Sharks, Carp and Dolphins: applying a model from business to politics
What I'd like to do with this essay is adapt a paradigm from the world of business strategy that I think applies to the Democratic party in 2006. I think you'll find these ideas dovetail with the above essays, and, I hope, will prove useful tools for thinking about Democratic strategy in 2006...
Dudley Lynch's 1989 book Strategy of the Dolphin: Scoring a Win in a Chaotic World divided business strategy into three competing paradigms: that of Sharks, that of Dolphins, and that of the Carp. (Wiki has a nice summary of Lynch's analogy.) Business writers like Peter Stark have extended Lynch's analysis by applying it to negotiating tactics. (Follow the links to see the book and analysis this essay is based on.) Let's take a look.
Peter Stark's description of "a shark" is one that I think both introduces the concept...and can easily be adapted towards understanding the strategies currently used by the GOP:
Sharks believe in scarcity. Their perception is that in all negotiations, there must be winners and losers. To ensure that they won't be the losers, sharks "move in for the kill," striving to get as much as they can in every case, regardless of the cost.
[Sharks] feel comfortable only when they are in total control, so one of their characteristics is a tendency to use crises to confuse the other party. A second characteristic of sharks is to assume that they always have the only possible solution to any negotiation. They have a desperate need to be right 100 percent of the time and will go to any extreme, including lying, to cover up their failures and shortcomings.
It is difficult to negotiate with sharks because they lack the ability to use creative strategies. They are unable to try anything different or learn from their mistakes. Their attitude of scarcity dictates their actions and reactions.
If you find yourself negotiating with a shark, you need to be constantly on guard. One bad move and you will be eaten alive....
This description describes to a "T" the mindset of the GOP juggernaut that has dominated Congress and the Executive branch. Republicans play politics in a world where there can only be winners and losers, where attacking the weak points of one's opponent is the ONLY way to guarantee success. Tom DeLay's adventure in Texas redistricting, the 1998 attempt to impeach President Bill Clinton, GOP strategy during the Florida recount, and the use of "Swift-Boating" against Democratic veterans like Max Cleland, John Kerry and John Murtha are pure shark. Further, the consistent unified chatter of GOP think tanks, talk radio and TV news following the lines of the day's "talking points" from Karl Rove exemplifies shark tactics; it's an inflexible, almost robotic strategy, but GOP sharks are deadly effective because they unerringly and relentlessly go for the kill.
Here is the critical point to remember: Sharks don't care what they do to the "climate" or to their "working environment" so long as they can be sure that they dominate that environment. They are not beyond lying to cover up their failures or to get their way. Winning is paramount and can only come at another party's expense. That's politics.
Now, on the other end of the strategic spectrum, are the Carp. It's sad to say, but Stark's description of the Carp mentality could be used to sum up Democratic strategy for the last two decades:
Like sharks, carp believe in scarcity; but unlike sharks, carp believe that in a negotiation, they can never be the winners. Because of this belief, they focus their efforts on not losing what they currently have.
Carp do not like any type of confrontation, so their normal response in negotiating is to give in or get out. Neither of these responses, when used repeatedly, leads to positive outcomes. People who always "get out" and avoid negotiations become cut off and isolated. The "give in" strategy is even worse--people who constantly give in eventually have nothing left, and are eaten alive. [emphasis mine.]
Central to this definition of the worldview of a Carp is the dual belief in both "scarcity" and "the imminent loss of what you already possess." Ring a bell? From the current debate over the 50-State strategy, to the legendarily careful tactics of the DCCC and the DSCC, to the timid efforts of the Kerry/Edwards campaign to go out of their way to offend absolutely no one in 2004, to, yes, the Gore/Lieberman's failed tactics in Florida in 2000...Democratic strategy has been anchored for decades now in the concept that there's little out there for us to win and much for us lose. Of course, the mindset that says, "better not lose what we've already got" in the face of relentless attacks from sharks is a sure way to lose even more. (For more of this debate, try this discussion on MyDD.)
I can't think of a better summation of the frustration that DNC Chairman Howard Dean's supporters expressed in the last Presidential election or the rage that spreads through the netroots every time the Democratic party seems to fall back into this mode of thinking. It's clear that the current Democratic Party believes in scarcity; we're afraid to lose and we're sure that "making mistakes" will only lead to further losses. We're acting like Carp!
Now, it would be EASY for Democrats, continuing to believe in "scarcity" and "the dangers of imminent losses" to simply convert to using "shark tactics." We've seen this mentality in the "gung-ho, just win baby" mindset that courses through the netroots out of disgust at the carp-like actions of the leaders of the Democratic Party. This approach might work in the short run and in specific cases. Heck, if the country really is "poised to vote Democratic," (and thereisnospoon is eager to warn us it isn't) we could use "Shark tactics" to roll the GOP right out of power. Of course, as you might guess, I don't think the answer is that simple. The point of this essay is that there's another way.
Which brings us to Dolphins. To introduce the strategy of the Dolphin, just for fun, let's start with this quote from the Busch Gardens website linked above:
Dolphins live and travel in groups called pods, often family groups. In some species, individual dolphins enter and leave the pod over time. But others, like killer whales, have a stable group. Sometimes, several pods may join together to form a temporary herd. Several hundred individuals have been seen traveling in a single herd...
Although they sometimes feed by themselves, dolphins most often hunt in groups. Dolphins that live in the open ocean may swim in tight circles around a school of fish and take turns dashing in to catch a bite to eat. Closer to shore, a group of dolphins often herds fish into shallow water, keeping them trapped while group members feed.
Clearly, cooperative, environmentally adaptive strategies are the core of Dolphin tactics. Dolphins in the wild even can intimidate sharks, as this zoologist from the MadSci.org website notes:
Q: Is it true that where there are dolphins there are no sharks? A. No, this is a fallacy. Although dolphins and sharks do not seek each other to attack, they appear to have a mutual respect. Normally, a shark will only attack a lone dolphin, a sick dolphin or a calf that strays from its mother. In Port Phillip Bay, the large male dolphins that usually live outside the bay come inside at the beginning of October, which is the same time that the bronze whaler sharks come into the bay to mate and give birth. Male dolphins form a guard around the females and young to protect them during this time. Sharks usually keep their distance from the dolphins.
Peter Stark has this to say about Dolphins as negotiators and strategists:
Lynch and Kordis chose the dolphin to illustrate the ideal negotiator because of the animal's high intelligence and ability to learn from experience. When dolphins do not get what they want, they quickly and precisely alter their behaviors in sometimes ingenious ways in pursuit of what they are after.
In negotiation, dolphins have the ability to successfully adapt to any situation they encounter. If one strategy is unsuccessful, dolphins respond with other possibilities. They learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of others. Dolphins believe in both potential scarcity and potential abundance. Because they realize that both are possible, they learn to leverage what they have and use their resources superbly. [Emphasis mine.]
That gets to the core of it. The "Dolphin strategy" is different from Carp and Shark modes precisely because it relies on analyzing specific situations; when you ground strategy in analysis, you create tactical flexibility. Because Dolphins do not see the world simply in terms of win/lose dynamics, they can defend and attack at the same time...Dolphins have proportionality. Dolphins see the downsides of "failing to act decisively" and yet they don't give up pursuing long term strategic actions that serve their best interests. Dolphins are poised to take advantage of situational weaknesses in enemies who would attack them at the same time as they work together to protect the long term core intests that benefit their "pod"...ie. unlike Carp and Sharks, Dolphins target abundance that others can't see rather than fight mindlessly.
Much of the debate within the Democratic Party since the losses in the 2002 and 2004 elections have centered around the win/lose, scarcity-obsessed nature of Carp/Shark dynamics. (ie. should we or shouldn't we pursue 50 state strategy...???) What Democrats haven't done enough, is to understand that our situation demands a more sophisticated approach than simply "defending" or "attacking." Yes, Democrats need to both attack and defend...and with alacrity...but more strategically, the Democratic Party needs to, like a Dolphin pod, attack and defend in a concerted tactical manner that works in the best interest of our "Pod/party" all the while enunciating a negotiating position that advances the best interests of the nation as a whole. (If we weren't talking about Dolphins, I'd call this a 'walk and chew gum approach.') We need to insist on strategies of attack and defense that, instead of obsessing on narrow "Shark/Carp" dynamics of winning and losing single battles, broaden the playing field and expand the terms of the debate. We need to work together towards both short and long term interests. Simply put, we need to be like Dolphins.
Take the oft-noted failure of the Kerry campaign to respond to the Swift Boat attacks. It wasn't simply that John Kerry needed to respond to the GOP sharks immediately. Nor was it as simple as the Kerry campaign eventually enunciating the seemingly opposite "counter-message" of patriotism and service. What needed to happen was for Democrats, the entire "pod" acting in a concerted manner, to defend ourselves from an unjust attack and to bring the debate swiftly back to the terms of our core message: we are the political party committed to finding solutions that work for everyone.
Now, politics is a winner take all proposition. I can understand that many will see an analytical strategy adapted to business negotiations, at building so-called "win-win outcomes," as failing to apply. The exact opposite is true.
It is precisely because politics is a battle for winning a majority in a zero sum environment that political parties can only build long term success by speaking to that majority. I argued in my previous two essays (here and here) that the Democratic party needs to change the totality of how it communicates. I reiterate that point here and add this: by acting in a concerted "pod-like" manner to consistently bring the national debate around to our vision of the national good, a good that represents the interests of Democrat, Independent and Republican alike...we will win the struggle for the majority.
Yes, a shark-like GOP can "batter" a carp-like Democratic party mercilessly. That's what they've done for two and one half decades despite "triangulation" and "capitulation." But what's important to learn is that this "battering" (at the polls, in the press) has precluded Democratic success...not simply because it has made us appear weak and defensive...but because it prevented Democrats from clearly enunciating a message of abundance that works for everyone. In doing so, we have failed in our "negotiations" with the only "negotiating partner" that matters in American politics, the political majority of American citizens.
Hence, the Democratic party needs to be like Dolphins not simply in how it defends itself from the predation of GOP sharks, but, more importantly...in how it "closes the deal" with the American public.
There are a multitude of ways in which the sorry "carp-like" past of the Democratic party could be elaborated. I am sure you can add a ton of examples in the comments below. Further, I think we can all agree that the Democratic "Pod" needs to learn how to defend its interests aggressively from the Swift-Boating sharks of the GOP now and going forward. Carpism must end.
What interests me, however, and what I think is vital to the future of this nation and the Democratic party, is the other side of this analysis. As Peter Stark expressed in this quote about Dolphins:
Unlike sharks, who spend the majority of their time trying to control their counterparts and expect to conclude any negotiation with a definite winner and loser, dolphins spend the majority of their time building trust and rapport. Knowing that negotiations are usually most successful when both parties' needs are met, they consider the other party's goals and foster an atmosphere of cooperation. And when one negotiating strategy fails, they try other strategies to enhance the possibility of achieving a win/win outcome.
In my mind, the Democratic Party will only "break through" when we understand that we are in negotiations with the majority of the American electorate. Our job is to effectively communicate to that majority how our vision for this country is a vision that benefits every single citizen. In effect, the Democratic party needs to enlarge the pod with an inclusive message of abundance that puts equity and fairness at the centerpiece of politics.
Yes we have to defend ourselves from GOP Sharks along the way, but nothing should come between us and the critical task at hand: reclaiming leglislative majorities in Congress and State Houses by winning the votes of a majority of our fellow Americans. We do that by strategizing and cooperating like Dolphins.