Old Systems, New ThinkinG, and the Thing About American Politics

It seems we’re passing through an interesting time in America, a time in which one need only turn on the news to witness countrymen at each other’s throats, streets flooded with protesters, and anxieties running high. It’s quite a scene to behold, and certainly beyond anything I’ve witnessed in my life up to this point. Given how strange things are starting to look here in the United States, I can only imagine how they must appear to our fellow citizens of the world who find themselves on the outside gazing in. It’s true, Americans are something of a wacky bunch, and admittedly we’ve been making some colorful political decisions of late, many of which have resulted in worry, fear, and downright panic for people both in and out of the country.

The thing to understand about American politics is that within our political culture it can be a little tricky to impact change, or even learn from the mistakes we've made in the past. For the most part, American politicians prefer to keep their cards close to their chest and govern from behind a curtain. In some respects you can't blame them, after all, how is a politician supposed to act when the job requires them to not learn from their mistakes or change their opinion over time? Here in America we call that “flip-flopping”, and its political suicide. It has always amazed me that so many Americans buy into this mindset without fully considering what effect holding our leaders to that kind of standard might have. I can't imagine what my life would be like were I unable to grow and change my mind about all the things I used to be so sure I had figured out.

Over time, the American politician has become something of a caricature: a smiling figure adept at avoidance who possesses a tendency to not admit mistakes, lacking in transparency when it comes to strategy, and plagued with an inability to paint a sensible long term vision for the American public to get behind.

In their defense, long term planning isn’t really a feature of representative democracy, for that you’d be better served by a (hopefully benevolent) dictatorship. I’m not suggesting this form of government, but it’s good to keep in mind that every system of governance has its pros and its cons, and while democracy has numerous pluses, consistent execution of a long-term strategy is not one of them. When a system such as ours is functioning properly it features healthy and constant turnover, and while this may be a democratic ideal, it makes for inconsistent policy and a lack of national focus over time. In fact, these days administrations seem more concerned with undoing the work of their predecessors than continuing it.

Given the state of things, perhaps it's time we began considering our political class more realistically; these aren't people with problem solving skills, they aren't healers or farmers, engineers, software developers or scientists, for the most part they are lawyers and business people. Does this make them bad? Not in the least. But neither does it make them the people I'd choose to direct decisions regarding humanity's future or appoint to solve large-scale issues whose solutions require a systems-thinking approach.

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
— Leo Tolstoy

In the 20 or so years I've worked in the corporate world I've observed a general rule: those who seek to lead seldom make great leaders, and those who reluctantly accept leadership when nominated often do. This observation has left me ill at ease with a political process that expects “leaders” to nominate themselves. Herein lies the paradox (and this is only my opinion): a true leader is identified not by their eagerness to change the things around them, but by their willingness to change themselves.

So what's the truth about American politicians? My sincerest guess is that our politicians are more scared than anyone: scared of failure, scared of an impossible task, scared of being found out ... the unavoidable conclusion that they're no smarter or qualified than the rest of us, yet they’ve been elected to do an impossible job which requires them to be exactly that. They may be adept at politics, but politics is not a problem solving system, it's a control system.

In the end, our political system is nothing more than that: a system. We like to think that inserting the “right” people into the system will change it, but this expectation fails to recognize the nature of systems, which is to produce generally repeatable results. In other words, you can send certified organic, grass fed beef to McDonald's, or you can send factory farmed, corn-gorged, industrial beef, either way you’re getting hamburgers out the other end; producing hamburgers is the nature of the system. Is it even reasonable for us to expect different results from an unchanged political system?

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
— Albert Einstein

Truly, our system seems to no longer be firing on all cylinders, and few would argue this point, even from within the system itself. And yet, we attach a certain sacredness to our political system. Such reverence may result from our conscious or unconscious identification with the history behind our institutions. By clinging to the idea that the historical defense of our systems must not be in vain, we become blind to the blood still being spilled today, unnecessarily in the majority of cases.

There are plenty of excuses or explanations offered for the failures of our system, some say “it's the Democrats, they're holding the system hostage,” and others respond “it's the Republicans, they won't compromise, so the system isn't working.” But here's the rub, any system that can be effectively held hostage by one or more players in the system is a bad system. In the software world such a situation would require some rethinking, likely a major overhaul, perhaps even a complete redesign. Also less typical in the software world is the outright failure to admit that a broken system is broken (and when this does happen it's generally for political reasons).

When we take an honest look at the world around us we witness the pace of life increasing-things are getting more complicated each and every day, literally. This isn’t bad, it’s simply how evolution operates: it proceeds exponentially, not linearly. In X Prize founder Peter Diamandis’ book, Abundance, he cites an estimate that technology is driving human progression at a rate of 30 years every 4-6 months currently (and that book is a few years old).

So what happens now? Well, we’ll all find out together eventually, there's no doubt about that. Certainly, a wholesale replacement of our political system seems unfathomable, at least it does to me. And what would we replace it with? Your guess is as good as mine. Still, when we look back on our more recent evolution we see that 20 years ago there were centralized power bases in publishing, music, television, film, journalism, etc., and few among us would have predicted the radical changes that have taken place in these power-centers, the shift  just happened. We've learned that the internet has as tendency to decentralize everything it touches, and even as that process continues its march, block-chain technologies are now beginning to come on-line, leaving little doubt that decentralization is the order of the day, it's simply a matter of whether or not a person chooses to read the writing on the wall at this point.

With all the decentralization we've witnessed there are two suspiciously centralized systems which remain largely unchanged, both clinging to their former organization: finance and government (and the financial system has already collapsed, been revived, and put on life support via TARP/quantitative easing).

As we witness these large scale failures of finance and government it may serve us to remember that the speed bumps we’re currently racing over may merely be the byproduct of our own resistance to a natural shift, the vestigial flailing of power-centers unwilling to give way to a major evolution in the flow of information.

The current state of affairs doesn’t have be a frightening reality in my opinion. When we look back on the American experience of decentralization throughout the last 20 years we don’t see bloody revolution, we see transition via a bloodless coup. Personally, I find that encouraging. Furthermore, when considering an evolution of our own political system it helps to remember that Europe has numerous countries still hosting functional monarchies alongside functional democracies. These monarchies-while still in place-no longer hold the power they once did, somewhere along the line these countries decided monarchy no longer served them, and so transitioned away from it. 

In these former monarchies people can still visit a palace or perhaps catch a glimpse of a royal wave from time to time, but when debating net neutrality they’re unlikely to strongly consider where the royals stand on the issue. With this in mind, I try not to consider the future of the American political machine in terms of extreme solutions, but instead wonder as to how it may evolve moving forward, maintaining still-functional, traditional roles where appropriate, while giving way to something better where stuff just isn’t working.

Although change can be frightening, the rumblings we are currently witnessing may be a necessary step, part and parcel of human progress. In fact, there are those who make the case that human governance is directly tied to information distribution and has been throughout our history. This being the case, we may be right on schedule for a reconsideration of the systems currently in place. 

When we review our history, we find that whenever a profound new media technology is born, there is a paradigm shift in political and social organization. For instance, you couldn’t have had far-flung Empire until you had writing and a standardized code of law; you couldn’t have had the modern democratic nation state until you had the printing press, which was necessary to distribute enough information about current events that people could vote. We now have a new form of media technology that is fully interactive, and this points toward creating a new political and social organization...
— Henry Baum

Times seem to be changing in America as well as in the world at large, and it’s no small thing to manage fear and anxiety when the winds of change seem to be building outside the door, without question. My route forward has been to get honest with myself regarding our political system and be willing to ask tough questions instead of ignoring them. Does our political system attract people I'd consider worthy of leadership status? Does it attract people I'd want as friends or community members? Does it have the efficiency, intelligence, and wisdom to guide controversial technical issues such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and others? Does a system that fundamentally lacks the capacity for both long term planning and execution as well as quick adaptation serve us moving forward? Given that our political system was designed ¼ millennium ago, what other similar systems of that age are still operating and how do they differ?

These are all good questions and worthy of discussion, for how can we move towards something better if we haven’t taken the time to imagine what that something might look like? If no answers come I don't worry about it, the exercise is helpful in preparing the soil of the mind for the seeds of something new and different to take root and grow, as well as serving to break down old ways of thinking and mute reactionary responses. After all, before something new and better can exist in the world it must first exist in our minds.

In the end, however, with questions asked and ideas offered, each one of us is left to the solitude of our considered conscience. For my part, I came to a point where all that was left was to change myself, it was the only thing I could truly exercise power over. Perhaps life occurs that way for a reason? It's a troubling endeavor, because admitting our political class is ill-equipped to solve our problems means we have to do it-we have to act-which robs us of the luxury of keeping our heads in the sand. I don't say this to be controversial, there's no course of action suggested here, I simply think it's time for people to look around themselves and be honest about what they see; if we don't do that much individually, how will we ever find our way forward together? If nothing else, a person may radically improve their own life in the process, and I suppose that's as good a start as any.


Americana Singer Songwriter Ed Dupas’ lived-in melodies unwind with reflective lyrics that speak to the current state of the human condition. Soothing where possible, agitating where necessary, and calling for change where appropriate. Ed Dupas creates and shares well worn wide awake music.

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