Predictions that democracy is no longer a preferred way to organize and govern nations are premature. Democracy is still the best way to synthesize the optimal allocation of resources with protection of individual rights. What must change is the form of democracy that emerges to address the current deficiencies of representative democracies around the world. Representative democracy as currently practiced is not capable of keeping up with technological change nor the complexity of societal problems. The next and necessary evolution of democracy is already here in nascent form. It is “Distributed Democracy”.
Throughout history, democracy has continuously evolved as a form of governance. It is believed to have started with proto democracies that emerged from primitive hunter gatherer societies. Let’s call that the beta version of democracy. Version 1.0 is usually credited to Cleisthenes, who implemented a version of Athenian democracy that contains the source code we still rely upon in modern democracy. Version 4.0 is the unique American form of constitutional democracy that successfully integrated Greek, Roman, and European structures and principles. In 2020, it is becoming apparent worldwide that it is time for an upgrade. The next upgrade should be Distributed Democracy.
A consensus definition of Distributed Democracy has yet to emerge but is best to think of it as crowdsourced problem solving for intractable issues at the local, regional, and national levels.
Distributed Democracy is the best approach to governance in a complex world because it relies on a much broader — and better qualified — set of inputs from the governed for solutions to problems we all face at different levels. We, the governed, need to influence government all the time and not just during election cycles. For example, the COVID19 crisis has painfully illustrated that politicians are not qualified to manage certain complex problems. Instead, we need to engage the most well-informed and qualified among us to help us navigate the best solution to complex problems. In a fully networked, always-on world government needs to maintain the pace of society and anticipate problems we will face.
Most representative democracies today focus on selection of individual officials or leaders to serve as decision proxies for their constituents. This approach was not efficient in an analog world. In a digital world, the approach does more harm than good. It would be hard to design a less efficient system of governance in a world dominated by rapid technological change and the need for daily government input on tens of thousands of issues. Our representatives are constrained by their own limitations, such as their individual experiences, education, influences, and resources. Due to such constraints, politicians and special interests generally default to a few ineffective responses such as: over simplifying issues in communications with constituents, ignoring the issue or deferring timely decision making, passing rules that assuage the most vocal or powerful interests in their constituencies, or engaging in investigations that signal activity while they abrogate their primary responsibility to legislate.
In a distributed democracy, we can leverage technology to identify and detail the best crowdsourced solutions to the most difficult problems we face. James Surowiecki named it the “Wisdom of Crowds” in 2004 in his book of the same name. Many researchers have validated the wisdom of crowds. Complex problems are often better solved with solutions sourced from opinions or inputs on a massive scale. Distributed Democracy will harness technology to achieve massively scaled solutions to complex problems. Rudimentary forms of distributed democracy are already used extensively throughout the country. They usually take the form of ballot initiatives or referendums.
Think about all the problems we collectively face as a society. Everyday we heavily rely upon subsets of highly qualified people among us to help us navigate the complexity of life: highly educated teachers, trained automobile mechanics, healthcare specialists, and computer programmers fluent in specialized coding skills. Elected government is the exception. We pick representatives who are generalists at best and usually ill-equipped to solve massive issues like health pandemics, global warming, or systemic poverty. It’s not for lack of motivation or effort. Most politicians are well intentioned, but the system does not support realization of their lofty ambitions. Politicians narrowly win periodic popularity contests with vague expressions of how they will fix problems of extraordinary complexity. They cannot fix these problems. It is absurd for us to think the issue is a matter of personal character or political philosophy that will be solved simply by electing a better representative or the other political party.
It is time for Americans to call for a series of modern Constitutional Conventions. The purpose is to draft and recommend a revised strategy for attaining a “more perfect union”. We can select and elect the best minds among us from every state to envision improvements or amendments to the Constitution. These efforts can run parallel to normal activities of our government. If a better Constitution can be realized, the wisdom of the crowd that the Founders empowered will prevail. If a better Constitution cannot be realized, we can focus on continuing to improve the one we have.
Copyright 2020 Jeffrey Scott Szorik
November Elections Won’t Solve Our Problems | We Will
In 2020, it is clear Americans want progress. Patience with government is running out, at every level, for solutions to persistent societal and economic problems. Gridlock, polarization, or cultural divide are tired excuses that no longer resonate with a citizenry that has watched a nation fail to overcome important domestic and international challenges. Unfortunately, the solution will not be found solely in the upcoming general election. We need more innovative strategies to govern ourselves when our traditional means are inadequate.
Progress is made when a consensus becomes obvious to the majority of people in an electorate. America has seen a couple major examples play out in present time. Mass demonstrations in hundreds of cities call to attention the obvious persistence of racial inequality in America -- which polling indicates is a majority held opinion in the US. Another example is found in a landmark legal decision. A recent majority of the U.S. Supreme Court extended the protection of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to LGBTQ individuals in the workplace. Why now? Why does it take so long to reach this level of awareness that a majority consensus exists to solve a significant national problem? A complete answer is obviously too complicated to be answered in a simple blog post. Yet there are relatively simple solutions that can be implemented to break gridlock and improve government responsiveness.
Elections are designed to “pick the players”, but they don’t do much for determining the rules of the game or even which game is being played. Our government is out of step with us because the rules of governance are designed by the participants in control of our government. Imagine a football game where the team with the lead can change the rules of the game whenever it suits them. Each team will quickly focus on obtaining and maintaining a lead so that they can control the rules. They will not focus on whether the game is enjoyable to play or enjoyable to watch. Even winning the game takes on less importance because the rule-makers can decide how long the game will be played. The purpose of playing the game is lost. Politicians – our selected representatives in government – are not interested in their purpose. They are interested in their positions. That’s because when they are in the majority, they focus on maintaining the majority, rather than on the pursuing the reasons their constituents extended to them the privilege of a majority. When politicians are in the minority party, their primary focus is obstructing progress by the majority party so that it improves their chances of regaining the “lead” in the next election. As a nation, we have the wrong focus. This is not news to anyone who is paying attention. Our debates and news reporting detail every aspect of the contest and the personalities seeking election. The serious work of good government and civic engagement is hard to sell to an easily distracted electorate. But, it is time to try to sell our citizens on the need to pay attention to rules of the game and create the local, state, and national will to take on the challenge of extremely difficult problems. Let’s focus on creating better rules of government and creating more opportunities for citizens to influence our representatives and force responsive representation. This is how we to continue to engage after the protests in streets subside.
Many outstanding ideas have been shared to improve Congress by former Members and Senators, scholars, staffers, think tanks, and media participants. Most of them focus on the reforms politicians need to implement to break the gridlock and create bipartisan support for solutions the country desperately needs. Their well-reasoned solutions run the gamut from eliminating gerrymandering, selecting a non-partisan Speaker of the House of Representatives, reform of political spending, and restructuring the rules of the House and Senate. Anyone who tracks politics at any level knows that their recommended changes would result in significant benefits to government. However, their focus is on the wrong group. These same commentators concede that is that it is extremely unlikely the politicians will change the rules and that is extremely difficult for the electorate to change the rules. But, it is time to embrace difficult. The only real solution must come from the electorate. Politicians have a very poor record of controlling . . . politicians. They are always eager to create rules which limit their opposition. They are similar resistant to any rules that constrain their own perceived advantages. The implementation of rules or legislation grounded in fundamental fairness and true respect for the opposition’s perspective are rare. That’s where electoral engagement and protest needs to focus. Focus on the rules of the game, not who is playing the game. Focus on solutions to problems. Stop providing your support to your team. Stop focusing on which team is winning.
The viewpoint of the “loyal opposition”, the minority political party, needs to again become a primary feature of legislation at all levels of government. Democracy practiced in a republic requires meaningful input from the majority and the minority for any substantive solution to be realized. The only way to create a sustainable, successful political union is to engage and understand all viewpoints and to ensure that individual rights are respected. A nation governed by the Rule of Law requires that the rules be created, implemented, and interpreted consistently. It requires decisions be made in the open by representatives who are accountable to their entire constituency.
The protests and legal challenges of 2020 have been effective. Unfortunately, the general elections of November 2020 will not be. Calls for reform and campaign promises will be popular for a while but will fail to be implemented. The loyal opposition will again be ignored. Americans whose views are not respected by the majority will feel marginalized or disenfranchised. Many voices that joined in the protests earlier in the year will become fatigued by the lack of tangible progress. The reason is clear. The inertia for the newly elected to focus on consolidating and maintaining power is too strong. Many complex problems require multiyear effort to resolve, crossing several election cycles only to have the solution dismantled by the opposition when it regains the majority. Our representatives will focus on retaining power and undoing perceived injuries previously enacted by the opposition. Substantial change in how the will of their constituencies is manifest will again be deferred until the next protests or the next election cycle. It looks hopeless, but it is not. A solution is also as clear as the problem. It is the same solution to which democratic republics always turn in the darkest times. The answer is found in redirecting the energy of the protests and creating a distributed democracy movement that is engaged in good governance all the time.
A motivated electorate can demand a more responsive republic. An engaged and informed citizenry can compel its representatives to implement change when there is an obvious consensus among the people. This year, spend more time supporting organizations and candidates looking to engage you and your neighbors. Support candidates and causes that want to improve government. Protest any candidate or cause that tries to suppress free and respectful political debate or engagement. Embrace your civic privileges between elections as well as in the voting booth in November. If we collectively raise our voices enough, they will hear us even through the partisan noise of our state and national capitals.
Copyright 2020 Jeffrey Scott Szorik
Partisanship is good. Really. Where would we be without it? Partisanship has a critical place in the proper operation of American government. Our democracy depends on a majority of citizens, or a majority of our representatives, arriving at a shared solution to a problem. This has been the basis of our success as a nation since we broke away from the British monarchy. We expect the party with the majority to advance its preferred solutions to our problems. We expect the party in the minority to work to improve the solutions offered by the majority, or offer superior solutions so that the electorate will raise them to the majority in the next election.
So, why does partisanship also seem to be the root cause of government dysfunction and division among us? The answer may be revealed in the definition of “partisan”. A partisan “is a strong supporter of a party, cause, or a person.” In the past few decades of extreme political discord and divide, the problems can be traced to how partisanship has been manifest. Recent partisan focus has been almost exclusively on party and person (politician), not on “cause”. Issues – causes – have taken a backseat to the interests of party and politicians. The distinction is subtle. But, this observation may also identify a path out of our chaotic partisan entanglement.
To break out of our current rut of liberal/conservative division and endless personal political attacks we need to be “issue partisans”. Issues don’t get offended by personal attacks. Issues can’t take sides. Issues just need solutions. So, if we drop our allegiance to the Democrats versus Republicans, or Donald versus Hillary, then perhaps we can get back to being the democracy to which we aspire. Stop giving your loyalty to parties or politicians who haven’t earned it. Instead, lend your support to people or organizations who are trying to solve the problems that are important to you at the local, state, and federal level. We all have “special interests”. Our government is more effective when we identify and support the special interests that matter to each of us. Issue coalitions can be temporary and independent of ideological dogma. There are times when “Prius-driving-bleeding-heart-tofu-eaters” and “gun-toting-right-wing-nutjobs” can, and should, come together for the good of the country. When we pursue solutions with as much passion as we cheer for politicians, we will see meaningful and beneficial changes to how government works for us. American democracy is not about whether Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or John Kasich is elected to the presidency. It is about finding effective solutions for the majority of us; that do no harm to those of us in the minority.
It is easy to become apathetic or disheartened by politics and government. Inertia is on the side of voyeurism and mindless coverage of the “horse race” and meaningless bickering between parties. Look at news outlets like CNN and Fox. There is little to no content in their productions. They parade groups of people -- who are legitimate subject matter experts -- in front of the camera who understand that their value to the network is to pander to the liberal/conservative divide. We don't get to hear much about their expert knowledge or opinions about substantive solutions. They are called upon to engage in highbrow bickering. The louder and more contentious the argument, the better the ratings. Imagine if we could harness those news resources and those experts with as much passion to solving problems. We can. We can if each of us commits to ignoring the partisan circus.
Issue Partisanship is the formation of a temporary majority coalition in order to advance a solution to a political problem. Simply stated, it is how our representative democracy has worked in the past when it has been most effective. We rely upon our legislative representatives to routinely cross the aisle and work together to create workable solutions for all of us. A loose synonym for Issue Partisanship is “bipartisanship”. What most people are asking for when they want bipartisanship is an ad hoc majority to advance a solution to a problem. We understand that is not reasonable to expect people to abandon their political positions, philosophies, or passions on all matters. Bipartisanship is a temporary condition to advance a solution. Bipartisanship can be achieved to arrive at solutions to particular problems. However, bipartisanship is not feasible as an equilibrium objective of our representative democracy. The answer is Issue Partisanship.
Representative democracy has not worked well recently because our democratic institutions have not kept pace with societal challenges and unanswered questions about how we should govern ourselves in world that is rapidly changing. American democracy needs a reboot built on the foundation of Issue Partisanship. Temporary majority coalitions have the power to break political gridlock and address far more issues than government has been able to address given our manufactured polar antipathy toward one another. Issue Partisanship will help restore faith in government. Most important, Issue Partisanship will efficiently advance the best solutions to our biggest and most pressing societal problems.
Although it is the best tool to halt the downward spiral of our democratic institutions, there are several problems with Issue Partisanship. The most significant of which is citizen engagement. Issue and policy debates are not very sexy. Issues such as corporate tax inversions, international trade pacts, and health insurance coverage are complex and require more than tweets and social media emojis to form political consensus. Democracy thrives when citizens are engaged in the governing process and knowledgeable about alternative solutions to a problem. Another problem with Issue Partisanship is the overwhelming number of important political issues government grapples with at the local, state, and national level. It is nearly impossible for an individual to be well informed on hundreds – or thousands – of political issues being debated at any time throughout the nation. It is important that there be an efficient means of identifying and organizing the thousands of political issues that confront us at all levels of government. The remaining problem with Issue Partisanship is how to best communicate the priorities and preferences of citizens on the thousands of political issues that are addressed by our political representatives. We should acknowledge the fact that most government decisions are made without direct involvement or prior consultation with the public. But, we should also acknowledge that the source of much of our distrust of government is precisely because such decisions are made without direct involvement or prior consultation with the public. Individual legislators are constrained in the same way that we are with regard to the volume and complexity of important political issues. We need a new paradigm and better tools to govern political discourse between governors and the governed.
Votesphere was created to be the new paradigm and tool we need to advance the Issue Partisanship movement and break the cycle of political gridlock and polarization. It begins with eliminating the fiction that most of us are primarily liberal or conservative. We are not. When subjected to scrutiny, many of us are not consistently moderate, liberal, or conservative across the issue spectrum. We are complex. We hold diverse views based on our experience, knowledge, circumstances, abilities, and challenges. The simple labels may be useful for elections, but they have limited utility when it comes to crafting effective solutions to complex problems. The Votesphere paradigm eliminates the liberal/conservative dichotomy, and helps each of us map our political priorities and preferences. The next article will address how to harness Votesphere and other tools to advance Issue Partisanship and break through political gridlock.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey Scott Szorik
April 13, 2017 came and went without much fanfare. The front page of the Washington Post that day discussed Trump’s scolding of Steve Bannon, Trump’s adoption of centrist fiscal policies he previously opposed, an exchange of strong words between Russia and the US, and issues in Turkey. Most notable was what was not discussed – and not just omitted from the Washington Post, but missing from every major or minor news outlet. April 13th marked the first 100 days of the 115th Congress of the United States of America. There was no countdown to the first hundred days of this Congress. Fox/CNN/PBS et al did not compare the first 100 days of the 115th Congress with the first 100 days of other Congresses in the modern era. There were no attempts to reconcile the campaign promises of newly elected Senators and Representatives with their actual progress on legislation during these hundred days.
All of this silence about how Congress is performing is juxtaposed with the din regarding the President’s first one hundred days. The media, the President’s staff, and the President himself have all been engrossed with the topic of his first hundred days. The discussion is everywhere and every nuance of Trump’s 100-day mark has been examined. The first 100 days of Congress? Nyet. The performance of the First Branch of government, the branch of government considered most important by the nation’s Founders, has gone unnoticed. Our democracy is worse off for it. Congress is the key to effective operation of our government.
In case you are curious about the 115th Congress, it has been an active year. As of this writing, there have been 29 bills or joint resolutions enacted, 137 resolutions or bills passed with a significant vote in one chamber suggesting that they will prevail in the other and become law, and another 3,575 bills and resolutions introduced by our Senators and Representatives. So, how are they doing? I haven’t a clue. And, I am guessing that you don’t either. The media does not cover the Congress the way it covers the Executive Branch. We lack easy-to-use tools to track congressional performance and compare it with our expectations as constituents. It is not for lack of resources. There are plenty of specialized websites, apps, and media outlets that can be used to follow Congress or individual politicians. But, you have to be really motivated to use these tools regularly. Until either the main stream media increases the depth and quantity of coverage of Congress, or a larger number of Americans start to use the many specialized media or civic tech tools to monitor the performance of Congress, then it is unlikely we are going to regain faith in government. Or, maybe we just need a better tool.
Gallup reported that Congress’ approval rate was 20% at about the 100-day mark of the 115th Congress. Twenty percent. Only one out of five of us think Congress is doing a good job. Compare that with Trump’s 40% approval rate -- which is considered to be the lowest 100-day presidential approval rating in the modern era and a source of consternation for the President and his party. Congress itself is far less popular.
So, is Trump’s larger-than-life persona and wild unpredictability to blame for our inattention to Congress? No. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon . . . all garnered more media and citizen attention than Congress. Congress is complex. It is disaggregated. About 12,000 pieces of legislation are introduced in each two-year congressional cycle. It is very difficult for an individual to actively follow and make sense of Congress. Also, in the modern era, Members of the House of Representatives are in election-mode continuously during the entire two-year congressional cycle. No longer is there a “legislative season” and an “election season”. Partisanship is king in elections. Our congressional candidates get elected based on their position or promises on a handful of issues. However, constituent input and support are far less important that party loyalty. Party loyalty has become the primary source of political success since Newt Gingrich fundamentally changed the House of Representatives. The Gingrich Rules cannot and will not change in Washington – or in state capitals – until the media and constituents closely monitor the performance of our representatives.
There are many excellent suggestions for how to improve Congress. I have read at least a dozen books and countless articles that thoughtfully identify the specific sources of problems inside the Senate, the House, our primary rules, and gerrymandering of congressional districts. Almost all of these suggestions seem to me to have one critical flaw. They have an expectation that our representatives will solve the problems that they have created. I think that is why solutions have been in short supply. It is not reasonable for us to expect politicians to fix what is wrong with politics. We have to fix it. You and me.
Please return to my blog over the next few months and read my next few articles. I intend to propose a specific strategy for how we can overcome problems caused by partisan gridlock. A strategy that relies upon us rather than our representatives to solve our political problems.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Jeffrey Scott Szorik
My thirteen-year-old son appears to be training for a career in politics. I know this because our discussions sound oddly similar to press briefings, interviews, and social media posts emanating of late from Washington and our state capital.
My son is at an age where he is able to quickly complete the calculus “is it better to tell the truth or tell a story based on ‘alternative facts’”. He is clearly surrounded by messages in the media that suggest that it is prudent for him to evaluate whether truth can be modified to serve his agenda. He is learning from our political leaders that truth may be more transitory than he has been led to believe by his parents, teachers, and clergy. To cite an example, a conversation between us may sound exactly like this:
Dad: “How was school today?”
Son: “Did you get an email from my teacher?”
Dad: “I don’t know, I haven’t had time to check>"
Son: “Great. It was a great day.”
Dad: “Excellent. I am looking forward to reading her email and hearing how well you did. What did you learn today.”
Son: “Wait. What? I thought you said she didn’t send an email.”
Dad: “I don’t know if she sent one or not. But, it shouldn’t matter, right? You said your day went great. I assume you mean everything was fine. Did you mean something else?”
Son: “Oh. I mean, ‘everything’ was great . . . Except, I may have had a hard time paying attention in Science.”
Dad: “That can happen. As long as you weren’t disruptive to the class or disrespectful to your teacher.”
Son: “Well. I may have been a little bit disruptive, but that was only because this other kid was bugging me. But, that’s it.”
Dad: “You sure? Is that all that happened?”
Son: “Yes. That is all that happened that was my fault. The rest of it was his fault.”
Dad: “Exactly what happened today?”
Son: “Let’s wait to see if you get an email from my teacher.”
Dad: “I think I would rather hear it from you.”
Son: “I think I would rather wait.”
I understand that my son is exploring the boundaries of truth versus expediency. We have all been on a similar journey at one time or another in our own lives. I know he is well equipped for his journey into the boundaries of truth. He definitely knows “right from wrong”. He learned to distinguish the two at a young age and he can be relied upon to get to the right side of a moral question given enough time, opportunity, and motivation. That isn’t the issue. The issue, or his current challenge, is that he is developing his personal philosophy of truth. He is learning how far he can – or should -- advance his own agenda in the face of inconvenient facts. What he does not yet know is that how he resolves this tension between truth and self-interest will define his character for the rest of his life. In this regard, I see a parallel. Our nation is on a similar exploration regarding the boundaries of truth in public discourse.
When I turn on the news or catch an article on the internet, my conversation with my son seems eerily similar to the conversations the press is having with our political leaders. Our political leaders seem to be exploring, and pushing, the boundaries of truth before our eyes. Like my son, they also seem to have a different relationship with the truth if they are confronted with facts that do not support their assertions. Like my son, they are evaluating how likely they are to get caught in a falsehood. When caught in the falsehood, they do not admit the error, they choose to parse meanings or challenge whether the facts are actually facts. Unfortunately, I am no more forgiving of their efforts to suggest that truth is transitory than I am tolerant of my son’s current penchant for alternative facts. I reject the notion that truth is malleable. I reject the attempts by shills to dupe us into believing that facts can have alternative meanings. This is an absurd assertion and a repudiation of the basic tenets upon which Western Civilization has flourished. Truth may be difficult to ascertain, but that does not mean truth can manifest itself in multiple guises from a single set of facts.
Truth and ideology are in opposition only when ideology tries to usurp truth. Ideology, by definition, is not truth. Ideology is aspirational. It defines how we would like the world around us to be. Ideology is our repository for how we wish to organize society to improve our relationship with our world and the people with whom we share it. Truth describes the world around us as it is, or as it has been. Truth is determined by careful examination of facts. Truth is revealed when multiple observers examine the same set of facts and reach the same conclusion. Beware of anyone who claims to know the truth, but refuses to hold up their observations and examination of the facts to the scrutiny of others.
I readily concede that the search for truth has one major deficiency: human beings. What is often asserted as fact is merely the result of tricks of persuasion and false syllogisms. Truth is different. It is rooted in the shared knowledge and experience of humankind. Long ago, our forebears created mechanisms to discern the differences between truth and ideology. They knew that human beings were the weak link in the chain to truth, but they developed the best tools currently available to us to arrive at the truth.
Socratic Method. Trial by Jury. Universities. Scientific Method. Checks and Balances. The Fourth Estate. Peer Review. All of the proceeding tools are mechanisms Western Civilization has invented to arrive at a shared meaning and identification of the truth. All of these methods have at some point been employed to defend individuals and societies from the tyranny of ideology and the oppression of ideologues. Throughout history extremists have tried to equate ideology with truth, or advance their ideology by obfuscating truth. Evil leaders have tried to demonstrate the inferiority of different races. Truth prevailed. Misguided clergy attested that disease of the body and mind was caused by demonic possession. Truth prevailed. The earth was considered a flat disc around which the Sun and cosmos revolved. Truth prevailed. Monarchs were considered divine beings among us. Truth, again, prevailed. Truth is under threat, again, in many facets of society. Truth is receiving stiff competition from ideologues who are trying to advance ideology and self-interest with distortion of facts. But, as President John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Truth, will ultimately prevail in this regard, too.
Truth and ideology are harmonious when we understand the boundaries and purpose of each. But, we must be careful to never confuse the two. When an ideologue purports to have a better or different understanding of truth than society has demonstrated through Socratic Method, trial by jury, university research, scientific method, investigative journalism, government checks and balances, and peer reviewed analysis of facts, then it is time to sound the alarm and be vigilant of our rights, liberties, and well-being. Ideology that requires a revision of the truth is not designed to advance the human condition for us all. It is directed to improving the lives of its adherents; who will sacrifice truth to advance their self-interested ideology regardless of harm to others. I am confident that my son will learn that Truth is the better path. I hope that humankind will, too.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey Scott Szorik
Republican versus Democrat. Liberal versus Conservative. Rich versus Poor. Old versus Young. Black versus White. Men versus Women. Straight versus Gay. Us versus Them. Muslim versus Christian. Science versus Humanities. Educated versus Uneducated. Rural versus Urban. Pro-life versus Pro-Choice. These are the battles that are being waged each day among friends, families, and neighbors. But, does anyone else see a problem with these dichotomies? Where did they come from and why are we taking sides? We participate in these contests because we are being manipulated. These are all examples of manufactured conflicts – the fruits of manipulation by people who benefit from reducing complex social interactions to simple contests.
Try an easy thought experiment. Take each of the contests above, and imagine a winner-takes-all result for each conflict. A nation of Republicans, only. Or, a country composed entirely of liberals. How about one where everyone lives in cities; and farms and forests are tended by robots. Schools where technical classes are the only subjects offered -- after one side banned all courses in arts and literature because they were deemed to have no economic value. Think of a world where everyone is white. Or, only black. Or only brown – or only yellow -- or only red. A world where the young see no reason to keep the old around. Or perhaps a world where medical technology can extend life indefinitely so that adults determine it is longer necessary to have more children. Do you envision a Utopian society? I don’t. I see a bizarre and horrifying version of the Middle Ages. I see a lack of personal freedom and liberty. I see bland. I see a soul sapping shade of gray covering every surface. I hear dull conversations devoid of passion, caring, or originality. I hear the same music every day. I taste the same flavorless oatmeal for breakfast each morning and the same kale and spinach smoothie for dessert each night. I definitely do not see the infinite variety, flavor, beauty, and chaos intended by our Creator. I see Life’s rich tapestry unwoven with each victory of one intolerant side over the other.
So, perhaps we should all embrace bipartisanship? Surrender each contest. Embrace the middle ground. Give everybody a participation trophy just for showing up. Assign an uninformed opinion just as much weight as the opinion of someone who has dedicated a lifetime to master a subject. Everyone is equal in all respects, and distinguished in none. No, thank you. That is just another path to the same bland, colorless world we would inherit if we engage in the reductionist, zero-sum game of “us versus them”. We need another answer to the problem of governing ourselves with civility. Because neither a winner-takes-all cage match nor a bipartisan hugfest yields an acceptable result.
Although it is boring and hackneyed to point out that extreme partisanship is out-of-control in this country, we must not stop debating the point. It threatens to cause real, and possibly permanent, damage to our democratic republic. But, there is a solution. One that can propel us from the current debates to actual solutions. Did you ever see a video of how world famous firefighter Red Adair put out a raging oil well fire? It’s incredible. He came up with an innovative solution to the problem of taming out-of-control fires. He did so by precisely setting off an explosion that created a shockwave to move both the fire and atmospheric oxygen away from the wellhead. He fought fire with . . . fire. There is a parallel solution for our out-of-control and dangerous political environment. It is a paradoxical answer to fixing the problems associated with extreme partisanship. The answer is more partisanship. But, partisanship of a different kind. Fight fire with fire.
Each of us needs to far more partisan, but, not in the way politicians or their parties will like. We shouldn’t declare our undying allegiance or loyalty to a political party, or a political ideology, or a particular politician. Our allegiance should be to the values enshrined in the Constitution. We must choose the issues that matter to each of us and support them with fervor. Take action and determine your own political priorities and preferences. Then convince others to take up your cause. If a particular issue is a lower priority to you, let your fellow citizens who are passionate about the issue suggest and implement a solution. Don’t resist a solution simply because of who first suggested it or who advocates it. The best ideas and solutions for America should prevail. Likewise, the politicians who support the best ideas and solutions should receive our support regardless of which party they are affiliated. The ones who fail to embrace the best ideas and solutions, or obstruct progress toward implementing them, must be resisted loudly and relentlessly. Issue partisanship – the kind that supports the best solutions regardless of their source – is the answer for the misguided and manipulative excesses of party partisanship.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey Scott Szorik
America has a secret. Our secret is that a majority of us are sensible. Very sensible. The Sensible Majority has taken notice of the failure of party-first politics and is ready to take action. We know that the time has come for serious people to engage in solving serious problems.
What does the Sensible Majority look like? It looks like you and it looks like me. You are reading this article -- and looking for solutions to the incivility and distrust that divides our nation -- so you are clearly a member of it. The Sensible Majority consists of people who have more important, more meaningful, or more enjoyable things to do with their lives than to participate in the contest of political insults. The Sensible Majority is made up of citizens who are smart enough and experienced enough to know that difficult problems can only be solved through cooperative effort by thoughtful people of diverse beliefs and backgrounds.
Politics has always been rough stuff. Any student of history knows that there was no “golden age” of American democracy when all of our politicians behaved with decorum toward one another all of the time. Politicians have been lying to voters as long as there have been elections. So, the Sensible Majority is not expecting politicians to hold hands or suddenly become enamored of the truth. What we expect and require is that our representatives be effective. Big societal and political change happens when expectations and results are not aligned. Our government has not kept pace up with our expectations; so bigger changes are yet to come.
The presidential primaries and the general election of November 2016 brought a big change in who could win the highest office and how one campaigns to win it. The campaign and election laid waste to long held beliefs of pundits and party leaders about how political success is achieved. So, this must be the big change the Sensible Majority wanted to see? Not likely. The election was merely what the financial markets refer to as a “dead cat bounce”. What that means, is that we haven’t reached the bottom yet. Our view of government is going to get worse. It is already clear just two months after the election, that there will not be much effort to build ad hoc issue coalitions across party lines.
The Sensible Majority will not be satisfied until our political leaders first agree on a set of American priorities. Not Republican or Democrat priorities. Not conservative or progressive priorities. American priorities. Then we can focus our efforts on reaching and implementing workable solutions to these priorities that the Sensible Majority can support. It’s been done before. When the majority is focused, we solve big problems.
What issues are a big enough and important enough to command the attention of the Sensible Majority and form the basis of a consensus American issue agenda? Just what you would expect: high quality jobs, national security, affordable healthcare and education, civil rights, wealth disparity, etc . . . The problem is not identifying the important issues. The problem has been who has set the agenda and picked the priorities among those issues. It has not been the Sensible Majority. It has been highly focused special interests who have taken advantage of the difficulty of engaging the Sensible Majority and solving the big problems. That is going to change. The Sensible Majority has taken notice.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey Scott Szorik
When we were kids, food would magically appear when we were hungry. Up until college or when we first moved out of the house, an endless supply of clean laundry was available each time we wanted a change of clothes or a fresh towel. The price of such largesse was that we were subject to the authoritarian rule of parents and their choices regarding all manner of decisions about how we used [their] resources and how we behaved. With adulthood, we gained freedom. With adulthood, we also encountered the responsibility that comes with freedom.
Democracy works in much the same way. With the privilege of freedom, the consequences of our actions – or inaction – become our responsibility. We are personally responsible through our choices and our deeds for how we are governed. Government is not going to provide us what we want or need out of some paternalistic sense of moral obligation. Government responds to influence. The greater our influence, the greater government’s response to us.
At its heart, personal democracy is about increasing our individual influence on the world around us. It is about identifying our priorities and preferences and communicating them to our neighbors and to our political representatives. It is about making things happen. Because people who speak up are heard. Personal democracy sits at the intersection of old fashioned citizenship and the new possibilities of civic technology. Its potential is only limited by our willingness to accept our responsibility to engage in the process. Technology allows us to efficiently obtain information about commonplace and complex issues. Technology allows us to participate with fellow citizens in drafting laws. Technology allows us to follow government activities in real time. Most important, technology allows us to easily identify our political priorities and preferences and communicate them to our political representatives.
By now you have probably realized that the promises of the last election cycle are being abandoned, explained away, or otherwise restated in ways that bear little resemblance to how they were first communicated. The reason this happens is because influence has shifted. As voters, we have primary influence over the outcome of elections. However, once the election is over, influence returns to special interests and professionals who know that policy is more important than politicians. Essentially, the governed lack influence in government. Until we collectively turn our attention to the issues, and away from the political personalities, we are likely to be disappointed with our government. As voters, we can be manipulated with easy promises. As citizens who participate continually in the political process, we are not easily manipulated. Because difficult choices often require putting country or community above political party affiliations.
We aren’t children any more. We work to put food on our table and dirty laundry is our problem. Whether our democracy works or not is our responsibility, too. We must demand the attention of our lawmakers on issues that are the highest priority to us. We must do this all of the time and not just during election cycles. Challenge yourself to become educated about one political issue per day – all sides of the issue – and then communicate your preference and where the issue stands among your priorities. As more of us engage in this practice we will see our influence restored. Democracy is not a spectator sport. Democracy is most effective when it is personal.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Jeffrey Scott Szorik
“Everybody in this room needs to pull their head out of their a**es. We really live in a world where everybody thinks that ideology is linear, and that, ‘if you answer these 10 questions correctly, that makes you a conservative.’ But not every conservative is pro-life. Not every conservative is anti-gay marriage. Not every conservative puts 100 percent emphasis on this or that . . . Donald Trump is post-ideological. His movement transcends ideology . . . It’s the reason so many Trump supporters and so many [Bernie] Sanders supporters agreed on so many things.” These observations were made by Tony Fabrizio, political pollster for the Trump Campaign, at an election forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School. So, is Fabrizio right? Are we living in a post-ideological world? I certainly hope so.
Let’s be clear, my interest in a post-ideological political world has nothing to do with Trump, Sanders, Clinton, or any other candidate for political office. My interest is much more pragmatic. I want government to work. I want it to address the large backlog of essential issues waiting for solutions. Ideology is a poor problem solver. Ideology works well to inform choices on monumental issues that mobilize a people and require them to decide – at their core -- who they are going to be: anti-slavery, fighting fascism in WWII, battling communism in the Cold War, civil rights, or stopping terrorism are the kind of issues that have ideological power. Ideology starts to unwind as a useful touchstone when you try to apply it to granular decisions. Ideology is not very useful when you try to determine whether your foreign policy should back an oppressive dictator in power or support the oppressive revolutionary coup trying to seize power from the dictator. Ideology is also a poor guide when trying to decide whether to provide more services for children or more services for seniors when deficits and debt levels are growing and there are inadequate resources for both.
The essential point Fabrizio’s makes is that “we live in a world where everybody thinks ideology is linear”. Political strategists, campaigns, and lobbyist have counted on our linear thinking because it effectively disenfranchises the vast majority of us. In a system that emphasizes a linear ideological paradigm, two opposing ideologies always concede the power to make decisions to a small group who will pick and choose between which party to support. It is much easier to manipulate this system because you only need to mobilize a small group of voters to gain office. In a stalemated tug-of-war, it only takes one more person to break the stalemate and win the contest. That is why so much effort goes into trying persuade a swing voter to join a particular side of the political tug-of-war. That needs to change if we are to restore trust in government and effectively govern ourselves.
There is reason for optimism. What looks to be a difficult problem really has a remarkably simple solution. The answer to gridlock and ineffective government caused by special interests manipulating the pervasive linear political paradigm is to create a new, non-linear paradigm. Replace the line with a sphere. Politics may be a tug-of-war, but good government is 3d chess.
The bigger challenge is implementing the solution. At a time when only one-in-three people vote in midterm elections and only one-in-five vote in local elections, most of us have already abdicated one of our most essential rights as citizens. Another essential right we are abdicating in ever greater numbers, is our right to express our priorities and preferences to our political representatives. To install and popularize a non-linear solution will take time. It will require some effort from all of us. That is the price of freedom and effective government. After all, democracy is not a spectator sport.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Jeffrey Scott Szorik
Yesterday, I showed my new Votesphere application to an educator at my son’s school. He liked it and joked, “just in time for the 2020 elections. Or, maybe the 2018s”. What immediately struck me about his observation is that it is widely shared by the vast majority of Americans. We participate – well, about 50% of the electorate participates -- in presidential or mid-term elections. But, is this really the end of our influence and the full extent of our effort to improve how our democracy functions?
Elections are our republic’s best tool for selecting our political representatives, but they are poorly suited for choosing or directing policy between elections. Elections are theatre. They are competition. An exchange of barbs or insults is more interesting to watch than a debate of the finer points of corporate tax inversions. Evaluating a candidate’s physical appearance and demeanor is apparently more engaging to voters than whether they support policies to lift children from poverty. In such an environment it is easy to become cynical about politics.
Our cynicism as participants is not limited to voting. It prevents men and women of talent and character from coming forward to serve as political representatives. Who wants to wallow in the muck of an election campaign? Who relishes the thought of exposing their friends and family to the vitriol of the political arena.? So, we have a political process that not only discourages voters, but also the best among us from stepping forward to represent us.
So, what’s the solution to these insoluble problems? The solution is simple. It is the same solution that has been recommended since the formation of our democracy when Thomas Jefferson stated that, “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." We need to educate ourselves about important issues at every level of government. Educated opinions matter. Reactions to a candidate’s latest Twitter tirade do not. We need to communicate frequently and effectively with our political representatives regarding policy matters before and after they take office. We need to become knowledgeable opinion leaders and advocates in our communities regarding issues important to us and our neighbors. If each of us tries to learn more about an important issue each day – or as little as once each week – and communicate our priorities and preferences regarding those issues to our political representatives, then we will create a more perfect union. Democracy is not a spectator sport.
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey Scott Szorik
My name is Jeffrey Szorik. I am an average citizen with a lifelong interest in legislative politics. Like you, I would prefer our political representatives focus on the priorities & preferences of the majority of the electorate they are entrusted to represent. Restoring confidence in our political system depends on it. Join me, as together we explore how to restore 'government by the people and for the people.'