January 15, 2018
By Rob Stein
It is not too early to speculate that the rampant disintegration of political cohesion affecting democracies throughout the world might be producing, counter-intuitively, a nascent “awakening” for American political renewal among a widening swath of the political spectrum.
This potential silver lining is a growing desire for an “alternative course” politics that would contribute a passionate, new voice to the stale twentieth century political orthodoxies represented by those most rigidly committed to narrow interpretations of conservative and progressive ideologies, to blind party loyalty or to limited special interests. Narrowly conceived political views have a vital role in democracy that always will contribute to public discourse.
But there are increasing numbers of citizens — some proudly self identify as conservative or progressive, and most independents — who are profoundly uncomfortable with the growing stridency and inflexibility of twentieth century inspired political orthodoxies. These individuals have more inclusive political views and more inquiring temperaments.
Their political passions and purposes are focused on protecting democracies’ basic practices and norms and innovating solutions to human needs from broadly based experiences and evidence. These intrepid citizens are beginning to imagine new ideas, platforms, networks and alliances for building coalitions and promoting their policies and politics.
But what is this “alternative course”? Is it possible for its nascent “awakening” to become a sustainable political phenomenon? Can a critical mass of new course adherents agree to a clear, concise and compelling narrative that animates their passions and elevates their cause? And, could they produce the ideas and build the institutions and alliances necessary to advance their political agendas?
The Foundations of Democracy Are Crumbling
Political cohesion is dis-integrating at an accelerating rate in America, Europe and elsewhere. Political parties are fracturing and secession movements are beginning to challenge the legitimacy and viability of nation states.
Virtually all of Western Europe is experiencing profound political stress — grave economic inequalities, destabilizing inbound waves of migration, the rise of nationalism, and Brexit-driven fears of the unraveling of the European Union. As Steven Erlanger noted in his November 5, 2017 New York Times column, “Britain no longer has an agreed-upon national narrative.”
The Catalonia crisis threatening the unity of Spain is the latest deep fissure, but not the last. Separatist movements are gaining momentum from Italy to Germany, Belgium and beyond.
American political dis-integration is characterized by increasing political animosities across the political spectrum and a quickened splintering of twentieth century political alliances within the two established parties. Moreover, though fledgling to date, homegrown separatist movements — secession, autonomy or removal from federal government “jurisdiction” — are emerging throughout America, including organized efforts in Texas, Cascadia (Washington, Oregon, British Columbia), California, New England, Puerto Rico, South Carolina and elsewhere. With provocation, one of more of these could become more serious threats sooner rather than later.
The Inadequacy of Rigid Ideology
In 1800, shortly after the birth of our country and the ink on our Constitution was still wet, America had a population of just over 5 million people, close to 900,000 of whom were slaves. We now have 325 million people, or more than 60 times as many. In the same 220 years, the world’s population has grown from 1 billion to seven and a half billion people living in 195 nations. Demographers are projecting that world population could grow to over nine billion by 2050.
For better and worse, nearly two hundred and twenty years of population growth, medical breakthroughs and technological innovation have melded our economies, our means of communications and transportation, our climates and our cultural lives into intricately interconnected matrices. Governing interdependent systems is challenging at the organizational or community level, but attempting to balance human needs and interests, and to cope with the disruptions of modernity, overcome inequalities and assure opportunities for all has become even more challenging within and among democracies’ nation states.
These global realities are creating tremendous popular anxieties, human and institutional stresses, and systemic instabilities within nations, across national borders, and on every continent. Twenty-first century dynamism and the disruptions it is creating are infinitely more complex than any narrowly conceived and inflexible ideology or party can adequately address, much less alleviate, on its own.
Nineteenth and twentieth century inspired political theory and rhetoric that (1) either disparages government as the sole source of our problems, or elevates government as our savior, or (2) denigrates corporations as the root of all evil, or presumes that only private interests can be trusted to meet human needs — are antiquated and insufficient critiques of twenty-first century realities.
Democracies and markets have enormous contributions still to make to human well being, but as we approach the third decade of this century, both are failing to govern and allocate resources effectively and to provide the services and securities that our citizens need to thrive and prosper.
So, yes, government needs to be modernized and made more efficient and responsive to all of its citizens. And, while our largest, most powerful domestic and international corporations must reward their founders, shareholders and executives, they also must find new resolve to devote far more of their profits and resources to their workers, consumers and the communities in which they operate.
Lovers of freedom and justice in America, and throughout the world, need to reimagine the contours and requirements of the common good. Such a renaissance is not only necessary; it literally is a condition precedent to the future relevance of democracy, markets and effective governance. Reform and renewal of our political and economic institutions requires a passionate consensus for new ideas, new alliances and new solutions founded on clearly articulated and shared values.
Imagining An Alternative Political Course
Together, and over time, those who are the most deeply concerned about protecting the principles and norms of democracy, and are passionately committed to multi-stakeholder problem solving and evidence-based, results-oriented solutions, likely will discover their shared beliefs and craft compelling language to define their common vision. Once they agree on their core values and clarify their common purposes, they will be able to reach broader, deeper and more sustainable consensus. Such discovery and political innovation might include the following:
An irreducible truth of modern life is that my well being increasingly is dependent on my neighbor’s sense of dignity and security. Challenges and opportunities for individuals, institutions, communities and nations are interdependent as never before, and surely we will suffer a host of debilitating common fates, and fail to seize opportunities for security and prosperity, if we cannot find sustainable governing consensus within and among democratic nation states.
Perhaps there is an animating narrative, or construct, that captures the twenty-first century reality of inextricable inter-connection. Such a narrative ideally would contain familiar words grounded in America’s history, but modernized to account for the exigencies of global interdependence. Something familiar to our ears, but reality-based, such as “E Pluribus Unum Destino”, might focus and inspire a new political conversation and community. We honor that we are many. And, we accept that our destiny is one (“destino” is an accepted Latin translation for the English word, “destiny”).
Rigid ideologues are ill suited to advancing a common destiny. They possess tightly defined beliefs, use divisive language, promote their ideals as either/or, and execute their politics in pursuit of their narrow ideology, party or special interest by elevating their chosen leaders and denigrating those with whom they disagree. Their highest priority is loyalty to their political tribe, not passionate commitment to the broadest, most inclusive definition of the common good.
Those, however, who are most willing to listen to a range of viewpoints, those with the temperament and patience for cooperation and consensus-building, those who value open minded inquiry and are able to question conventional wisdoms and challenge rigid ideologies, and those who seek results-oriented, evidence-based solutions to real human problems in real time generally lack the political cohesion necessary to promote their values, visions or ideas.
Currently, these citizens and leaders of democracies throughout the world are politically homeless and voiceless. They do not have enduring institutional infrastructure, coherent long-term strategies and effective short and near-term tactics for competing successfully in the political process. They do not yet possess sustainable means for crafting broadly agreed upon narratives, expressing their sentiments vigorously, and executing coherent political agendas with fervor and resolve. In the cacaphonous twenty-first century, it simply is not possible to have enduring political influence without a critical mass of citizens, leaders and institutions committed to a clear vision and decades long engagement.
These insufficiencies are contributing to democracies’ governing failures and their growing inabilities to satisfy human wants and needs. So long as our politics are dominated by narrowly conceived political orthodoxies, we will fail to produce the clear, compelling and workable vision — and to create the conditions, systems and structures — necessary to effectively govern ourselves in this century and beyond.
There are no custodians of ultimate wisdom about how to strenghten democracies’ systems and structures in the years and decades ahead. But those most deeply concerned about the disintegration of political cohesion and most aggrieved by the consequences of our governing dysfunctions, must be aggressively curious, and unrelentingly courageous, in challenging themselves to ask fundamental questions about democracy’s future, including inquiries such as:
What narrative will most effectively motivate the passions of the broadest base of citizens, not beholden to traditional orthodoxies, to coalesce around a commitment to protecting democracy and advancing effective governance?
What do we imagine new democratic systems and structures for sustaining such broadly based consensus might look like in ten, twenty or more years?
How should new platforms, networks and alliances be structured and governed in order to animate these political passions and sustain political cohesion?
What constructive, innovative technology/social media enhanced political engagement experiences and lessons — in local communities in our own country, in Western Europe, and perhaps most especially, in Estonia — can best inform the development of new political alliances committed to protecting democracy and governing effectively?
What public, private and/or non-profit stimulants, incentives, encouragements and investments might accelerate passionate political participation to achieve these results?
These questions, and others, need time and space for serious, structured conversations among interested citizens, strategists and funders. Such discussions are now happening with greater frequency in America. And, creative, new “cross partisan” capacities are being established to connect citizens, state legislators, members of Congress and former government officials; to train a new generation of problem solving community leaders and candidates from across the political spectrum and to support their candidacies with funding from cross partisan political action committees and individual donors; to craft new results oriented agendas and policies that represent alternative course problem solving; and to innovate methodologies for multi-stakeholder consensus-building. These conversations and initiatives are beginning to cross-pollinate.
Eventually, these developments could result in agreement among an impassioned alliance of citizens and leaders for a new, broadly accepted political narrative, which, in turn, could inspire the creation of dynamic new systems and platforms for advancing more effective, efficient and responsive twenty-first century democracy.
We cannot expect these actionable insights and critical mass of convergencies to happen this year or next, and therefore, patience and persistence are required. But one day, perhaps sooner than we imagine, impassioned, new alliances are likely to become significant politcal forces in America and other democracies.