What Happened to the Political System?
As I write this it is very hard to juxtapose those two words — political and system. What we are observing today is, at best, a broken system. It is a moribund system. All organization is in tatters. It is failing miserably to perform its historical function in society, providing a basis for governance and generating policies to achieve governance objectives. And if you think I am merely writing about the political system in the United States you haven't been paying attention to the rest of the world. Politics is a mess everywhere.
This is by no means the first time in history when a political decision system has broken down and taken governance with it. We have seen this phenomenon many times throughout history as great civilizations have collapsed when their systems of governing fell to the machinations of a dysfunctional political process. Societies under stresses, such as resource declines, seem to most often respond first with a breakdown in the political system. That drags down the quality of governance since it is the political process that determines who the actors making the decisions are going to be.
The stresses are invariably first felt in the economic system, as previously noted. But that leads to the stresses felt by political leaders to “do something”. And since, as a general rule those leaders really don't know what to do, or even what the real causes of the stresses are, they do what politicians are best at — they point fingers at the usual suspects, make stuff up and hope no one will realize it. The political game then becomes one of convincing the electorate (or the financial powers) that one story is better than another just to get the job. Even in those rare cases where a political leader (in power or trying to get power) might know a bit about the real causes they are loathe to tell that story. No one wants to hear that the end is near and inevitable. Whoever tells that story won't be elected, or if in power, won't stay long. Remember Jimmy Carter?
The political process as it is playing out in the United States this summer and early fall will be something else to watch. I seriously doubt that there are too many observers of what has been going on so far who do not believe that the system is broken badly. The presidential race is an amplified version of a comedy that is playing out all over the world, at all scales of governance districts. Corrupt, stupid, narcissistic, politicians are playing into the hands of corrupt, stupid, narcissistic capitalists everywhere and in every level of governments. These days even those few earnest and generally honest politicians who got into public service because they really believed they could help the system and people living under it find they have to play the game by the rules that have evolved which are mostly about money, power, and getting re-elected (or not getting assassinated in a coup). In the US this season is further made preposterous by the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision which basically gave corporate powers carte blanche in purchasing the best candidates for representing their interests. Judges are supposed to exercise good judgment. The courts and laws are the backbone of civil society. When the back is broken, nothing else will work properly. What happened with the justices who found in favor of this abomination? What they will have done is simply accelerate the collapse of the political process and the collapse of governance.
How did we come to this? Every nation starts out with big hopes to provide a wonderful home for their citizens. Today many nations have citizen participation (some form of democracy) to allow citizen voices to be heard, at least in principle. Even those countries where democracy is not the form of governance, at least leaders are wary of unrest to the point of trying to maintain stability. Usually, as we've been seeing in the Middle East, that leads to strong arm techniques with violent consequences. But the best intentions of governments and leaders have proven ineffectual in producing working governments that produce livable conditions in their countries. What went wrong?
The United States is actually a very good example of how the political process can fail and destroy what might otherwise have been an effective form of governance. I will take examples of this from what is happening in the presidential race and the workings (or failures to work) of the three branches of government.
First, I would like to dissect the whole notion of the polity a bit and separate the mechanisms (subsystem) of governance from the political subsystem. In the US we have a stark version of these two subsystems working at odds with one another. Originally, the term polity meant to reference both the political process and the governance that resulted. Once upon a time that confluence seemed reasonable. Once when there were clearly socialist governments or democratic governments the business of developing principles for governing from the prevailing ideology was seemingly straightforward. The only differences that had to be worked out in the process of choosing leaders and legislators were the ideas about which policies should be set and how to implement them.
Figure 1. A systems diagram of an idealized political system in the context of the whole social, economic, and governance system. If everything worked in balance, this system should be able to produce a functional governance subsystem that monitors the well being of the social system and applies the governance principles generally shared by all members of the society, e.g., constitutions. The political system provides the selection process by which governance will be guided by the balance of political theories from either liberal (exploratory-empathetic) or conservative (exploitative-self-serving) ideological perspectives (see below for explanation). The governance principles are expected to evolve somewhat over time as society evolves (e.g. with changes in technology). This model does not take into account the limits of non-renewable resources or the ecological impacts of waste production. If the society were in a steady-state condition and at or just below carrying capacity, then the system would be in balance (what I have called a sapient society). Governance principles would have to include monitoring the environment (resource and waste flows relative to the Ecos' capacities) and regulating consumption/population to maintain balance. Humans never really developed a sense of need for such governing principles, and in fact strongly believed they could be ignored, which is a big part of why we find ourselves in a predicament today.
The political process is where society, under the influence of political theories and the influence of political advocates, must decide which persons among them will produce the most viable governance body. In democracies this is worked out, as it would seem to be doing in the US, through an election cycle. Our two-party+independent voters get to hash out what they believe is the best political theory (and political platforms) to follow given their understanding of the conditions of their social system and its relation to other systems in the world. Unfortunately their perceptions of those conditions are now largely controlled by the political parties, especially through a media that has become decidedly political (vs. apolitical). In this incredibly complex world where real knowledge is in short supply, almost everything has turned into a political debate using opinions in place of facts. It is understandable how the politics of economics has come under this influence given the deplorable state of economics as a social science. But even something like global warming due to human consumption and climate change resulting therefrom has become politicized in spite of the overwhelming scientific evidence available to inform policy making.
Politics ought to be based on facts interpreted through considered theories (not just ideologies) through deliberation, consultation, dialog, and debate carried out by people of reason in front of a citizenry who can exercise critical thinking (based on a well founded education) and exercise their voices to influence the process. Those we send to govern should be the best and the brightest and able to sort fact from fiction to arrive at good policies.
That is what it ought to be if it were going to work properly. But there is a weak link in this concept and that is human nature. It is especially the case when it comes to the level of sapience had by the average human, let alone that had by those who seek to be governors. Figure 1 represents a mythical system. One most of us want to believe exists, but in fact, is just an idealization that cannot come close given our shortcomings as a species in the realm of developing wisdom. What a pity.
Our politics, instead, arise from two seemingly at-odds needs that arise from our biological mandate that we have not yet evolved the appropriate internal regulations that come from higher sapience. All of life is constantly faced with a trade-off between exploration (e.g. finding some new kind of food) and exploitation (e.g. gobbling up an existing food resource). Exploration entails risks. You might expend a lot of energy trying something new, or looking for something new, and end up with a failed effort. You would have squandered energy (and possibly other resources) as a result. Exploitation looks less risky at first. Consume a known resource; you don't have to waste energy looking for it and you know what the payoff will be.
But animals need to participate in both kinds of activities over time for the simple reason that exploiting resources often leads to depletion effects. If the animal never explored the territory for new resources, then depletion of the known exploitable resource will lead to destruction of the animal. Thus it is incumbent on animals to be somewhat exploratory in order to avoid getting stuck in a resource hole. They need to have options. On the other hand they should not spend too much time and energy exploring where there is still an adequate supply of a resource since this would be a waste of time and energy with no real payback. It is important to recognize that this trade-off dynamic plays out at the individual, population, and species levels of organization. Evolution is a great example of the trade-off between exploration (new mutations and their effect on genotypes) and exploitation (stable phenotypes conserved in stable environments). But, as pointed out, individual organisms have to work with this same dynamic.
Where is the optimum in the exploratory-exploitation spectrum? For many lower species the “sweet spot” is determined evolutionarily, that is for the species through their collective fitness in particular environments. Some creatures, like barnacles, sit themselves down in a suitable location, anchor for life, and spend their entire adult lives staying in the same place just reaching out to grab food as it floats by. Others, like lion prides on the African plains must be able to explore a wide territory for game if they can't exploit the fact that game come to a water hole where they can just wait for food to come by. They have to solve a dynamic problem for how much exploration to do relative to the opportunities for exploitation. Every species has a programmed sweet spot that guides their behaviors. The higher species seem to have a larger interval of acceptable trade-offs around that sweet spot; they can shift the trade-off as circumstances dictate. But they still have a basic sweet spot that is conditioned evolutionarily by their fitness in their niche over the long haul.
In humans we have an extremely interesting variation of this exploratory-exploitive behavior. For most of our history it has served us well, but now I'm not so sure it is contributing to the fitness of the species. As with all animal species humans have an evolved sweet spot with a rather large range of positions that have varying payoffs. But over the last ten to twenty thousand years I think something very profound has been evolving due to the change from hunter-gatherer societies to settled agrarian societies. It appears that humans are evolving not one, but two sweet spots on either side of the original one. In other words, humans are seeming to be bifurcating into those who are more exploratory leaning and those who are more exploitative leaning. Those who are more willing to try new things and those who are happiest just continuing to do what they have been doing all along. Sound familiar?
Interestingly a similar bifurcation seems to be taking place on the altruism/empathy — self-serving/self-referencing spectrum (the personality type that can lead to narcissism). It is now clear that there are people who lean toward communitarianism versus those who lean toward individualism. And, I would hazard a guess that what we are seeing in this separation into two camps or ends of a spectrum, is that these two spectra are actually linked genetically. I'm betting that if we discover genes that influence someone's tendency toward exploration versus exploitation we will find them coupled with those that influence communitarianism versus individualism such that the former in each category are linked as are the latter in each category. All that is necessary is that they be on the same chromosome and so close together as to be relatively immune from cross-over during mieosis! That shouldn't be hard to demonstrate.
OK, so that is a bit speculative but come up with a better theory to explain what we are seeing in the separation between progressive/liberal persuasions and libertarian/conservative ones. The contrast is stark as is the widening chasm that separates these two “types”. We may be looking at two subspecies of humans based on these personality divisions. They even seem to breed selectively (assortative mating), which would accelerate evolution toward speciation!
Republicans and Democrats are becoming less and less able to see each other as fellow humans because they are evolving to be less like each other. They are evolving away from an ability to cooperate (though it seems the Democrats are a little more willing to try to find a cooperative solution, perhaps because they are the more exploratory and communitarianists).
There is, however one common idea that they are seemingly able to agree on that has grown in importance to both mind sets. It too is a result of the biological mandate, but taken to an extreme. It is the notion of profits as the raison d'être for the economy. Growth, just because we all accept that as the good, for its own sake, is universally taken as the only way to live on this world. Industry through capitalism emerged as a commonly held belief that this was the route to human happiness, that greed, which drives capitalists, was good. No matter what your political leanings this one idea trumped all others. The political perspective determined not whether capitalism and profit were the good, but only how they were to best be executed. Exploratory/communitarianism calls for regulation to keep the system from getting out of hand and a fair sharing of the rewards with all. The exploitative/individualists are convinced that it is every man for himself and the invisible hand that Adam Smith wrote about will take care of regulation from within. Neither group disputes the rightness of capitalism as a model for economics. They just differ in terms of how they think it best achieved.
Now, it turns out the one thing they all agree about, growth and capitalism, is the worst thing for both humanity and the Ecos. And what they do not agree about, how to achieve it, amplified by this process of sub-speciation, is leading us down the worst possible path toward destruction. They will fight tooth and nail to prevail.
Because growth and capitalism have now started to diminish well being as resource limits are being approached, the system as a whole is starting to fail. And that motivates each side in the various debates to insist more strongly that their political philosophies are the most appropriate to ‘fix’ things. It never occurs to either side that the problem is in the one thing they both agree on. Talk about irony. The figure below shows a somewhat different (though similar to Figure 1) view of the political system as things have evolved with the dynamics produced by these political theories motivated by greed.
Figure 2. A systems diagram of a general political/governance system evolving under the prevailing beliefs in growth and greed (modern capitalism). Processes are shown outside the social system (purple oval) but are in fact composed from components within that system, namely people. Resources are shown entering that system and wastes (material and heat) exit in balance. The clouds represent ideas and beliefs held by the polity. These are not necessarily informed by science (and most often are not), but rather by experience that has developed over the ages. Ovals are processes. Governance principles are the results of ideas that have been codified in constitutions, governmental institutions, laws, and general mores. The government, represented by the dashed oval, carry out logistical and tactical decision making, setting policies and issuing instructions to the civil society, economy, etc. that makes up the society, however arranged (i.e. representative democracy, confederated states, free enterprise, etc.). Human nature is clearly a subsystem operating within society to produce ideological principles (e.g. conservative approaches to problem solving) and an overarching set of beliefs that can produce negative effects on those ideological frameworks (lightening coming from dark cloud). Capitalism, as now practiced, would seem to be such a harmful effect on both left and right leaning ideologies.
The still believed promises of wealth from capitalism drive both sides of the political spectrum and even those in the independent category. As the whole system fails to deliver on that promise all parties have become shrill in promoting their particular ideological fix and blaming the other side for all that is wrong. But they will not face up to the reality. For example, consider the situation with the financial system, especially the culpability of the bankers and investment brokers in the many clearly fraudulent practices that have taken place since the demise of the Glass-Steagall Act. In spite of the severe damage done to individuals (e.g. wealth disparities and job losses) neither party has the intestinal fortitude to force serious investigations or punishments. Why? Because they are convinced they need the bankers and brokers to keep the economy going, and they foremost believe in “free enterprise”, capitalism, and growth, which right now depends entirely on expanding the money supply through financialization. If you put those guys in jail the entire system comes crashing down — the illusion of prosperity disappears in a puff.
The Show Must Go On
It doesn't matter if the clowns are crying. The show must and will go on. We haven't even gotten to the really interesting acts here in the US. We still have conventions and debates to watch. We still need to be thrilled by the Republican VP selection. We still have to watch the intensifying horse race (who will win the most dollars in campaign contributions?) We still have to watch in apt amazement as candidates attack more viciously their opposition. This is going to get a lot better — if you like blood and gore.
Shakespeare said it best (as usual),
“It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5).
Our political process is in a shambles and has been for a very long time. I assert this is the case at all scales but is most acute, and most felt, at the national levels. There is no global level since there is nothing really close to a global governing body (though the UN and NATO are rough attempts toward that end). Nation states are faltering in increasing numbers. And it is all because the politicians and citizens are failing to recognize a simple fact. We are in contraction not expansion. The old ideas about economy and social justice, and governance simply do not hold under these conditions. And the idiots, as Shakespeare said, are blabbering nonsense at increasing volumes. They are in open combat (e.g. the debt ceiling standoff) and unable to find any way to move forward. Of course that is simply because they have no idea what a way forward looks like. They have no idea what is happening to our world so they simply do what comes naturally and blame the other side for all woes.
I have decided, after more than forty years of participating in the political process, that the system is so badly broken that further participation is futile. My general conclusion is that it really doesn't matter who wins the presidential race. It won't matter what party prevails in either houses of Congress. No matter who the electorate sends up (and I am convinced that will be people bought by corporate interests, certainly not public awareness and understanding) they will be unable to do anything useful. Neither party has a handle on the real crises we face let alone formulas for fixing anything. Besides that, I think the collapse of the whole process is imminent. It may even come with the election cycle in full swing. A major riot at one or both conventions will almost certainly put big nails in the coffins of the two-party system in the US. The new Greek government, in acquiescing to the EU's demands for more austerity may find itself in deep trouble and full blown revolts. Same for Spain. And then what?
From my limited perspective the only thing to do now is sit back and watch the show. It may provide entertainment value, but little else. There will be an election in the US. Someone will take over the White House and some party will dominate one or both houses of Congress. The Supreme Court won't change much but they have already shown themselves to be completely clueless so we should continue to see idiotic decisions in any case that involves economics or politics or social values (the court decision on health care, where Chief Justice Roberts may have accidentally sided with the liberals and calling the insurance mandate a tax still hasn't been figured out, was a fluke). The President will be ineffectual regardless of who sits on the throne. The Congress will continue to do damage to the country and the world regardless of which party prevails. In short I expect things to get noticeably worse after January. Most of that is because we still haven't found the magical neoclassical economics way to substitute for critical materials and cheap high power energy. And without doing so there is only one direction the economy can go. But also, I expect the problems associated with this to be amplified by a political and governance system that simply doesn't work anywhere near what an ideal system would. The one thing you can count on is human nature. Sadly.