Resisting Demography: Then and Now

Connecting to the Principles, Part 3

In the introduction of a new book, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown,[i] author Paul Taylor notes “Demographic transformations are dramas in slow motion. They unfold incrementally, almost imperceptibly…”

Thanks in part to the connected age, we see changes differently than we did before. We now see that more minorities vote more often, we observe greater acceptance of social change than was possible even 25 years ago, and of course, the widening gap between the very rich and the rest of us is increasingly evident.

One wonders if King George III and the British Parliament of the 1760s – 1770s experienced this same phenomenon of changing demography that our nation’s government is experiencing today. Without the benefits of the connected age, it was far more challenging to process the changes that were occurring. Clearly, George didn’t understand the price he would pay for failing to grasp the shifting demographics of the time.

There are many statistically-based reasons for the demographic impact Taylor describes but in the end it is about change. America has experienced a great deal of change throughout its nearly two-and-a-half century existence. Fortunately, we usually dealt with change sufficiently well to maintain our global reputation as the Land of Opportunity. Even today, we still offer an environment for new opportunities available nowhere else in the world…so far.

Why only “…so far?” Up until the last couple of decades, we had a more resilient political system that could normally, somehow, cope with change and bounce back without long-term, systemic dysfunction (the Civil War was one glaring example). We were able to generally cope because we tended to embrace America as a platform for freedom, security, opportunity and growth (even if we were less than universal in application). Politics, money and personal power were somehow sufficiently mitigated to allow the “public interest” to generally prevail.

We, by design or by a wonderful accident, made sure (at least in theory) that almost anyone who was born here or came here from another land could have the same opportunity to succeed (or to fail). Obviously we sometimes fell short of that mark, but at least we were better at it than other nations. Of course, that was back in the day when competition and compromise could stand as complements instead of opposites!

Here’s a question, though: Has America of the last 20 years or so begun to look like King George III’s England? The American political system and too many of its voting citizens have been clinging to a time that existed before America’s current demographic transformation began; they have been pining for the “good old days” that can no longer exist. So did George.

The strategy to cling to this past can damage our nation. It creates a vast internal conflict between our political leadership that threatens to cleave us the same way America broke away from England…where one side took an intransigent position from which the other side had to no choice but to rebel and go their own way.

It was a different time in the 1770s, of course, and the America of the 21st Century should wake up every morning thankful that our forefathers had the courage and creativity to break away from England and form a “more perfect union.” But the lessons we should learn from England letting America slip through her fingers should help us understand what could happen to a future America if our leaders don’t behave more like our Continental Congress than the Congress of 2014.

Lest we mistakenly think that it was easy to make this change and revolt from England in 1776, we should remember that a same, or even greater, level of disagreement existed between members of the Continental Congress who wanted independence and those who wanted reconciliation. It was not an easy decision, nor was the outcome confirmed until the final vote was cast.

In an earlier blog post, we referred to a recent work by Richard Beeman, Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor,[ii] recounting the years 1774-1776 leading up to the July 2,1776 resolution vote for independence from England. While we haven’t started doing book reviews in FAPITCA, this one would be a good one with which to start.

Even though we all know the outcome, Beeman recounts as a good mystery writer might, how the final vote took place on the heels of great differences existing only a month before. He shows how a group of dedicated, well-meaning elected colonial representatives finally agreed to step forward and build a new nation. In the end, the two sides set aside their differences, came together in the real meaning of congress (e.g., “make decisions”), and decided that American unanimity was more important than any other alternative.

This was perhaps the most important decision America has ever taken, and the two sides figured out how to get the job done. In a meaningful way, Beeman actually describes a model for our own reconciliation between disagreeing parties today – the representatives of 1776 sought to build a nation and we need our representatives to seek to preserve a nation.

The primary inhibitor to change today is our politics and the people we elected to lead us. Rather than look at demographic change and diversity as an opportunity, they choose to see it as a threat. This is just what King George III and the Parliament of England did in the mid-1700s. They clung to the remnants of a world that was changing all around them and chose to defend that way of life rather than exploit the opportunities that diversity and change were bringing to them and indeed all of Europe at that time.

The revolution we face today is one of demographic challenges to the old ways, as Taylor notes. On the surface, we seem to have one party that is at least open to the changes, but still clings to the old ways of lobbying and lust for power and money. Further, its legislative intent is typically viewed with suspicion in terms of whether it is advancing what is good for America or only the party. They are opposed by a party that almost systemically avoids change unless it benefits a core constituency; it too is subject to the same distractions of lust for power and enrichment. In either case, power and money appear to be at the root. While not all change may be good for us, there must be national debate about change, without a power and money agenda, to intelligently discuss rather than reject it out of hand.

If we want better and more effective government at every level, we have to embrace demographic change and turn it into an energy that lets us elect and influence leaders that can see as far as the Continental Congress did.[iii] We must change ourselves and elect leaders that will guide our nation and communities towards a less divisive path that learns from the past while looking towards the future.

Where England and its political system misunderstood the demographics of the late 18th Century, we need to learn and transform our politics to better cope. This transformation, enabled by far greater connectivity than the 18th Century, can lead to a stronger, more diverse nation, with even greater equality of opportunity.

Originally posted by Carl and Chuck Hunt, 3/4/2014

Notes:


[i] PublicAffairs/Perseus Books, Philadelphia, 2014

[ii] Basic Books, New York, 2013

[iii] The authors recognize that not all members of the Continental Congress shared the same vision of the future, particularly given their disagreements. Beeman does a very nice job explaining those differences and exposing the lack of foresight of many of that original Congress. Nonetheless, the representatives possessed enough honor and commitment to the new nation that they converged on the common cause that created our nation and created a means to eventually perpetuate our nation through the next important event: The Constitutional Convention 11 years later.

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