Partisan Pettiness—An Abject Failure of Leadership

The place we witness the most striking lack of culturally mature leadership today is also where we might appropriately most hope it would thrive: in the halls of government. At some level we recognize this is the case even if Cultural Maturity is not a familiar notion. We get that partisan pettiness seems to draw ultimately on the worst of adolescent impulses. I think of how partisan bickering concerned with little more than political advantage erupted in the midst of the 2008-2009 financial collapse. Thomas Friedman put it this way in his New York Times column: “We are in the midst of a once-in-a–century financial crisis, yet we have descended into politics worse than usual. There don’t seem to be any adults at the top…” Confidence in governmental leadership today is embarrassingly and frighteningly low. (US congressional leadership approval figures rarely get above the teens.)

In the end, bringing greater maturity to the halls of government will be essential not just to good future decision making, but to the effective future functioning of government. This is so for a simple reason. The important questions before us are all systemic in nature. We tend to the think of opposing political worldviews as rationally arrived at differences of opinion. Creative Systems Theory proposes that instead they represent predictably opposed polarized positions within larger systemic realities. Creative Systems Theory describes how the two-halves-of-the-same-coin opposition we see with partisan bickering was not a problem in the same sense in times past. In fact, partisan head-butting often worked well to drive creatively decision-making. But it also describes how the important challenges ahead require consciously systemic perspective if we are just to appreciate the questions much less arrive at useful answers. Given this new reality, partisan polarization today not only gets in the way of effective decision making, it leaves us unable to get to square on when it comes to our time’s most important concerns. A look at most any major current issue makes clear that the isolated positions of neither the political right or the political left can provide the needed systemic completeness of understanding. And simple compromise, because in the end it leaves us just as short of mature systemic perspetive, can do no better.

Are there people who can’t put food and the table and who need the support of society as a whole to make it? Yes, certainly. Is it the case that unhealthy dependencies can result if government reflexively provides handouts? Again, yes certainly.

Is it the case that a nation must stand ready to defend itself and not hesitate to do so when needed? Without question. Is it the case that patience and diplomacy often provide the most effective defense? Again, yes, without question.

Is it the case that government is capable of solving problems that private institutions, with their private motivations, are helpless to address? Unquestionably, yes. Is it the case that governments tend to grow uncontrollably if given the chance and that “less is more” is a pretty good principle when it comes to bureaucracy of any sort? I believe so.

Our task is culturally mature decision-making, falling off either side of the road or walking down the white line in the middle leaves us equally at risk—whatever the question and whatever that question’s particular polarities. Yet today the level of discourse is rarely much above that of adolescent spats on a school playfield. Those who spend more time observing the daily workings of government than I point out that the degree of polarization and pettiness in new. To quote David Brooks from a 11/22/10 New York Times article: According to [the traditional] mentality, a big successful nation exists in a state of equilibrium between its many factions …. This ethos has dissolved, on left and right. The new mentality sees the country not as an equilibrium, but as a battlefield in which the people, who are pure and virtuous, do battle against the interests or the elites, who stand in the way of the people’s happiness.”

Today, I can often barely bring myself to listen through statements made by party representatives even on the most important of concerns. This is not because my views differ, though most often they will, but rather because what is being said is wholly predictable and ultimately unhelpful. This predictability provides some of the best evidence for Cultural Maturity’s interpretation of what we see. Effective leadership around key issues is never wholly predictable; we call it leadership because it leads—it cuts new ground. There is simply nothing to learn from tweedle-dee/tweedle-dum polar responses to policy questions that are rarely framed in sufficiently systemic ways to get anywhere useful in the first place. (Notice the implied parallel critique of the news media who too readily assume that “balanced reporting” in this trivial sense sufficiently fulfills their responsibility.)

We are left with the question of just how seriously this lack of leadership from both the Left and Right should concern us, and more deeply, why this is what we see. Is today’s inability to relate with even a traditional graciousness of perspective, much less culturally mature perspective, only a momentary annoyance rather than anything of great significance—a product perhaps of political cycles. Or perhaps it is of greater significance, but likely transitory—a product of the particular difficulty of the challenges we face rather than something fundamentally amiss. Systems challenged to more than they can handle commonly polarize in response.

Given the critical role political leadership must play in a healthy future, these questions are critical. And given the significant progress toward Cultural Maturity we find in many other spheres, they are also particularly intriguing. I’m not sure of the answers. I do know that Cultural Maturity predicts the need for an important next stage in how we think about government and governance. This needed fundamental reexamination will take time and be a demanding enterprise. But it may be this or the dead-end conclusion that government is irretrievably broken and ultimately incapable of providing needed guidance. (See Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future for a closer look at this challenge.)