What Is Governing, and What Is Not

In late September we were treated to a show by the far-right Chaos Caucus of the Republican Party led by Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene. This nearly devolved into an actual government shutdown, causing misery among people who depend on government employment. Columnist David Brooks – himself a conservative Republican — called Gaetz and his group nihilistic performance artists.

What is motivating these disrupters? The charitable explanation is that they sought some policy objective they couldn’t achieve in the normal way, although their objective changed from day to day and was never well explained. The less charitable explanation is that they sought nothing more than camera time. A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal pointed out that Gaetz’s audience and priorities are different than the rank and file Republican, “Gaetz is going for attention, TV interviews, fundraising.”

In early October a subset of disrupters caused the removal of Speaker Kevin McCarthy for committing the sin of working with Democrats to pass bi-partisan funding legislation. This is the first time in our history a Speaker has been removed. Perhaps McCarthy deserved it because his word has been like sand between your fingers.  But the whole episode suggests that House Republicans can’t even govern themselves, much less help with governing the nation.

It is remarkable that the Democrats in the House are not the target of the obstructionists. It is their own party. Most Republican House members, including their leaders, didn’t want to shut down the government because they knew there would be a political price to pay and their party would pay it. And most in the House Republican caucus are furious with Gaetz and his disrupters for upending McCarthy.

It seems like any positive legislative proposal these days must endure a gauntlet filled with warlords and highwaymen ready to exact a ransom. We can all agree that obstructionist grandstanding and political extortion is not governing. But what type of governing behavior do we have a right to expect from elected officials of both parties?

The answer is squarely in front of us. This country is supposed to operate on majoritarian principles. The exceptions are the minority protections carved out in the Bill of Rights and the design of the U.S. Senate, which gives tiny states the same representation as enormous ones.

Legislation should move, or not move, based on whether there is a majority of legislators supporting it. The House of Representatives has 435 members, while the Chaos Caucus is only 10 representing a mere 2% of the population. If a legislator isn’t in the majority on an issue, then her task is to persuade others to change their views, not throw a wrench into the works because she can’t get her way.

Political hostage taking and obstructionism is simply not acceptable governing behavior. Temper tantrums should get no respect.

The hostage taking is not limited to the House of Representatives. It is also taking place in the Senate and even in the Jefferson County Commission.  Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville has held up 300 military promotions for weeks because he is trying to force a policy change at the Pentagon. Tuberville, of course, can’t claim to be governing. Nobody thinks his one-man blockade is a great idea and his own party will soon put a stop to it.

The extortionists and performance artists on the national stage have gotten so much attention that now some Jefferson County Commissioners have copied their behavior. Two out of four Commissioners showed up for business at the September 21, 28 and October 5 meetings. The other two – Tricia Jackson and Jennifer Krouse – made themselves absent to deny the Commission a quorum. They claimed this was in protest of an abuse of power by Commission President Stolipher, who failed to put two items on the agenda they wanted. No County business was transacted because Jackson and Krouse didn’t get their way. That was really mature, wasn’t it?

Good governance can’t be defined by referring to a particular policy outcome, say tightened border security or the enactment of an environmental law. Historically, the policy objectives of both the left and the right have been achieved through good governance. That is because good governance is a process, not a particular outcome. It is about respect for institutions. Good governance is building, not destroying. It is about persuasion and coalition building, not extortion.

How to Move a Sofa

I have always admired the modern political philosopher Chris Rock. Late one evening a couple of years ago, I was watching one of his comedy specials and he was talking about how to get things done even when you are at war with your spouse.  Concluding that biting his tongue and cooperating was the way forward, he said “It’s a hell of a lot easier for two people to move a sofa than for one person to do it.”

I laughed at the time, but this comedic riff stuck with me. Eventually I came to realize that this was the simple, clear answer to a political controversy that has consumed us for half a century. That controversy has been about whether we are we all in this together, or whether it is every man for himself.

When we have the luxury to debate this question – before the chips are really down – we are treated to a lot of blather about how this country is all about strong individuals with the constitutional right to do what they please without government intercession. This is the John Wayne myth of American politics. It is the libertarian ideal that gets played out in legislative debates in Charleston and Washington. It is the Fox News playbill.

But all too often we don’t have that luxury. All too often, like at this exact moment in our history, the individual approach to solving problems not only doesn’t work, it is downright dangerous. How do you like the guy who refuses to social distance or to cease business activity, not because he is essential like a hospital nurse, but because he believes the coronavirus is a hoax perpetrated by Democrats to defeat Donald Trump? Or because he believes that government has no right to tell him what he can and can’t do?

Take, for example, Jerry Falwell, Jr., President of Liberty University. On Friday, March 13, as students were preparing to leave for spring break, Falwell Jr. dismissed the virus as “hype” and told students he saw no reason to close campus. The next Monday, he said most classes would go online after all, but students were welcome back on campus. Shortly after that, nearly a dozen Liberty students were sick with symptoms that suggested Covid-19. Residents of the city of Lynchburg, Virginia, where Liberty is located, were enraged.

This kind of uber-individual thinking and behavior sticks out like a sore thumb in times of crisis. There is no room for it. Those who make law and policy in times of crisis know this. In times of war, we draft the unwilling. In times of pandemic, we enforce quarantines and curfews. But my point is not that top-down edicts solve problems by controlling recalcitrant individuals. It is that problems at all times, large and small, are more effectively solved collectively. In other words, when the planet’s most successful social animal remembers how it got to be so successful.

So when this is all over, we can go back to the usual debate about freedom and individual rights versus collective rights and socialism. We’ll be able to do that, I sincerely hope, because the danger has passed and we can afford to be a bit frivolous. But we will be able to cut through the debate at a moment’s notice by asking ourselves how important our objective really is. Is it moving a sofa or moving a nation? If our objective is hugely important – maybe existential – we know the answer. We have demonstrated time and again that the collective approach is the only way. After all, we are in this together.

Developing Your Fake News Detector

News comes at us every day from every direction, and from every imaginable source, as well as some we may not have imagined. To deal with this, critical thinking on our part is more important than ever.

We hear the term fake news a lot. It means a false story that appears in the media or on the internet that is intended to manipulate political views or behavior.

But legitimate news and commentary can also influence our views or actions, and some of it is intended to do so. Given the amount of information that is shoveled our way, how do we tell if an article or news story is real news or manure?

Academics weighing in on the subject suggest that we should do an extensive Google search of the source, the subject and the author, which is, no doubt, the best way to get an objective and definitive answer.

As a psychologist, I am less concerned with how we get a definitive answer than I am with how we decide to ask the question —  that first whiff that makes us wonder if we’re about to step in a cow pie.

If you don’t have an effective fake news detector, Google can’t help you, because you won’t bother to initiate a search.

Effective fake news detection involves asking yourself pointed questions about everything you hear and read.

Here are some of my favorites:


This first question opens the mental door to critical thinking. In the world of psychotherapy where I work, everything happens for a reason, whether conscious or unconscious. People rarely say things without an agenda. Think about what that agenda might be.

Every form of communication is a transaction.  Ideas are being sold for a profit.  Always ask yourself what is it he is trying to sell me and what does it cost?  Who gains if I believe the story?


If what you hear or read scares you or angers you, remember the more emotion you feel, the less effectively you think.

Purveyors of fake news don’t want you to think.  Some will tell you that you’re really smart to be scared or angry.  This is not neurologically possible, but it is often an effective way to get you to believe that a complex situation is actually simple.

The really dangerous ones will simply toss out false scenarios and let your fear, anger, or prejudice fill in the blanks.

Incitement to emotion is often disguised as an appeal to common sense, implying that you are stupid if you don’t believe.


Now that you’re thinking rather than being swayed by emotion.  Pay attention to specific content.  Is your source relaying facts or opinions?  Or perhaps opinions disguised as facts.  The devil is always in the details.


Facts require observable evidence; fake news doesn’t.  The best evidence can be independently verified.  The more sources, the better. The worst evidence demands only that you take someone’s word.

That is why hearsay – an out-of-court statement by someone who is not present to be cross-examined — is not considered evidence in a courtroom.  It is unreliable.

Suppose the question is whether animals have the capacity to reason in some fashion. A statement that is prefaced by “many people think” or “our sources tell us” should raise red flags. We should be more comfortable with a statement that begins “Jane Goodall, who spent a lifetime working with Chimpanzees, says that . . .” We know who Jane Goodall is, or can check up on her if we don’t.

But we should be cautious about the “experts.” Somewhere, there must be an Institute of Good Science, whose members can be hired to testify that sugar is good for you, cigarettes don’t cause cancer or that global warming is a hoax. This just shows that experts have an agenda too. Often it is personal profit.

Beware also of personal attacks masquerading as evidence.  In formal debate an ad hominem argument is tantamount to throwing in the towel.

Many times the evidence offered for fake news is, at the very least, equivocal.  Saying that something is true because it’s in the Constitution or the Bible is not valid evidence without at least citing article, chapter and verse.  Also, bear in mind that the Constitution and the Bible are purposely ambiguous, inviting deeper thought and meditation.  If it were not so, we wouldn’t need theologians and Supreme Court Justices.  Media personalities could make everything clear.


Conspiracy theories are fun, but if you think carefully, they require hundreds of people to keep a secret.  How many people do you know that are capable of that?

A good example of a conspiracy theory that is totally unfeasible is voter fraud. How much would it cost, and how much infrastructure would be needed to pull off enough voter impersonation to swing an election?  And how could you find all these people willing to commit a felony? What would you have to pay them? And how could the whole process be kept totally secret?  And how would you conceal all the money involved? How would you arrange for all the buses?


Money for nothing, effortless weight loss, tax cuts that pay for themselves – if it sounds too good to be true, it is.

Snake oil is the quintessential example of this kind of fake news.  It is usually sold as a secret cure that real doctors don’t want you to know about.  Another conspiracy that plays on the cherished belief that training and expertise are unnecessary if you have what fake news purveyors pass off as common sense.


Real common sense involves critical thinking.  If you have read this far and are asking this question, you are well on your way to developing an effective fake news detector.  May the force be with you.


Al Bernstein is a clinical psychologist, author and business consultant living in Portland, Oregon. Read more about his work at albernstein.com.