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Is Our Political System Collapsing?

In our country, most people are frustrated by the current political and social situation, but I warn the problem is not with what is happening lately––those are symptoms of a bigger problem in the political system. The word “system” implies that we must look at the situation from the system’s perspective, not from the events’. The latter perspective is how the media makes money. It needs to keep us coming back for more while providing no solutions. That is, we are jumping from event to event, provided by media, instead of looking at the root of the problem.

Fortunately, being an expert in systems is not needed to understand what is going on. What is necessary is the comprehension and recognition of the types of archetypes occurring within the system right now. By archetypes, I mean systematic traps or common structures that produce patterns of behavior. Currently, I see three main archetypes: 1) focus on the wrong goals, 2) escalation, and 3) drift low values.

Focus on the wrong goals – This is when various actors try to pull a system state toward various goals. This results in pulling the system further away from the goals of other actors and produces additional resistance, something no one likes but everyone expends considerable effort maintaining, nonetheless. The way out is to bring in all the actors and use the energy formerly expended on resistance to seek mutually satisfactory ways for all goals to be realized (or redefinitions of larger and more important goals that everyone can pull toward together).

The problem is not just focusing on the wrong goals but escalation, when the state of one stock is determined by trying to surpass the state of another stock––and vice versa––reinforcing a feedback loop that carries the system into an arms race, a wealth race, and smear campaign, inexorably escalating loudness and violence. The escalation is exponential and can lead to extremes surprisingly quickly. If nothing is done, the spiral is stopped by someone’s collapse (because exponential growth cannot continue forever). The best way out of this trap is to avoid getting in it; if already caught in an escalating system, one can either refuse to compete (i.e. unilaterally disarm), thereby interrupting the reinforcing loop mentioned above, or negotiate a new system with balancing loops to control the escalation.

In addition to the first two archetypes, the last one is troublesome: drift low values (performance). This is the allowing of performance standards to be influenced by past performance. A negative bias in the perception of past performance prompts a reinforcing feedback loop of eroding goals that sets the system drifting toward low performance. The way out? Keep performance standards absolute. Even better, let standards be enhanced by the best actual performances instead of being discouraged by the worst. Set up a drift toward high performance!

Let me share an example of each archetype to better illustrate each circumstance. At the present time, political parties in our country are not agreeing on the goals important to our country––to all Americans. As a result, all energy is expended in fighting to demonstrate that each party has the right goals. This is leading to an escalation that if not managed could become unstoppable. We have grown used to politicians lying and have tolerated the worst lies imaginable, again and again; these lies range from sexual misconduct to quality of products. In fact, our drift to low performance has reached its lowest point ever, by rationalizing the wrong doings of the present because it was permitted in the past. This is going to cost us as Americans. It takes time for a system as large as our political system to reach the bottom, but it will happen, as proven by Volkswagen, Takata, and countless other companies that drifted to low performance.

The good news is that all systems, including our political system, are resilient and self-organized. It is up to us as citizens to drift toward high values (performance), design a new system with balancing loops to control the escalation and make politicians accountable for deviating from the main goals.