Searching for optimism in this New Year when I’m not feeling particularly optimistic…

There are so, so many things I struggle to change about my personality, but certainly one of the biggest is my propensity towards cynicism and a “glass half empty” view of life.  So when I saw The Fix:  How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline, by Jonathan Tepperman (Crown Publishing Group, 2016), I hoped it could be an antidote to the pessimism I have experienced as a result of our recent election.

And I was not disappointed!  The Fix has left me feeling like there are real, workable solutions to the problems of income inequality, immigration, terrorism, civil discord, corruption, economic stagnation, and political gridlock.  In ten chapters that also look at energy and resource issues, Tepperman takes the reader around the globe, from countries as disparate as Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, or Rwanda, and shows how courageous and creative leaders have been able to attempt solutions to problems that seem intractable.  The writing is fresh and brisk, and while many of the issues are complex, the author does an admirable job of making everything from dry economic policy to profound trauma and genocide accessible, understandable, and – ultimately – solvable.

This is a book that will appeal to those with a global perspective.  While two chapters do deal with the United States,  what I especially liked about it was the way in which Tepperman jolts the reader out of an “American exceptionalism” mindset. His conclusion is a particularly helpful identification of general lessons that he has drawn from his studies, interviews, and travels, with his assertion to “Please All the People – Some of the Time” uniquely resonant in our current political climate.

I had an upsetting lunch with a very conservative friend a few weeks before Christmas.  I have to admit that I always approach meeting this person with some trepidation.  Friends since Junior High, there is much I enjoy about this person, and if we keep the conversation focused away from politics, we do okay.  But eventually she just can’t resist trying to “convert” me, this time to “Trumpism”.  Now, this will NEVER happen.  Paraphrasing one of my favorite writers, Garrison Keillor, I see nothing in this man’s past or present behavior or agenda that I can admire or respect.  In an attempt to tone down the conversation, I remarked that my experiences living abroad have convinced me that we do best as a country when we work in the middle and look for compromises.  “No”, she responded.  “There can be no compromise.”  If you read as much history as I do, you find statements like that deeply disconcerting.  That is the path to the demise of democracy, to dictatorship and brutal suppression of dissent, and to the end of the American republican experiment.  I’m going to quote Tepperman at some length here:

Effective leadership demands more than boldness.  It also requires restraint – often when holding back is the hardest thing to do…leaders were guided by a shared understanding:  that satisficing is key to good management, especially when trying to resolve conflict…[various leaders] could have responded to crisis by pleasing some of their people – their core constituents – all of the time, or at least by giving them all that they wanted.  But because they knew that such winner-take-all tactics would only reinforce the divisions that were wrecking their societies, they chose instead to please all of the people some of the time, or at least to give them some of what they wanted.  This meant that no group got everything it demanded.  And everyone ended up a bit disgruntled.  But because every group got part of what it needed, that unhappiness stayed within limits.  The compromises were broadly accepted, the deals stuck – and the countries finally started to transcend the fractures that had caused them so much trouble in the past.

While I have no illusions about the ability of the man who will assume power in the United States in 2017 to consider anything beyond what will enrich himself and his family while stoking his narcissism and juvenile self-interest, this book left me optimistic that other leaders will emerge and step forward with courage and vision, challenging  him where and when it matters most.  Tepperman published The Fix before the election, but it is particularly relevant now.  I encourage you to read it!

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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