US politics not keeping up with rapid change

Books about 2016 presidential candidates are seen during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), on March 3, 2016.
Books about 2016 presidential candidates are seen during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), on March 3, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

When the United States military trains fighter pilots, it uses a concept called the Ooda loop. It stands for observe, orient, decide, act.

The idea is that if your ability to observe, orient, decide and act in a dogfight at 30,000 feet is faster than the other pilot's, you will shoot his plane out of the sky. If the other pilot's Ooda loop is faster, he will shoot you out of the sky.

For a while now, it has been obvious that the American Ooda loop is broken - and it could not be happening at a worse time. Our Ooda loop is busted right when the three largest forces on the planet - technology, globalisation and climate change - are in simultaneous non-linear acceleration.

Climate change is intensifying. Technology is making everything faster and amplifying every voice. And globalisation is making the world more interdependent than ever, so we are impacted by others more than ever.

These accelerations are raising all the requirements for the American dream - they are raising the skill level and lifelong learning requirements for every good job; they are raising the bar on governance, the speed at which governments need to make decisions, and the need for hybrid solutions that produce both stronger safety nets and more entrepreneurship to spawn more good jobs. They are also raising the bar on leadership, requiring leaders who can navigate this complexity and foster a resilient country.

My own view is that these three accelerations have begun blowing up weak states - see parts of the Middle East and Africa - and they are just beginning to blow up the politics of strong states.

You can see it in America, Britain and Europe. The challenges posed by these accelerations, and what will be required to produce resilient citizens and communities, are forcing a politics that is much more of a hybrid of left and right. It is the kind of politics you already see practised in successful communities and towns in America - places such as Minneapolis; Austin, Texas; Louisville, Kentucky; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Portland, Oregon - where coalitions made up of the business community, educators and local government come together to forge hybrid solutions to improve their competitiveness and resilience.

Unfortunately, we cannot get there at the national level since one of our two major parties has gone nuts and we have designed paralysis into our politics.

The Republican Party fell into the grip of a coalition of far-right media and money people who have created a closed loop of incentives for bad behaviour and never getting to hybrid: Deny climate change. Spurn immigration reform. Shut down the Congress. Block Obamacare (even though it was based on an idea first implemented by a Republican governor). Do so, and you get rewarded by Fox TV and the GOP cash machine. Stray from those principles, and you get purged.

That purging eventually produced a collection of Republican presidential candidates who, when they gathered on stage for their first debate, resembled nothing more than the Star Wars bar scene at the Mos Eisley Cantina on the remote planet of Tatooine - that assortment of alien species, each more bizarre than the next, from a "galaxy far, far away".

At the same time, as political scientist Gidi Grinstein points out, at the national level, because of the way congressional districts have been gerrymandered by both parties to produce either more liberal Democrats or more conservative Republicans, we have shifted to a system that nationally incentivises polarisation and prevents hybrid solutions. America, argues Mr Grinstein, is making itself "structurally polarised at the national level and therefore collectively stupid".

We have major issues that Congress needs to resolve via politics, and the failure to do so will really hurt us: How do we balance privacy and security? How do we expand free trade and cushion our workers hurt from the effects? How do we make the fixes in Obamacare to make it more sustainable? These will all require hybrid compromises, not dogmatism.

The guy who actually understands this is President Barack Obama. He has never been as strong on entrepreneurship as I would like, but he has also never been the radical lefty the GOP invented. His instinct has been to go hybrid - to combine support for free trade and immigration, to implement a Common Core to upgrade education, to provide healthcare so workers can be more mobile, to fund more Pell grants so more students can afford college, to make investments in clean tech, to make changes in the tax code to narrow income gaps - all to make the country more resilient. We could have done so much more with his presidency.

What it is fascinating about Mr Donald Trump is that he is blowing up the Republican Party by offering a totally new hybrid politics. In that regard he is a pioneer - socially liberal in some ways, isolationist in others. He is almost Democratic in his approach to Social Security, yet he is anti-immigrant, bigoted and fear-mongering in other ways. And he is positively irresponsible in his budget proposals. His hybrid is an incoherent mess, more designed to appeal to the GOP base than to govern. But if Mr Trump uses it to explode this Republican Party and to open the way for a new, mature, hybrid centre-right version, he will have done the Lord's work.

But please, Lord, keep him away from the White House.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2016, with the headline 'US politics not keeping up with rapid change'. Print Edition | Subscribe