home books POLEMICAL JUDO Introduction: The Need for Judo Polemic

Introduction — The Need for Judo Polemic

included in POLEMICAL JUDO,
a Brazen Guide for sane Americans to bypass trench warfare
and win our life or death struggle for civilization

by David Brin

political judo

It was a brilliant political maneuver — and no Democrat will learn from it. In 1994, Newt Gingrich's innovative "Contract With America" made the Republican Party appear serious, pragmatic, reformist. No matter that every decent promise in the Contract later wound up neutered or betrayed. The electoral triumph that Gingrich wrought with this bait-and-switch was a historic phase change, demolishing what remained of the Roosevelt-era social and political compact.

The aftermath was even more tectonic. Even under Ronald Reagan, legislators assumed that their mission was to stake bargaining positions, then negotiate and ultimately legislate, adjusting our laws for changing times and needs. Gingrich retained that tradition for one more year — the anno mirabilis 1995 — making deals with Bill Clinton to get budget surpluses and welfare reform. Foreign policy was a collaborative neutral zone.

Revolutions often eat their own. Soon Newt was toppled by Dennis Hastert, whose eponymous "Rule" threatened political extinction for any Republican who dared to discuss tradeoffs or common ground with any Democrat, ever. Across America, "Tea Party" movements enforced the Hastert Rule on representatives with fervent passion. As a result, every following congress — except for the brief, Pelosi-led 111th (2009-2011) — would be among the most rigidly partisan in U.S. history. Also the laziest, holding among the fewest days in session, or bills passed, or hearings (except those spent fruitlessly pursuing Clintons), but setting all-time records at fund-raising.

Oh, about the central architect of this era that bears his name — Dennis Hastert, chosen by his party to be Speaker of the House and top Republican in the nation? Hastert later served time in federal prison for lying about decades of grotesque, serial child predation.

Why do I begin with all of that, in a book about "Judo Politics"?

Because the key feature from that entire era was not Republican canniness, or laziness or turpitude; it was Democrats’ obstinate inability to learn anything at all. [1] What Newt Gingrich's "Contract" and the "Hastert Rule" illuminate is how liberals, moderates and Democratic politicians keep getting out-maneuvered, time and again, refusing ever to understand their mistakes — like Barack Obama attempting for eight years to negotiate across party lines with opponents who had literally and explicitly banished that phrase from their caucus. Yes, it was wise and mature to keep trying. And yet there are reasons why Obama failed.

Consider the Democrats’ two lonely triumphs, across the last 30 years. In both 1992 and 2008, frustration with Republican misrule boiled over. Massive outpourings of activism led to registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns, bringing millions to the polls who formerly sat out elections. In each case, the Democratic-controlled legislative and executive branches got busy, trying to steer the ship of state... only to lose control of Congress just two years later, in 1994 and 2010, when those new voters stayed home.

Is history repeating, yet again? Are the chess-masters already planning for 2022?

Repeatedly, Democrats and their allies are lured onto battlegrounds of the enemy’s choosing, as Donald Trump tweet-controls every news cycle. Sure, talk show hosts mine each day’s outrage for humor, indignation and ratings. But it’s rare to find even a single pundit (other than cognitive linguist George Lakoff) asking: "Hey, what actually happened, just now?"

What’s happened? It’s increasingly argued that we’ve entered a crucial phase — so far, not hot — of America’s 250 year old civil war, a battle for survival of the Enlightenment Experiment. Moreover, we've been tricked into fighting chest-to-chest, grunting and shoving, in the polemical equivalent of trench warfare. Or else Sumo wrestling.

David Axelrod put it well [2], citing how we respond to every Trumpian or Fox News provocation with righteous indignation.

"My advice to the Democratic nominee next year is: Don't play.... Wrestling is Mr. Trump’s preferred form of combat. But beating him will require jiu-jitsu, a different style of battle typically defined as the art of manipulating an opponent’s force against himself...."

Absolutely. Moreover, it must begin with un-learning our most comforting — and futile — reflexes.

ticking clocks and urgency [3]

It may surprise you that the author of Earth and Startide Rising, a lifetime member of environmental NGOs and a caring father who lives by pondering the near and far future, will write so little in this book about some of the critical crises facing our nations, citizens, and biosphere — like global heating, deforestation, water scarcity, mass species extinction, and the spread of populist fascism. I will get to them all! But they aren’t our main focus here.

That’s because I am both hyper-optimistic and super pessimistic, at the same time.

Just in my own lifetime, I’ve witnessed so many examples of humanity’s genius at innovating spectacular solutions to daunting problems. I know how far that record goes back in time and where it might take us, if truly fed and empowered. For reasons that I won’t go into, here, I think it’s likely that humans are rare across the cosmos — unusually creative, for a naturally evolved intelligent species. But that creativity only burgeoned to full strength and vigor recently, in one kind of society. One that found new ways to practice an art we’re taught to despise: Politics.

Politics is a competitive process — often cutthroat — but also cooperative when we use it to negotiate. It is politically that we define policy, which can either hinder or unleash the fecundity of science, amateurism, volunteerism and philanthropy, as well as markets that address new needs through enlightened self-interest. Using many tools and a broad stance, we know how to do those things! We used to do it more.

In a later chapter — "Can We make a Deal?" — I’ll go through many ways that adults might seek win-win solutions to our myriad problems. But I doubt that can happen right now, because our process of negotiation — politics itself — has been almost destroyed. And that happened deliberately.

Hence my combination of optimism and deep worry. I have many friends in science, engineering, activism and so on who are frenetically busy trying to save the world. We could do so much more, so much faster, except that — alas — all of our immune systems against error and our political mechanisms for problem-solving are presently clogged. They must be unclogged!

Alas, in order to do that, we’ll have to combat monsters.

zombies and vampires and were-elephants

The death spiral of U.S. political life has yet to see bottom. While most factual indicators suggest wary optimism about humanity’s overall trajectory, our public addiction to dudgeon and fury intensifies daily. Words like "negotiation," "deliberation," and "discourse" sink into quaint anachronism alongside "phlogiston."

For those who complain of "incivility" and preach "let’s find common ground," Chapter 2 of this volume explores deep, underlying currents that we — especially Americans — all share, deep roots that are seldom discussed and healthy reflexes that have been turned against us. I’d like nothing better than to apply those common values, resurrecting politics as an arena where — amid much fervent wrangling and dickering — positive-sum compromises rise to the top. Moreover, I’m known as a militantly-moderate person, a liberal-minded pragmatist reformer who sees much wisdom in Adam Smith and who willingly criticizes a sometimes obdurate far-left. My blog is called Contrary Brin because I’ll argue with any faction, always with an eye to finding that path where all can win.

But I’m now convinced the never-negotiate radicalism of today’s mad right — promoted avidly on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and by memes pouring from Kremlin basements, and even institutionalized openly by many Republican leaders — leaves us no choice. It’s become a knife-fight. Any reaching out will just win us a bloody stump.

As Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman put it, in an August 2019 editorial: "Democrats need to win elections, but all too often that won’t be sufficient, because they confront a Republican Party that at a basic level doesn’t accept their right to govern, never mind what the voters say."

By any factually-supported metric, citizens should be taking torches to the shambling, undead shell of the party of Lincoln. Yet, 40%+ of the voting public in the U.S. (and with similar waves in many other countries) has been mesmerized by bilious incantations via Internet and TV — a phenomenon referred to by uncomprehending punditry as 'populism.'

In fact, something similar has happened whenever some new kind of media erupted, as in the 1930s, when radios and loudspeakers seemed to amplify the human voice to godlike proportions, empowering gifted savanarolas to very nearly take over the world. Or back when printing presses poured forth hate-tracts that stoked Europe’s 17th Century religious wars. Today's cunning Goebbels-equivalents have turned transformative Internet technologies against us. Against the very civilization that fostered communications breakthroughs with curiosity and science. Oh, someday, these technologies, too, will have the promised net-positive effects, as happened to books and radio. But till then, we must survive a violent time, incited by tsunamis of malignant memes. And that will only happen by thwarting evil geniuses.

Hence, while this book is aimed at helping achieve outright victory for the "Union" side in this phase of the U.S. Civil War, I am not here to praise Democrats, but berate them.

Getting mired in trenches while extending repeatedly a bloodied hand of negotiation is not working. Nor am I the only one demanding tougher, more agile tactics. Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, as of July 2019 started using "foul language" to describe the Trumpists. (Gosh.) David Faris, author of It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics, says Republicans have all but destroyed democratic norms in America, and it’s time for Dems to take on the mantle of procedural warfare. Faris’s concepts include deliberately breaking up big states like California so that blue populations can match red citizens in "Senator Power." I have many doubts. But as Abraham Lincoln said about U.S. Grant, we can’t spare fellows like that. They fight.

This battle can only be won with agility. With maneuver. By using the adversary’s ponderous momentum against him. By appraising the advantages and weapons of those who hijacked American Conservatism, transforming it into a shambling zombie that would appall Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, or even Ronald Reagan — a tool of foreign tyrants, casino moguls, coal barons, petro-princes, Wall Street cheaters, tabloid pimps, mafiosi and resurgent Nazis — a cabal of forces who will end free enterprise as surely as they aim to finish off Enlightenment democracy and the impartial rule of law. Toward this goal they have refined a daunting array of effective tactics...

... that might yet be overcome and even turned to our advantage, with the political equivalent of judo, the art of using your opponents' own aggressive momentum against them;

By slashing the bonds (or lies) holding their coalition together. (The very thing they do to us.)
By confronting our neighbors not with familiar chasms, but commonalities. Things you and they both know to be true.
By understanding how so many basically decent people insulate themselves against appeals to compassion.
By going to the root of their own catechisms, like Make America Great Again.
By making explicit what the Fox News hosts and fellow travelers never say aloud, like their open war against all fact-using professions.
By using outcomes to destroy their comfy narratives — like the claim that conservatives are the practical ones — by proving Democrats are vastly better against deficits, at engendering a healthy economy and even at fostering open-creative-competitive enterprise.
By proving there is common ground, e.g. showing your neighbors that we were all raised by Hollywood themes like suspicion of authority and individual autonomy, even if we disagree over which authorities are trying for Big Brother.
By going directly after the two traits they find so appealing about Donald Trump — first his brash bully-bravado and appearance of macho "strength"...
... and second the way he enrages the same people who red-hat-wearing Americans hate most.
By developing the one method that always corners them. A trick that makes a few opponents stop, think and reconsider… while sending the rest fleeing in panic and shame.

Oh, the list goes on and on. In this compendium, I’ll shine light on not one, or ten, but as many as a hundred memes and counter-memes, tactics and stratagems, polemical riffs and/or smart missiles that have nearly all been ignored by our 'generals' — the candidates and consultants and commentators who we count on to confront this madness. I’ll suggest ways to counter effective cult catechisms like "fake news" and "deep state" and the blatant, all-out war against every fact-using profession.

If even one of these tools or tricks winds up being used well by some effective public figure, then this effort will be worthwhile.

what lies within

Well okay, my regular publishers would be too slow for this election cycle, so let’s do a quick e-book touching on many topics.

We’ll spin from the war on science and fact (Chapter 5) to racism and immigration (Chapter 22).

From electoral cheating and gerrymandering (Chapters 4 & 8) to the economy (Chapter 11), to forging a big-tent coalition (Chapter 19).

From saving the planet (Chapter 20) to the right’s obsession with symbolism (Chapter 17), to gun control (Chapter 21).

From international relations and China and Russia (Chapters 9 & 18) to anti-government fetishism (Chapter 10) and our ongoing national family feud (Chapter 16).

From “exit strategies” — Impeachment, Indictment, the 25th Amendment and all that (skip to Chapter 16, if that’s all you care about) to overcoming "splitterism" (Chapter 12)

From conspiracies (Chapter 7) ... to the poison that is used to suborn so many of our leaders... to the antidote that might save them and us (Chapter 8).

From ways we might all negotiate solutions off the hoary "left-right axis" (Chapter 13)... to resilience and readiness in case that fails.

And tactics, tactics, tactics that might — or might not — work. But shouldn’t someone at least try some of them?

time for a few caveats

As I said, this tome largely gathers — with light edits — separate postings from Contrary Brin, so do expect both gaps and repetitions. Likely a lot of the latter. Apologies for that —

— and for my inevitable failures at the ever-changing linguistic exigencies of our ongoing campaign for diversity, uplifting a crude civilization toward greater awareness, acceptance and tolerance. (See below.) I’ll commit errors of terminology, especially re: this year’s gender-and-category identification rules. Still, while this codger firmly rejects extrema of PC-bullying, let me avow to being an enthusiastic, lifelong fellow traveler in our unprecedented drive toward the kind of just and better future sometimes portrayed in science fiction. I mean well.

Why is so much of the 'good stuff' packed later in the book, like "impeachment" and other fierce tactics? Because I’m a pedantic twit and there’s a lot of stuff about history, science and even philosophy I want to get to, first. I control the order of the table of contents. You control what you choose to read.

Finally yes, while most of the issues and points raised here are pertinent to any human society, especially those upholding enlightenment values, this volume is decidedly USA-centric. These chapters are about a pivotal fight for the soul of the "American Experiment." Friends out there, root for us — we still have a flawed-but-useful role to play. But carry on, if we fail.

Oh, for those readers who like to skim (I can get wordy and garrulous), go to later "pause" interludes where I try to distill down to zingers and one-liners. Above all, these political judo maneuvers aim to use the stratagems and momentum of today’s mad-right against them, helping us defend and revive the vital revolution that gave humanity its brightest hope. May some of our politician-paladins find weapons of practical value.

Next comes the first of several pause riffs between chapters, where I’ll focus on fundamentals that seldom get mentioned in our insipid "Left-vs.-Right" grunting and sumo-shoving matches. Some are traits that you and I share with a vast majority of our fellow citizens, even many on the other side... qualities that we might use to bridge the volcanic wrath now gaping between us.

A wrath that all-too many of them have foolishly fallen for... but yes, in some cases so have I. And so have you.

As lusciously pleasurable as it can be, we cannot afford wrath. There’s too much at stake.

THE END of chapter one. Continue reading an excerpt from chapter two, or read the final chapter at David Brin's blog Contrary Brin.

Now! Purchase POLEMICAL JUDO in trade paperback.

Or purchase POLEMICAL JUDO for the Kindle ebook.

references and notes

[1] "Should Democrats Issue Their Own 'Contract with America'?" https://www.davidbrin.com/nonfiction/contract.html An aside: A few dems thought they were clever calling Gingich’s ploy a "Contract ON America." Heh. A pathetically useless snark, it was diametrically opposite to 'judo.'

[2] New York Times op-ed by David Axelrod, who was senior strategist for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign: "Let Trump Destroy Trump." The Democratic nominee, whoever it turns out to be, should use the president’s contortions and carrying-on against him. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/11/opinion/trump-2020.html

[3] Speaking of urgency, some of you desperately want to envision a quick way out of this torment. Chapter 16 talks about impeachment and all that. Much of which may seem quaint, by the time you read these lines.


about this book

POLEMICAL JUDO: Are we in phase 8 of America’s 250 year civil war? If so, the Union has a problem with its generals, who keep getting lured into grunt-and-shove combat, on ground chosen by the other side. The possibility of using agility — winning political battles with the shifting dexterity of jiu jitsu — never occurs to Democratic politicians or strategists.

Copyright © 2019 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

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join David Brin's discussions

David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and posts social media comments on Facebook, Twitter, Quora, and MeWe specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come and argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.

cited in this article

David Axelrod, "Let Trump Destroy Trump"

David Brin, Polemical Judo Chapter 2, "Fundamentals — Underlying Beliefs that (Nearly) All Americans Share"

David Brin, Polemical Judo Chapter 16, "Exit Strategies."

David Brin, "Should Democrats Issue Their Own 'Contract with America'?"

David Faris, It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics (book #ad)

democratic aims

letting others have their say

Bruno Latour, Down to Earth

Roddey Reid, Confronting Political Intimidation and Public Bullying

Kevin Baker, America the Ingenious: How a Nation of Dreamers, Immigrants, and Tinkerers Changed the World

Nancy L. Rosenblum, A Lot of People Are Saying

Malka Older, Infomocracy

Cailin O'Connor, The Misinformation Age

Linda Nagata, Edges (Inverted Frontier Book 1)



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