On Frank Underwood, Zen and philosophical pragmatism

In Season 2 of House of Cards, our Congressman and anti-hero Frank Underwood pulls into his office Jackie Sharp, an ambitious younger representative. On his computer, he pulls up the opposition research he has on every other member of Congress–including her. As I watched that episode of House of Cards, I knew in a flash what Underwood didn’t have, and what he would be desperate to get his hands on if it existed.

Of my range of public policy interests, that which continually pops back to the surface is “How can we understand how policy is made?” I found the policymaking frameworks we explored in my PhD first semester mostly frustrating: Either too general and ill-defined to be usefully applicable or too reductionist and “rational” to represent reality. What, I wondered, is missing here?

In the 1970s beatnik novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a man and his son take a motorcycle trip together, in part so the narrator can piece back together the parts of his memory and personality that were blown to bits by electroshock therapy. In a previous life, he had pursued an answer to the question “what is Quality?” a pursuit that had driven him to insanity.

The narrator rediscovers that Quality is neither a subjective nor objective trait, nor a characteristic of the observer or the observed, but a property of the interaction between the two. Imagine standing in an art gallery, observing a particular painting, one which has an overwhelming emotional impact on you (which one was it?). It would be absurd to suggest that the painting was objectively tear-jerking without reference to whose tears it jerked. It would be equally absurd (though entertaining, perhaps) to argue that your experience of the painting was only a figment of your imagination, or immaterial to the emotional response that it evoked. Rather, the emotional response to the painting sits at the intersection of the observed and the observer, a “truth” established in conversation.

What I appreciate about this shift in focus is that it moves us away from looking at the “thing” in itself and toward the question of “what emerges in the interaction between two things?” In this, I see parallels with the pragmatic maxim, the core tenet of a group of American philosophers from the early 20th century:

Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object. – Charles Peirce

When I first read about the pragmatists, it was this shift that jumped out at me. I asked my brother, himself in the middle of a philosophy and theology PhD, about them. As a theologian, he was unimpressed with the phrase most often associated with pragmatism:

The truth is what works. – William James

It’s pretty standard to interpret this phrase–and pragmatism generally–as nihilistic and relativist. But what if we were to set aside this critique of pragmatism, and instead return to the heart of Peirce’s pragmatic maxim? What would happen to our understanding of policymaking, and particularly the actions of policymakers themselves, through a pragmatic lens,  focusing on interactions rather than objects?

Let us return to our anti-hero, Frank Underwood. On his computer screen are the typical information storage structure: Folders and subfolders containing files containing information–forgotten newsclips, perhaps, or evidence of blackmailable indiscretions. But what if Underwood had instead organized this information in terms of the connections among legislators, events, statements, issues, and the like? This is what the journalists who combed through the 2016 Panama Papers leak did, putting information into a network, or “graph” database. They were as a result able to uncover webs of relationships that eventually forced the resignation of the Icelandic Prime Minister. Underwood understood these linkages too–he knew, for example, that he could bring another congressman on board with a bill he hated by getting a lobbyist to push through a bill supporting research into a particular type of cancer from which his wife had died. Frank had this information siloed away in folders and files; but he was the one that understood the previous and potential integration among those bits of information. He had collected plenty of information, to be sure; it was his integration of that information that proved (at least narratively) decisive. What if Frank had a tool that helped connect information the same way that he had a hard drive that helped him store it?

This shift in emphasis from object to interaction might help us understand how legislators and other policymaking actors behave. Our tendency is to understand individuals through a handful of use categories: lobbyist, legislator, Republican, Democrat, candidate, spouse. Such categories give us a shorthand for how people might behave, shorthand that is both useful and blinding.

The Pragmatic approach, it seems to me, would be to shift our emphasis away from categories whose effects are not precise. A nonpolitical example: Is it more helpful to say that someone is my friend? Or to say what we have done, or would do, on each other’s behalf? A political example: When A Texan policymakers says they are a Republican, what does that tell you in today’s political environment? Very little. One must follow the question with some version of “Are you on Patrick’s team or Strauss’s?” to get a sense of what effects that category has: What they will vote for, from whom they raise their money, or how they act on their policy priorities. In this, categories are analogous to the Pragmatists’ beliefs; they are meaningless except as expressed through action and their effects.

My pie-in-the-sky hope for the next few years is to marry this pragmatic shift in emphasis with tools like network analysis, systems dynamics and especially agent-based modeling to explain how policymakers behave. Allow me to get even higher in said sky-full-of-pies: I have a hunch that most of the things we believe make humans impossible to study objectively (power, motivation, deception, perceptions, misperceptions, ethics) are primarily difficult because we have attempted until now to analyze them as properties of objects and institutions, rather than interactions. If we shift that emphasis, we may very well be able to study human interactions in a much more predictive manner, at which point some of the other frameworks we have looked at in this class could very well make the (paradigm?) shift from being useful in the physical sciences to being useful in the social sciences, as well.

What am I missing? What am I wrong about? What should I learn next?

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