Thursday, September 23, 2010

Kresky: Political Reform and Human Development

(September 23, 2010)

Going into the Congressional midterm elections, the focus is on contests between Democratic and Republican Party candidates who have come out of the partisan primary system. On the Republican side, this has produced a set of candidates in Alaska, Kentucky, Nevada, Florida and Delaware who, more or less, line up with the Tea Party wing of the GOP.

The situation on the DP side is a little more complex. Incumbents, like Chet Edwards in Texas, Michael McMahon in New York and Walt Minnick in Idaho have been permitted by the Party to tack right so as to have a shot at winning in districts where polls show that voters are unhappy with the current Democratic leadership in Washington. Nonetheless, all of the DP candidates are, like it or not, aligned with an administration and a Congress that has used its majority to enact or attempt to enact traditional liberal Democratic Party legislation in the areas of health care, energy, taxation, environmental regulation, financial regulation, etc.

What we are facing is a crisis of development. Human beings do not appear to have the capacity to address and organize themselves to do what needs to be done.

So we have an election in which the American people are being asked to choose between an aggressively promoted right wing agenda – less regulation, smaller government, tax cuts, hawkish foreign policy – and a soft social democratic agenda that is unsure of its popular support. Obama and the Democrats are using the success of the Tea Party elements in the partisan GOP primaries as an argument as to why moderates and independents should vote DP in November.

While the candidates on both sides of the ideological divide are seeking the support of independents, neither group has directly addressed the political reform issues which animate the independent movement – open or nonpartisan primaries, nonpartisan redistricting, nonpartisan administration of elections, and parity between major party and independent and minor party candidates. Despite independents having been a key part of the coalition that elected him, Obama has failed to speak directly to these concerns. Indeed, he began his administration with an appeal to bipartisanship, not nonpartisanship.

The party driven electoral framework and the choices voters have in November do not auger well for significant progress in Washington’s ability to tackle the manifest problems facing our country.  What distinguishes independents is that they see the party based structure of our elections and government as a barrier to accomplishing this. It has created a zero-sum framework in which each party views a legislative accomplishment by the other as a loss to them. We have stalemate or legislative compromises that don’t approach the magnitude of the problems they purport to address. There is every reason to believe that will continue through the next Congress, particularly with the 2012 Presidential election on the horizon.

 Breaking the stranglehold of the parties is a necessary condition for social progress; it does not, however insure it. A policy debate, even without the parties, would still have to address the competing interest groups with a stake in any given outcome. And it is an open question as to whether rational dialogue among even the most intelligent leaders can resolve the differences in a way that moves the country forward. After all, Obama’s appeal to rational policy dialogue and transcending self interest and the partisan divide has not worked. How do you convince a city worker to accept a reduction in his or her salary, health benefits or pension when they are having a difficult time making ends meet as it is? Most of us would agree that it is not right that some people live in poverty. But is it in your or my self-interest to do what is needed to eliminate poverty? It would seem to be in the self-interest of the poor, but many poor individuals opt for the possibility of striking it rich over improving their lot and that of others who are poor. The elimination of poverty requires a reordering of our economic and values framework.

There is no lack of awareness of the problems we face. Most Americans would agree that the country is in worse shape than it has been at any time during their lifetimes. And most could give an accounting of areas where improvement is needed – health care, education, foreign policy, intractable poverty, jobs, and the environment. Rational understanding notwithstanding, our species seems, like the dinosaurs, to be marking time (the human equivalent of munching grass) while the conditions for its continued existence are being destroyed. 

What we are facing is a crisis of development. Human beings do not appear to have the capacity to address and organize themselves to do what needs to be done. The development gap must be addressed and overcome. And that is not the same thing as finding the right answer. In fact the search for the right answer takes you in the wrong direction. Can we develop so that we act to do what is best for our species, to work with others to create that collective performance?  Can this be done?

For the past 35 years I have worked with others in a broad development community led by Stanford trained philosopher turned organizer Fred Newman. In the areas of politics, culture, education and psychology we have sought to reignite development by organizing people to perform ahead of themselves and, in particular, to focus on the development of the collective as the measure of success. Our flagship project is a youth development program called All Stars Project, Inc. It is an alliance of activists, leaders in the financial and professional communities, and poor inner city youth. It has developed a group based performance approach to overcoming the underdevelopment of inner city youth. All Stars recently launched a new initiative, UX. All Stars President, Gabrielle Kurlander wrote:

“UX is a unique development institution, free of cost, forward thinking and open to people of all ages and backgrounds who want to grow and develop. It incorporates the ongoing programs and activities of ASP, including visits to Broadway theaters and other cultural institutions, and numerous workshops, classes and lectures by guest artists, business professionals, community and educational leaders”

UX Dean, Dr. Lenora B. Fulani, the distinguished African American psychologist and independent leader added:

“You see, because UX is a development institution, it isn’t about teaching you what happened in the past or training you in skills to get a job. We can do that but what we’re really interested in is all of us creating something new together. UX has trained development coaches to help you customize specific programs and activities. You can even be trained to be a development coach yourself!

“The ‘X’ in UX stands for the unknown. What exactly our UX is or might become is unknown. It depends on what you – its students, teachers, researchers and donors – create together.”

At UX’s opening day, attended by a diverse group of over 600 New Yorkers, my friends Cathy Stewart, Sarah Lyons and I attended a play reading workshop and did a reading of a scene from Fred Newman’s Left of the Moon. In it Prof. Paul Heller decides to attempt to right an injustice at the request of one of his students, Holiday Hill. Heller acknowledges that the advice of his “rational” wife is probably correct – the effort will fail and it is likely to get him fired. Heller decides to go forward while acknowledging that his decision to do so is mad. Professor Heller’s decision and Cathy, Sarah and my doing the play reading was not a cognitive activity designed to find an answer. It was accepting an invitation, taking a step together to perform, in front of other people, touching, intimacy, creating and being ridiculous. Professor Heller made his decision as the 1960’s was unfolding. We have worked to continue the spirit of the 1960’s and to learn from its failures.

Can we succeed? Even if we accept that there is such a thing as development and there are ways to foster it, is there time for humans to develop before the problems we face – war, poverty, the destruction of the environment – overcome us?  I don’t know.

 Harry Kresky blogs at Legal Briefs

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