False Truths: ‘All politics is local’

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series False Truths
Cover of Tip O'Neill's book with Gary Hymel All Politics Is Local and Other Rules of the Game

In 1994, Tip O’Neill used the line as the title of a book he wrote with lobbyist and Democratic consultant Gary Hymel.

A Note from Dr. Wayne Baker: Welcome back contributing columnist Terry Gallagher for a special series this week. His past series have ranged from “extreme generosity” to the “real world” and the “soupathon.” Last year, he set a record by drawing more than 16,000 readers to a column on bicycle repair. Enjoy …

Every day, we rely on certain common axioms as if they are based on facts of nature, or unchangeable truths. But scratch the surface of some of those axioms and you find that they aren’t true at all. This week, I want to look at five of them.

Let’s start with “All politics is local,” the expression most often attributed to Tip O’Neill. These days, wise commentators across the political spectrum nod gravely as they repeat the phrase as a fact of political life. The Wikipedia entry on O’Neill says it means “that a politician’s success is directly tied to his ability to understand and influence the issues of his constituents. Politicians must appeal to the simple, mundane and everyday concerns of those who elect them into office.”

O’Neill, who died 20 years ago last January, served in the House of Representatives from 1953 to 1987, including five terms as speaker. And that was after he served eight terms in the Massachusetts legislature.

So he knew something about politics.

Except his famous line isn’t really true, that all politics is local.

In 2010 and 2011, Columbia University political scientist Andrew Gelman published a series of columns encouraging what Gelman called “trashing Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum.” In a New York Times blog and in other online columns, Gelman pointed to numerous elections since 1972 dominated by national issues like the economy or terrorism. Gelman concluded: “It’s easy to be smug about your political skills if you’re in a safe seat and have enough pull in state politics to avoid your district getting gerrymandered. Then you can sit there and sagely attribute your success to your continuing mastery of local politics rather than to whatever it took to get the seat in the first place.”

And there’s a pernicious consequence to believing O’Neill’s line: Keeping politics local trivializes the importance of thinking globally.

The world is too big for that.

What do you think of O’Neill’s famous line?

What other “truths” are … less than truthful?

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False Truths: Can you believe this?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series False Truths
Tombstone I wish I had spent more time at the office

JUST KIDDING (but it sure makes you think). These days, Google lists a whole host of “tombstone generators” like the one that produced this mock up.

Note from Dr. Wayne Baker: This week, we welcome columnist Terry Gallagher for a series on popular assumptions that … perhaps we should question. Here’s Terry …

How often have you heard this? “No one ever said on his deathbed ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’”

Most often attributed to best-selling author Rabbi Harold Kushner, the expression seems to mean that we should focus on things more important than work, like family or community.

While it may be true that you don’t hear anyone saying on their deathbed that they wished they spent more time working—you might hear it said by the stereotypical Wal-Mart greeters, retirees who are forced back into the labor market because their savings are running out.

The Great Recession has pushed back retirement plans for many workers, according to a poll released last fall by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

“Stung by a recession that sapped investments and home values . . . . older Americans appear to have accepted the reality of a retirement that comes later in life and no longer represents a complete exit from the workforce,” according to a report on the poll.

And you know what? A lot of people enjoy working, and find meaning in their work.

In a critique of the deathbed-regret cliché, career adviser Ruth Graham wrote: “The thing is, if you’re an ambitious person and/or you think you have something to contribute to the world, why is it so impossible to imagine you’d look back on your professional life and think, ‘I could have done more’?”

So what do you think of today’s False Truth?

Do you enjoy your work too much to give it up?

What other False Truths do you wish people would quit repeating?

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False Truths: “They grow up so fast.”

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series False Truths

family snapshotsOn Facebook the other day, a friend posted some photos of his son in his prom tuxedo, very handsome in a red bow tie and cummerbund, with the proud mother fussing over him. That prom photo is one of the required rites of spring, it seems, and we’ll see lots of similar poses from friends with children that age over the next few weeks.

And in another of the required rites, one of the top comments will be something along the lines of “They grow up so fast!”

But do they really? This week, we’re talking about some false truths, axioms that sometimes aren’t as true as they seem.

And “they grow up so fast” is one of them.

One reason we shoot those pictures of our children in their tuxes and formal gowns is because those days are so memorable, like the first day of school and other milestones.

And even for the most devoted uncles and aunts and friends of the family, the gaps between those photos can be pretty large, giving the impression that these kids were riding trikes yesterday and are driving away tonight.

But there are thousands of days and nights between those photos, thousands of diapers, permission slips, piano lessons, dental bills and dirty dishes.

In a completely different context, Abraham Lincoln said “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”

That might be the best thing about parenting, too, that children don’t grow up very fast, but one day at a time.

What “False Truths” do you wish we re-thought?

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False Truths: ‘I had rather be right than be president’

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series False Truths

Henry Clay photo“I had rather be right than be president,” Henry Clay declared in 1839. Clay played an enormous role in American political life in the first half of the 19th century, representing Kentucky for decades in both houses of Congress; he served three different terms as speaker of the House of Representatives and one term as Secretary of State. And, famously, lost three bids for the White House.

The context of Clay’s statement has become obscured over the years, but it has come to mean that personal principles are more important than ambitions, that we should adhere to our moral values no matter the cost.

But this week, we’re talking about false truths, or axioms that are repeated often as facts of life, whether they’re true of not.

Might this be one of them? Consider: What’s “right” in a democracy? Is it our individual moral principles? Or, might we all be better off if our elected officials paid more attention to how government policies can help or hurt individuals?

That was always the focus for Al Smith, another major figure in American political life, who lost a bid for the presidency 1928. Smith was always a pragmatist, known for mastering the minutiae of how legislation would affect real people. He had no patience for politicians who refused to do their homework and, instead, tried to solve everything by the application of some moral law.

What do you think?

Should our leaders be elected to stick to their own guns at all cost?

Or is there a flaw in Henry Clay’s famous line?

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False Truths: ‘When all you have is a hammer …’

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series False Truths
Landscape

Sometimes a hammer is the right tool … maybe. These two Civilian Conservation Corps “boys” in the 1930s were charged with breaking big rocks into gravel.

You can complete the sentence, don’t you?

“When all you have is a hammer—everything looks like a nail.” That’s one of those axioms you hear pretty regularly. Most often it’s used to describe a person or process lacking refinement or subtlety.

This week, we’re looking at false truths, phrases often repeated as if they are true, but might actually not be.

While the expression certainly has its roots in folk wisdom, it became one of the touchstones of psychological literature when it was cited in Abraham Maslow’s The Psychology of Science, published in 1966.

According to the Wikipedia entry: “The concept known as the law of the instrument, Maslow’s hammer, gavel or a golden hammer is an over-reliance on a familiar tool.”

It’s a form of confirmation bias, and the narrow-minded approach it represents is generally a curse to problem solving.

But wait a second. Hammers can be pretty darned useful, and not just for driving nails. And they might in fact be the perfect tool for the task at hand.

In the real world, there are lots of different hammers, of course, for everything from driving in upholstery tacks to breaking big stones into little ones. I keep a rubber mallet in the kitchen to help drive a cleaver through acorn squash.

A recent blog on Forbes cited a few more non-practical uses of hammers, like making noise and breaking things.

So if everything looks like a nail to you? Maybe it’s not your hammer.

What other False Truths should we have listed this week?

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