By Donella Meadows
–May 26, 1988–
How can the simple change of one leader make much difference to a huge nation? Here we are, 240 million of us, toiling along, fairly constant in our daily activities and our many beliefs. We produce the goods, pay the taxes, educate the kids, clean up the messes. WE are the nation. WE don’t change. How could the replacement of a president and a few of his friends shift the direction of this enormous ship of state?
Plenty of frustrated activists would say the social direction is in fact unshiftable. They apply all their energy against the national momentum and don’t feel they have much effect. There are even members of the Reagan administration who despair, because after eight years of determined effort the government budget has not decreased, business is still fettered by regulation, abortion is still practiced, children still don’t pray in school.
Yet for all the right-wingers’ frustration at the slow pace of their conservative revolution, others of us are wondering how they changed so much so fast.
Hundreds of billions of dollars have been taken away from what one side calls wasteful domestic spending and another side calls basic social services. They have been transferred to what some call strong defense and others call wasteful militarism. Hundreds of regulations have been revoked in what rightists call getting the government off our backs and leftists call letting big business run rampant. The whole national culture has shifted visibly toward what some call free enterprise and others call soulless materialism.
All that happened when in 1980 we chose a new leader, and a few hundred Washington offices changed hands.
A theory of systems analysis sheds some light on why a leader can — sometimes — change the course of a nation. It says that the most powerful determinant of the behavior of any system, from a sports team to a corporation to a country, is not its particular pieces or players, not its physical structure, not its rules and laws. The primary determinant is its set of goals, what it orients itself around and coordinates its energies for.
Change all the players but keep the goals intact, and there will be only small changes in performance — changes that reflect the relative competence of the players. Change the rules even, but keep the goals, and the system may behave more or less effectively, but it will still go the same direction. Keep the same players, resources, rules, and physical realities, but devote them to achieving different goals, and you will have worked a transformation.
A president has power over players, resources, and rules, but above all he or she has power to articulate goals. If we choose a president with traditional goals, not much changes. If we choose one with no goals at all, or no ability to communicate goals, we feel directionless and lost. Occasionally we choose a president like Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, with a strong vision, an uncanny ability to articulate it, and a willingness to use all possible powers to achieve it. Then the nation lurches off in a new direction — for better or worse.
For eight years the nation’s efforts have been slowly reoriented around Reagan goals. Other goals have been suppressed, ridiculed, ignored. But those other goals are still out here, alive and well, in the hearts of us 240 million. This is a country full of visions. Here are a few of the more familiar ones:
- the fundamentalist vision of a society governed by traditional Christian values,
- the growth vision, in which problems are solved by steady increases in the gross national product,
- the progressive vision of economic justice and truly equal civil rights for all,
- the technocratic vision of space travel, biotech, and fusion energy,
- the green vision of humanity living in harmony with nature,
- the one-world vision of America cooperating peacefully with other nations and earning respect for its wisdom and compassion rather than for its aggressiveness.
Well, here we are about to choose a leader again. In spite of the campaign hype that tries to sell us a stupid jingle or an unfair label or pasted-up image, we know that what we are choosing is above all a set of goals. That’s why so few of us are excited by either candidate Bush or candidate Dukakis, who have so far communicated no clear goals except the desire to get elected. That’s why so many are excited, positively or negatively, by Jesse Jackson, who articulates progressive, green, and one-world goals that could very well set a new course for the nation. That’s also why Jackson causes such nervousness in high political circles, worried not so much about his blackness or his electability as about his potential for legitimizing a new national vision.
A presidential election is far more than a popularity contest or a struggle for party power. It’s a profound choice of goals for the nation. Do we want someone who can hold the same course, or chart a new course, or have no clear course at all? Is it possible that someone could respect and speak for our many different visions and be president of us all?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988