Transpartisan Note #105
by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner
We are reading the book Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley by Adam Fisher and we are bowled over by the scale of innovation and how it empowers individuals, more and more, in the intimate realms of private life and the visible forms of public life.
The social impacts come alive in real examples. An elderly woman recently recalled how mass production of the radio greatly weakened her family as a community. Before radios, the family would gather every evening in the living room and enjoy their time together. When everyone had a radio, everyone went to their own room and listened to the radio. The family get-togethers ended.
Impacts like this are also evident in developing countries. While flying over Cairo’s City of the Dead, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak once pointed at the jungle of television antennas below and said to a friend: ‘There is a symbol of why I cannot begin to control this country as I could before.’
Other major technological innovations have empowered individuals and weakened communities: the telephone, the automobile, the birth control pill, and widespread air travel. While it was widely assumed that technological innovations would slow down, Silicon Valley continues to boom.
Skyrocketing housing costs go along with explaining the fact that San Francisco now has the highest poverty rate in the U.S. People are now commuting to the Valley from cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma and Sioux City, Iowa, living like kings on weekends and like paupers during the week.
Concern about eroding responsibility accompanying increased individual freedom led conservative William F. Buckley to write his book Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country (1990) proposing a government program of national service. Although voluntary, this opposed program nevertheless showed how Buckley, strongly influenced by the freedom-right, worried about the decline of order in our increasingly individuated age.
Every innovation enhances individual autonomy and reduces social interactions. While all such occasions of individual empowerment push people away from tradition, people continue to need associations and relationships as part of living happy lives.
Unfortunately, political institutions that could be decentralized and empower citizens as significant participants, such as schools, are still run like the Medieval Church — highly centralized and dominated by mechanistic, legalistic systems and cultures. Alternative programs start to appear as these throwback institutions begin cracking under the pressure of individuation.
The question here is: why have political candidates avoided appealing to people trying out these alternative decentralized, empowering programs? Why, when such institutions would be powerfully responsive to increasingly individuated people, do politicians avoid them?
One answer is obvious to anyone who sees our politics as a theater, where the only roles for actors are limited to government officials. Spotlighting citizens making democracy work would take the officials away from center stage, where corporate media markets audiences to advertisers who know that conflict “sells”. Empowered citizens promoting change without conflict make poor stories for the evening news.
We believe the transpartisan vision of empowered citizens will start to influence the larger political narratives when political candidates start winning elections by advocating empowerment. That moment might be arriving. We will devote a separate Note to how candidates could actively campaign for such decentralized institutions, focusing especially on schools.
Twenty-first century politicians have a devil of a time fitting exploding individuation into 18th century forms, embedded into 19thcentury industrial institutions fueled by 20th century communications systems. This individuation, supported by increasing individual social powers, disrupts the entire global institutional system.
We think our Transpartisan Matrix, which we write about here, here, and here, added to other common political tools, helps organize and explain the political upheavals brought about by rampant individuation. Attempts to shoe horn contemporary politics into a left/right spectrum obscure the real nature of current politics.
Today, both the left and right — like the rest of the country and, in our view, the world — work overtime to integrate the two great poetical demands of unfolding human life: freedom and order. The current upheavals create enormous opportunities and offer serious dangers.
We think the transpartisan lens can help reveal the opportunities and avoid the pitfalls. People working together, as they currently are locally, create conditions for our next steps forward. Transpartisan explains a bit of what is happening and points a way toward new forms.
All across the country, like new blades of grass, transpartisan innovation begins to be seen as the next wave of American development. The time has come for national political leaders to catch the wave.
Read the first part of this essay: Challenges of Gaining Transpartisan Traction