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Summer 2013

Governance After the End of Power

In his new book, The End of Power, Moises Naim puts his finger squarely on the central issue of our time: how to achieve effective governance after the end of power.

A perfect storm of manifold transformations, from globalization to cultural liberalization and social mobility to the spread of one-person, one-vote democracy to the advent of dis-intermediating and decentralizing information technologies, has undermined our practiced forms of agency—the capacity to effectively act on events through the exertion of either hard or soft power.

Hard power is the capacity to compel behavior by force or monopoly; soft power is the consent to a dominant narrative or worldview. Both, as Naim notes, have decayed.

We are indeed in the “post-hegemonic age,” as Zbigniew Brzezinski has said. But not only in the world balance of power. In culture, politics and the economic life of nations as well, dominance of any kind has become fractured and diffused.

Paradoxically, the long historical march of democratic empowerment that began in the 18th century has ended up disempowering everyone. Arriving at the destination that we so carefully wished for, we’ve discovered that no one is in control, neither the gated nor the gatekeepers. Now what?

The challenge we face today and in the future is very different than the one we faced in the past several centuries as we struggled to free ourselves from ascribed traditions, bounded communities, political tyranny and imperialism. As the Argentine cartoonist Joaquin Salvador Lavado once put it in his comic strip, Mafalda, the question is not how to break things up, but what to do with the pieces.

In order to address how to reconstruct the pieces, a brief analysis of the forces behind the diffusion of power is the first step. Naim traces these forces in greater detail in his book.

Today we are undergoing the great transition from American-led Globalization 1.0 to Globalization 2.0 due to the rise of the rest. The convergence of patterns of growth and the spread of technology is leveling the playing field as the emerging economies join the scene.

But far from a flat world, economic strength engenders political and cultural self-assertion—witness the neo-Ottoman cast of Turkey and the neo-Confucian, nationalist cast of China, the world’s two fastest-growing economies. Convergence thus also entails divergence. Above all, Globalization 2.0 is an interdependence of plural identities.

Just as diversity is growing among cultures and nations, it is growing within societies due to the “demassification” of standardized industrial society into ever more plural niches and identities because of the information revolution—especially social media.

While the participatory power of the social networks enables a new form of “sousveillance” of power (monitoring from below by those with access to the same information as their rulers), it also undercuts the ability of society to form consensus and unity of purpose by “enlarging the public view.” Instead, it tends to diminish it. Paradoxically, the broader the bandwidth, the narrower the scope of information tends to be because netizens find only the information they are looking for among the like-minded peers of their digital tribe. If we continue along this path, the information age risks becoming the age of non-communication.

Part and parcel of the transition under way are political awakenings everywhere, from Tahrir Square to the streets of Istanbul and Sao Paulo to the village lanes of Wukan in China. People everywhere are demanding meaningful participation in the way their lives are governed.

All this presents a double challenge to governance. In order to accommodate diversity and demands for participation, power must be devolved downward toward the grass roots. At the same time, authority must be delegated upward in a legitimate way to create competent institutional capacity to manage the systemic links of interdependence.

Any system that fails to find an institutional response to this double challenge will face a crisis of legitimacy—either because it can’t deliver the goods or because a democratic deficit will undermine effective consent.

The incapacity to find a response so far has caused a crisis in representative democracy across the West and the widespread alienation of the public, as Naim notes, from the established political process.

As Naim points out, quoting Jacob Burckhardt, such a governing vacuum throws up “terrible simplifiers”—demagogic populists of the left or right who further deepen paralysis and polarization without offering any solutions.

Unfortunately, the short-term horizon of voters, especially in a democracy in crisis, tends to favor the simplifiers over those with real solutions that come at a cost and take time to manifest their results. Naim calls this “impatience.”

It can be put another way: We’ve shifted from the ethos of deferred gratification that built our industrial democracies to a consumer democracy in which all feedback signals—the media, market and politics—steer behavior toward immediate gratification. We’ve become a Diet Coke culture. Just as we want sweetness with calories, we want rights without responsibilities, benefits without costs, consumption without savings and a safety net, infrastructure and quality education without taxes.

The latest example of all this is in Italy. In the last election, Mario Monti, the sober centrist who sought to correct Italy’s unsustainable course through the necessary reforms of his technocratic government, received less 10 percent of the vote at the polls. The party of Silvio Berlusconi, the very poster boy of Diet Coke democracy, garnered nearly 30 percent. The activist blogger Beppe Grillo, who quite rightly expresses anger at the corruption of the political class but has no governing program other than comic alienation, got 25 percent of the vote.

If the Italian elections were a contest between short-term populism and long-term sustainability, the long term lost. When democracy misprices the future by overvaluing the short-term quick fix, it invites its own demise.

What’s needed to put the pieces back together after the end of power is a new civic software that once again enables effective governance through legitimate agency.

At the end of his book, Naim calls for “political innovation.” Here is one response: “Devolve, involve and decision-division” is the operating system that meets the challenges Naim describes through combining knowledgeable democracy with accountable meritocracy.

Intelligent governance is about the broadest possible distribution of power joined with the institutional capacity to provide and manage common public goods.

Scale matters in both the effectiveness and legitimacy of governance. “Devolving power and involving citizens” is the antidote to alienation that harkens back to Thomas Jefferson’s vision of human scale “district republics” that would deal with issues in their own realm of life and competence, electing succeeding and narrowing levels of delegates with broader responsibilities and a wider scope of competence up to the pinnacle of national administration.

“Decision-division” means authority delegated to those with experience and expertise (meritocracy), who are tasked with balancing the trade-offs for the common good and the long term in diverse, interdependent societies with a multitude of interests and voices. This idea is similar to “subsidiarity”—only what can’t be done at the local level must be done at the state level; only what can’t be done at the state level at the national level; only what can’t be done at the national level at the global level.

Meritocratic here means not only employing the “expert and experienced” to competently manage the systemic links of our integrated societies. It also means nonpartisan, deliberative practices and institutions insulated from the direct constituency interests of electoral politics—depoliticized islands of good will—that can yield “knowledge-based choices” on tough issues to be presented for the consent of the often inattentive voter.

Deliberative institutions and practices join the meritocratic qualities of governance with citizen participation. Both are necessary in good governance. The “best and brightest” are no less infallible than the rational ignorance of the uniformed voter.

Governance is not a mechanism, but an organism, as Woodrow Wilson said. Intelligent governance is not a model; it is a state of equilibrium.

Every system needs circuit breakers to return to balance when things are out of whack. Financial systems need regulation to avoid exuberant bubbles. Man­dar­inates or autocratic meritocracies like China need more accountability. Consumer democracies with adversarial political systems need strong, deliberative, consensus-building practices and institutions to forge agency out of the diaspora of diffused power.

The idea of combining knowledgeable democracy with accountable meritocracy is not far from the vision of the American Founding Fathers, who designed institutions in their time to ward off both monarch and mob.

In their original design, the directly elected House of Representatives was balanced by a host of institutions for “enlarging the public view”—the Electoral College to select a president, the indirectly elected Senate, the delegated authority of the Supreme Court and, later, an independent central bank technocracy insulated from politics.

Like the other Federalists, James Madison was very clear on the need for “successive filtrations” that would refine, and not just mirror, the raw popular will. In the past two centuries, democratic practice has become unbalanced in favor of the mass democratic mirror over the deliberative filter, leading to the crisis of disempowered institutions Naim addresses.

The diffusion of power so well described by Naim has meant that we have more checks than balances in democracy today. Governance after the end of power means correcting that state of affairs.

Today, institutional imagination that figures out how to “enlarge the public view” and enable agency is more necessary than ever precisely because the population is larger and more interdependent, the horizon of the voter is shorter, and the scope of the connected individual is paradoxically narrower.

Governance is not static, but must respond to the conditions a society faces. It is time to update the genius of America’s Founding Fathers to fit our present circumstances. If we can’t manage to be equal to their spirit, the democracy they so carefully crafted is bound to falter.

Nathan Gardels, editor