Hyperpartisanism and Collective Thinking
Retiring US Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts Barney Frank, in his inimical way, explains hyperpartisanism as the result of voters enacting a form of democratic theater. He says that for the past two cycles, voters have been sending people to Washington specifically because they will be unwilling to ‘get along’ and will be willing to risk all in an effort to force changes. The new voices don’t work well within the traditions of the system, and the direction for change isn’t being negotiated.
Incoming US Democratic Congresswoman from California Janice Hahn sees the situation with a bit more nuance. In comments to the NoLabels conference in NYC last January, she expressed her belief that newly representatives do want to find a way to break through logjams. She, and others in the NoLabels movement, see the problem as a structural crisis. Lawmakers simply don’t spend enough time socializing with each other across party lines. Changes which will bring parties together on a regular basis will foster deeper understanding and trust, and this (alone?) will lead to a reduction in hyperpartisanism and resolution of national complexities.
Though leaders from within activist think tanks such as the New Economics Institute share a deep concern that we are at the end of an era with respect to our economy system and that we need to rethink fundamental aspects of the way that we will link social capital with fiscal capital. This eschatological perspective has its recent precedents. In the years 1992 and 1993 Peter Drucker, the internationally recognized management consultant and social philosopher, published the “The New Realities” and “Post-Capitalist Society” in which given his temperament and discipline he insisted on a re-visioning of enormous proportion. “Every few hundred years in western history, there occurs a sharp transformation….Within a few short decades society rearranges itself-its world view; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions. Fifty years later there is a new world.”
Is hyperpartisanism the sound of the knock on the door? Are we entering the brave new world?
I think that Mansbridge laid in our nicely in 2010. Agreement, when it might be reached, exists in one of four forms: 1) “fully cooperative distributive negotiations” (where participants are in conflict yet still agree to deliberate without threats, hoping to reach a new resolution that minimizes lose-lose outcomes); 2) “integrative negotiations” (where participants are confused and yet not in conflict, and do seek a win-win resolution); 3) “incompletely theorized agreements” (where individuals agree with respect to a proposition yet do so using different reasons); and 4) “convergent agreement” (where the same reasons for agreeing are held by all who agree). The Holy Grail is convergent agreement, specifically when the economic system of a nation might need open-heart surgery.
Can a culture of hyperpartisanism construct a convergent agreement? Will less cohesive agreements serve us sufficiently? The problem that we face in complex situations is that if we don’t “feel” that we have fairly considered all of the essential aspects of the problem, then we don’t really “feel” committed to enacting the outcomes. And if there are many moving and interacting pieces to consider, we need to adopt a collaborative design approach that is appropriate for the design challenge.
In essence, we need to recognize that, as Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” But what does this imply? The admonition does not say we need more information, but rather we need a different way of thinking. What does it take to cause US Congress to concede that it must abandon its former ways of thinking and surrender itself to attempting a new approach?
Are we in a new world of thinking?
Are we now challenged to “think” as groups when we have been conditioned to think as like-minded individuals?
Can we yield to a new approach to collective thinking without the fear of fully surrendering our sense of individual wisdom and our illusion of individual control?
I am confident that, with humility, we can approach complexity collectively – indeed, no other approach will sustain us. I also am confident that unless we are willing to look for new ways to design futures together, we will not free ourselves from our traditions in time to avoid a systemic collapse. The problem with waiting for systemic collapse – or wiling it upon us all – is that once we tumble, we will rebuild with the same game plan that has brought us to the threshold of hyperpartisanism once again.
The inertia that pulls us to tightly cling to our traditions is fear. We fear the uncertainty that can result from replacing “our” way of thinking with some “alien” way of thinking about our situation. We fear that we will not be able to control the outcome of our collectively envisioned future. And for these reason, even within our lower socioeconomic strata who arguable have substantially less to lose, the devil that we know is more trusted than the devil that we do not. We cling to our sense of certainty, even dark certainty, because we fear. We fear because we have lost hope and faith. We have lost hope and faith because we have allowed ourselves to be set against each other with rules made on our behalf by the lobbying force of a power elite.
The cyclic nature of the rise and fall of complex human systems is indeed the stuff of drama, as has been so well played out in the film The Matrix. Cycles will persist until voters in democratic systems across the globe make the distinction between being spectators in an audience (voting with the ticket that they purchase) or actors on the stage (voicing a script for their hopes and experiences). This is not a contest between direct democracy and representative democraty — it is more centraly a responsiblity of direct democracy to enable representative democracy.
If we choose to enact democracies, we need to learn how to think and solve problems in inclusive ways with those who think very differently from ourselves. We might well ask why the collective wisdom of the United States of American – perhaps through the National Science Foundation – does not make it a national priority to seek out and evaluate best practices in collaborative design? We took on this mission to address a need to manage the rising tide of technological complexity that emerged after World War II. Today in the information age, we are confronted with a rising tide of social complexity.
Are we trapped in a gyre from which we cannot frame the convergent agreement that is needed to collectively look for new ways of thinking?
Can we agree that we need to focus our thinking on the front end of problem solving with less intensely and with more inclusively?
I have just returned from a training session that was held in Crete for 20 international participants seeking methods for forging convergent agreement among diversified groups of average citizens. Given that the wisdom and intelligence of our elected officials is rarely far beyond the wisdom and intelligence of those who elect them to the highest of national offices, I believe that there is reason for hope.
Where there is will, there is hope.