S adly, the world is never quite so simple as politicians would have us believe. Our politicians have, for some time now, been failing to address the real challenges we face. Democratic capitalism involves continuously balancing interests. Governments help us do that. A government, well functioning, complements the market. It serves individual appetites, our shared interests (e.g., enforcing contracts, promoting public education), and our collective moral and philosophical aspirations.
People have preferences for the world around them: less hunger, more democracy. less torture, and so on. They can and do pursue these goals privately. In a democracy, however, we can also press for public action to advance these values. Should it be any surprise that the solutions (the pattern of government programs to address the values we share) developed 50-70 years ago no longer work? Is it any surprise that our public education system, designed in the early decades of the last century, continues to sink? Or, that our patchwork of public assistance programs — everything from food stamps to workforce development — is terribly inefficient?
Forty years ago a narrative began to emerge in this country. The narrative runs something like this: our inability to adjust to a new world of globalization has one cause: ineffective government. (Reagan’s first inaugural: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”) In this narrative (which still dominates Fox News and conservative talk radio) our challenge of building a widely shared prosperity involves destroying government (“drown it in the bathtub” as Grover Torquiest once declared).
This narrative, though politically compelling to a minority of Americans, is dangerously wrong. We need now to redesign the institutions of democratic government, following the principles set forth in our founding documents. Tocqueville in the 1830’s recognized that our civic institutions set American democracy apart.
Our founding documents provide the clearest, most resilient framework man has yet devised for democratic governance. As Jefferson implied in a letter to Madison, each generation must take upon itself to interpret these principles in light of changing circumstances. Franklin captured the same idea, I think, upon leaving the Constitutional Convention. According to Maryland delegate James McHenry, “A lady asked Dr. Franklin, ‘Well, Doctor, what have we got a republic or a monarchy?’ ‘A republic,’ replied the Doctor, ‘if you can keep it.’”
For nearly 40 years we have largely failed in this obligation of redesign. Yet, I remain optimistic.
When I left as staff counsel to the Senate Democratic Policy Committee in 1983, I thought ideological toxins invading Washington could be purged from the system in 2 to 3 election cycles. How wrong I was! Now, most recently, I see promising shoots of new ideas emerging. Films like Poverty, Inc. that explore new thinking on addressing global poverty. Young scholars rethinking the foundations of economics with insights from complexity science. Entrepreneurs focused on combining growth and shared benefits (what some scholars call “human flourishing” but which our Founders simply called “happiness”). Publications like the Stanford Social Innovation Review. And then there is Fast Company promoting the notion of design thinking for our democracy, or Tim Brown and Roger Martin promoting the idea of design thinking for capitalism.
We are seeing the spirit of experimentation spread. As the older generation now, we have an obligation to pass on what we’ve learned from experience and then get out of the way. What’s most disappointing to me in today’s politics is retreat to a stale narrative that has led us nowhere in 40 years. Perhaps my perch in one of America’s great research universities provides me an unfair advantage. I see the politics of today as the trailing gasps of failed strategies by both Rs and Ds.
We would all be better off if we recognized that political leaders are not leaders. They are followers, years behind the emerging edge of what’s next.