A New Vision for a New Century
March 22nd, 2012
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote, “Covering this upcoming election is like covering a competition between two Soviet refrigerator companies, cold-war relics offering products that never change.” I believe this adequately articulates many Americans’ frustration with our current political scene.
It seems that all our political leaders do is consistently regurgitate the ideological issues and ideas that motivate their base. Conservatives can’t help but continue to propose less government, less taxes, and less debt. Progressives campaign for more social justice and economic fairness. Nothing changes. It’s the same ideas both parties have been offering for decades.
While the parties haven’t changed, the world has. The challenges we face in the 21st century are radically different than when the parties created their party orthodoxies and ideologies. Progressivism was created during the Industrial Revolution when America transformed from a nation of farmers to a nation of industrialists. Conservatism was reinvented during the 1950s in reaction to the overreach of progressivism. Neither of which have anything to do with today’s economy and geopolitics.
In this new century of globalization, interdependent economies, asymmetrical warfare, a shifting geopolitical hierarchy, geopolitics based on economic power, societal change, post Great Recession realities, legitimate alternatives to the Washington Consensus of free trade, free markets, and democracy, the rise of innovation economies, the increasing importance of education, infrastructure, and research, competition for energy supplies, renewable energy, as well as the need for effective, efficient, reliable, transparent, citizen-oriented, smart government both parties’ visions are intellectually bankrupt. They are not relevant to today’s world.
We need a new vision for this new century. It has to be a vision that acknowledges the realities of this new world while at the same time recognizes the political dysfunction of our democracy and tries to minimize it – a vision that could build a consensus and coalition from both parties. And this new vision must inform and motivate voters to take action, because vision without action is merely a dream. Vision with action can change the world.
The intellectual framework of this vision rests on the idea that economic power is overtaking military power as the basis for international relations. As James Baker explains, “You cannot be powerful diplomatically, militarily, or politically unless you’re powerful economically. The source of America’s strength has always been its economy and our economy is now in the tank.”
If America’s economic power wanes so too will our security and standard of living. Rebuilding America’s economy should be our top priority so we need a smart, long term plan to increase America’s competiveness. We cannot allow government to get in the way, but we also cannot completely leave it to the free market which demands returns in seconds on Wall Street instead of long term stability on Main Street.
We must consistently remind Americans that America’s global competitiveness is directly tied to their competitiveness. If they can’t compete with workers in China or India then America can’t compete. Therefore, America’s competitiveness is directly tied to “kitchen table” issues. If Americans cannot get a good education, find a job, pay their bills, stay healthy, and contribute to society, then America will not succeed in the 21st century. America’s success, like any free market democracy, is dependent on the success of its middle class. So our ultimate goal will be to expand, secure, and improve America’s middle class.
The ladder to the middle class is built on education. In the 21st century a higher education is the surest route to the middle class. The unemployment rate for Americans with a college degree is about half the national average and their incomes are twice as high as those who do not have a high school diploma. Education is the key to Americans’ success and America’s competitiveness in the 21st century.
What’s the role for government in this new environment? Government will have an essential role in creating an environment in which everyone has an opportunity to live their potential, pursue happiness and climb to the middle class. This is not just about equality, it’s about math. If every American does not have the opportunity to succeed then America will not be able to compete with giants like India and China. We need to create an atmosphere for success. Only smart government can do that.
Smart government is fiscally responsible, performance based, consumer oriented, and it shows that it’s making a difference in real people’s lives. There is no other way to improve government credibility and voters trust in it if we do not make them realize how it improves their lives. Some people call it customer service government. We need to treat it like a business. Cut where we can and invest where we need. Government needs to invest in its people and help create an environment in which they can achieve the American dream.
But in order to make our elected leaders be public servants rather than party servants we need a new open-minded, business-like approach to politics and governing that is non-partisan and non-ideological. And that approach is pragmatism. Pragmatism is about choosing policies across the ideological spectrum no matter which party supports them or which special interests opposes them in order to create a non-ideological – partisan ideological agendas that try to engineer society, whether it is a progressive utopia or a conservative dream, should have no place in our government - activist government whose main purpose is to help expand, secure, and improve America’s middle class to increase America’s global competitiveness and thus Americans’ prosperity and protection.
Economist Michael Spence argues, “The challenge for the U.S. economy will be to find a place in the rapidly evolving global economy that retains it dynamism and openness while providing all Americans with rewarding employment opportunities and a reasonable degree of equity. This is not a problem to which there are easy answers. As the issue becomes more pressing, ideology and orthodoxy must be set aside, and creativity, flexibility, and pragmatism must be encouraged. The United States will not be able to deduce its way toward the solutions; it will have to experiment its way forward.”
Pragmatism is what America needs. As Patricia Cohen at The New York Times writes, “It’s a uniquely American system of thought. Pragmatism maintains that people are constantly devising and updating ideas to navigate the world in which they live; it embraces open-minded experimentation and continuing debate.” According to Harvard Historian James T. Kloppenberg, "It is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers.” Because “the people filled with doubt are wiser than the people who are certain about everything.”
Because our democracy is dominated by partisan ideologues, pragmatism will only occur if a moderate movement is ignited. In a time of political dysfunction in which hyper-partisanship is destroying our democracy, moderation and innovative ideas would be a refreshing answer to most Americans.
But a moderate movement will only be ignited when moderates make their voices heard. How can they be motivated to become more politically active? By treating government as a business, talking in business terms which they understand, and reiterating how America’s success depends on their success. Most importantly, kitchen table issues must be highlighted. They are now of national importance and no other segment of the electorate cares more about those issues – partisans mostly focus on ideological issues. Jobs and education are the issues most important to moderates.
A moderate movement must not just be ignited, but also united. A coalition needs to be built. What is the one issue that unites Americans and motivates them more than any other? It’s the idea that our democracy is now dominated by special interests. It no longer works for the working man; it only works for those who have enough money and power to influence it.
And once again, no other segment of the electorate cares more about this issue. A pragmatic, moderate candidate who raises the issue of special interests and reminds voters that the political parties are the most powerful of all special interests will motivate moderates to the polls. Revolting against the power of special interests in order to make government once again work for average Americans will unite and ignite a moderate movement.
Taking on the special interests including the political parties, tying kitchen table issues to Americans’ economic success and America’s global competitiveness will motivate moderates to vote, which will help elect moderate public servants who use pragmatism in politics and governing in order to create smart government that focuses on expanding, securing, and improving America’s middle class by building an atmosphere for success for all Americans based on education thus increasing American’s prosperity and America’s power. That’s the guide to success in the 21t century.
As Abraham Lincoln once said, "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."
It is about time we stop regurgitating the same old ideas and ideologies of the 20th century and create a new vision for America in the 21st century. Pragmatism is that vision.
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