As We Rush Headlong Towards the Precipice, It’s Time for a National Conversation

By: James Adams

I have just spent the past few days in our nation’s capital, a city I know very well. The conversation among Democrats and Republicans, all prospective senior government officials for whichever party wins the election, is this: what happens to our country when the voting is done and the next President is sworn in?

It is a weird anomaly of this election that the real debate, the concerns on everyone’s minds is not the election itself but the prospect of revolution that could follow. That may sound like hyperbole and yet there is real concern that the country has reached a tipping point, a place where the bargain struck between government and the governed, between a nation and its people has been broken.

Consider these facts:

  • According to the Bureau of Labor, the unemployment rate for blacks aged 16 to 24 was 18.7 per cent over double that of white in the same age group.
  • Hourly wages and income for college graduates have declined steadily since the beginning of this century while the top 1% of income earners have grown richer.
  • Senior computer scientists are warning that Artificial Intelligence will replace human workers in all sectors of the economy replacing banker, software engineers and truck drivers.
  • Millions of children at school today face the prospect of never working.
  • Technological change is exponential and this means in five years we will be 32 times more advanced than we are today, and in ten years, a thousand times more advanced than we are today.
  • The Industrial Revolution lasted some 80 years but we confront a much larger revolution that will unfold in less than 10 years.
  • While we the people look to Congress for action on any of the above, nothing happens and the Pew Research Center finds that 69% of people view Congress unfavorably.
  • The election process and the process of government generally is hopelessly corrupt where people and laws are too often accessible to the highest bidder.

In a democracy such as ours, there is an expectation that the government will act responsibly on behalf of the people. Yet, there are three pressures that make this time especially challenging.

First, it is clear that the majority of those who voted in the primaries support either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. Sanders inspired the youth vote and Trump gives voice to all those in Middle America who feel abandoned and disenfranchised in the face of falling income and an indolent government.

Second, the political and technology elites are almost entirely separate from the majority of ordinary Americans who they never meet and know nothing about. Silicon Valley is in love with the technology they create and are certain about its benefits. Politicians, on the other hand, know almost nothing about technology and are consumed by the process of staying in office.

Finally, in the past, any Presidential election was a compromise between left and right, Democrats and Republicans. Whatever the result, the minority could trust that the majority would, in general, work hard to unite the country and serve the people. The adversarial nature of this election combined with the enormous economic and technological pressures that are consuming the country means that there will be no harmonious aftermath to this election.

I’ve spent a lifetime studying conflict, especially revolution, terrorism and counter insurgency, and there are certain common elements that bind violent change together from the fall of the Roman Empire to the French Revolution to the rise of ISIS: a corrupt and ineffectual government, a disenfranchised and angry population, broken agreements between the government and the people and a willingness to pursue violence for political ends.

There is nothing particular startling in this view and indeed everyone in Washington seems to view the future with alarm. Yet, neither in the Presidential campaign nor in Congress is there any discussion about the uncertain future that confronts us all. Instead there is simply the usual rhetoric about ‘full employment’ jobs, entitlements and reforms on the margins.

But our leaders owe us more than this. What will it mean to live in a society where the majority of those leaving school will never work at a paying job? What happens in a democracy when the government and every part of the bureaucracy fall further and further behind not just the technology but also the needs of the people? At a much more basic level, is our bureaucracy any longer fit for purpose?

These are big questions that require a national conversation and leaders who step forward and begin to frame a future that we can all embrace.

It is unrealistic to expect our politicians to design a future that will require them to perform their jobs differently and to account for a revolution they have in part created. Instead, it is to the technology companies which are the principal beneficiaries that the nation should turn for a strategy.

Companies such as Alphabet, Facebook and Apple should create a well funded foundation charged with bringing together the nation’s smartest minds to examine what the future holds and begin to formulate a strategy to embrace that future. Those same companies can use the enormous power of social media to socialize the solutions to encourage change from the bottom up.

This would be a revolution but one that offers the opportunity for peaceful change while bridging the many divides that are already evident within our society. And the sooner we start on this road, the better it will be for our country.