Apple TV’s "Foundation" and The Fate of U.S. Politics
“Lord Dorwin, gentlemen, in five days of discussion, didn’t say one damned thing and said it so you never noticed.”
If that doesn’t describe the experience of watching the political debates and press conferences of late, I don’t know what does. But this wasn’t the only political parallel in Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi decalogy.
Foundation, a sci-fi series written by Isaac Asimov in 1942, details the decades-long galactic political struggle of the planet Terminus. With a special science, Hari Seldon, the original leader of Terminus, foresees the eventual collapse of the Galactic Empire followed by 30,000 years of turmoil that sends humanity into the dark ages. However, 30,000 years can be reduced to 1,000 if humanity chooses a different path.
A mind-boggling read for sure but in a good way. So good in fact that Apple TV+ decided to base a series on it set to premier September 24, 2021. Yet despite its futuristic dystopian setting, there were two major warnings to heed for our time now.
Futureproofing is Pushed Aside as Un-Sexy
When we think of our future selves, we often frame them as someone else. As Hal Hershfield, a social psychologist at UCLA Anderson, put it, “When people think of themselves in the future, it feels to them like they are seeing a different person entirely … like a stranger on the street.” It is this “stranger on the street” perspective that often guides our policy-making, especially when it comes to thinking about our children and future generations. It is a perspective that can disconnect us from considering the consequences of our decisions.
In Foundations, Hober Mallow, a master trader who politically maneuvers himself to become the planet’s first merchant prince, also made political decisions this way. In a conversation with an advisor, Mallow is asked about his creation of a plutocracy and how it will affect the future. Mallow responds spitefully with this:
“What business of mine is the future? No doubt Seldon [the predictor of the dark ages] has foreseen it and prepared against it. There will be other crises in the time to come when money power has become as dead a force as religion is now. Let my successors solve those new problems, as I have solved the one of today.”
While policymakers must undoubtedly deal with problems as they come, they must also futureproof those plans. But this is often thwarted in democracies where politicians feel pressure to appeal to the voters. That dynamic means politicians are incentivized to pursue just the problems of today to stay in power, even if it has negative effects down the road.
Fortunately, our founding fathers designed our government with that in mind, creating a democratic republic. As mentioned in Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison reasons that this balance will “refine and enlarge the public views.” Unfortunately, much of this is being side-stepped today. Given the severe scandal and drama from 2020, including the recent presidential election, the pressure to push for immediate results has intensified. In today’s policy crafting, we see this embodied in a tug of war between incrementalism and solutionism. One side wants to make cumulative choices that mitigate future challenges, while the other wants to enact a final key answer to fix it all.
According to the CEO of the Center for a New American Security, Richard Fontaine, in a February Foreign Affairs article:
“The problem is that not all problems can actually be solved—and many of today’s foremost foreign policy challenges fall squarely into that category. Policymakers often consider it better to “get caught trying” (as the previous Democratic secretary of state put it) than risk the costs of inaction. But trying to fix the insoluble can often make things worse.”
That is often because the villainized past is vengefully disregarded. As John A. Lawrence, past Chief of Staff to U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi, discussed in an article:
“Reforms often not only fail to achieve their goals but also produce unintended consequences. They can complicate efforts to improve efficiency in the House, and the Senate…No institution should be exempt from change, but reforms need to be undertaken with a clear sense of history and the nature of the institution—something that zealous newcomers sometimes lack.”
Zealousness to radically change what is deemed “old-fashioned” woos voters, but it comes with unrealistic expectations that undermine attempts to make sustainable progress. Just like Mallow, who solves the problems of today, our politicians are too focused on getting caught trying. Publicly this looks like martyrdom, but in reality, it’s just cheap theater. Instead of hoping these brash and even indignant reforms will be our ticket out, we should look to incremental change that incorporates the needs of future generations. Unlike Foundation’s Mallow, we can no longer afford to look at those down the line as strangers on the street.
The Strategy of the Incompetent
Regardless of your political leaning, you would have to agree that 2020 contained many violent moments from both sides of the aisle. But why did these incidents result in violence? The second warning is a theme that is repeated in Foundation: “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”
When someone is unable to communicate and think creatively and constructively, they resort to brute force — to bend the will of their opponent. This approach lacks any sense of curiosity and collaboration, often resulting in violence to push an ill-considered agenda. As we see through much of Foundation, the morally good, or at least tactful, characters never resort to violence. They rely on discussion and their wits. And we would be better for it if we did too.
Originally published on Hacker Noon