What ‘Revisionist History’ Can Teach Us About Modern Politics [Opinion]

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Malcolm Gladwell, who first burst into the public consciousness in 1996 as a writer for the New Yorker and rose to fame with a series of nonfiction works such as The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and David and Goliath, dipped into the podcasting medium two years ago with his outstanding series, Revisionist History. While many lessons can be drawn from the episodes and arguments made for and against Gladwell’s views, there are two episodes in particular that offer insight into the current state of U.S. politics.

Both episodes come back-to-back in Season 1 of the podcast. The second episode, entitled “Saigon 1965,” is a story about the RAND Corporation in South Vietnam in the early years of the war and how they shaped U.S. policy, according to Revisionist History. The third episode, called “The Big Man Can’t Shoot,” is the story of NBA superstar Wilt Chamberlain’s inability to shoot free throws and the reasons for his lack of improvement.

In “Saigon 1965,” Gladwell details the lives of three of the RAND Corporation’s key figures in Southeast Asia– Leon Goure, Mai Elliott, and Konrad Kellen. Goure, who grew up as a refugee, first from Russia after the Communist revolution, then from Germany as the Nazis came to power. The global threat of Communism had shaped his life, and in his deep-seeded psychology, he needed to believe that America was winning the war against the global spread of Communism. Elliott, whose relatively wealthy family had been uprooted and exiled by the Viet Cong, wanted to believe that the Americans would emerge victorious. Konrad Kellen was also a refugee who escaped from the Nazis and had been scarred by the death and destruction of World War II. He remained in postwar Europe working for American intelligence, interviewing German soldiers to determine why they continued to fight for Hitler long after they knew the war was lost.

These three people, working together interviewing Viet Cong POWs to determine if the American demoralization strategy of bombing North Vietnam into submission was effective, came to completely different conclusions. Goure and Elliott, with their psychological need for America to win the Vietnam War, reported that the American strategy was effective. Kellen, with his experiences during and after World War II, believed that the Viet Cong would never quit and suggested that the war was unwinnable.

The greater lesson from this episode is that each of us sees the world through the lens of our own personal experience and biases. One could take two people from differing backgrounds and life experiences, have them each evaluate an issue with the same evidence in hand, and have them come to completely different conclusions.

Mai Elliott with filmmaker Ken Burns. Fredrick M Brown / Getty Images

In the episode “The Big Man Can’t Shoot,” Gladwell examines the puzzle of why basketball superstar Wilt Chamberlain gave up shooting underhanded free throws after experiencing immediate improvement when he switched to the technique. Gladwell discusses threshold models of collective behavior, a theory of psychology which dictates that people are susceptible — to a greater or lesser degree — of abandoning their principles in favor of agreeing with their peers. Ultimately, Gladwell determines that Chamberlain gave up shooting underhand free throws — even though he knew that he was shooting better that way — because it didn’t look cool, and Chamberlain was image-conscious in ways that fellow Hall of Famer Rick Barry wasn’t.

What this episode teaches us about human behavior is that each of us has a threshold point in which we will abandon individual principles in favor of collective conformity. That threshold is lower for some people and higher for others, with corresponding personal tradeoffs depending on where one falls on the spectrum.

These two episodes, when taken in tandem, are instructive in understanding the modern American political landscape. It is well-established that conservatives and liberals can consider an issue, whether it be gun control or abortion or climate change, and come to completely different conclusions about the issue. However, it is also clear that the threshold of collective behavior is what powers party loyalty.

There are many conservatives who believe in climate change, but would never consider voting for a Democratic candidate because it would defy party loyalty. There are a number of Democrats who oppose abortion, yet would be hard-pressed to vote for a Republican candidate who aligned with their views. Republicans who would be outraged by the controversial behavior of President Trump tend to ignore it in this case, because their fellow Republicans seem to find it acceptable, and consider President Trump to certainly be better than the alternative. Democrats ignored that Barack Obama did nothing to stop the DAPL pipeline from being laid near the Sioux reservation, because that doesn’t fit the narrative and would be unpopular among their peers. The recent discoveries by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian troll farms designed to shape public opinion and divide Americans along political lines is a direct result of this phenomenon.

Should Americans continue on this course, the results will be even more disastrous than they have already been. Two of us are never going to see everything in exactly the same way. We are prisoners to our own experiences and biases that continue to inform our decisions. The only way our nation can progress is if politicians and voters on both sides can have meaningful conversations about issues and work to create solutions that would be best for the greatest number of people. The kind of hateful rhetoric and divisive categorization prevalent in modern politics is destructive and foolish. Blind loyalty to party affiliations is the worst kind of collective behavior and only serves to divide Americans further.

It is time for the American voting base to wrestle power away from the political representatives who serve our best interests less and less each year in favor of their own. With early voting set to begin and election night only weeks away, do yourself and your country a favor. Educate yourself on the issues. Ignore party platforms. Listen to all sides, and open yourself to the world that is different from you. Take the time to research your ballot. Remove the party designation from each candidate and research what their stance is on the issues. Choose the people that best align with what you believe. Vote for them. If, during their time in office, they fail to deliver on their campaign promises, vote for someone else in the next election. When politicians are forced to confront that their power relies on serving their electorate, their behavior will change. Collectively, we have the deterministic power to change our nation for the better. If we continue to allow the powers that be to divide us into convenient warring parties, then we will continue to allow them to reap the spoils of our discord. Together, we could actually make America great again.