Evolutionary political change has affected our system in ways that no one could have predicted. Like the proverbial fish in a pot of water that gradually gets hotter, we did not notice that the vitality and life of our democracy has slowly been slipping away. But we do now.
Recent political campaigns in America have evoked reactions across the country that range from anger and frustration to indifference or denial. There seems to be a near-universal feeling that the system is too big, too saturated with money and too disconnected from society for anyone to make a difference, especially when facing an array of powerful and unforgiving forces.
Former Oklahoma Congressman Mickey Edwards, in his most recent book The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans, explains the interconnecting elements of our system that have brought us to this point. In a recent presentation at the Washington offices of Gettysburg College’s Eisenhower Institute, Edwards outlined a set of circumstances that now threaten our democracy. Remedies, he says, include measures to curtail the power that the parties have over the electorate and a series of government reforms that could institutionally promote more bi-partisanship. Perhaps his most interesting recommendation in the context of this election, however, is this one: “Sign No Pledges, Stand Up to Bullies.” In other words, be loyal to the Constitution – not the Party.
It was exactly this point—“Sign no Pledges” — that animated a three-hour get-together I had with Senator Alan Simpson while in Cody, Wyoming this week. Simpson, co-chair with Erskine Bowles on The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, is adamant that the Republic is endangered when elected representatives opt to sign pledges, such as those extracted by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. They constrain lawmakers’ actions, which can be disastrous when national circumstances dramatically change.
The imperatives for reform are clear, thanks to people like Mickey Edwards, Al Simpson and Erskine Bowles. But very few policymakers have shown the courage to adopt them.
That’s why the two-day “Continuous Improvement Conference” I attended in San Francisco a few days later was like a breath of fresh air. Convened by DevonWay, a nuclear software solutions company, utilities and nuclear reactor managers discussed a list of things they have been working on to improve industry performance. Speaker after speaker emphasized the importance of vigilance in observing, managing and advancing processes that align with the nuclear industry’s core mission—supplying electricity in a safe and secure manner.
If management systems are not organized in a way that fosters “cooperation” “information sharing” and “corrective action,” they warned, circumstances can create perverse incentives that will produce conditions rife for problems. Constant emphasis on “self evaluation” is crucial. They also warned of the dangers of “organizational drift” and “widening gaps” between themselves and key stakeholders. No wonder the nuclear energy industry in the US has an extraordinary safety record and a reputation for a progressive safety culture, especially when compared to the energy sector as a whole.
Perhaps our politicians and lawmakers could learn something from the notion of “continuous improvement,” “stakeholder engagement” and “corrective action” in an industry whose positive approaches were borne of mission-driven necessity and a series of public set-backs.
Our politicians and the elections system that has emerged have allowed a widening gap to open between our public servants and the people they are charged with serving. Our political system is no longer doing what it was devised to do.
Congress and the Executive Branch should not be afraid of looking long and hard at the operational processes of the system over which they have stewardship. This is why, in part, the “Simpson-Bowles” commission was convened. If the recommendations of such a body are tossed aside after the election, some kind of reckoning will be sure to follow.
America’s nuclear energy industry has learned its lessons the hard way. Similar soul-searching should be required of every institution and officeholder who depends on the public trust. The people who control the system we use for electing our public officials, as well as the parties and their advocates that stand in the way of compromise, owe the American public much more than they have given us. Renewal undertaken sooner rather than later can still be manageable. But the “water” we are in grows hotter by the day.