This dialogue of changing realities in governance is adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory:
Amy (A political science major): Enough with this touchy-feely community stuff. I want to talk politics.
CJ: Fire away.
Amy: I am very concerned about government today. Mostly at a national level, I guess. But I think my question has to do with government at every level.
CJ: And the question?
Amy: Can we fix it? I see so much trivialness in government today—and so little real leadership. Government seems about little more than selfish interests and petty squabbles. I’m close to finishing a degree in political science and I’m not sure what to do with it. I question whether the world of government is where I want to spend my life.
CJ: You are certainly not alone in your concern. A survey done by The New York Times at the height of anti-establishment rhetoric forty years ago reported that two-thirds of people said they trusted the government in Washington to “do the right thing.” That survey was recently repeated, and the figure today is less than one-third.
Amy: Those are scary numbers.
CJ: Provocative at least. But I’m not sure depicting government as broken provides the most useful perspective. Certainly a lot of people would disagree with you that there is anything fundamentally wrong. But even if we accept your degree of concern—which I do—I think we need more dynamic perspective if critique is to usefully serve us. We need to better appreciate both the necessary role of change in government and something about the changes current times may be asking for. As with the question of community, we need to put our ideas about government and governance in motion.
CJ: We humans tend to view our existing forms of social organization, whatever forms they may be, as static endpoints. Certainly this is so with political structures. In fact no governmental form has proven to be the end of the road. Ours may prove the exception, but there is really no reason to assume that it should.
This tendency to deny the role of change in social organization creates a couple of problems. Most obviously, it limits vision. But it also interferes with our ability to accurately perceive the forms we have. Static endpoints are most always tied to mythologized images. One result is that both our advocacies and our criticisms tend to end up missing the point.
Amy: Our notions about government can be more symbol than substance.
CJ: Certainly they have been historically. And most often they still are. Such mythologizing is most obvious with the reigns of pharaohs or kings. But authority relationships in modern representative democracy have for the most part remained parental (less overtly, but parental nonetheless). We elect people and then make them elevated symbols—Kennedy in Camelot, Reagan as the kindly father figure.
Amy: Which distorts how societal forms actually work.
CJ: Exactly. Such mythologizing—past and present—reassures us and affirms our connectedness, but we pay a price when it comes to accurate description. An example: Poeple in the United States talk with pride of having “government by the people.” But the phrase is really an idealization. So far as a species, we’ve never really had government by the people—at least in the egalitarian sense the words imply. The democratic processes of ancient Athens governed a city-state in which the much greater portion of the inhabitants were not citizens, but slaves. And all of the “founding fathers” who gathered at the Constitutional Convention were white, male landowners.
Our language reflects less what has been than one half of a romanticized polarity—“the people,” equated with, freedom versus constraint or tyranny. What do we have more accurately? We lack good language, but an awkward phrase like “government by competing constituencies with delineated limits on authority.” would be a more precise description. And while competing constituencies may have equal rights, differences in the wealth and power they represent mean that they do not at all have equal influence.
I make this observation not to diminish the significance of modern representative government. It took us a critical—indeed profound—steps beyond government by royal decree. But if we want to think usefully about government’s future, we need to be accurate in how we think about the past and present.
Amy: Isn’t the fact that we don’t have real government by the people exactly the problem?
CJ: Yes and no. Again, we need to place our observations within its temporal context. Using full and equal representation as our measure for good government, when such is in fact developmentally neither timely nor possible, can lead only to unfair criticism. And idealized interpretations of just what full and equal representation means leads to the proposing of alternatives that not only couldn’t work, but that we wouldn’t want even if they could. Socialist experiments have not provided promising results. Anarchistic views take us even further astray. And more extensive use of “direct democracy”—whether through greater use of popular initiative or the introduction of issue-specific electronic voting—tend to fall just as short in real-world application.
Amy: But you seem to think change is needed.
CJ: I see few more important tasks for the future than rethinking government. And framing the task in terms of seeking something closer to government by the people makes a good starting place. It is consistent with what Cultural Maturity proposes will be both increasingly essential and increasingly possible to realize.
Amy: Cultural Maturity predicts major changes in government?
CJ: Certainly it suggests thinking in some new ways about governance and government. Tell me about characteristics you think will be important to a next chapter in governance and let’s look to see if the concept of Cultural Maturity offers any assistance.
Amy: Okay, we need to feel that we are really a part of government, that leaders actually represent us.
CJ: That could well be in the cards. If the growing up in relation to authority Cultural Maturity predicts proves real, we should come increasingly to view political leaders, as with leaders of all sorts, less as symbols. The complement to this shift is greater felt citizen involvement and responsibility.
Amy: How about this one? We need more economic fairness in government. Politics today seems much more about one-dollar-one-vote than one-person-one-vote.
CJ: I think the current situation is closer to one-dollar-one-vote. And it is getting more that way as candidates face the daunting task of raising funds for ever more expensive media-driven campaigns. But Cultural Maturity predicts we will see changes here also.
We need to start with a notion that might feel initially distasteful. I wouldn’t choose the inequities we see, but I think in fact they have served a creative purpose. For good or ill, monetary disparities come with the benefits of a market economy. And government by competing constituencies means that people with greatest monetary resources will tend to prevail—unless the moral weight, or sheer numbers, lies dramatically with the other side. However imperfect this situation, historically it represents a step forward. Equating power with money is more “democratic” than equating it with royal lineage or military might.
But, again, Cultural Maturity proposes that this need not be the end of the road. At the least, it predicts changes in the amount of inequity societies find acceptable. Bridge polarities such as self and society or leader and follower and we are quickly brought face-to-face with the polarity with the greatest potential to rip asunder the social fabric—that which separates the world’s haves and have nots, the wealthy and the poor. Cultural Maturity argues that the need for greater economic fairness ultimately cannot be escaped. Even if a more consciously equitable picture is not developmentally inevitable, it is a practical imperative.
Amy: Major economic discrepancies will make our cities—and the world as a whole—less and less safe.
CJ: That—and there is a more particular consequence for government if this is the final chapter. Equating money with power will in time bring the democratic experiment to an end. The inevitable result, if the world’s wealth becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, is global governance by a small group of individuals and large corporations—not a pretty picture. Again, this is not at all to call for some socialist equal distribution of resources—competition is critical to society’s creative functioning. But rethinking social inequities will be essential if our future world is to be a healthy place in which to live.
Amy: One more?
Amy: We need to get beyond the endless partisan squabbling. Government today often looks more like little kids fighting on a playfield than governance. It is hard to take government seriously. Maybe things have always been like this. But people are getting fed up—and, with growing frequency, just tuning out.
CJ: Cultural Maturity affirms the creative importance of difference—so it doesn’t promise any end to conflict and debate. But what it does suggest could certainly change conflict’s tenor. One part of its argument is particularly important in this regard.
Both experience and culturally mature perspective support that neither liberal nor conservative positions, in isolation or even in compromise, can adequately address the essential questions ahead. The important challenges require systemic solutions. Do the hawks or the doves have the right answer for a safer world? I’d claim both and neither. Does offering a helping hand or encouraging people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps provide the answer to poverty? Again, both and neither.
I think people are getting fed up not just because of the rancor of debate. As much it is because of the outmodedness of how questions are presented and proposed debate’s lack of maturity and real courage. If the conclusion that more systemic perspective has become essential is accurate—and this consclusion becomes more broadly understood—we should find debate becoming, if not more amicable, at least more significant and creative.
Cultural Maturity predicts that we will see two contrasting trends with regard to political debate. We should witness inspiring moments of new sophistication as both politicians and populace begin to see beyond the limitations of past polar advocacies (and also simple middle-of-the-road compromise). Attempts to articulate “post-partisan” and “third way” positions—each phrases heard in recent years from both the liberal and conservative sides of the aisle—suggest that this trend may be at least beginning. At the same time, we should witness the opposite, an escalation of pettiness and rancor, something we also see. In struggling to stretch sufficiently, people defend against feelings of confusion by amplifying outmoded polar differences. Sometimes one trend will be most visible, sometimes the other.
Amy: Do you think in time we will replace representative democracy with whole new forms of government? I can’t tell from what you have said.
CJ: A great question—though its one that the concept of Cultural Maturity doesn’t explicitly answer. We will likely see both kinds of change processes, attitudinal and structural. Much of what we’ve touched on could manifest through changes only in how we approach governance, this without significant changes in the actual mechanisms of government.
But certainly at a global level we will need to get beyond current structural models. Representative government as we know it becomes unwieldy at best at a global scale—the number of conflicting voices is just too great. The only other option we know well is totalitarianism, and I can’t imagine even the most benevolent of dictatorial forms working at large scales in today’s world.
The way national boundaries are becoming increasingly permeable will make the nation-state determination task at least messier. Without clear national bounds, it will become ever more difficult to determine just who “the people” in government by the people might be.
As far as governmental structures more generally, all the pieces of the puzzle we touched on in our conversation will stretch the traditional functioning of government. Governmental structures must work, increasingly, in the absence of parental notions of authority. If governmental forms are to be in any way democratic, they will need to more explicitly separate economic advantage and political influence. And just as mythologized, us-versus-them relations between nations cannot work for times ahead, so must political processes based on adolescent squabbles between polarized ideological factions give way to more creative and sophisticated processes of engagement. Each of these pieces, both its necessity and it possibility, follows from Cultural Maturity’s changes. How great a role structural alternations will need to play in the realization of such changes, time will have to tell.
Amy: But a lot would change.
CJ: Without question. One necessary new ingredient cuts across all that we have talked about: a deeper acceptance and understanding of change’s role in governance. Certainly, government needs to better function as a vehicle for ongoing change. In addition, ideas about governance adequate to the tasks ahead must themselves include change. We need to view government not as a static, isolated edifice, but an ever-changing, integral part of culture’s evolving story.
Doing so will be essential to good global relations, certainly to avoiding dangerous misunderstandings between people’s at different cultural stages. Effectively combating terrorism, for example, becomes impossible without it. If we can’t recognize that that terrorism is an expected result of the collision of cultures at different developmental stages, we will respond with actions that are as irrational as those of the terrorists. It is also necessary so that the modern industrialized world does not assume that the governmental and economic forms they know best are right for everyone—irrespective of a culture’s history or its time in cultural development. Attempted helpfulness, even if well intended, when not timely becomes something quite opposite.
And, without question, better including change in our thinking about government is essential to future changes. Ultimately, we need to be open to the possibility of whole new chapters in governance—in its assumptions, certainly, and at least in limited ways in government’s formal structures.
Amy: That’s good.
CJ: Its a start. A lot is not yet ours to know.