Why Our Political Culture Looks Insane

The ugly spectacle of political gridlock reflects a political culture best described as insane. It’s increasingly disconnected from realities of our current world. We’re living in the midst of massive, worldwide transformation towards a highly intertwined and increasingly transparent world. The impact of this transformation is visible in economic shifts, new political movements, changing social norms and personal values, business practices and in individual behavior.

The products of this transformation call for policies and actions that respond to them in pragmatic, positive ways. But here in the U.S., our political culture of both left and right operates as though these new realities either don’t exist or don’t matter; as though the old order still prevails.

Examples of the political insanity include:

  • From the left, President Obama is attacked for not achieving and pushing for a more progressive agenda, despite a range of accomplishments that he’s achieved. But the greater insanity is that he’s operating with the new “requirement” instituted by Republicans: That every piece of legislation must now be able to overcome a filibuster threat, rather than be hammered out through compromise and then subjected to a majority vote.
  •  On the right, the Republican/Tea Party vilifies Obama’s “socialist,” “anti-American” or — in Newt Gingrich’s description — “Kenyan, anti-colonialist” agenda, despite an ironic reality to the contrary: President Obama’s policies and behavior are much closer to those of a moderate Republican of yore; the kind that doesn’t exist anymore.
  • Then there’s the ongoing clown show — Republican presidential hopefuls who argue for returning to policies that — as data show — have created the economic mess we’re now in. Moreover, they try to outdo each other to embrace anti-science, anti-knowledge positions, whether about climate change or evolution; and they vocally embrace anti-human rights positions when those rights concern gays and lesbians.

Contrast the above positions and policy objectives with some of the transformations whose impact is increasingly visible in everyone’s lives. On the surface, they appear disparate; unrelated. But collectively, you can see a theme: A rising change of mentality. That is, a mixture of values, world outlook, emotional attitudes, and conduct. It’s simultaneously a response to and a driver of the rise of interconnection and interdependency. And it has cascading political, economic and social implications.

Here are some of the seemingly unrelated shifts that reflect the reality of today’s world:

  • A movement towards transparency and accountability, fueled by increased exposure, connection and visibility, social media and social networking. This is visible in the Occupy and 99% movements, whose basic aims, polls show, are supported by a majority of the public and it’s awareness of financial disparities documented by the Congressional Budget Office. This trend towards transparency and connection has also contributed to the Arab Spring movements, and now the Russian rebellion.
  •  The growing affirmation by business of the need for sustainable practices, especially around embracing the reality that greater financial success is linked with serving the social good. This was pointed out most recently by billionaire Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin business empire.
  • Increasing activism by individuals and groups to provide service to others in need, and to the common good. It’s increasingly joined by celebrities who use their visibility to call attention to social need through their own actions. For example, Bono, Lady Gaga, 50 Cent and others.
  • Marriage is on the decline and cohabitation is on the rise, reflecting shifting social norms that don’t conform to previous ideas about relationships. New data show that just 51 percent of all adults who are 18 and older are married, placing them on the brink of becoming a minority. “In the 1950s, if you weren’t married, people thought you were mentally ill,” said Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist who studies families, to the Washington Post. “Marriage was mandatory. Now it’s culturally optional.”
  • At the same time, a majority of the public supports gay marriage and full gay equality as a human rights issue.

The new realities are marked by some common themes. For example, sharing and preserving resources for the public good; embracing and valuing innovation; openness to diverse people and rejection of hierarchical rank based on status. These themes contrast with the old order — fear of change; holding onto having and getting for oneself; the desire to believe and go along with actions that are ultimately destructive, as a former GOP operative recently described.

This is, essentially, a clash between those who cling to an old model of an older world — holding on to power that’s shared mostly by the powerful, with some concern given here and there to the poor, the needy and minorities — and those reflecting the shift of mentality towards raising all people towards more egalitarian sharing of resources and opportunity for increasing well-being.

The apparent insanity dominating our political culture reflects, to a great extent, a fear response to the disintegration of the old order and what it exposes. The transformation calls for actions that recognize and deal with them in social and public policies. But our political culture either ignores, denies or fails to understand them.

But the new realities are recognized and addressed by people outside the political culture, writing from different perspectives. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and others have written about the fear of transparency, for example. From an international perspective, Fareed Zakaria has written that economic growth outside the U.S. raises the question of how the U.S. can understand and thrive in this rapidly changing international climate, and what it means to live in a global era. Others, such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman have described the implications of worldwide transformation, as has Umair Haque, writing for the Harvard Business Review blog.

Who within the political arena today shows the awareness, connection with and understanding of the realities of transformation today? Who is articulating ways to address their impact, socially, economically, psychologically and through constructive policy?