (November 2012): 187–194. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.07.009.

Research suggests that even for tasks well-suited to intuition, the effectiveness of intuitive decision making may relate to the level of expertise one has attained in the focal domain.

for certain tasks (and, perhaps more generally, for certain expertise domains), the effectiveness of intuition may begin to approach the effectiveness of analysis well before one achieves task (or domain) mastery.

It is conceivable that when individuals have at least a moderate level of domain expertise, analytical decision making disrupts or disengages the intuitive operations that typically serve experts well.

our studies suggest that, on non-decomposable tasks, intuition may indeed prove effective – to the extent one has accrued expertise within the focal domain

the greater one’s expertise within the focal domain, the more likely one’s intuitions will prove effective – particularly if the task at hand is non-decomposable. By extension, however, individuals should be cautious of ‘‘trusting their gut’’ when these conditions are not present. Likewise, organizational managers should be wary of prescribing intuitive decision making indiscriminately, even on non-decomposable tasks. Given that individuals differ in their tendency to favor intuition and analysis respectively …, domain novices who are naturally inclined to take stock in their intuitive judgments may do so with misplaced haste, particularly when intuitive decision making is widely accepted or advocated within their work context

our results suggest that as individuals attain what might be viewed as a moderate level of domain expertise, the effectiveness of intuitive decision making on non-decomposable tasks increases.


Milkman, Katherine L. “Unsure What the Future Will Bring? You May Overindulge: Uncertainty Increases the Appeal of Wants over Shoulds.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 119, no. 2 (November 2012): 163–176. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.07.003.

This paper examines the effect of uncertainty about the future on whether individuals select want options (e.g., junk foods, lowbrow films) or instead exert self-control and select should options (e.g., healthy foods, highbrow films). Consistent with the ego-depletion literature, which suggests that self-control resembles an exhaustible muscle, coping with uncertainty about what the future may bring reduces self-control resources and increases individuals’ tendency to favor want options over should options. These results persist when real uncertainty is induced, when the salience of naturally-arising uncertainty is heightened and when individuals are able to make choices contingent upon the outcomes of uncertain events. Overall, this work suggests that reducing uncertainty in a decision maker’s environment may have important spillover effects, leading to less impulsive choices.

Breaking balance

From a conversation with Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei at his Aikido dojo in Boulder in December:

To gain control by breaking balance:

  1. Establish connection.
  2. Through attention to partner’s structure, move one point, even a little bit, to establish motion.
  3. Then creativity is possible.

All of this done relaxed, with no force or anger.

Graphic display of complex information: A challenge for both the strategic advocacy and natural history projects

For his Vanderbilt Law School class on advocacy strategies, Roger Conner is having his students work on an event timeline describing the history of Tennessee’s state level health care reform effort, TennCare. It’s complicated. Following Kingdon, Roger segregates events into policy, political and problem streams. The problem stream has many numbers in various categories: how many people enrolled, annual costs, and the like. In the system Roger and I are developing to help advocates understand the situations they’re in, such a complicated story becomes the basis for further analysis using Elinor Ostrom, et al.’s IAD framework, which is complex in itself. For most people, it takes quite a bit of study of explanatory text to understand the basic IAD framework graphic:

Basic Components of the IAD Framework

Activists working in the real world need to apply these concepts and relationships, and more, quickly and effectively. That means it must appear clear and straightforward to them. Figuring out how to teach this system and to provide the tools to use it is a big task for us.

Turns out that common elements in both our strategic advocacy project and my work in the Wrangell-St. Elias natural history project are timelines like this, that tell a complex history with multiple, interacting event streams. And in each, there’s the need to zoom in on details of shorter intervals within a long timespan. Conveying this information is a central challenge for my work overall, and I think for teaching and writing in both areas. This shared attribute of the advocacy and natural history projects is one indication of their similarity, too. The goal is clarity of vision in complex circumstances. Achieving that has moral, aesthetic and political and personal consequences.

Tufte Beautiful Evidence

Yaakov Garb and I talk about the “Van Andel” factor of any piece of written work. Tjeerd H. van Andel’s New Views on an Old Planet has long set the standard for us in clarity of presentation, both text and simple graphics. More recently, I’m appreciating Edward Tufte‘s masterful teachings on using layout and graphics to convey complex data. Yesterday, I enjoyed his Beautiful Evidence, which models great visual design as well as describing it. National Geographic’s large-format graphic displays, which it folds into its magazine, are another outstanding model.

I think it’ll be worth considerable effort to apply these models to explaining our strategic advocacy framework and to presenting the geological-ecological evolution of the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. For the Wrangells, I see working on getting the essence into a single large-format sheet, à la National Geographic. Perhaps the same could be the goal for the strategic advocacy framework. Whether or not the required combination of density and clarity of ideas is achievable in this form, its pursuit could help gain clarity of vision, which can also be pursued in other ways.

Seeing from multiple perspectives: Fighting for FDR’s remedies is not enough

From Eric Alterman’s April 30 Nation column, “The Fight for American Liberalism,” emphasis and notes added:

Liberal politics, Michael Walzer observes, is difficult “because it offers so few emotional rewards…it lacks warmth and intimacy.” Without universal foundations—Lionel Trilling termed it “a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine”—liberalism can offer only narratives of sacrifice and common purpose, ones that can often be trumped by the tales of the right …

[See Walzer, Michael. Radical Principles: Reflections of an Unreconstructed Democrat. Basic Books, 1980, 69,68:  “A liberal nation can have no collective purpose …. Liberalism, even at its most permissive, is a hard politics because it offers to few emotional rewards; the liberal state is not a home for its citizens; it lacks warmth and intimacy.”]

[See Townsley, Jeremy. “Walzer, Citizenship, Globalization and Global Public Goods,” citing Veit Bader, “Citizenship and Exclusion: Radical Democracy, Community, and Justice. Or, what is Wrong with Communitarianism?”Political Theory 23 (1995): 218:  “…neighborhoods, clubs and families … are ‘warm, horizontal [communities] … based on consent’ whereas states are ‘cold vertical institutions, based not on free entry but on enforced membership and physical violence. Strictly speaking, [states] are not associations at all, but institutions.'”]

… To be a “liberal” is to be a child of the Enlightenment… Liberalism insists that individuals take hold of their fate and shape it  …

… If both [FDR and Reagan] met with mixed success in policy terms, both nevertheless were able to reshape political culture because the optimism and self-confidence of the visions they offered captured the imagination of a majority of Americans, particularly the young.

If their fortunes are ever to revive, liberals must find a way to recapture this simultaneously militant and optimistic spirit. The “larger message” for what Roosevelt called “the liberal party” was a clear and simple one: “As new conditions and problems arise beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals, it becomes the duty of the Government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them.” Add to this John Dewey’s precept that “government should regularly intervene to help equalize conditions between the wealthy and the poor, between the overprivileged and the underprivileged,” while acknowledging Reinhold Niebuhr’s prescient call for “humility” in all such undertakings, and you have a concise, compelling statement of what it means—then as now—to call oneself an “American liberal.”

When liberals lose confidence in their ability to lead Americans toward the fulfillment of this vision, they lose their reason for being liberals. If the history of liberalism has a single lesson to teach us, it is that what liberals have to fear most—far more than conservatives—is fear itself.

So, the cold state is to provide what the individual cannot? Where do the real downsides of government fit in here? A return to the FDR past is insufficient/unrealistic, and doesn’t acknowledge the truths of conservative views.

In terms of the basic principles Roger Conner and I are developing for looking at political situations: in evaluating Alterman’s presentation, and evaluating the liberal vision, a key step is seeing them from opposing/different perspectives, starting with the assumption these other views are valid.

“toxic mix of individualism and fear”

A couple of weeks ago our Saturday morning discussion group in the hospital cafeteria talked about how the lack of care and medical treatment for pain and addiction patients seems to stem from a lack of empathy rooted in a culture overemphasizing the “I’ at the expense of the “we.”

Came across the following that uses clear language to describe a parallel situation school children face:

Collini, Stefan. “Side by Side: On Britain’s School Wars.” The Nation, November 1, 2011.

Recent schools policy in Britain, like so much of current politics in Britain and the United States (and elsewhere), is founded on a toxic mix of individualism and fear. The fear is evident in the various metaphors of contamination that turn up in responses to any proposal that suggests the more advantaged may have to share life experiences with the less advantaged. Even parents who profess to believe in greater equality among adults want their children’s schooling to be protected against behavior associated with the lower orders. But the deforming perspective of individualism is more poisonous still—a refusal to place one’s experience and concerns in a larger social context, an indifference to the overall pattern, an obtuseness about the social determinants of behavior, a denial of the legitimate claims of others.


A Buddhist approach would talk about the illusion of the independent self, the consequences of attachment to that illusion, and the fearlessness arising when that attachment dissolves.

An ongoing inquiry into change and stability in nature, politics and ourselves, by Ben Shaine