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Destiny or Downfall? The Decision Point in American Democracy

The United States seems to be veering dangerously close to Constitutional crisis. Both sides of today’s political divide claim to be standing up for the true intentions of the nation’s founders. So, who’s right?

The answer is: neither, and both. The founders laid out a quite a brilliant and comprehensive plan. But their vision is often misinterpreted and oversimplified at all points along the political spectrum. Many have some of it right. Few truly grasp the broadest original intentions, in all their wisdom and critical relevance for today.

Fortunately, the current climate of political crisis is forcing us to look more closely at that founding vision. And therein lies a precious opportunity. By examining the nation’s “origin story” through a broader lens, we can see that the founding blueprint is rooted in the universal patterns and principles of the natural world. Indeed, the nation’s founders seemed to prescribe the explicit conditions necessary to any living system’s — or society’s — ability to thrive, what I would call its “thrivability.”

If the United States is to find its way out of the current impasse, it is vital that we shift our focus from what divides us to what unites us. In rallying around the universal and unifying principles of life, we may find both the will to collaborate and the means to move into a more generative phase of the American Experiment. In fact, cultivating a collective commitment to fulfill the nation’s destiny may be the only way to avert its downfall.

The Nature of the Experiment

Launched over two centuries ago, the American Experiment has ultimately been an exploration of whether we can reconcile the fundamental paradox inherent within a complex, living society: is it possible to take care of both parts and whole? Can we honor the inalienable rights of individuals, even as we come together within a more perfect union?

The struggle to reconcile this paradox is evident in two competing interpretations of the nation’s founding principles.

  • In one, the US was founded on the fight for independence. The mantra of this view is, effectively, “You’re not the boss of me.”
  • In the other interpretation, the United States was founded on the principle that every person has the inalienable right to liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness and together we are capable of creating an ever more perfect union.

Both interpretations are true. But the second is not only more generative; it’s closer to what the founders had in mind. And it’s this interpretation that has the power to lead us out of the impasse we find ourselves in today.

A Bold Philosophical Innovation

More than simply a means of escaping King George’s oppressive policies, the nation’s founding was a philosophical innovation. As John Adams wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1815:

The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.

At the time, there was little practical evidence to support the founders’ philosophical vision. As David C. Korten, former Harvard Business School professor and author of The Great Turning, explains:

In its time it was a truly audacious idea. When the founders boldly declared that all men are created equal and that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed, the evidence of 5,000 years of rule by hereditary emperors, kings, and feudal lords suggested such an idea might even be contrary to human nature.

Despite its unprecedented nature, this bold experiment was thoroughly grounded in natural, universal laws and principles. Although they wouldn’t have used the same terminology, there is every indication that the founders sought to ensure that the nation enjoyed the right mix of four fertile conditions present in all thriving living organisms: (1) divergent parts coming together to create (2) a sufficiently convergent whole, supported and connected by (3) a consistent yet adaptive relational and governing infrastructure, all animated and guided by (4) the self-organizing spark of life.

Understanding the founders’ vision in this way can help us understand today’s struggles and may help us find a way beyond them. To that end, I offer the following brief exploration of those fertile conditions in the context of the nation’s originating intentions.

1. Divergent Parts: Every living system is made up of expressive individual parts — cells in our bodies, ants in a colony, species in a rain forest, and people in a society — each with unique contributions to make.

With its focus on “liberty, justice and opportunity for all” and the assertion that all people “are created equal,” the founding vision accounted for such diverse expression and contribution. Freedom of speech and religion further support individual divergence.

2. A Convergent Whole: In a living system, divergent parts come together to create a convergent whole, and that newly formed entity demonstrates emergent characteristics and capabilities that weren’t present at the level of the parts. You are more than just a collection of cells. You can think and feel and move, and these are characteristics found at the level not of your individual cells but of your whole body. Similarly, a thriving community or society is more than just a collection of people. Together, they are capable of orchestrating complex projects, enacting a persistent guiding culture, and creating shared identity and meaning.

For the founders, the American Experiment was not simply to support a collection of wildly divergent people. This would have resulted in pure chaos, a condition that does not support thriving at any level. Instead, the experiment was to create from that chaos the order of “a more perfect union” — a union capable of holding and nurturing the divergence of its component parts. This is succinctly expressed in the nation’s motto, e pluribus unum, meaning “out of many, one.”

3. A Governing Infrastructure of Relationship: Within thriving living systems, this combination of diversity within unity is achieved in the space and pattern of interaction. Parts are connected, supported and governed by consistent yet adaptive structures and systems of relationship. Your body has systems to maintain a near-constant temperature and to digest a wide variety of foods. Your immune system fights invading microbes, learning and adapting in the process. Your skeletal structure supports you with consistency yet flexibility. Along the same lines, citizens come together to form vibrant societies with the support of physical infrastructure like roads and utilities, as well as the structures of governance, practices of commerce and community, and commonly held values.

The American founders envisioned the Constitution as the primary guide for supporting and connecting citizens in both divergence and convergence. The document prescribed specific governing structures. And at the same time, it was designed to support evolving interpretations and applications. “Constitutions should consist only of general provisions,” noted Alexander Hamilton. “The reason is that they must necessarily be permanent, and that they cannot calculate for the possible change of things.”

4. The Self-Organizing Spark of Life: In thriving living systems, the entire process of divergence, relationship and convergence is self-organizing, set into motion by life itself. In the dynamic, moment-by-moment interplay of the first three properties, the living system is able to self-organize in order not only to persist but to adapt and ultimately to generate higher, more complex forms of life. Without the spark of life, these outcomes are impossible. With it, the paradox of diversity within unity is reconciled naturally and effortlessly in living systems, generating resilience, innovation and even beauty.

With the right fertile conditions in place — the right levels of divergence and convergence, and the right supportive structure and flow of interactions — our communities and our society are poised similarly to astonish us with their self-directed wisdom, creativity and ease.

And this was precisely the vision of the founders. Shortly after becoming president, Jefferson wrote that he envisioned Americans as acting “under the unrestrained and unperverted operation of their own understandings.” In this way, the nation might demonstrate “the degree of freedom and self-government in which a society may venture to leave its individual members.”

But — and this is critically important — the point is not simply that a living system and a thriving society are self-organizing or self-governing. It is that they gain this capability from the spark and spirit of life. Though it remains in many ways a mystery, it is this vital property that integrates parts into whole and that enables effective self-organization.

Though the founders often referred to this integrative spark of life as “God” and to belief in such a guiding force as “religion,” they had in mind everyone’s God and no one’s. It was, as The Declaration of Independence states, “Nature’s God.” It was “the transcendent law of nature,” as James Madison said, the breath of life that animates the vast diversity of plants and animals on Earth and that sets into motion the universal patterns of life.

According to the vision of the founders — and of Jefferson, in particular — this spark or spirit of life is not an external authority ruling over us; it is within us at the same time that it creates and engulfs us. We are divergent but integral parts of it. It is us, and it is all life. Far from fashioning us into subservient pawns, this recognition paints humans as full of free will, fabulously divergent participants in a grand creative endeavor.

Along these lines, my friend Bruce Shuman suggests that we might think of this animating, integrative spark of life as “the spirit of Democracy — that co-creative fusion born of respect and a willingness to listen and learn that opens the creative power of an individual or a group. If the group is big enough and the spirit is contagious,” he says, “this is the energy that drives a renaissance.”

With this understanding, the founders’ intention was that we should seek internal guidance based on recognition of — and reverence for — our integral mutuality. In other words, we should take active counsel from conscience, the voice of our deeper connectedness. And in this way, we should seek to act as wise, compassionate stewards of life — our own lives, the lives of our neighbors and our community, all life. Only with these intentions can we be trusted to self-govern. And only with this guidance can the paradox of diversity within unity be reconciled peacefully and generatively.

If we deny the fundamental role of life — the single point of our mysterious mutuality — then we are left seeing ourselves as isolated from each other and from all living things. The founders well understood the risks in such denial of an integrative universal nature. Jefferson wondered whether “the liberties of a nation [can] be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?” John Adams wrote as president: “We have no government armed with power of contending with human passions unbridled by morality or religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Divergent parts. Convergent Wholeness. Consistent yet flexible governing infrastructure. And the integrative spark of life that guides and animates self-organization. These are the four “design principles” necessary to enable any living organism, ecosystem or society to thrive. The founders accounted for all of them with great prescience and wisdom.

And over the past two and a half centuries, the nation has been in an ongoing, often unsteady process of learning to cultivate them.

Along the way, there have always been some who recognized only part of that organic “recipe” — the divergent parts. In truth, we may all fall into that trap at times, especially when we and ours are the “parts” in question. And therein lies the source of the nation’s recurrent strife and the particular precariousness of today’s situation. As I write in The Age of Thrivability,

When individual cells in our bodies diverge without integration, it is known as cancer. It seems our social context may be approaching just such a diagnosis: many have lost sight of the convergent whole and the web of relationship and pursue divergence for its own sake…. If this divergence is not integrated into the whole, then the living system that is humanity — and ultimately the Earth — is jeopardized. And there is plenty of evidence of our precarious position in this regard.

Just before the 2016 US election, I wrote an article called “Make America Simple Again.” This is what many Trump supporters really want, I asserted. Like the “good old days,” they want things to be simple, namely: white, Christian and male dominated, with steady, predictable jobs. To get to those good old days (if they ever fully existed), we’ll have to reject the uncomfortable, forced constraints of political correctness. After all, you’re either for freedom of speech or against it. We’ll also have to build walls to keep Others out and traditional Christian beliefs in, as well as keeping globalization at bay. It’s every rugged individual for himself, in a return to the core values of our founders and our Constitution. Or so the story goes.

In a January 2017 Psychology Today article, Dr. Rupert W. Acoste offers a similar analysis of what many Trump supporters want:

Right now in America what is motivating the need for social simplicity is rapid social change. Social customs have fallen; social arrangements are changing and keep changing. For some it’s just too much. Some have been looking for a way to slow it all down. Some have wanted to find a way to make America simple again.

I can empathize with those who find this story of a return to simplicity appealing. Change is hard, especially when it’s change you didn’t choose and that leaves you feeling less powerful, less prosperous and less clear about your place in the nation, or even in your own community.

The problem with returning to a simpler time, however, is that it is both unworkable and unwise for a complex, creative, living society. “Simple” didn’t work for everyone. And it didn’t generate the full creativity and possibility we were capable of as a nation. Thriving living systems always move toward increasing creativity, generating new, more flexible structures and systems to integrate the complexity that results.

Or not.

In The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter describes the fall of civilizations — Greeks, Romans, Mayans, the Hittite Empire, the Mycenaean civilization, the Mauryan and Gupta states of India, the Angkor in Cambodia, and the Han and Tang dynasties in China. ”In nearly all such cases,” Tainter warns, “civilizations revert to less complex, less centralised and more simple technological or socio-political forms.” In other words, they enter a Dark Age. Or they disappear altogether. This should not be our aim.

So where do we go from here?

We start by calling forth the vision of a more perfect union, of what Martin Luther King Jr. called Beloved Community, of a thrivable society. Public discourse is focused almost exclusively on our differences at this point. And that leaves us stuck in divergent disagreement. What brings us together? What do we all love about this nation? What do we all hope for? What is the shape of the American Dream today? And what could it be, within the framework of the American Experiment?

In this exploration, we can draw on the moral authority of the founders — and of life’s enduring ability to thrive. The intention of those early visionaries was not to create a simple and static nation, but one that embraces diversity and change as key pathways to ever more generativity and possibility. That’s at the very heart of our collective experiment.

In crafting a compelling shared vision, there are three questions I offer to my organizational clients. Who are we, together? What do we want, meaning: what change do we want to make, for the world and for ourselves? And finally, what has to be true if we are to get what we want? This last question — what has to be true? — is the starting point for redesigning the infrastructure of governance and relationship.

And paradoxically, the simplicity of the living systems patterns may be our most useful guide. As my friend Tolu Ilesanmi shared with me recently:

We are so desperately in need everywhere of leaders who are neither right nor left and incorporate the core ideals of both, who are just human, who see the humanness in everyone including their “enemies” and remind us to just be human and humane towards all, even if they look different. In that respect, I think we need such profound simplicity that allows us to embrace complexity.

To engage in a fruitful collective exploration of our American Experiment and where it might go from here, our elected leaders may make an important contribution, if they are able to rise to the occasion. “The vacuum in political thinking beckons left-liberal-progressives to reimagine the American future,” advises political journalist William Greider. “Right now people are wasting a lot of energy on scaring each other. What would Democrats talk about if they didn’t have Trump?”

Vaclav Havel, then-President of Czechoslovakia, expressed the call to elected representatives even more powerfully:

A politician must become a person again, someone who trusts not only a scientific representation and analysis of the world, but also the world itself…. Soul, individual spirituality, first-hand personal insight into things; the courage to be himself and go the way his conscience points, humility in the face of the mysterious order of Being, confidence in its natural direction and, above all, trust in his own subjectivity as his principal link with the subjectivity of the world — these are the qualities that politicians of the future should cultivate.

These times call once again for a bold — perhaps even audacious — experiment, creating “a revolution in the minds of the people,” as John Adams wrote, and awakening us to the possibility of an ever-more perfect union, even if we fear that our dreams and our destiny may be contrary to human nature.

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