Our brains want to categorize the world in binary terms: good versus evil, rich versus poor, old versus young. We sort everything into two piles whenever we can because our tiny brains can’t handle the complexity of life otherwise. It’s no surprise that here in the United States we’re stuck in a Republican versus Democrat mindset that just might kill us all. It’s simply easier to think of politics in terms of two choices, and we like simple.
Lately I’ve been wondering if the Republican versus Democrat model does the best job of explaining our governmental gridlock. Could there be another binary sorting that is the root cause? Let’s start with a little pattern recognition test and I’ll circle back to my point.
Compare the relatively successful economies in the first group of countries below to the economic zombie nations in the second group. Other than economics, what characteristic does the first group have that the second group does not?
The first thing you might notice is that the weaker economies have nicer climates. In the United States, productivity always drops through the floor when ugly winter weather gives way to nice spring days. I assume evolution created some sort of trigger in humans that tells us good weather means fruit will drop from trees and bad weather means you’d better start collecting some acorns for the winter. I know that if I have a lot of work to do, I hope for a cold and rainy day. And I don’t even have outdoorsy hobbies. My productivity drops just knowing it’s a nice day on the other side of my door.
But weather isn’t the only pattern in the country groupings. The countries with stronger economies have reputations for creating engineers and technologists. Where you have lots of engineers you have prosperity. Now let’s circle back to my point about the United States being in a binary mindset with Republicans and Democrats. What is it that drives so many citizens who are infinitely different from each other to stuff themselves into one of two boxes? Some of the answer is our reflex for sorting everything into two boxes. But there’s another answer: lawyers
I saw an estimate that 36% of our elected leaders have law degrees. That’s notable for two reasons. First, and most obvious, lawyers are trained to see the world in terms of winners and losers. The legal game is not designed to be a win-win proposition. Lawyers don’t say their clients are mostly innocent, or somewhat negligent. Lawyers say every bit of evidence is 100% supportive of whatever view they want you to believe. It’s hard to imagine any sort of job training that would be a worse fit for the infinite nuance of government service.
Second, and more problematic, lawyers are trained to convince other people that the gray areas they see are not gray at all. Lawyers are experts at turning ambiguous evidence into whatever confirmation bias serves their argument. And while lawyers aren’t the only people trying to convince others of their worldview, they’re generally the best at it. If you infect any group with 36% lawyers, you can expect it to evolve into two teams of haters.
Pulling all of this together, I think our brains have no choice but to sort things in two piles. But maybe we do have the choice of what kind of piles we pick. The lawyers in government would have us believe our two choices are Republican or Democrat. I think we might get better results by labeling our binary choices as Lawyer or Engineer. For example, a lawyer choice might be willing to shut down the government to win an argument and make the other side a loser. An engineer would look for an evidence-based solution that is best for the country on average. An engineer might test an approach in one state first, or look to other countries as examples of best practices. For every major issue there is a lawyer approach and an engineer approach.
Imagine what would happen if voters started sorting government plans into Lawyer versus Engineer. When the evidence suggests a win-win opportunity, we’d call it the engineering option. When we have a win-lose alternative, we would label it the lawyer approach. Perhaps that sort of worldview would help voters break free of the mental shackles of the two-party system that lawyers have created in our minds.