Many of my family, friends, and clients have shared with me that the political polarization of our country is spilling over into their lives, spurring fights, frustrations, and finger pointing. I personally have been spared probably because I insist only on political dialogue (i.e., explaining where I am coming from and listening openly to others) rather than debate (attempting to convince others you are right and denigrating them when they don’t agree). I do this because when I used to engage in competitive debates, I found the consequence was almost universally destructive rather than constructive. Given that we are in prime election season, the impact of polarization is in full force, and a number of recent books have been written about the psychology of politics and the increasing polarization of our nation. (See for example, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Splitting America: How Politicians, Super PACs, and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce, and The Political Brain).
I just finished a book that I think offers a respectable analysis for those who are looking for common ground and a move away from the current extremely partisan political environment and toward more centrist pragmatic solutions. The book, That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, is written by two authors, Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandlebaum, who specialize in foreign affairs and who believe that the effective functioning of America is crucial not only for us, but for the world at large.
The authors make an appeal for the political emergence of the ‘radical center’, which calls Americans to seriously reflect on the world we are actually living and to work together toward solutions that will position America well for the future. They offer a fairly straightforward blueprint for moving forward. First, in response to their central question, What is the world in which we are actually living?, the authors argue that there are four key developments that we must take into consideration as we develop a roadmap for the future.
The first two challenges are intertwined, and are 1) globalization and 2) the IT revolution. The authors argue that together, these two developments change the economic game for the United States, and they explain why doing ‘old’ jobs adequately simply won’t cut it anymore. The reason is that the emergence nations like China, India, Singapore, and Brazil, combined with the networked, hyper-connected, “flat” world created by the IT revolution, means that virtually every ‘old’ job has faced or will face a new form of competition, either by being replaced by mechanized information processors or by being shipped overseas. The upshot of this situation is that America needs to be developing workers for the future, training as many as possible for highly skilled, creative jobs that cannot be outsourced or mechanized.
The third major problem is the debt (and deficit). Since the 1980s we have seen the emergence and now the full entrenchment of one political party which champions lower taxes and another which champions entitlements, resulting in a government which has simultaneously cut taxes (while engaged in long, drawn out wars!) and promised rich pensions, health care, and other sweet deals. At $16 trillion and rising at the alarming rate of over a $1 trillion dollars a year, there is almost universal agreement among economists that if that trend continues for the foreseeable future, we will eventually end up broke and broken.
The final major problem is climate change. The authors fully acknowledge that the when, wheres and hows of the impact of climate change are difficult to predict. But it is known that the climate is changing and is changing as a function of manmade greenhouse gas emissions. They argue we must take out an insurance policy against dramatic, damaging climate change; else we foolishly risk incurring the wrath of Mother Nature.
The authors make the strong case that the failure to address these four challenges systematically, with shared purpose and coordinated action, is a recipe for disaster. And the authors argue that the political polarization, exacerbated by the 24 hour media news cycle, has made the effectiveness of American government limited at best, and downright dysfunctional at worst. For example, recently a whole news cycle in the conservative media was dominated by Barack Obama’s use of the phrase “non-optimal” in describing the killings in Lybia on Jon Stewart. This is more like pro-wrestling than serious political analysis.
So what is the prescription? The authors firmly believe that shared values need to be discussed and embraced. Hard work, merit, discipline, and courage, for example, are prominent themes in the book. Indeed, the authors make the interesting point that one party (Republicans) have a philosophy and approach good for building meritocracies, whereas the other party (Democrats), are good at emphasizing fairness. Of course, ideally America is a fair meritocracy. At another point the authors describe the distinction between situational values and sustainable values. The former involve the here-and-now cost-benefit analysis of decisions; the latter are the deep ideals that guide us across situations and toward long term goals. We need to emphasize and embrace sustainable values.
In keeping with the theme woven throughout the book of looking both backward and forward, Friedman and Mandelbaum, argue that what we need to do to address these challenges is the formula the nation has embraced in the past for it greatness, and it consists of five elements.
First, we need a topnotch educational system. Much of the book is spent exploring America’s decline in education and the programs, policies, principles, and perspectives that have been offered for turning that decline around.
Second, we are a nation of immigrants and we desperately need to reform our immigration system and return to being the country that attracts the best and brightest minds from other nations.
Third, infrastructure provides the backbone upon which the energy of the country flows, and we desperately need to upgrade our bridges, highways, and mass transit systems.
Fourth, we must remain the world leader in research and design. Accelerating innovation will define the future, and science and technology will drive that. We need researchers and entrepreneurs in America leading the way.
Fifth, we need responsible business regulation that does not bury seedling businesses in a mountain of unnecessary paperwork, but also is not freewheeling enough so that huge systems can take unregulated risks only to be guaranteed to be bailed out by the government.
The view from the radical center is that we live in an increasingly complicated world, and it is a world in which America is potentially on the decline. Partisan politics, massive entitlements, and head-in-the sand science deniers result in lame leadership and dysfunctional government, and if it continues it will inevitably drive us further into trouble. What we need are individuals who tell the American people the nature of the world we are living in. People need to hear that after decades of indulgence, we Americans now need to buckle down and sacrifice. We need drain off fewer entitlements and pay more taxes. And we need a strategy for investment that has a real chance of leaving our children better off. If we don’t do this, we will leave them with an increasingly capricious and fickle environment, a mountain of debt, and an education that pales in comparison with competitors. The choice is ours. The question is whether we have the fortitude and maturity to make it.