How Partisan Gridlock Points Toward the Need for a New Chapter in the Story of Government

The place where today we witness the most striking lack of inspired leadership is also where we might appropriately most hope it would thrive: in the halls of government. Confidence in governmental leadership today is embarrassingly and frighteningly low. U.S. congressional leadership approval figures rarely get above the teens.

The work of psychiatrist and futurist Charles M Johnston and colleagues at the Institute for Creative Development, a Seattle-based think tank, provide big-picture perspective for understanding just why this might be so. In his most recent book Hope and the Future, Dr Johnston examines how Modern Age institutions and ways of thinking are not the ideals and end points we often assume. He looks at how a new, more mature chapter in our human story is needed, and how in many spheres it is beginning to become manifest. Key in these changes—what he calls Cultural Maturity—is an essential “growing up” in how we understand, relate to, and embody authority. This includes authority of all sorts, but government authority provides a central example.

At some level we recognize that government today stops short of the needed maturity even if Cultural Maturity is not a familiar notion. A ready place we see it is with partisan pettiness. 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…”

In Hope and the Future, Dr. Johnston argues that 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. He proposes that this is so for a simple reason: The important questions before us are all systemic in nature. They require us to bring together a complexity of often contradictory-appearing factors.

Dr Johnston proposes that while we tend to the think of opposing political worldviews as rationally arrived-at differences of opinion, more accurately they represent predictably opposed polarized positions within larger systemic realities. Thus, in them, we find the potential for thinking that can take into account that larger kind of complexity, but only the potential. To this point, we have not been capable of the maturity of perspective needed to consciously draw on that complexity.

Hope and the Future examines major cultural issues and clarifies how the isolated positions of neither the political right nor the political left can provide the needed systemic completeness of understanding. It also looks at how simple compromise, because in the end it leaves us just as short of mature systemic perspective, can do no better. Some examples:

—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? Indeed.

The book also puts this systemic challenge in historical perspective. It clarifies how the two-sides-of-the-same-coin opposition we see with partisan bickering was before now not the same kind of problem. In times past, partisan head-butting often effectively drove creatively decision-making. But today’s new questions present a different kind of challenge. They require consciously systemic perspective if we are just to appreciate the questions let along arrive at useful answers

Dr Johnston proposes that today’s extreme partisan pettiness leaves us with two important questions: how seriously this lack of leadership from both the Left and Right should concern us, and more deeply, why this is what we see. The inability of many of today’s leaders to relate with even a traditional graciousness of perspective, much less culturally mature perspective, could be only a momentary annoyance rather than anything of great significance—a product perhaps of political cycles. It could also be of greater significance, but still 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 that political leadership must play in a healthy future, these questions are critical. And given the significant progress toward Cultural Maturity that we find in many other spheres, they are also particularly intriguing. The concept of Cultural Maturity predicts the need for an important next stage in how we think about government and governance. Given the demanding nature of these changes, it would not be surprising if the getting there takes us through awkward in-between times in which what we witnessed seemed embarrassing, if not absurd. If this interpretation is not correct, the only alternative may be the dead-end conclusion that government is irretrievably broken and ultimately incapable of providing needed guidance.

You can find more of Charles Johnston’s thinking at the Cultural Maturity blog (