Today’s crisis of confidence pertains not just to leaders but to the institutions they lead. Nowhere is this more true than in government—with its tired inefficiencies and endless partisan bickering.
What lies ahead? The story of governance, from tribal chieftains, to god-kings, to government by royal decree, to modern democracy describes a proud lineage. Some would claim we have reached that story’s end point. Certainly, modern representative government makes a powerful step beyond what came before. And socialist experiments, at least of any centralized sort, have produced decidedly unpromising results. Perhaps we’ve arrived — this is it.
But problems loom. Government by the people, at least as traditionally conceived, breaks down in a globally interconnected world. As national boundaries become increasingly permeable, it is ever more difficult to decide just who “the people” are. And global democracy would only multiply present inefficiencies.
Perhaps what lies ahead is not government at all. Global corporations now wield more power than most governments, and in a fully globalized world will likely wield more. Perhaps what lies ahead is rule by economics: Corporate rule will replace democratic rule just as in times past democratic rule replaced the authority of kings. But if so, our future will likely not be positive. We are more than just economic beings.
Are there other possibilities? If so, they will almost certainly ask two things of us. They will require the same kind of growing up in our relationship to government that we saw with leadership in general. Treating government as a parent—whether kingly or institutional—results in a passivity we can no longer afford.
And they will require a more mature understanding of the tasks of governance. Social determination has always been about more than governmental edifices. It has been the product of an intricate mosaic of entities and influences—some economic, some governmental, others religious, educational, scientific, artistic. Before now, appreciating this complexity was not needed—at least by the average person. It will be essential in times ahead if one piece of the mosaic is not to regressively claim our future.
Once more, we are only beginning to glimpse what the future asks. But the possibilities—and the potential dangers—justify our deepest commitment and creativity. In fact, we’ve never witnessed real government by the people, at least in the egalitarian sense the words imply. The voices heard at the venerated New England town meetings were primarily those of wealthy land owners. And the often idealized democratic processes of ancient Athens governed a city state in which the greater portion of the inhabitants were not citizens, but slaves. The outcome of our efforts might conceivably be the closest thing we have yet had to true democratic determination—true government by the people.
Whatever the outcome of our efforts, again, we don’t really have a choice. A new maturity in our relationship to governance appears the one option consistent with a healthy future.