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The Perils of False Binaries and Magical Thinking



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The small city I have called home for some 30 years is persistently described as close-knit, economically stable and professionally well managed. Indeed, its service levels and the relative quality of those services are nearly legendary. More, city council members run for office without expressing a partisanship and most of the votes that body has taken, for many years, have been unanimous or nearly so. In addition, citizens of the community famously love their town and appreciate its reasoned and careful leadership. It therefore came as a shock to nearly everyone when the city council, in a previously unscheduled and unannounced vote, recently requested the resignation of the community’s city manager of 11 years.[1] The vote was 3-2, with both the city’s mayor and vice-mayor in the minority and publicly expressing their frustration and incredulity at the action. While no particulars have been released to the public, two council members in the majority have suggested that they took this action because they wished to see the city move in a “new direction.”[2] If that posture seems vague, please know that it is; those individuals have offered no details whatsoever concerning its warp and woof or how the current administrator’s efforts are specifically inadequate and why.

The apparent leader of this action won election in May 2018 as a recently retired city employee who complained that “things used to be better” in the community and the town needed to change to return matters to their previous state. He did not specify how that goal might be achieved or what was necessary to attain it, or what, specifically, “better” meant. During that campaign I was struck that city officials were very aware of the broad concerns this former civic center assistant director expressed. In any case, it was never clear exactly what he perceived was amiss and why it should be addressed differently than the steps the city administration already had afoot. Indeed, instead, he seemed at once to be channeling wistfulness and magical thinking. That is, his claims reminded me of a truism: Those looking back often see the past through the lens of fuzzy nostalgia and are certain that all was golden then, compared to what they see as the current “shambles.” I recall working on a book with my graduate school mentor examining the evolution of the United States General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) and Office of Management and Budget and for which nearly all of the individuals we interviewed who had worked at either agency in the past believed that their institution had experienced a “golden age” when they served and now was in decline.[3] At the time, we were reminded of Tom Lehrer’s satirical song,[4] “Bright College Days,” as one way of making sense of what we were hearing, albeit tongue in cheek, to be sure.[5] I read this candidate’s (and now council member’s) generic and unfocused comments about the city’s past with that experience and lesson in mind.

In fact, my community has emerged from the last recession only slowly and while its economy is, as noted, blessedly stable, it has obvious infrastructure and development needs, is nearly completely built-out and is landlocked as a result of Virginia’s Constitution. In short, claiming that specific initiatives and other development had not occurred quickly enough to make all happy in the fiscal situation the city has confronted for some years is to say nothing substantive. In any case, this sort of argument is silent concerning whether the scenario the community’s administrators and political leaders had addressed had been well or poorly managed and why. Indeed, until last week’s vote, the broad and publicly stated consensus on council and in the business and nonprofit communities had been that the long downturn had been adroitly and thoughtfully addressed and that many projects now underway across the town of some 26,000 citizens represented excellent fresh progress.

As I have mused about this strange turn and its fundaments, I thought of two other incidents that have occurred here in Virginia and nationally in recent years that have exhibited similar dynamics. The first occurred in June 2012 when deans, professors and alumni of the University of Virginia first learned that the school’s Board of Visitors had suddenly and unexpectedly asked its well-regarded chief executive of two years, Teresa Sullivan, to resign to allow the school to confront what its rector termed an “existential” crisis.[6]  As in the example of the council in my home city, the leader pressing for the action offered only vague assertions to rationalize it and, as those emerged, it was plain that Sullivan already had taken steps to address each. During the two weeks following the Board’s initial decision, outrage at the action and its non-existent substantive justification built to such a level among faculty, alumni and university officials that the Visitors reversed themselves and rescinded their initial action. Thereafter, Sullivan served with excellence until her recent retirement.

In addition to the similar haziness of claims and opaqueness of decision process employed in this example, this episode reminded me that the actions at the University of Virginia ultimately were predicated, like those in my city, on a sort of ill-defined nostalgic fear that fixed on a scapegoat to alleviate otherwise complex current concerns. The rector offered a false binary as she sought Sullivan’s removal; only a new leader could address the alleged crisis confronting the University and prevent its failure to maintain its standing and excellence (neither had exhibited any evidence of decline) so as to retain its glory. The Visitor apparently pined for a nonexistent past without vexing institutional challenges and campaigned for “new leadership” to address the supposed crisis that threatened that fabled situation, without being able to articulate what specifically that calamity was or how its elements were not being addressed adequately by the university’s current leader in the extant context. The ambiguous dichotomous and fear-driven nostalgic arguments employed by council members in my home city to oust its city manager were virtually identical.

The third analogue that came to mind as I mulled my local government’s recent action is President Trump’s claims about the supposed benefits of a border wall as a cure-all for many Americans’ concerns about economic and social change. He has falsely contended that such a barrier can protect against non-existent “invading hordes” and just as mendaciously argued that scapegoating those asylees and refugees attempting to enter the country and treating them with disrespect and cruelty will assuage the broader economic and social fears of a share of the population. Like the city council and board of visitors examples, Trump has exercised his authority to take action against an “other” for vaguely (and in his case, fabricated and fantastical) articulated reasons that hearken to a supposedly golden past when difficulties did not exist. Like the city council and board of visitors majorities, Trump has adopted a falsely simplistic assessment of the situation in play as a binary and identified a scapegoat to whom the undefined decline from an imagined and idealized past could be ascribed.

In each of these cases, those demeaned have been used by would-be leaders in power games calculated to play on the fears of their supporters. More generally, each of these efforts has employed broad-gauged and imprecise claims harking to a mythical status that could be attained by embracing a false binary to foment a kind of tribalism on the basis of which their architects thereafter were able to take authoritative actions: removing a misleadingly targeted incumbent or shutting down much of the federal government, respectively. In each case, those proposing the action said virtually nothing of defensible factual purport to set up a Manichean good-versus evil struggle that galvanized supporters to back their otherwise unsubstantiated assertions. In Trump’s case, he simply lied to structure this claim.

That these examples could have occurred at both the local and national scales should not surprise since they were built on human propensities in each instance, but that they are occurring at all and repeatedly in our nation should be discomfiting. The dynamics of these episodes comport almost exactly with the results of a study of citizen attitudes in Poland and Hungary, each led by increasingly autocratic rulers whose status is today maintained by vague and polarizing scapegoating and disinformation. As a recent study of the attitudes of the populations of those two nations published by the National Endowment for Democracy concluded:

The findings suggest that, rather than being motivated by populist rhetoric, these voters were driven by two factors: first, an attraction to Manichean narratives framing politics as a struggle between two sides, one good and one evil, and second, an authoritarian inclination toward trust in a strong leader. In short, these voters could be described as rallying around the leader of their perceived tribe in order to defeat the other. This possibility is even more troubling than the consensus view that populism drives disinformation.[7]

In sum, I find myself reflecting that all of these cases represent the dangers of a populace, elite or not, willing to embrace mythology and loose rhetoric that an idealized past can be reclaimed if only a targeted “other” can be held responsible for supposed shortcomings and removed. That “other” is scapegoated through lies and/or unsupported broad and hazy contentions designed to unsettle and appeal to false dichotomies, suggesting that “if only” that target did not stand in the way, wonderful things could occur for the favored tribe. To its credit, the University of Virginia Board of Visitors rectified its mistake. Trump’s continuing (as I write) and perversely sad game has already cost the nation and its public workforce billions of dollars and the country a share of its legitimacy. Meanwhile, my city’s council action apparently will stand and it will be difficult to calculate its opportunity costs, but they will be considerable, even assuming another competent individual is hired to serve as city manager. What can be gleaned from study of all of these examples is how, and how indefensibly, the decisions characterizing each occurred, and their shared injustice is both unsettling and concerning for the future. Overall, that this form of rhetorical argument is being used so often at multiple scales in our nation’s politics should leave observers and citizens deeply disquieted. That such mobilizations are occurring across sectors and in other nations, too, should prompt even greater unease among supporters of self-governance.


[1] Petska, Alicia. “City council majority that ousted Salem manager won’t say why,” Roanoke Times, January 15, 2019,  Accessed January 15, 2019.

[2] Petska, “City council majority that ousted Salem manager won’t say why.”

[3] Mosher, Frederick C. A Tale of Two Agencies: A Comparative Analysis of the General Accounting Office and the Office of Management and Budget, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.

[4] Tom Lehrer studied mathematics at Harvard University and taught that subject at MIT (1962-1972) and the University of Santa Cruz (1972-2001) until he retired. He also became world famous as a writer of deeply pointed and satirical songs in the late 1950s and 1960s. His songs addressed the angst of the Cold War, environmental pollution, the foibles of human kind and more, in deeply perceptive ways. Now 90, Lehrer was featured in a tribute essay in the scientific journal Nature last spring. Robinson, Andrew. “Tom Lehrer at 90: A Life of Scientific Satire.” Nature: International Journal of Science, April 4, 2018,  Accessed January 20, 2019.  

[5] Lehrer, Tom. “Bright College Days,” Accessed January 18, 2019.

[6] Rice, Andrew, “Anatomy of a Campus Coup,” The New York Times, September 11, 2012, Accessed January18, 2019.

[7] Kreko, Peter, “‘Conformation Bias:’ Political Tribalism as a Driver of Disinformation,” National Endowment for Democracy, Forum, Power 3.0,, Accessed January 18, 2019. 

Publication Date

January 28, 2019