The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace

The Full Paper PDF

For your convenience this web page contains the first four pages of the paper. For the full paper please click the above link.

This is the May 2012 second edition of the December 2005 paper that crystallized the key insights in the work at Thwink. It was a breakthrough. More people have gotten excited and contacted us due to reading this paper or the videos than anything else on the site.

This is not a formal academic paper. It was never intended to be published in a peer reviewed journal. Instead, it was written in paper form due to the serious, technical nature of the material. It's jargon free and relatively easy to read, because it wasn't written for academics. It was written for serious activists like you.

If you have doubts about the ability of simulation modeling to solve serious social problems, read this story about How the Urban Decay Crisis Was Solved.

If you like the paper, try the Dueling Loops Video Series or the Dueling Loops book.

The fundamental message of the paper

The Dueling Loops paper PDF uses a surprisingly simple simulation model to explain the fundamental behavior of all political systems, such as:

1. WHY does democracy work in theory to optimize the common good (the vast majority), but in practice maximizes benefits to special interests (small minorities) like the rich and corporations?

2. WHY is there so much change resistance to passing laws that would solve common good problems like environmental unsustainability, excessive income inequality, and corruption?

3. WHY do political parties tend to evolve into two main parties or types of parties, with one speaking for The People and the other for special interests? In other words, why doe the left/right political spectrum appear in all democracies?

The answers are all here.

The answers lie in the fundamental structure present in all political systems. This structure consists of two opposing feedback loops. These loops are locked in a perpetual duel to see which loop can win the most supporters. From this perpetual duel arises the name of the structure: The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace. This structure explains so much that it is as fundamental to political science as the evolutionary algorithm is to the life sciences or the basic structure of molecules is to chemistry.

The Simplified Dueling Loops of the Political PowerplaceThe key to grasping the power of the Dueling Loops is to see that the has an inherent advantage over the . This advantage explains why special interests are usually winning and the interests of the majority of The People are losing. This advantage answers the three WHY questions posed above and many more.

If you are a public interest activist, then you are trying to help solve problems whose solution would benefit the common good. You are thus one of the Rational Supporters in the Dueling Loops model. You are essentially using true memes to promote your position and solutions. If this works some Uncommitted Supporters will become Rational Supporters. If enough of this occurs the will become the dominant loop on the issues you are promoting. That's how Classic Activism is supposed to work.

But classic activists are unaware of the Dueling Loops. They can't see the contains an inherent advantage: the size of false memes (also called lies or deception) can be inflated but the size of true memes can not. An honest rational politician cannot inflate the size of the truth. But a dishonest degenerate politician can. He can make all sorts of false promises like "Balancing the budget is easy. All it takes is cutting taxes to stimulate growth." Or he can make false claims about his opponent, using negative campaign ads that are no more that fallacious ad hominem attacks. The Dueling Loops paper explains all this by describing the five main types of political deception used by degenerate politicians to exploit the inherent advantage of the .

If you are an activist, scholar, politician, manager, or citizen who is tying to promote the common good, then this paper is for you.

The first four pages of the paper

Preface to the Second Edition

It’s been seven years since the first edition of this paper in 2005. The second edition changes little. But what it changes makes all the difference.

This edition clarifies the all-important fact that the Dueling Loops model is generic. It explains far more than what the first edition focused on: the world’s inability to solve the environmental sustainability problem. The second edition emphasizes why society is unable to solve any important problem whose solution would benefit the common good, like environmental sustainability, excessive income inequality, avoidable recessions, unnecessary wars, and corruption.

This paper addresses the complete sustainability problem. The long term sustainability of any society rests on three main pillars: social, environmental, and economic. All three pillars must be strong and sustain-able for a society to be sustainable. Thus when this paper says “sustainable” it means far more than the popular definition of the word, which is only environmental sustainability. In this paper sustainable refers to all three pillars, which is complete sustainability.


Most effort on solving the sustainability problem focuses on its technical side: the proper practices that must be followed to be sustainable. But surprisingly little effort addresses why most of society is so strenuously resisting adopting those practices, which is the change resistance side.

Three Pillars of SustainabilityThis paper presents a root cause analysis of the change resistance part of the problem using a simulation model. The model shows the main source of change resistance lies in a fundamental structure called The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace. This consists of a race to the bottom among politicians battling against a race to the top. Due to the inherent (and well hidden) advantage of the race to the bottom it is the dominant loop most of the time, as it is now. As long as it remains dominant, resistance to solving sustainability problems will remain so high they are insolvable.

The analysis has, however, uncovered a tantalizing nugget of good news. There is a promising high leverage point in this structure that has never been tried. If problem solvers could unite and push there with the proper solutions, it appears the change resistance side of the problem would be solved in short order and the Sustainability Revolution would begin.

Why Overcoming Change Resistance Is the Crux of the Problem

The transformation of society to sustainability requires three steps: The first is the profound realization we must make the change, because if we don’t our descendants are doomed. The second is finding the proper practices that will allow living sustainably. The third step is adopting those practices.

Society has faltered on the third step. By now the world is aware it must live sustainably, which is the first step. There are countless practical, proven ways to do this, which is the technical side of the problem and the second step. But for strange and mysterious reasons society doesn’t want to take the final step and adopt these practices, which is the change resistance side of the problem. Therefore overcoming change resistance is the crux of the problem.

Let’s first examine the environmental pillar. Here’s what the 2004 third edition of Limits to Growth had to say about the change resistance side of the problem:

[The second edition of Limits to Growth] was published in 1992, the year of the global summit on environment and development in Rio de Janeiro. The advent of the summit seemed to prove that global society had decided to deal seriously with the important environmental problems. But we now know that humanity failed to achieve the goals of Rio. The Rio plus 10 conference in Johannesburg in 2002 produced even less; it was almost paralyzed by a variety of ideological and economic disputes, [due to] the efforts of those pursuing their narrow national, corporate, or individual self-interests.

…humanity has largely squandered the past 30 years…

What about all three pillars of sustainability? For that let’s turn to a recent study of the US political system by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein:

We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.  

The US Republican party is causing high change resistance to solving pressing problems that need to be solved today. This pattern is typical across all industrialized nations. None have been able to give their top problems, those dealing with social, environmental, and economic sustainability, the full attention they deserve. That’s why so many common good problems go unsolved. It’s why the world is in such a perilous mess.

What is the underlying cause of such stiff change resistance? Whatever it is, it must be incredibly strong to cause such a powerful effect.

We might begin to find that elusive cause if we drilled down and tried to determine why change resistance occurs at the level of nations. For example, looking at the world’s sole remaining superpower, why did the US Senate vote 95 to zero in 1999 to reject the Kyoto Protocol, despite a democratic President and a strongly pro-environmental Vice President, Al Gore? Why, since the ascendancy of the George W. Bush administration in the United States in 2001, has opposition grown to the point that progress in solving the environmental sustainability problem, the rising income inequality problem, and other common good problems is moving backwards? Why do US environmental NGOs face “the most hostile environment in which we have ever struggled to advance our goals,” as the Union of Concerned Scientists describes it?

If we could find the root causes of why the political system works the way it does, we could answer these questions and go further than we’ve ever gone before. We could find the high leverage points in the system that would allow changing that “hostile environment” into one that actively welcomed solving the problem, and thus solve the change resistance problem.

This paper attempts to do this by performing a root cause analysis using a simulation model. Because the structure of the model so clearly exposes the root causes of change resistance, the high leverage point where problem solvers should “push” to solve the problem becomes conspicuously obvious. Six solution elements are then presented to illustrate how feasible pushing on this point could be.

The Race to the Bottom

There are two feedback loops in the human system that, in the large, affect citizen’s lives more than anything else. They are the loops that politicians use to gain supporters.

Over time, social evolution has pared the many strategies available for gaining political support into just two main types: the use of truth (virtue) and the use of falsehood and favoritism (corruption). For example, a virtuous politician may gain supporters by stating, “I know we can’t balance the budget any time soon, but I will form a panel of experts to determine what the best we can do is.” Meanwhile, a corrupt politician is garnering supporters by saying, “Economics is easy. You just put a firm hand on the tiller and go where you want to go. I can balance the budget in four years, despite what the experts are saying. They are just pundits. Don’t listen to them. A vote for me is a vote for a better future.” The corrupt politician is also saying to numerous special interest groups, “Yes, I can do that for you. No problem.” Guess who will usually win?

Falsehood and favoritism has long dominated political strategy. Most politicians use rhetoric, half truths, glittering generalities, the sin of omission, biased framing, and other types of deception to appeal to the greatest number of people possible for election or reelection. Once in office nearly all politicians engage in acts of favoritism, also known as patronage.

For example most politicians use the ad hominem (Latin for against the man) fallacy to attack and demonize their opponents, particularly as an election draws near. A prominent recent instance was the use of the Swift boat ads in the 2004 US presidential campaign to attack John Kerry’s character. The ads were an ad hominem fallacy, because they had nothing to do with Kerry’s political reasoning or positions. Other terms for the ad hominem fallacy are demagoguery, shooting the messenger, negative campaigning, smear tactics, and sliming your opponent.

Politicians are forced to use corruption to gain supporters, because if they do not they will lose out to those who do. This causes the to appear, as shown below.

Dueling Loops Paper Figure 1

Figure 1. The loop grows in strength by using corruption in the form of highly appealing falsehood and favoritism. This increases the number of supporters of corrupt politicians, which increases their influence, which in turn increases their power to peddle still more falsehood and favoritism. Over time the loop can grow to tragically high levels.

To understand how the loop works, let’s start at false memes. A meme is a mental belief that is transmitted (replicated) from one mind to another. Memes are a very useful abstraction for understanding human behavior because memes replicate, mutate, and follow the law of survival of the fittest, just as genes do. Rather than show falsehood and favoritism, the model is simplified. It shows only falsehood.

The more false memes transmitted, the greater the degenerates infectivity rate. The model treats arrival of a meme the same way the body treats the arrival of a virus: it causes infection. After the “mind virus" incubates for a period of time, the infection becomes so strong that maturation occurs. This increases the degenerates maturation rate, which causes supporters to move from the pool of Not Infected Neutralists to the pool of Supporters Due to Degeneration as they become committed to the false memes they are now infected with. Supporters Due to Degeneration times influence per degenerate equals degenerates influence. The more influence a degenerate politician has, the more false memes they can transmit, and the loop starts over again. As it goes around and around, each node increases in quantity, often to astonishing levels. The loop stops growing when most supporters are committed.

The dynamic behavior of the loop is shown in Figure 2. The behavior is quite simple because the model has only a single main loop.

Dueling Loops Paper Figure 2

Figure 2. The simulation run starts with 1 degenerate and 99 neutralists. Over time the percentage of degenerates grows to 75% and stops. What keeps it from growing to 100% is the way degenerates can recover from their infection, after a degenerates infection lifetime of 20 years.

Corrupt politicians exploit the power of the race to the bottom by broadcasting as much falsehood and favoritism as possible to potential supporters. This is done with speeches, interviews, articles, books, jobs, lucrative contracts, special considerations in legislation, etc. The lies and favors are a cunning blend of whatever it takes to gain supporters. The end justifies the means. Note that the more influence a politician has, the more falsehood they can afford to broadcast, and the greater the amount of favoritism they can plausibly promise and deliver.

The race to the bottom is the loop driving politics to extremes of falsehood and favoritism in far too many areas of the world. This loop is the structural cause behind most of the corruption and bad decisions in government today.

Deception is the act of propagating a belief that is false. The race to the bottom employs a dazzling array of deception strategies. These are usually combined to increase their power. The five main types of deception strategies are:

1. False promise
2. False enemy
3. Pushing the fear hot button
4. Wrong priority
5. Secrecy

Deception Type 1: False promise

A false promise is a promise that is made but never delivered, or never delivered fully. False promises are widely used to win the support of segments of the population, such as organized special interest groups, industries, and demographic groups like seniors or immigrants. False promises flow like wine during election season. The next time you see this happening, think of it as proof the race to the bottom exists, and as proof that few politicians can escape the pressure to join the race to the bottom.

One of the largest false promises in recent history was the way Russian communism promised one thing but delivered another. It promised rule by the masses for the masses but delivered a totalitarian state. To justify its continued existence and hide the broken promise, the communist system manufactured a steady stream of soothing lies and used harsh repressive techniques on those who did not swallow the lies.

Near the end of the collapse of Russian communism, Václav Havel, writing in 1978 in Versuch, in der Wahrheit zu leben (An Attempt to Live in Truth) pointed out the diabolical, self-destructive nature of the communist approach. It was the ultimate vicious cycle because:

…it turned victims into accomplices: by threatening them and their descendents with disadvantages, it coerces the victims to participate. When Havel became President [of Czechoslovakia in 1989] he reminded his fellow citizens of their complicity arising from their coming to terms with life in lying. Consequently, he exhorted them… to vote for candidates who ‘are used to telling the truth and do not wear a different shirt every week’.

Civilization has a learning problem. It does not seem to learn from its mistakes, even when they are pointed out. It has not learned the lesson that false promises work so well to destroy lives en masse that their effectiveness must be eliminated somehow. This is nothing new, however. We have been warned before. For example, long ago in the 14th century Machiavelli explained why false promises are so rampant in The Prince, in the chapter on “How Princes Should Honor Their Word:”

Everyone knows how praiseworthy it is for a prince to honor his word and to be straightforward rather than crafty in his dealings; nonetheless contemporary experience shows that princes who have achieved great things have been those who have given their word lightly, who have known how to trick men with their cunning, and who, in the end, have overcome those abiding by honest principles. …it follows that a prudent ruler cannot, and must not, honor his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist. … Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.


Above are the first four pages of The Dueling Loops PDF paper. The rest is better read by reading the PDF file, which gives you the option of printing it out for serious contemplation.

The simulation models

The paper bases its analysis on four thoughtfully constructed simulation models. The main portion of the third one is shown below. It says so much. Note the well named feedback loops and the low and high leverage points.

Model - The Leverage Points of the Dueling Loops

Before downloading the models please see The World of Simulation for how to run them. You will need to install special free software. There has been some discussion of the dueling loops on the forum in this thread.

Here are the Vensim stock and flow simulation models ZIP described in the paper.

What people are saying

Here is a blog review of the paper from 2007.

The Dueling Loop paper provoked so much interest that a series of videos based on the paper was created. The videos visually explain how the Dueling Loops model works, from a variety of angles.

The videos went on to become more popular than the paper for awhile. But for the essence of the concept, people continue to return to read the paper. Some can cite its message from memory, even years later. For example, on March 1, 2012 this message appeared on The Oil Drum: (bolding added)


Interesting research... It actually reminds me of a paper I read a few years back on "Dueling Loops", which uses a system dynamics model to explain why politics is a "race to the bottom" rather than a "race to the top". See: [link to this page]

The paper also offers an explanation for why the usual "solution" to the problem (try to inform/educate the electorate) doesn't work. The bad guys always have more power, money and airtime to *mis*-inform.

What *might* work (but has never actually been tried) is to improve the general ability of the population to discriminate between good and bad arguments: effectively to teach techniques for sniffing out propaganda and rhetoric. We don't actually need to provide factual knowledge, just train in the ability to decide who else really has it (and who is bluffing).

This ability doesn't require any technical skills, or superior intelligence, and it seems it can be learned by anyone of average intelligence (so the bulk of voters). But it does take time to learn. In that sense, it's a lot like literacy or basic numeracy. Also most intelligent or technically skilled people don't have this ability, because they've never learned it, which is why they are so awful outside their domain of expertise. I recall Aldous Huxley made a similar general point about propaganda analysis in "Brave New World Revisited".


On March 23, 2012 this comment appeared in a long thread on Systems Thinking World. In it TA talks of the Dueling Loops videos rather than the paper: (bolding added)

T.A. Balasubramanian • Norman

You rightly observed, "Global sustainability is still the most forbidden and dangerous subject on the planet because too many people are trapped in political, social and religious boxes."

Forbidden and dangerous, no doubt, but not beyond the domain of applied systems thinking, if one really gets down to analyzing and observing the systems here! Here's a beautifully articulated fundamental systems thinking approach to the solution. It's called 'Root Cause Analysis' - and it drills down to the cycles of political power that control and dominate the sustainability dialogue - often unnoticed and invisible.

In two latter posts TA had this to say:

T.A. Balasubramanian • Helene

The ST model of Dueling Loops was in response to Norman's post. It drills down to the fundamental problem of why decades of sustainability proposals - Rio 1, Davos and so on - keep getting stuck.

It explains why there's such strong resistance to solving the sustainability problem and other problems whose solution would benefit the common good. The model shows the low leverage point that problem solvers are presently pushing on and why that doesn't work. It also shows the high leverage points they must push on instead and why that is much more likely to solve the systemic change resistance part of the problem.

Of course one can ignore it and continue with the next Rio and the next for several more decades - but its worth noticing - like Norman correctly points out - that the progress in sustainability projects is blocked, not in the lack of UN initiatives, but elsewhere in the inefficiencies of the flawed political-economic systems that are expected to support those who implement the projects and proposals.

T.A. Balasubramanian • David

Whether you agree or not, the premises of the Dueling Loops model are based on the current realities of political events - particular to the US Bush era, maybe, but the model, in my view, applies equally to other political systems - such as in India - where corruption has been the central theme of Anna Hazare's people's movement for over a year now.

Systems dynamics modeling and simulation is very much a part of ST. I don't know why you see them as distinct.

For example, Barry Richmond discusses in his paper "Systems thinking: critical thinking skills for the 1990s and beyond" seven systems thinking skills:

- dynamic thinking: seeing patterns, not only events
- closed-loop thinking: interrelated processes instead of of one-way relations;
- generic thinking: seeing generic structures beyond specific symptoms;
- structural thinking: thinking in stock and flow structures;
- operational thinking: "a milk production systems should include cows";
- continuum thinking: finding ways between the "black and white" extremes;
- scientific thinking: making things quantify-able and testable.

The Dueling Loops model applies most of the above in different ways.

Discussion continued on the thread on a variety of topics, including the Dueling Loops.


On August 1, 2012 this editorial appeared in PoliticsWeb, "a website focused on the news and politics of Southern Africa." Below are the first four paragraphs:

Zimbabwe and the race to the bottom

By Vince Musewe | 01 August 2012

Vince Musewe says all too often Africa's politicians have been able to master the art of deception

I have stumbled upon what I think are some fascinating thoughts on politics and sustainable social change in Jack Harich's paper titled: "The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace". Jack, is a consultant and systems engineer in Atlanta, Georgia, US and his ideas are published on I would suggest that my patient readers read it, as we move towards important leadership elections in both Zimbabwe and South Africa. The season of political electioneering will be upon us soon as we continue to grapple on how best to establish progressive social systems. It is therefore important that we really begin to reflect on the type of leadership now required to take Africa to the next level.

In this paper, Harich emphasizes why society is unable to solve any important problem whose solution would benefit the common good such as: environmental sustainability, excessive income inequality, avoidable recessions, unnecessary wars, corruption among others.

I have contemplated a thousand times on why Africa remains locked in poverty and inequality despite the prodigious resource base which we possess. Perhaps it is only now, that I am beginning to have inkling on how we may be able to cause positive change.

Harich's paper has helped me tremendously in applying my mind on these issues. I anticipate that it may also do that for you. We must become constructive citizens in confronting resistance to positive social change that we all desire and this, requires a deeper understanding of politics and the motives, behaviors and idiosyncrasies of those that practice it.

Vince Musewe continues to apply the concepts in the Dueling Loops paper, such as this guest columnist article on December 10, 2015.