The Case of Kabul: Foresight and the Hindsight Bias Trap

The chaotic evacuation of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan has generated a storm of speculation—some informed and some not—about what led to the crisis in Kabul and how it could have been prevented. In this special edition of the Analytic Insider, I collaborate with my German colleague, Ole Donner, to review how Foresight and Hindsight analytic processes are both used – with varying success– to assess what occurred in Kabul and why.

Many commentators appear to have fallen into the trap of conflating what is known today with what could have been anticipated before Kabul fell to the Taliban. The neurological processes for anticipating what is about to happen and for evaluating what has happened are quite different.

Our brain consists of millions of neurons and the connections between them. When we learn something, it changes which neurons are connected to each other and how. Our brain’s physical change is referred to as neuronal plasticity. This process takes place unconsciously and irreversibly changes the way we think about an event.

When using Foresight analysis to anticipate what is about to happen, the objective is to:

  1. Identify a set of key drivers (or key variables) that best frame the issue and will determine how events will play out.
  2. Give different weights to these drivers to generate a set of mutually exclusive but comprehensive scenarios or potential trajectories.
  3. Develop a set of indicators to alert decisionmakers to which scenario or alternative trajectory is beginning to unfold.

For example, in the weeks before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, many were asking the question: When will the Taliban take Kabul? Answering this question required analysts to select pieces of information from a sea of incomplete and contradictory data and then formulate a set of potential scenarios when much of the needed data for conducting the analysis was missing.

In the Kabul case, the scenarios most often discussed in the press posited different time estimates (weeks, months, and years) for when the Taliban would gain control of Kabul. Instead of trying to predict a date when the Taliban would take over (an almost impossible task at the time), a better approach would have been to identify the key drivers that would determine when a takeover would occur. Some examples of key drivers are: the will of government leaders and Afghan soldiers to resist the Taliban, the extent of popular support for the government and the Taliban, prospects for installing a transition government, and US willingness to increase or decrease its military footprint.

As a situation became increasingly fluid, a primary analytic function was to track the indicators relating to each of these key drivers and alert decisionmakers to which scenario or alternative trajectory was emerging as the most likely. For example, an indicator that there would be sufficient time to evacuate Americans and Afghans would be the successful establishment of a transition government.

Hindsight is a very different matter. If a certain event already has occurred, such as the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, that changes how we—as analysts, journalists, or politicians—look at that event. The challenge is to avoid the cognitive trap of Hindsight Bias—or at least mitigate its impact.

Hindsight Bias: Claiming the key items of information, events, drivers, forces, or factors that shaped a future outcome could have been easily identified.

Information related to the event, which may have seemed less important than others in a Foresight analysis, will suddenly take on enormous significance because—and only in retrospect—it clearly pointed to the event that occurred. Before the event occurred, this same information was just part of the background noise in a sea of other information.

The tendency to retroactively give undue weight to some items of information is the essential difference between how the brain processes data in Foresight versus Hindsight. After we know about an event, it is not possible to put ourselves in the same cognitive state we experienced before it occurred. The physical structure of our brain is changed by what we have just learned has occurred, and this neuronal plasticity cannot be reset.

The Hindsight Bias cognitive pitfall helps explain why some observers claim that an apparent “intelligence failure” such as the failure to anticipate the rapid fall of Kabul should have been easier to predict than may actually have been the case. Commentators and politicians who understand the difference between Foresight and Hindsight know to exercise restraint in assessing the success of predicting a complex event or anticipating a surprise development. They recognize that Hindsight Bias is one of the most important cognitive pitfalls to protect against.

For more information on Hindsight and other cognitive biases see Richards J. Heuer Jr’s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, (2007), page 161. To learn more about Key Drivers and Foresight techniques check out my Handbook of Analytic Tools & Techniques, 5th ed. (2019).

Rethinking the Impact of Global Climate Change: Challenge Your Assumptions

The release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on 9 August should cause many of us to rethink some of our key assumptions. Some common beliefs about climate change include: Our primary need is to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions; ice and snow will cover the Arctic for decades; and the Gulf Stream will always warm the European continent. Each of these statements is based on a key assumption that could prove to be wrong—and probably sooner than you think. Below, I will show you how to use research to challenge your assumptions, using these climate change examples.

  1. Concern over CO2 may be eclipsed by concern over methane.

The climate report cited above calls for slashing CO2 emissions but notes that methane—another invisible, odorless gas—has 80 times more warming power over the near term than CO2. The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is higher than any time in the last 800,000 years. In an interview given to CNN, a lead author of the climate report, Charles Koven, said the fastest way to mitigate the impact of climate change is by reducing methane.

Most of the methane that is pumped into the atmosphere comes from landfills, livestock, and the oil and gas industry. In the United States, 28 percent of the emissions come from livestock and 41 percent from the oil and gas industry. According to the US Energy Information Administration, methane is leaking from millions of abandoned oil and gas wells, two million miles of gas pipelines, and thousands of active gas wells and refineries that process the gas. The International Energy Agency estimates that the oil and gas industry could reduce emissions by 75 percent using existing technology.

  1. Ice and snow are disappearing in the Arctic and Greenland at unforeseen, accelerating rates.

The Arctic is warming two to three times more quickly than the global average. In June 2020, the temperature in a Siberian town soared to 100oF, the hottest temperature recorded in the Arctic. Scientists project that the North Pole will see completely ice-free summers by 2030.

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center 

Click here to watch a video from NASA: Annual Artic Sea Ice Minimum 1979-2020 with area graph

According to a recent British research report, Arctic ice is thinning 70 to 100 times faster than previously thought. As the ice thins, it reflects less sunlight, increasing the warming of the ice and water below it, generating a vicious feedback loop. From 1979 to 2021, the linear rate of decline for July sea ice extent is 7.5 percent per decade. The loss of sea ice since 1979 is equivalent to about ten times the size of the state of Arizona.

The Guardian has reported that the Greenland icecap is melting so rapidly that in just one day in early August temperatures rose to a record 68oF, flowing enough water into the Atlantic Ocean to cover the entirety of Florida in two inches of water. In 2019, ice loss was running at a rate of one million tons per minute, and melting is accelerating. Taking a long view, the Washington Post reports that Greenland could lose 35,900 billion tons of ice by 2100, raising sea levels three feet.

3.  A collapse of the Gulf Stream could put Europe in the icebox.

Most of us are familiar with the Gulf Stream (which is part of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation-AMOC) that transports warm, salty water from the tropics to northern Europe and then sends colder water south along the ocean floor. As a result of this circulation, Europeans enjoy considerably warmer weather.

A mounting concern is that increasing sea temperatures combined with the onslaught of fresh water from Greenland could disrupt ocean temperatures and salinity gradients, causing the AMOC to shut down. Recent research shows that the feedback loops that keep the AMOC churning are in decline and eight indirect measures of the circulation’s strength have become increasingly unstable.

The circulation appears to be reaching a tipping point. If it crosses that line and the AMOC shuts down, much of Europe and parts of North America will experience extreme cold. This change and other likely disruptions will be irreversible.

Predictions about the future are usually derived from an analysis of historical data and patterns of behavior. But sudden dramatic change can also come unexpectedly—like the Arab Spring or the 6 January insurrection. The best way to avoid surprise is to document and challenge your key assumptions and then be honest with yourself when data mounts that is inconsistent with your assumptions.

Understanding Complex Events

We are witnessing dramatic and disruptive events play out with increasing frequency within the United States and across the world: the COVID crisis, street protests in Cuba and South Africa, wildfires in Australia and the western United States, flooding in Europe, and the assassination of the Haitian president. In this Analytic Insider, I use a technique—Key Drivers Analysis—to demonstrate the use of structured analysis to make sense of complex situations.

When the press reports a major unexpected and dramatic event, the first question to ask yourself is: What Key Drivers would explain why this phenomenon occurred?

A Key Driver is a force or factor that fundamentally determines how or why an event will occur.

If you can identify a robust and comprehensive set of Key Drivers, you can better understand why something happened and anticipate better how future events will unfold. By understanding the Key Drivers, decision makers know where best they can exert the most leverage, and analysts understand what factors or forces will most likely determine how the situation evolves.

Example #1: Is Cuba Approaching a Tipping Point?
Recent public demonstrations on the streets of many towns and cities in Cuba reflect deep-seated dissatisfaction with the regime’s inability to meet the needs of its people—particularly with regard to inoculating the population against the ravages of COVID-19. Cuba prides itself on the quality of its health system. It enjoys the highest ratio of doctors to patients in the Western Hemisphere, but it has failed to inoculate its citizens.

The Castro brothers are no longer in power, and the people are restless. Whether dramatic political change will come to Cuba is hard to predict, but the answer to that question will revolve around an assessment of how these Key Drivers play out in the coming months:

  • The government’s success in managing the COVID crisis.
  • The government’s ability to deliver basic services, especially food, to the people.
  • The population’s access to the internet and other communications networks.
  • The emergence of resistance leaders who are too popular to be arrested or killed.

The current regime is unlikely to make much progress on the first two drivers. President Biden announced on 15 July that the United States was exploring how it could restore internet connectivity on the island. Much will depend on whether leaders emerge to mobilize a popular resistance without being eliminated.

Example #2: Has COVID Fundamentally Changed Business Practices?
COVID-19 dramatically changed how business is conducted on a daily basis. Work from home has become standardized and office meetings, conferences, and training have transitioned rapidly from in-person to virtual/online collaborative experiences.

The question is—once the COVID crisis is behind us—will we return to conducting business the way we did pre-COVID or have business practices been transformed for the long term?

In mid-July, Pherson facilitated a Foresight workshop hosted by the State Department’s Overseas Security Analysis Council (OSAC) that engaged senior analytic and security specialists from 20 global companies to focus on this question.

We identified three Key Drivers that will determine how the dynamic will play out:

  • The Evolution of the Virus: Will it be a persistent problem or a declining concern?
  • COVID Narratives: Will the public space engage the issue from a constructionist/problem-solving perspective or be dominated by destructive disinformation and conspiracy theory rhetoric?
  • Reimagining the Workspace: Will business leaders and workers return to their offices and past practices or will they institute reimagined business practices that emphasize more remote work, networking, and matrix management?

The future business workplace will also be influenced by two potential major Disruptors:

  • Surprising Innovations in Technology: Will new technologies emerge that protect private, distributed networks; enable effective collaboration systems; and ensure secure data protection?
  • New Security Risk Patterns: Have potential adversaries and competitors learned how to take advantage of our distributed work patterns and can these vulnerabilities be overcome?

A Disruptor is an innovation or intervention that significantly alters existing practices, i.e. the  automobile, the iPhone, or ransomware.

By identifying and exploring these Key Drivers, it should be easier to anticipate the potential for fundamental and dramatic change.

Learn more about Key Drivers in the Foresight section in Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, 3rd ed., (2021) or take one of our upcoming workshops on Foresight Structured Analytic Techniques.

How the Intelligence Enterprise Can Support Constructive Solutions

In my two previous Analytic Insider articles, I explored whether America could turn the corner and start forging constructive solutions to the existential threats confronting our nation. If we are to succeed, then we will need to reframe national conversations and press coverage around positive narratives.

In this final article in the series, I address the potential role that the intelligence community and analysts in particular can play in supporting the process of building constructive narratives. Hopefully, over time a collaborative and concerted effort to find positive solutions can supplant the destructive rhetoric that has undermined our democratic institutions in recent years.

One suggestion is that the broader national security enterprise should expand its audience to include not only decision makers but the population in general in order to spur a more informed debate. Some of the best intelligence officers are good storytellers; should we tap their talent to begin generating positive narratives that help inform a constructive dialogue? Such a reorientation may prove necessary because the traditional strategy to counter false narratives with facts does not appear to be working. Few supporters of a false narratives will admit they are wrong when presented with “the facts.” They live in a world of redefined reality where facts have little impact.

A good model to follow is the work we have seen in countries like Finland where much energy is going into developing positive narratives that take the oxygen away from false narratives. In the United States, attention can be focused on topics that garner substantial popular support, such as mitigating the impact of digital disinformation and global climate change; projections for and implications of the rate of global vaccinations; and the erosion of democratic norms and institutions. Emphasis would be given to developing consensus on what can be done globally to build the necessary coalitions to enact positive change.

If the intelligence community is to support constructive solutions, I would recommend a strategy of generating narratives that fall into the category of either Descriptive or Estimative analysis on the Analytic Spectrum (see graphic). A good example of a Descriptive narrative is the US IC’s assessment on foreign interference in the 2020 US Federal elections. A superb example of Estimative analysis is the Global Trends estimates that are published by the National Intelligence Council every four years. Less attention should be given to articles that focus on the other two elements of the Analytic Spectrum – Explanatory and Evaluative analysis – as those efforts are more likely to inflame debate rather than expand learning.

Intelligence organizations should consider shifting their primary mission to facilitating and publishing Strategic Foresight workshops. Such Foresight workshops would engage decision makers with academics and intelligence analysts to explore how the future might—and should—evolve, especially in ways that “wicked” problems might best be resolved. This approach holds great promise for addressing issues with global implications ranging from global climate change to health care to police reform.

An even more radical idea would be for government analysts to publish unclassified “opinion” articles for public consumption on key foreign policy issues, similar to the regular essays former Acting DCIA John McLaughlin now posts on EZY. The purpose of these articles would be for current intelligence analysts to succinctly capture what has just happened (Descriptive) or for National Intelligence Officers to speculate on how future events may evolve (Estimative).

As a result of enhancing the role of the IC to support constructive solutions, the nation’s dynamic could shift from thinking that society is polarized to a realization that a strong center can be mobilized to work together to build a better tomorrow. With a stronger center, compromise can become acceptable, and resources can be allocated more equitably. My hope is that civil discourse shifts from “playing the blame game” to “how can we work together to make all of our lives better?”

Moving Toward Constructive Solutions

In my previous Analytic Insider, we discussed whether America is likely to become increasingly polarized or could turn the corner and start forging constructive solutions to the many existential threats we now confront as a nation. We all expect that this will prove a major challenge for the US Congress, but the more critical question is whether Americans can begin the process of engaging in constructive dialogues.

If we are to successfully “turn the corner,” then we, as a people, will need to:

  • Spend more time talking to each other – not arguing with each other. The purpose of our conversations should be to gain perspective on why others think the way they do, not to impose our views on them. The focus when we speak should be to inform, not persuade. A good way to start a conversation is to ask where someone gets their information. If it is a different set of sources than yours then consider this a great opportunity to learn what data they are relying on to form their opinions. Later you can reflect on whether that data is valid. If it can be challenged, then send them reports or information that points out the factual errors in their data or the faults in their judgment that they can read privately without feeling challenged.
  • Stop arguing about “facts” and reframe discussions around positive narratives. What narratives best describe how the United States can best move forward? Learn from the past but focus attention and energy on the future. The metric for successful dialogues will be whether constructive narratives come to dominate our discussions. When you encounter negative, destructionist rhetoric on airwaves or social media, just turn it off. Focus on listening to or seeking positive solutions.
  • Spread the word that cognitive bias is extremely powerful and that mindsets are extraordinarily hard to change.
  • Lobby Congress and the Executive to join forces with the major privately-owned social media companies to establish an authoritative set of objective standards for what is appropriate and inappropriate to post on social media. Create a private-public partnership to establish a Social Media Standards Commission tasked with delivering within six months a framework to establish and maintain a set of standards for both print and images. One model which may merit duplicating is the European Commission’s March 2019 Code of Standards Against Disinformation to which Facebook, Google, and Twitter are signatories.

Get Off the Sidelines!

Pick a topic you care a lot about (education, local infrastructure, voting rights, the environment) and craft your own positive, personal narrative of what needs to be done to make things better. Identify who needs to be engaged and what resources are required to make it happen. Join and/or build a network connecting you with others who want to promote constructive narratives and forge fair and balanced solutions. Make sure your group is inclusive of all views on the topic. Once your “team” has agreed on a preferred, consensus outcome, construct an action plan and generate some indicators to track your progress.

One example of successful public engagement is Finland’s campaign against Digital Disinformation in the schools. According to a 2019 CNN Special Report, Finland was ranked first out of 35 countries in 2018 in a study measuring resilience to the “post-truth” phenomenon.

  • In 2015, Finland launched a concerted campaign to advise officials—and subsequently students in grades K to 12—on how to recognize fake news, understand why it goes viral, and develop strategies to fight it. The education system was reformed to emphasize critical thinking. In 2016, the critical thinking curriculum was revised to prioritize the skills students need to spot the sort of disinformation that clouded recent election campaigns in the US and across Europe. As one official noted: “The first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.” One caveat, however, is to make sure skepticism does not give way to cynicism in students.
  • Another strategy that proved highly effective was to develop a strong, positive national narrative, rather than trying to debunk false claims. As one consultant explained: “The Finns have a very unique and special strength in that they know who they are. And who they are is directly rooted in human rights and the rule of law—a lot of things that Russia, right now, is not.” Can the same be said of the United States?

The next issue of the Analytic Insider will address the potential role of intelligence analysts in support of the process of building constructive narratives.

America is Polarized: Truth or Propaganda?

In recent years, civil discourse in the United States has become increasingly toxic. Congress has failed to address many key public policy concerns because polarization—and more recently obstructionism—places mounting obstacles to compromise and collaboration. Are we headed down a slippery slope toward more division and crass power politics or are we at a turning point where popular support is growing for forging constructive solutions to our nation’s problems?

Existential Threats
The phrase “existential threats” has recently begun to permeate our consciousness. Traditional policy differences over issues such as gun control, abortion, and health care appear to have been superseded by a spectrum of issues many perceive to pose an “existential” threat to their way of life:

Today’s Growing “Spectrum” of Existential Threats

This shift can be attributed to three key drivers:

  1. People are threatened by the pace of change and/or the dynamics of globalization. Rapidly changing technology accelerates this sense of losing control. Many do not see a way to regain the status quo and believe these changes will only get worse.
  2. Unresponsive politicians (and a dysfunctional political system) exacerbate public frustrations. In fact, some politicians are purposely exploiting and intensifying these issues for power and profit. The move toward majority/minority communities, in particular, is trumpeted as an existential threat to one’s identity.
  3. People’s concerns are falsely bolstered and reinforced by social media networks, advertising algorithms, and cable news. The misleading information then is amplified by ubiquitous echo chambers.

Many who participated in the January attack on the US Capitol building said they had to act to avoid seeing their way of life destroyed. Are we to expect more such insurrections? Are people becoming more desperate? Or is this a misinterpretation of how the public really thinks?

Taking a Second Look
A review of recent public opinion polls suggests that the American public is much less divided over many of these core issues. For example:

  • 70% of US adults say they favor the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. (2021 Pew Research)
  • 71% have received or plan to get the COVID vaccine. (Feb 2021 ABC News/Gallup Poll)
  • 80% strongly support government legislation regarding infrastructure. (2020 Gallup Poll)
  • 92% support background checks for all gun sales. (2018 Gallup poll)
  • 82% favor laws that would protect LGBT people against discrimination (2021 Public Religion Research Institute) and 70% favor the Equality Act. (2021 Hart Research)
  • 77% worry about the ability of public schools to provide quality education to tomorrow’s students. (2019 Pew Research)
  • 75% favor passing the DREAM Act permitting undocumented immigrant children to stay in the United States legally if certain conditions are met. (2020 Pew Research)
  • 58% believe “major changes” are needed to improve police practices, and 96% support changing management practices so that officer abuses are punished. (2021 Gallup Poll)
  • 60% favor dramatically reducing the use of fossil fuels in the next 10-20 years. (2019 Gallup Poll)

A “glass half full” reading of this polling data would suggest that the foundation exists for designing collaborative solutions to many of the nation’s problems. Even if you dispute the percentages or polling methodology, by far the majority of Americans appear to favor seeking constructive solutions.

In many cases, two-thirds or even three-fourths of Americans would be able to reach consensus on how best to address many of the nation’s most vexing problems, such as police/community interaction, quality education, and even health care. What appears to be lacking are sufficient incentives for politicians to come to the table and work out the necessary compromises.

Will the coming months be dominated by news of obstruction and debates over abolishing the filibuster or by the emerging power of centrist forces (such as the Problem-Solvers Caucus in the House of Representatives) to negotiate bipartisan solutions that address America’s looming challenges?  Time will tell.

The next two issues of the Analytic Insider will address strategies for engaging in a more constructive dialogue and the potential role of intelligence analysts in support of this process.

Is There an Active Insurrectionist Movement in the United States?

For decades, I have tracked political instability and insurgencies around the world. I always assumed that the indicators I developed and used to track these instabilities would never have relevance for the United States. The events of January 6, 2021, however, led me to question that key assumption. Using the same set of indicators that was developed to evaluate emerging insurgencies in foreign countries, we should be able to determine if we now face the possibility of a similar occurrence within our own borders.

The matrix below organizes the indicators of incipient insurgencies or insurrection into five categories. We have surveyed a dozen colleagues, asking them to rate the 19 indicators of incipient insurgency or insurrection based on the definitions provided. Their informal, consensus view is reflected in the chart. We encourage you to review the indicators and generate your own set of ratings.

Applying this time-proven “indicators yardstick” to current political dynamics in this country strongly suggests that an incipient insurgency—or in today’s parlance, an insurrectionist movement—is beginning to emerge in the United States. A key unknown is whether the number of active proponents of insurrection is limited to only hundreds or thousands of citizens.

Given these unknowns:

  • Scoping the size, motivations, and intentions of this movement is a critical challenge that merits further investigation by law enforcement and homeland security analysts.
  • Similarly, defining and, if necessary, further codifying what constitutes insurrectionist activity—which is clearly distinguishable from what is protected as political speech under the First Amendment—requires the attention of Congress and the Department of Justice.

Insight into how to use Indicators to track future insurrectionist behavior can be found in the Analyst’s Guide to Indicators, available at

Insurrection: From Foreign Threat to Domestic Problem

The events of 6 January, 2021, may have catapulted the United States into a new reality. Historically, most illicit activity in the United States has been defined by categories such as criminal behavior, hate crimes, and terrorism. We now may need to focus more attention on a fourth category: Insurrection.

As a former CIA political analyst, I spent decades studying the politics of foreign countries. I built models of political instability and tracked the prospects of many insurgencies. At the time, insurgency—or, in today’s terms, insurrection—was defined as “a protracted political-military activity directed toward controlling the resources of a country completely or partially through the use of irregular military forces and illegal political organizations.” One month ago, this term gained relevance for the United States.

Insurrectionist activity includes guerrilla warfare and other forms of political mobilization involving propaganda, recruitment, front organizations, and covert entities. Such activities are designed to weaken government legitimacy and control while increasing insurgent power, legitimacy, and control over territory or institutions.

Recent calls to pass a law for domestic terrorism are somewhat misplaced—because the term “terrorism” doesn’t really describe what we are facing. What we need are more robust laws defining and establishing penalties for domestic insurrectionist activity. Insurrectionist activity is distinguishable from terrorist activity in that terrorists do not seek to create an alternate government capable of controlling a given area or the country. Insurrectionist activity, as it revealed itself on 6 January, now poses a far greater threat to US democracy than terrorism.

Political science literature lists insurrectionist groups as having six primary objectives:

  • Destroying the self-confidence of government leaders, causing their abdication, withdrawal, or removal.
  • Increasing domestic legitimacy of the insurrectionists at the expense of the government.
  • Reducing government coercive power while strengthening insurrectionist coercive capabilities and popular support.
  • Limiting the ability of government to provide social services.
  • Obtaining the support or neutrality of critical elements of the population.
  • Gaining international support for the insurrectionist cause and operations.

Analysts who follow insurgencies or insurrections say they usually pass through four stages of development (see table below). In the United States, we appear to be moving from Stage II to Stage III, crossing the boundary from free speech to insurrectionist behavior and supporting activity. If such a transition is occurring, the country will need more robust investigative authorities for dealing with Stage II activities and better articulated legal structure for prosecuting Stage III insurrectionist acts. The objective is to neutralize the political impact of those who are organizing to conduct—and actually engage in—acts of sedition against the US government and its institutions.

Insight into how to use Indicators to track the emergence of insurrectionist behavior can be found in the Analyst’s Guide to Indicators, available at

Making America Work Again: Using a Constructionist Approach to Move Forward

In the May 2020 Analytic Insider (Vol. 7, Issue 4) I suggested that America’s political dynamics are best defined not by labels such as liberal versus conservative but by two camps:  the Destructionists and the Constructionists. President Biden’s inaugural address places him squarely in the Constructionist camp—those who seek to join hands to build a better society. Many say, however, that the challenges he faces are insurmountable. I am more hopeful and believe these obstacles can be overcome. A key driver of future success may be how each house of Congress organizes itself to deal with at least four critical challenges now facing the country.

In this article, I propose a non-traditional solution: the emergence of blocks of Constructionists in each house that can work with their Democratic caucuses to successfully champion a bipartisan and bicameral agenda that moves the country forward. This positive scenario is based on three key assumptions:

  1. The President genuinely wants to unite the country and will push Congress to pass bipartisan legislation that addresses key needs relating to COVID-19, the economy, racial equity, and climate change.
  2. The majority of Republican congressmen will remain inclined to oppose the Biden agenda. After a possible short honeymoon in dealing with the COVID crisis, representatives in both houses will return to their respective party’s oppositionist ways. If the past is a harbinger of the future, it would not be surprising if in the coming months the Freedom Caucus seizes leadership of the Republican caucus in the House, and a similar far right coalition assumes control of the Republican agenda in the Senate.
  3. More moderate Republican and conservative Democratic congressmen have grown weary of gridlock and are eager to work in bipartisan ways to legislate solutions to the pressing problems that confront the nation.

Continuing polarization is expected by many, guaranteeing at least two more years of gridlock on the Hill. I do not believe, however, that this is inevitable. Gridlock can be avoided if a new, Constructionist focus of power emerges in both houses of Congress.

  • In the Senate: An “independent” caucus already exists, including Sanders (VT) and King (ME). What if Democratic Senator Manchin (WV) joined this caucus and was joined, in turn, by Senators Collins (ME), Murkowski (AK), Sasse (NE), Romney (UT), and possibly a few others? This would convert a 50-50 Senate to a 47-46-7 body. The seven members of this Independent or Constructionist caucus would then hold the keys to power, providing the needed swing votes for legislation Biden wants to pass and, if successful, might even grow in strength.
  • In the House: The Democrats possess a narrow majority but will have difficulty passing the Biden agenda without some Republican support. As in the Senate, a group of Republicans—including several freshmen such as Nancy Mace (SC)—could wield substantial influence if they split from the party and created their own “independent” or “conservative” caucus that collaborated with the Democrats to pass much-needed bipartisan legislation. Key participants could be Cheney (WY) and the congresspersons who voted for impeachment. Such a new Republican “Constructionist Caucus” could form the foundation for a new conservative party.

A safer political route forward for Constructionist Republicans would be to buttress the influence of the Problem Solvers Caucus—an independent group of Representatives formed in 2017 seeking common ground on key issues facing the country. The group is almost 50 members strong and equally divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Bottom line:  What if Congressional politics shifted from a two-party system to a three-party system—or more realistically, a three-caucus system? Democrats would work with the Constructionists to negotiate and pass much needed legislation. The potential for such a shift would be greatly enhanced if the Republicans evolve toward increasingly obstructionist behavior. In that case, Congresspersons who aspire to pass needed legislation would have no choice but to either join—or agree to collaborate with—a Constructionist caucus to advance their agendas with bipartisan support.


Structuring the Debate Over COVID

The debate over how to manage the COVID crisis has surfaced two highly dissimilar perspectives:

  • Some argue that we must follow the guidance of scientists to minimize deaths.
  • Others say the greater threat is to close down the economy.

The current focus of this debate is whether and how to open schools. The first group maintains that the first priority should be avoiding further spread of the virus caused by forcing students into classrooms where many are unlikely to maintain appropriate distance. The contrary argument is that young children are at far less risk of contracting the virus, and their parents cannot rejoin the economy if obligated to stay home to care for their children.

Instead of viewing this dilemma as “us vs. them,” concerned citizens should frame the debate as a tension between two key drivers. When these drivers are arrayed on a 2×2 matrix, four scenarios can be constructed that better represent what choices are available to find an optimal resolution to the problem.

The two drivers can be represented on a simple spectrum:

 When these two spectra are arrayed on a 2×2 matrix, four distinct scenarios are generated:

The Hope Strategy in Quadrant I was followed to a large degree in countries such as China, South Korea, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand. As a result of restricting population movement and extensive testing, COVID numbers dropped sharply. With fewer cases, monitoring and contact tracing strategies have proven viable and effective. Officials are concerned, however, about the potential for a resurgence sparked by foreign travelers or a local spike.

The Fear Strategy in Quadrant III is starting to emerge as the best description of the current situation in the United States. Social discipline is lacking in many parts of the country, testing remains inadequate and outbreaks appear out of control in many states as the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are spiraling up. The fear is that it could get a lot worse than it already is.

With the Fear Strategy looming larger and the Hope Strategy no longer a realistic option, state and local officials—supported by health care professionals—have begun to adapt the Plan Strategy as shown in Quadrant II. They believe officials need to start closing down society again to get deaths under control. This will have serious economic repercussions. Models based on this scenario do not project full economic recovery until 2027 to 2029. Lives are saved but with serious damage to many local economies.

Many consider The Deal in Quadrant IV the nightmare scenario. If frustration mounts considerably, increasing numbers of people could argue that some deaths of the elderly and those with medical problems must die to get the economy back on its feet and avoid Quadrant III.

The bottom line is that none of these scenarios is optimal; each has pros and cons. The core issue is where does society believe  the country should be in terms of the two key drivers. A Constructionist Strategy (see “Destructionists vs. Constructionists: America’s New Political Divide,” The Analytic Insider June 2020) would focus the public debate on how far up or down each spectrum society wants to go in dealing with this unprecedented threat.

Once those preferences are known, then the task for public and health officials is to fashion a strategy that reflects popular expectations. A good place to start this process would be to inject this structuring of the problem into the school re-opening decision. As it becomes increasingly evident that we will need to find a new normal, it is critical to hone our ability to engage honestly as a society about what we value and what tradeoffs we are prepared to make.