Why do we need to “Rethink?”
Over the last ten years, beyond my time as a mayor, town manager, student, professor, entrepreneur, consultant, emergency manager, and volunteer EMT, I have had the exceptional fortune to get to speak with tens of thousands of people about theories of change, governance, and our future, including probably many of you who are reading this.
This includes literally thousands of events from formal panels and workshops at giant conference centers, small group meetings in coffeeshops, coworking spaces and bars, conversations at motorcycle stops, campfire discussions under the stars in national parks, 4am debates in the back of an ambulance after running a call, and meetings at the White House.
And whether in New Jersey (North, South, or, yes, Central), New York, California, Boston, Missouri, Kansas, Detroit, Rwanda, Northern Ireland, or Costa Rica or anywhere else, it has been remarkable to meet so many different people who have unique, fascinating, and important ways of looking at our world and the challenges we face.
What has become clear from my work, studies, and interactions with all of these people is this: There is not one policy issue, or one party, or one ideology, or one new app, or one budget, or one election, or one clever meme that stands in the way of systematically better governance outcomes.
It may sometimes seem like those are the only things stopping us from making real change. But the feeling of being constantly “almost there,” with the belief that a different group of people (such as the “other” political party) are the only thing standing in your way is a specific and predictable dynamic of how our current systems are designed. And as we will examine further, these dynamics are not accidental, often prey on some of our various subconscious predispositions, and frequently distract and disincentivize us from doing things that would actually make systemic change.
The true reality is that the systems that are supposed to effectively manage our politics, economics, law, media, culture and so much more, are very broken. There are major design flaws in how these systems were built, and how most of the people who lead them do so. Although these fundamental flaws rarely get attention, they have massive cascading consequences on how nearly everything in our reality and world functions (or doesn’t).
I think we can all see the consequences of poor policy, or mismatched values in our governance around us. But there are looming “meta-consequences.” Such as our inability to simply agree on what is a problem or not a problem in our civic/public spaces. Or the unprecedented erosion of trust by the public in government (and vice versa). Or the extreme accelerating partisanization of almost every aspect of our lives. (Is that a word? It should be) How can all of these things be such a problem? Is there a universal or unified cause to all of these symptoms that we see?
I believe there is: A misunderstanding of our brains and behaviors. Over the prior centuries and millennia we have built, and currently allow leaders to implement, entire systems that run our world in ways we know to be misaligned with the emerging understanding of how various aspects of biological reality actually works, such as how and why we get the ideas, form the preferences, and take the actions that we do. This produces outcomes increasingly out of line with our priorities, values, and needs.
It’s important to remember this: Most of the ideologies that inform or are the basis of our political, economic, legal, and cultural systems were built when people believed, for example, that the earth was flat, that witches would sink in water, and that mental illness could be cured by shouting the demons out of a person. Although fields of scientific inquiry have made some incredible advances in areas such as medicine, technology, and biology, that same level of critique has not been applied to how we govern. In fact, most governing systems have numerous mechanisms built in to specifically discourage critical thinking and the questioning of more fundamental assumptions, leaving these systems to operate in ways that are actually quite primitive.
What sort of assumptions do we make in our politics and governance in 2021 that are equivalent in scope and impact to people who believed the earth was flat?
In the last few decades, we have gained an incredible understanding of “ourselves” due to advancements in scientific and medical fields. These advancements have provided fascinating new insights about how our brains and minds work, why we behave certain ways, or believe in certain things.
But virtually none of this new knowledge has been incorporated into how our governance systems function, or even how most of us lead our own lives. And this fundamental mismatch, that these systems are designed in ways that are not aligned with how we are beginning to understand humans really think and behave, is the deepest root cause of why so many things seem to make so little sense in the world, and why so often we don’t get the outcomes we need in our personal lives, professional lives, or political lives.
Ready to really dive in? Check out Episodes 4 and 5 next!
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Looking for the nonpartisan video series on running for office?
You can find it here. This is an overview for those thinking about running for office or wanting to learn more. Other civic engagement “pathways” will be explored in future episodes, and I will continue to add bonus interviews with really interesting and cool elected officials every couple weeks!