Backfires, boomerangs and rebounds
The recent indictment of Donald Trump in New York by Alvin Bragg prompts reflections on the importance of boomerangs and rebounds in politics. Bragg may succeed. But most observers are resigned to the likelihood that he will achieve the opposite of his intentions.
I’ve always been fascinated by how intentions and results can misalign: the world of backfiring actions, boomerangs and rebounds.
In warfare the examples are particularly striking. Hitler intended to wipe out communism, but left it entrenched right across eastern Europe. The US intended its second invasion of Iraq to wipe out Islamic extremism but instead left it newly energised in the form of ISIS. Putin intended to roll back NATO but instead brought it new members, and gave Ukraine a sense of identity beyond anything it had had in the past.
There are many other examples, from the invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas (which led to the collapse of the Junta which launched it) to the US intervention in Vietnam, which was guided by the domino theory that if one state became communist others would be infected. Yet the intervention, far from stopping a domino effect, ended with Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos all under communist control. It’s almost an iron law of the modern world that anyone who initiates a war ends up regretting it.
Something similar sometimes happens in politics. A good example is 1968. The revolts, strikes and marches that swept across France in May 1968 are still fondly remembered (and nicely captured in many films and novels). Less well-remembered is what followed in June, when De Gaulle, who had fled the country in terror only a few weeks before, won 353 of the 486 seats in parliament against the Communists' 34 and the Socialists' 57 (1848 had a similar pattern, ending with Napoleon III running France).
America in the late 1960s experienced a parallel shift. Cinema has brilliant portrayals of the many protests that accompanied the Democrat convention in Chicago in 1968 (like The Trial of the Chicago 7). But fewer remember that by the end of the year Richard Nixon was in the White House, backed by a new coalition (including many former Democrats across the southern states) that helped to define conservatism in many countries over the next few decades.
In the UK the National Union of Mineworkers's strikes were God’s gift to Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, just as the movement to ‘defund the police’ was a wonderful gift to right-wing Republicans in the early 2020s.
Brexit may show a similar boomerang pattern. If I had to guess, within a decade or two, the end result of the actions of the Brexit radicals will be that the UK rejoins the EU but on significantly worse terms. History will not look kindly on its cheerleaders who seemed incapable of thinking even one step ahead.
A more complex current example is climate activism, which is often effective in forcing issues onto the public agenda, but can also prompt powerful negative cultural reactions - as for example in the recent Netherlands election where the Farmer-Citizen movement won almost 20% of the vote.
In short, the way that Bragg's prosecution of Donald Trump may have revived his waning career and reestablished him as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination is not so unusual.
In all of these cases a common pattern plays out: a political movement encourages ambitious leaders to play to their own base but not to think ahead or dynamically. The adrenaline and early adulation are wonderful. The end results are not.
Another kind of rebound is found in public policy. There is a vast literature on rebounds in environmental policy – cutting energy use and costs in one field may simply shift spending to another, worse one (this is called 'Jevons Paradox'). A classic example in social policy was the ‘Scared Straight’ programme intended to cut youth crime in the US but which turned out to do the opposite.
A contemporary example is the recent US government moves to require sesame labelling in foods which seems, perversely, to have led to more rather than less use of sesame.
None of these rebounds is easy to predict; rather they are good arguments for keeping an eye on the data and being humble enough to admit when you’re wrong.
Two issues of philosophy are relevant here. One is the danger of logic, or to be more precise, of principled logical thinking rather than consequential thinking. The first deduces actions from principles. The second tries to work out what might actually happen. So in the case of Donald Trump, it is obviously a correct principle that no one should be above the law. But it may be a disastrous error of judgement if it’s effect is to strengthen him. The more radical and ideological the movement the more prone is it to excessively logical thinking.
Wiser movements realise that the world is more complex than our minds and models.
The second issue is whether to think strategically or in a linear way. Strategy always involves thinking about how others will react, which in turn requires some empathy and understanding for their ways of thinking. Linear thinking extrapolates from the group (or, again from principles). There have always been echo chambers. But perhaps in a social media era it has become even harder for political movements to think in dialectical or strategic ways.
What follows? There are, I think, crucial lessons for anyone interested in change. First, don’t become intoxicated by the love of your base. They are essential to your work but can be poor guides to the wider world.
Second, think systematically about actions and reactions: use games and role plays to put yourself in the shoes of the other side. Don’t rely too much on deduction and logic.
Third, cultivate empathy, particularly of your enemies (so that you can better understand how they might react) and of the uncommitted majority (whose support will be crucial to your victories and whose hostility could undermine your best-laid plans). Most people have a lot to lose from disorder and become suspicious of anyone who becomes too messianic, too certain of their own moral worth. Finally, keep an eye on what actually happens and if it doesn’t fit your mental models, revise your models.
Backfires, boomerangs and rebounds are probably unavoidable. But if you want progress of any kind you should encourage the leaders of the movements and parties you care about to spot the boomerangs ahead of time, not only in retrospect.
Many contemporary movements seem unaware of these dynamics. I’ve already mentioned the Brexiteers. There is a mirror risk for climate activists – and the ways in which climate action has become entwined with culture wars are particularly worrying, pitting younger, more urban and educated greens against more rural, older, poorer sceptics, with the first group struggling to empathise with the second. Another fascinating example is the Effective Altruism movement, almost a model of faith in deductive logic over history and experience, which like so many similar movements perhaps appeals to the clever more than the wise.
The more positive feature of this, however, is that rebounds can produce further rebounds. The revolts of 1848 fuelled an enormous reaction as Europe’s monarchs and Emperors crushed the radicals. But the radicals triumphed in the end when most of their demands became law half a century later. May 1968 led to June 1968, but in the end many of the ideas of the ‘soixant-huitards’ became mainstream. Perhaps the real lesson is that societies are fluid and complex; it’s just that change more often happens as a zigzag than as a straight line.