As someone who has devoted much of his life to training leaders, I found the initial Democratic presidential debates disappointing. Given the profound inadequacy of Donald Trump, the 2020 elections should be the easiest in history to win. But the Democrats are choosing to make an election loss at least a very real possibility.
I’m not the only one to make this observation and my basic reason for making it adds nothing new: On most every issue the candidates swung so far to the left that only a very small percentage of voters would be willing to follow (and with good reason). But I think the situation does provide an important opportunity to reflect on what is needed in the long term if leadership is to serve us.
A person could assume that I am advocating for more centrist positions. And if one’s goal is simply to win the election, that would likely be sufficient. But my interest lies with a more fundamental and critical recognition central to what effective leadership going forward will require of us. I write and teach extensively about the need for an essential “growing up” in how we understand, what Creative Systems Theory calls Cultural Maturity. Culturally mature leadership requires skills and capacities that are as yet rare, but which will in time be essential.
One relates specifically to polarization and ideology. In times past, when we encountered polarized positions and partisan advocacy, we assumed that there were only two options and that our task was choose one and to fight for it. When we think more maturely and systemically, we assume instead that while each side may have a part of the truth, the important and hard question has yet to be asked.
With none of the primary issues touched on in the debate were the important and hard questions acknowledged, much less addressed. Below I’ve briefly touched on what I see as the central hard questions absent from the debate with each of the major debate topics. I’ve then included a link to an article that addresses the missing question with each concern in more depth.
Health Care Delivery: The candidates universally agreed that “health care is a right.” And most of the candidates in addition called for some version of “Medicare for All.” I agree that in time something approaching Medicare for All would be a good thing. But simply making this a rallying cry ignores the hard—and here I mean very hard—questions. The health dare delivery crisis combines two separate issues—access to care and cost containment. Talking about health care as a right addresses access to care (which very much needs to be addressed). But it does nothing in itself to address cost containment, and cost containment is where the really hard challenges lie. I’ve written in depth about how cost containment will require a radical new maturity in our ability to accept the fact of real limits. Neither the political left nor the political right has as yet shown the courage to seriously address cost containment and its implications. (See Health Care Reform as Political Crazy-Maker.)
Immigration: The U.S. immigration system is fundamentally broken and needs to be reconsidered from the ground up. But at this point, the immigration question most often gets reduced to one of two polar positions each of which is equally absurd. The democratic candidates appropriately challenged “build a wall” solutions. But the proposals they put forward as alternative came very close to arguing for no boundaries at all. Besides providing an easy rallying cry for Trump supporters, seeming to advocate for open boundaries just as much ignores the hard questions. I think of national boundaries like the semi-permeable membrane of a cell. Make cell membranes just a wall and the cell quickly starves and dies. But make them only about openness and the cell just as quickly dies. We are only beginning to appreciate the importance of thinking about immigration more dynamically and systemically. (See Bringing Big-Picture Perspective to the Often Pain-filled Confusions of the Immigration Debate.)
Gun Violence: When gun violence was mentioned, the assumed solution was to in some way limit access to guns. There is no question that restricting access to at least certain kinds of firearms is very much needed. (The broad availability of assault rifles we see in the United States, for example, has no justification.) But the political right’s claim that it is people, not guns, that kill holds an important kind of truth. Gun violence is the result of a great complexity of factors. While access to guns is easy to think about, of that complexity of factors, it is arguably one of the least significant. When we reduce the debate to “guns” versus “no guns,” we end up in denial about the challenges that will be of greatest importance to social well-being in the long term. There is a deeper kind of responsibility being called for. (See The Crisis of Gun Violence: Mature, Big-Picture Perspective.)
Climate Change: The challenge with climate change is a bit different in that thinking more systemically results in an even more adamant and unswerving response. (Note that while most of the candidates agreed that climate change was a serious problem, few had the courage to put it really forefront as an issue.) The political left tends to let itself get sidetracked in debates over whether human-caused global warming is real. It is the wrong question—and ultimately an unanswerable question (science isn’t about certainties). The real question asks us to assess risk. It was answered long ago by anyone who would agree that playing Russian Roulette with the gun pointed at one’s child’s head is a bad idea. More systemic perspective is needed if we are to seriously take on the challenge of climate change. It is also needed if we are to deal effectively with complex consequences that are inevitable even if we take the strongest measures to lessen its effects. (See Culturally Mature Perspective and the Climate Change Debate: How Asking the Wrong Question Results in Actions That Are, in Effect, Suicidal (an Update))
As we are thrown more and more into debate around difficult issues, a further, more overarching kind of systemic recognition becomes increasingly important. I touched on it in a previous piece I titled, Perspective for a Time of Deep Discord: Why We See Things So Differently (and Why Just Trying To Talk About It Is So Often Not Helpful). To quote from that piece. “We tend to assume that conflicting beliefs reflect simple differences of opinion. But the evidence suggests something deeper. At the least we confront differences in values. And I would suggest that differences have even deeper origins. What we see reflects differences not just in what we think, but how we think.” To deal effectively with polarized and polarizing debate, we need to understand ourselves more maturely and systemically. In the end, it is through better appreciating our own complexity—and learning to embody that full complexity—that we become able to engage questions in the world around us with needed complexity.