The 2016 election is taking shape. How should we approach it? Here’s my take:
Before thinking about the candidates, we should start by taking the election as an opportunity to think broadly about the state of our nation: First, what are the great national problems of our time? Second, what is our national vision for rising out of those problems?
1a. Problems in Democracy
We can answer the first question by thinking about, to use civic theorist Harry Boyte’s words, both “problems in democracy” and “problems of democracy.”
The major problem *in* democracy is that our economy and earth are in trouble.
Economic inequality — not just between the 1% and the rest of us, but between relatively rich and relatively poor folks (which, as Robert Putnam explains in his great new book ‘Our Kids’, maps roughly to “those whose parents finished college and those whose parents did not”) — is endangering the promise of an inclusive economy, as automation, globalization and plutocratic policies chip away unceasingly at millions of citizens’ livelihoods without adequate replacement. Despite having generated enough per capita wealth to eliminate economic insecurity nationwide, we allow the innovative potential of tens of millions of Americans to be hampered by day-to-day fears for financial survival. A singular focus on ‘creating jobs’ has failed to address the fact that millions *with* jobs are disempowered at their workplaces, resigned to see work as only a paycheck rather than a means to innovate, create, and empower. Although the internet has inspired startup businesses, most dreamers are still shut out. Access to financial resources, regulatory know-how, technical skills, and industry connections are limited to a few. The cutting-edge workplace cultures that blur the line between management and labor through fluid roles, continuous education, and distributed authority are still confined to a few industries. Meanwhile, multinational corporations unceasingly homogenize the economy, not only eradicating regional differences and small businesses, but also crowding out alternative economic forms, such as unionized workplaces, worker cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, and other forms of the commons.
This is all without mentioning that our earth is steadily and dangerously warming and systems of sustainability are being implemented too slowly to stem the crisis.
1b. Problems of Democracy
The major problems *of* democracy are that we have lost our sense of community, integrity and vision.
The bonds of community that sustain our democratic republic are weakening and breaking. People feel increasingly disconnected from their neighbors. Groups that could be organized into empowering networks — workers, customers, interest groups — are instead herded under corporate, media and government bullhorns. National solidarity is increasingly limited to writing checks to those in need as opposed to directly interacting with them in authentic ways: the once-communal labors of caring, teaching, healing, feeding, sheltering, and serving are becoming evermore bureaucratized and hidden from view. Divides of race, class and culture are addressed only through changes in law and mass media, instead of also through authentic interactions with real people in shared projects. We are becoming evermore reliant on technical experts from afar instead of on our own instincts and dialogue with those right next to us. Patriotism, which used to help us care about something bigger than ourselves, has now — after decades of perversion by imperial militarism — become something many roll their eyes at. Most Washington insiders have lost faith in the democratic promise: the promise of the constructive genius of ordinary men and women. Democracy, to these insiders, should not be the co-creation of the nation *by* everyone, but rather the election every few years of a slate of a small cadre of experts to manage the whole operation *for* everyone.
Our public institutions that depend on deep integrity are corrupted by money. Legislatures and administrators meant to depend upon the will of the People alone are bribed by campaign donations. Businesses started to create value for everybody begin to limit their scope to creating value only for customers and then eventually limit their scope more to creating value only for shareholders and then eventually limit their scope even more to creating value for only their elite managers, inventing justification after justification to validate their insatiable appetite for more money. Universities that were created as moral communities of shared uplift come to be seen as only tickets to one’s private success. Our emotions, vulnerabilities and precious cultural touchstones get endlessly converted by marketers and “public relations” consultants into tools to squeeze more money and attention out of us, creating a mass culture whose BS-to-non-BS ratio is becoming untenable for many. The President we elected to change the way Washington works surrounded himself with advisors that have quit public service to receive big payouts from McDonald’s (press secretary Robert Gibbs), Citi (OMB direct Peter Orszag), Uber (campaign director David Plouffe), the British Tories (campaign manager Jim Messina), Amazon (press secretary Jay Carney), leverage buyout firm Warburg Pincus (Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner), and the Keystone Pipeline XL’s TransCanada (White House strategist Anita Dunn). Almost half of all Congresspersons become lobbyists after they stop serving.
Lost in the fog, we lack vision of where to go from here: our political parties are abdicating their responsibility to help point the way towards better days, trading that role in for one of co-producing a 24-hour theater of fear and cultural resentment. Our academics laser-focus on tinier and tinier slices of policy analysis to get ahead, instead of helping us see the big picture. Our time has produced few moral leaders to turn to for stories of where we came from, where we could go and how we can get there. The Democratic Party is stuck fighting for tax-and-transfer policies that skim money off the top of a grossly unequal economy to temporarily save the bottom, but have no unified idea of how to work to make the economy less unequal in the first place.
2. A Vision of Where We Should Go
Built into these critiques is a vision of where we should go as a nation.
Regarding the economy, we must both open the economy and strengthen citizens to act in it. To open the economy, we should work on: easing the path to entrepreneurship so that more people have more capital, resources and regulatory acumen to realize their business ideas; making employment resemble entrepreneurship so that, within the context of stable and secure employment, the distinction between being an employee and being your own boss is blurred; preserving and encouraging economic diversity so that homogenization does not close off opportunities for realizing difference; and breaking up monopolies and ending cronyism so that entrenched players do not shut out upstarts. Plus, we should do this all with an eye towards conservation, sustainable development, and a carbon-neutral near future.
To strengthen citizens, we should work on: fortifying economic security so that satisfying one’s immediate needs need not be a barrier to creative participation; decentralizing capital for productive use so that more people have more resources to work with creatively; broadening educational opportunities so that location and age no longer determine one’s access to educational empowerment; promoting empowering pedagogy so that schooling is not for static training but rather for civic and economic entrepreneurship and empowered employment and citizenship; and fighting entrenched discrimination and stigmatization so that arbitrary inhibiting institutions do not stand in the way of the public flourishing of certain groups of citizens.
Regarding community, we should work on: revitalizing local communities; increasing communal self-reliance so economic and cultural power is decentralized throughout the nation; creating participatory counterbalances to corporate and state power by enabling the more routine organization of democratic networks; humanizing the caring economy by supplementing service bureaucracies with widespread participation in direct care for each other; and building programs for national solidarity by bridging divides of race, culture and class through more than just law and mass media.
Regarding integrity, we should, in the short term, work on: driving money out of politics by establishing the public financing of elections through campaign donation vouchers to every citizen every election to replace a plutocratic pre-election fundraising season with a democratic pre-election fundraising season; increasing the level of public shame given to those legislators and administrators who walk through the revolving door and cash in on their access to governmental power; broadening legal options for businesses aiming to move beyond obsession with profit-maximization, such as B-Corps, triple bottom lines, and ESOPS; and supporting the nascent DIY movement that promotes craftsmanship, durability and real needs over the manipulation of conventional marketing.
In the long term, we should support a broad move from a technocratic management aristocracy towards a pluralist membership democracy… in the Founder’s terms, towards a more democratic republic. This will involve working on promoting localism, civic education, the civic infrastructure of public spaces and organizations, and other tools of making citizens, in Harry Boyte’s words, “not mainly spectators of democracy but owners and creators of the democratic way of life, with government as partner.”
I and others have outlined aspects this vision more in depth in The Progressive Alternative intervention document.
3. What Role Does The President Play?
If we believe citizens should be co-creators of the nation, why should we care who the President is?
The spirit behind such as question is right. In the words of one inspirational 2008 presidential candidate: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” (Unfortunately, that same candidate never followed through, governing as a technocratic liberal, failing to continuously activate and engage the broad-based member-driven movement that elected him. We learned the hard way that structural change comes from below, not from a President, no matter how much we like him.)
But, those who want to ignore presidential campaigns completely must acknowledge three things. First, Presidential candidates and the president herself do have the largest platform for laying out a vision for the future of this country. Second, the appointments the President makes — not just to the Supreme Court, but to the entire executive branch — have a serious impact on: what promising initiatives get funded and which get killed (ask a green energy tech firm funded during the Obama administration); what problems get investigated and what get ignored (ask the AIDS activists ignored during the Reagan administration or supported during the Bush administration); and what leaders get raised up and which stay put (ask Robert Reich how famous he would be if he wasn’t appointed Secretary of Labor by the Clinton administration). Finally, the President can block and delay projects with popular support, meaning that the more the President disagrees with your legislative vision, the higher the bar is for you to achieve it.
4. How Should We Judge Candidates?
Given this assessment of the problems of our time, the necessary vision for the future, and the role of the president, how should we judge the available candidates?
The standard way people recommend to judge candidates is to assess their position on specific issues and see how they align with your own. I think this is misguided: the “hot issues of the day” change rapidly and so does every politician’s positions on them.
Rather, we should try to (1) discern a candidate’s (a) assessment of the problems of today, and (b) vision for the future; and (2) see if their assessment and vision align with our own. Their positions on specific issues may help point the way to their assessment of the problem and vision for the future, but so does many other things: their ways of talking about those positions and issues, their past actions on those issues, the themes they choose to focus on; the groups they interact with; and more.
So, I’m going to be looking for a candidate that acknowledges our closed, broken economy and troubled Earth, as well as our desperate need for more community, integrity and vision. I’m going to be looking for a candidate who: wants to open the economy and strengthen citizens to participate in it; face the reality of our climate change crisis; and care deeply about revitalizing American community, restoring integrity by moving from management to membership and the supremacy of money in politics to the supremacy of people in politics, as well as broadening our vision for the future, beyond tinkering at the edges of broken systems.
In addition to assessing candidate’s visions, we should also see if they have shown in their past the integrity, courage and creativity to stay true to the public interest, have a backbone when it gets hard, and try something truly new to break impasses.
This should all be judged not relative to the other side of the aisle (of course most in your party are going to be better for you than those in the other party!) but relative, at least, to the average politician in your party and, even more, relative to the standards of great leaders in history. We have over 300 million people in this country: we don’t need to settle for “I guess she’s alright.”