Wandering through the archives of this blog, I found a post I wrote just a few days after Obama was elected in November of 2008. I recognized in it the feeling of momentousness with respect to the election of Obama, but what I had forgotten was the sharpness of my skepticism and frustration around American politics. Not surprising, of course, given how spectacularly bitter that 2008 campaign season was—and here we are again at the beginning of the next one. At that time I wrote:
Apparently, I sober up pretty quick, because, while Obama’s achievement is impressive, it must be understood within the context of a demonstrably corrupt and increasingly militarized and corporatized neoliberal political system. Yes, Obama won — and I may take pleasure at that because I support the winning side this time — but he won in no small part because of his superior gamesmanship, by playing the game better than his opponents. The rules of this political and electoral game have absolutely not changed. A more productive “hope” we might have now is that under this new leadership there might arise the possibility to change the nature of the American political system. Will Obama work to change the rules of the game now that he has been elected? Will the Clintonites with whom he is apparently surrounding himself change the rules? Will they change the rules (as Bush did) to consolidate and secure power, or to distribute power? Emerging from the hazy warmth of the election, I ask: With this incredibly significant democratic event, how do we leverage this slight shift towards the Center-Left to do the work that needs to be done in order to (re)build a civil society where economic and social justice extend to all of our fellow citizens? How can we work to open up authentic spaces for participation, discourse, and difference?
2 plus years on, in the putrid wake of the recent debt-ceiling debacle, there’s not much to feel optimistic about when it comes to government and its so-called leadership around the really pressing, urgent problems we face. The dysfunction is structural, embedded in the fabric of our political culture and possibly in the very strain of “representative” democracy that is our system of governance. The current political paradigm is one of extreme polemics and banal partisanship, a context that prohibits politicians (with few exceptions) from creatively addressing any of these systematic problems. Understanding our current political situation in terms of paradigms is useful because, as Thomas Kuhn has so aptly pointed out in the history of science, the dominant paradigm constitutes the frame through which we view (and subsequently make) the world. It is only through a profound shift in the dominant paradigm that truly new approaches and methods can be developed—that is, entirely new worldviews which might completely recalibrate our relationship to the world and each other.
We heard much in last few weeks about the “leadership” of the respective parties within congress, and Obama and his administration count among that “leadership” cadre as well. Sometimes the term was used descriptively to refer to the senior members of the Senate or the House; sometimes it was used pejoratively as jibe to force the other side live up to what is implied by the designation. Regardless, the more I heard about—and from—the “leadership,” the more hollow it sounded. Not only are these political actors constrained by the current, death-embracing political paradigm, but they are also lacking so many qualities that might lead to innovative approaches to our most urgent problems: empathy, humility, an understanding of genuine collaboration, ecosystem awareness, critical consciousness, a willingness to fail productively (and on and on perhaps). In a recent interview, Otto Scharmer of Theory U fame (I borrow “ecosystem awareness” from him) has this to say about leadership:
Today, if you talk with leadership practitioners, everyone gives you the same thing—which is change and institutional transformation. Everyone. What is that? If you unpack that, what is the nature of change? Well, it is transforming consciousness. Because change essentially is helping people to see the bigger picture, to see that they are part of a bigger picture. You level people up from a more narrow, egocentric perspective to a perspective where you take into account the views of other stakeholders, and maybe even of the larger ecosystem that you are a part of. So, real change practitioners, institutional leaders today all deal with consciousness. You deal with the transformation of who man is in consciousness. That’s what change work is about.
It’s possible that government may yet have a role to play in such transformation—but it’s so hard to see on the macro level, within the monolith that is the American national political system where brute force and gamesmanship (theatrical or not) make up the modus operandi. The change work that Scharmer describes, if it is to be meaningful, will have a profound practical impact on people’s lives, but it will also dwell in the realm of consciousness where the first steps toward a paradigm shift must occur.