"Make no small plans: They have no magic to stir men's blood, and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; Aim high in hope, and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once located will not die."
This week's mind map is about how we as a society have been reduced to small, shortsighted plans. I am breaking from tradition to talk about politics - or at least the structure of current American politics. I believe that our current system is unsustainable and is structurally flawed. That this system leads to such small and shortsighted plans. And that we, as a community or a group of communities reflect this dynamic in our lack of commitment, direction and vision.
Big Brother is Big Business
All businesses have, or should have mission statements. Mission statements help orient the activities of the business by providing an easy-to-grasp micro-vision of what the organization stands for. The two political parties in the US are no different.
As an organization grows, the ability to boil down the organization's ethic into a single sentence or paragraph becomes more and more difficult. As a result, they become more and more vague. For example, here is the Procter & Gamble mission statement:
We will provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world's consumers. As a result,consumers will reward us with leadership sales, profit, and value creation, allowing our people, our shareholders, and the communities in which we live and work to prosper.
Too vague. So the P&G mission page augments the mission statement with thirteen (13) bullet lists of additional values and principles.
So too is it for the two political parties. Their vague missions have become so difficult to define that neither party even attempts to do so. Neither party's web site has any type of mission statement. Both pick a few (about 10) issues to discuss on the sites and both include the party platform (See PR below) to serve as proxies for what they might stand for.
These mission statements / issue statements are carefully crafted on both sites to balance the other party. Never being too far away from what the other party believes, but far enough to bicker about it. This is key to a duopoly. In the US, we take pride in our freely elected governing bodies. These bodies are justified by the concept of choice. We choose to elect certain individuals. So if either party became too powerful or, conversely, died, we would have a political monopoly - which would destroy our choice. So both parties rely heavily on the existence of their loyal opposition.
Given that the first duty of any organism is to survive, the parties have naturally become bound to a dysfunctional but supportive marital relationship. And this fragile ecosystem has worked fairly well for 200 years, but has experienced entropy. As information flows more freely, as people become inured to scandal, as the vision of particular elected officials becomes shorter and shorter, the long term sustainability of this ecosystem is being damaged. As it is damaged, the quality of governance we receive declines.
As these forces work, we see the loyalty of elected officials being governed more and more by the parties themselves. We see increasingly more party-line votes every year, meaning we are seeing less free thinking, compromise, or thoughtful decision making. Given that the parties overall self-concepts are so vague as to not be able to engender even a mission statement, it seems unlikely that all party members would be inclined to vote party line with such frequency. This is a strong indicator that electeds are voting not with their conscience but via fiat.
The system itself sustains this behavior. You can't "get things done" in Washington without playing within the system. Getting things done equates to keeping your job and power - sustaining the system becomes the same as sustaining yourself. Ideology still plays a part. Both sides of the isle have genuine disdain for the other party - like Yankees fans have disdain for Red Sox fans. They have ideological elements to point to. "I can't lose my seat and let them take X away from Y." But, in the end, X and Y are about 1/1,000,000th of the daily activities of the government. The electeds themselves become blinded by their self-created wedge issues.
Protecting the increasingly conceptual America, then becomes protecting them from the other party's vision of proper governance of these 9 or 10 wedge issues important enough to make it to the parties' web sites. And thus, less than a dozen issues end up framing our entire political debate while we all ignore everything else the government should be doing and what we should be doing to support our society.
Talkin' 'bout Public Relations
The age of PR is rapidly dying and PR people are rushing to keep up. Blogging and democratized conversation tools, and both political parties have shown signs of utter chaos in the wake.
When you have a diffused product, you sell it by creating a PR or advertising campaign that surgically selects certain elements that you can focus on. Tide is great at making your clothes cleaner and really difficult to remove from your waste water at the treatment plant. So ads are going to focus on clean clothes and not even hint at toxicity.
The political parties can only sell their product by having a focal point. But politics does not clean your clothes. We are now all predisposed to distrust the personalities involved. So, they cannot really focus too much on their solutions. The 9 or 10 issues are so complicated that no one is going to trust or be satisfied with a specific solution set.
Therefore, we are left with negative campaigning. "My opponent is 27% less trustworthy than I am!"
Then end result of this is disenfranchisement of the intelligent electorate and a stronger push to voting party line. The people, as you move forward, matter less and less. They are automatons that have a (D) or (R) next to them.
If it's assumed that most of the people who still participate at the voting booth are voting for your parenthetical and not for you, you are more likely to "play to your base". Which means your speeches are geared not to what you might think as a thoughtful person, but to what your party has told you is important to say.
You are to stay on-message. The "party-line" as it were. Ape the party platform. A platform designed to carefully differentiate the parties, not to allow thoughtful governance.
Failure to Plan is Planning to Fail
The current system guarantees that long term planning will always suffer for short term gain. Political expediency is now paramount because no one (elected or otherwise) has a level of comfort that would come with a long-term vision.
This directionless movement means that our infrastructure, both social and capital, is planned and maintained via expediency. The 800 pound gorilla in our public systems is that we don't maintain anything. Government money is spent almost entirely on construction projects. This is why we have new highways and decaying bridges.
It is not politically attractive to fix something that's already there. It is politically attractive to build new things that people will admire.
Our elected officials need the steroid injections of highly visible public works projects or, conversely, of killing projects elsewhere and crowing over the reduction of "porkbarrel projects". The game is to improve areas under your party's control and remove projects from the other side. The vision is not to make a better or safer country - even if such rhetoric is used to support projects in your area.
Spending is an obvious outgrowth of this. We are spending at an uncontrollable rate. We have gone from being the world's largest creditor nation to being the largest debtor nation in 4 short years. The fact that we've done this while the party largely considered to be fiscally conservative controls all three branches of government is a strong indication that spending is not a party issue - it's a control issue.
The best way in a two party system to control spending is to have control of the branches split between the parties so their in-fighting will keep the country from over-spending. Note that this isn't saying the planning will be better, it just inhibits them from getting into too much trouble.
Divide and Conquer
No genius is required to realize that when people feel disenfranchised they are less likely to take part in their community. We've managed to help out voter disenfranchisement through bad urban design and a host of other short-term plans, certainly, but the party system can be seen on its own.
When 9 or 10 issues are all that divide us, but they divide us so vehemently, cooperation and community are difficult to achieve. We fall to more and more narrowly defined notions of community and blame the wider issues on people not in our narrowly defined communities.
We begin to believe that community = homogeneity. That groups we belong to must conform to our every mindset. Even though we know this isn't possible or even desirable. But we've been told that these issues are so important and that others who think differently are so evil that we become scared of conversation, debate or human contact.
Community is ultimately divided, confused and diffused by these activities. And the worst of it, this is not a system with a purpose. While it's obvious what's going on, no one feels empowered to stop it. Not the President of United States or the Leaders of the two parties. This situation is a natural outgrowth of a system based on two parties that have no competition. The sad fact is there may be nothing to stop these ill effects from happening.
Except ... more political parties.
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