Sunday, November 23, 2008

Governance, rulesets, and 21st century politics

Since this year's election loss there has been a lot of thinking by Republicans about why they lost and what they can do to correct their situation. Most of this thinking has been focused on retooling and updated campaign strategy and techniques. But this is not where Republicans have a problem. Republicans have not had a problem over the past 28 years winning elections and winning the White House and Congress. The problem has been with governance, that once they win elections they don't govern as conservatives. People can point their fingers at the Republican establishment, and corrupt, cynical, and hypocritical politicians, and not without cause. But it misses something very important which is that given the current organization of government it is just not possible to govern as a conservative or a libertarian. And here's why: Let's say the Libertarian Party actually got one of its candidates into the White House. Would he be able to govern as a libertarian? No. Presidents don't have the power to eliminate departments and reduce budgets he can't just go in an do anything he wants to do. A libertarian sitting the Oval Office would still have to find people to run the National Endowment for the Arts, HHS, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Labor and so on. His administration would have to formulate policy for running these organizations. He would be a libertarian running a New Deal/Great Society government.

It comes down to this: Ideological Hegemony --> Rulesets --> Governance. Let's go backwards with that. You can't govern as a conservative (or libertarian or whatever) because government operates by the New Deal/Great Society rulesets; and you can't change the rulesets unless you achieve ideological hegemony. A political movement that organizes itself around winning elections may indeed win elections but fail to actually govern in a way compatible with its ideology. Therefore, a political movement that wants to govern according to its ideology should develop its strategy towards achieving ideological hegemony rather than winning elections. Achieve ideological hegemony then you can initiate a ruleset reset and then governance will be aligned with your ideas regardless of whether the individual or party in office is an adherent of those ideas.

In the half century prior to the New Deal there was an open competition among a variety of ideas over what the rulesets would be for an industrializing America. That competition came to an end in the 1930s. An industrial age managerial liberalism achieved hegemony and instituted rulesets that would govern America for the next seven decades. In the 1950s conservatism emerged as an insurgent political movement that would temper many of the excesses and flaws of the New Deal/Great Society liberalism, but would never achieve ideological hegemony or initiate a ruleset reset. In the past 28 years Americans have shown that they prefer their New Deal/Great Society rulesets governed with a conservative sensibility, but they have no interest in replacing them with conservative rulesets.

So where does that put us now? As we transition out of the industrial age, the New Deal/Great Society liberalism vs. conservatism competition becomes irrelevant. After all what's the point of fighting over industrial age rulesets when we are transitioning into an information-service-entrepreneurial age? The period we are entering will be akin to that prior to the New Deal, it will be an open competition to determine which rulesets will govern the new era. In participating in that competition we need to focus our efforts toward winning ideological hegemony rather than winning elections. There will still be liberals and conservatives clinging to their industrial age ideologies and competition, but they will be like those in the Pentagon who are still trapped in the Cold War paradigm and don't get that the situation we are in is completely different.

We don't know what the new rulesets will be or what ideology will be invented to make sense of 21st century realities. The types of mental skills that we need are rooted around an eagerness and enthusiasm for open-ended imagining. A tolerance for uncertainty. A willingness to walk away from the conventional wisdom and seek out new ways of thinking and interpreting. We need to embrace the improvisational spirit of the jazz musician, the frontiersman, the entrepreneur. We also need to stop fighting the old fights and channel our energies and resources into the new competitions that really matter. The results of those competitions will determine how government and society will be organized over the next century.

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