The old model of power is dead. Long live the new one. After a couple of millennia on planet Earth, the old one looks tired and superannuated, that notion of rule whereby power rested in the hands of a single person or some kind of an elite, to be exercised in order to govern the rest. It managed to eke out its remaining years through the twentieth century, but its survival into the twenty-first has brought with it nothing but disaster.
It’s time for a change—and not the skin-deep, rhetorical change that has been much touted by politicians of all stripes and colors in recent months. The change I’m talking about is nothing less than a radical paradigm shift from that old way of thinking/acting/being to a newer one. This is the kind of change, I believe, that is demanded by the great unease and dissatisfaction manifested in the pitiful approval ratings not only of the “decider” currently “in charge” in the Oval Office, but also of our elected representatives and leaders in the Congress of the United States. It was foolish, perhaps, to have hoped for serious change with the election of those slim Democratic majorities a couple of years ago—because the new majorities have been thinking/acting/being not very much differently from the old ones.
The fact of the matter is that it’s not just a few contested issues but the human species that’s in crisis. It’s a different world we have created for ourselves, in the twenty-first century. First, there are now too many of us to live in the old way and maintain neighborly tolerance. Territory is at a premium, and resources are increasingly in contention. We have learned, as a species, about human freedom and human rights; each of us demands our own, and no one wants to sacrifice any part of his or hers. Each of us demands respect for our individuality, and we each resist in our own way every attempt to tell us how to live our lives. Why should I surrender up “my money” for the benefit of others? Let them take responsibility for themselves.
The second factor, as I see it, complicating and adding to the first, is the de facto shift of power from the establishment into the hands of the individual. This shift has been facilitated primarily by the unprecedented advances of technology over the past three decades, including the rapid and ubiquitous availability of information, and the means to broadcast it. Computers, along with a myriad of powerful personal electronic gadgets, mean that we are each able to become our own politician, our own journalist, our own legislator. In the old order, information—and the power that it represented—could be held close, controlled, dispensed at will. Today, that model is no longer operative. We are no longer controllable in the same ways as before.
More than ever in the past, then, we can be governed only by our own consent, and human nature is such as to rebel against any and all restrictions on its absolute freedom. This is why politicians who presume to possess the answers to our problems may no longer be relevant or useful. The old model was managed by paternalism: entrust me with the power and I’ll restore the order that we lack. Father knows best—or, in the context of the current election campaign, Hillary knows best, or John McCain knows best…
This is why I see in Barack Obama the best hope for the future not only of the country but the world. What I hear from him is less that old mantra—Give me the power—and more the understanding that the new model will need to be about empowering others, opening up debate and discussion, and governing through mutual understanding and genuine compassion, bottom-up rather than top-down—which I suppose was the original idea of “democracy.” How far we have come from that!
I realize that I’ll be accused of pie-in-the-sky idealism. My answer is to point to the world-wide, increasingly disastrous symptoms of failure of the old model. The Bush experience, as I see it, has been its logical and long-overdue apotheosis. It’s an old, dreadfully familiar question: If not now, when? Our future as a planet and a species depends on our ability to create a new paradigm, more appropriate to the realities of a twenty-first century world. And I think that Obama has begun to offer a glimpse of what that might look like. It’s multi-faceted and multi-ethnic, not unitary. It embraces rather than separates, is multi-directional rather than linear, and it involves more risk than certainty.
So here’s the question: will we stake everything on a retreat into the proven failures of the past? Or do we have the guts to take that “leap of faith” into an unknowable future?