Requiem for a Paradigm

For more than a century following the Civil War, America faced a question …… “What’s the fairest way to share the country’s wealth?” Gradually, however, conditions have shifted. We’ve now arrived at a new question …… “What’s the fairest way to spread the country’s pain?” In other words, how will our society address peak oil, environmental degradation, unpayable debts, increased class stratification, debased currency, and a host of other converging limitations?

Both of these quandaries rely on an assessment of available resources. But fairness takes on a different meaning under abundance than under scarcity. This isn’t a minor distinction that can be addressed under the processes currently in place. It requires a reevaluation of our dominant political paradigm.

So, what does the old paradigm look like? And what must replace it?

The outdated framework focuses solely on left and right: liberal and conservative. These two concepts constitute the entire model. They’re the only options presented in the voting booth, and in most public decisions.

The dominance of the model emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, when America’s industrial revolution brought immense levels of wealth out of the ground and into everyday lives. Unfortunately, it doesn’t address the country’s looming limitations.

Left and right do play a central role in every political calculation. But must they play an exclusive role?  Are they the only concepts that really matter? To answer such queries, the framework’s underpinnings must be examined ……

The liberal and conservative ideologies function as dueling responses to a fundamental question: “What should our values be as a nation?” It’s an important question. And the massive amounts of attention conferred upon its answers are often deserved. But it doesn’t constitute the whole story.

A second fundamental question was buried within the constant discussions about values. It asks: “How should power be applied in America?” This query also contains a range of answers bounded by two dueling poles: centralized power versus citizen-based, decentralized power. This duo of terms is of a different nature than the liberal/conservative duality. The two pairs live in entirely different dimensions.

For several generations, our willingness to ignore the power question has led to a problem: centralized power has become the default solution; there’s little discourse with the opposing answer. Therefore, credentialed leaders in corporations, governments, and academics push top- down processes as a matter of course. They do debate whether their policies should skew liberal versus conservative, but the authority of centralism goes unchallenged.

The power question stands on its own as a societal decision, despite our collective unwillingness to debate it. It’s separate from left and right, but often intertwined. Its competing answers hearken back to debates that occurred during the founding of our republic, when resources were more scarce and material wealth was less prominent.

This second question is rising once again in the twenty-first century, however, after spending a long period submerged below the surface of our discourse. Its echoes are now heard in terms that express a backlash against centralist forces, like the deep state, the elites, and the one percent. We also hear the citizen-empowering answer in cries about populism and the working class. It’s also seen in nascent movements pushing for more localized, incremental approaches to society’s problems.

In reality, every potential decision is an interlaced mix of answers to the power and values questions. For example, the Green New Deal combines top-down solutions (power answer: centralized) with a conscientious regard for mother earth (values answer: liberal). Similarly, evangelical support for Donald Trump attempts to protect Yahweh-centered religions (values answer: conservative) by installing a strong supporter at the top of Washington’s bureaucracy (power answer: centralized).

It can be a productive exercise to reduce any conflicts you notice to these two fundamental elements. They’re at the heart of every debate. Some partisans will consider one of the questions to be “more equal.” Others will rank it as “less equal.” Each of us weighs the questions’ importance differently. And we all choose our own combination of answers.

To address America’s growing resource limitations, a new paradigm must be adopted that facilitates a weighing of the two fundamental questions. The political circle (a paradigm outlined in other posts on this blog) addresses this need. Its framework clarifies important distinctions within our conflicts.

The left-right-only paradigm had a good run. But it’s too limited to address the constraints presented by the new century. It provided no path forward for sharing our collective pain.

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