The idea of “system” can be a powerful engine of thought that helps us understand our world.  I’m wondering:  How can the system known as the United States be revitalized?  How can we make our system work?

W. Edwards Deming, a systems thinker acknowledged as a guru of the quality movement, would ask business owners and organization leaders, “Is your organization a system?”  He would say, “Yes, you have people running around, answering telephones, having meetings, spending money, making reports, but is your organization a system?”

Every tiger is a system.

Every tiger is a system.

Deming pointed to the tiger as a “system.” He said that millions of years of evolution have created a tiger body and tiger instincts that work together to sustain the tiger and to fulfill the purpose of assuring many new tigers for the future.  The tiger has an aim.  And Deming taught that every system has a controlling aim or purpose, and that the structures of a system work to fulfill that aim.  It’s a pretty simple idea, but Deming demonstrated that it is a powerful idea.

Systems thinking can be applied to a school, a family, a country, a political party, a city, a business, a factory, a tiger, a human — you name it.

Rick Warren uses systems’ thinking when he advocates that humans should be “purpose driven.”  But, the fact is, we are already purpose driven — it is just that the purpose that drives any individual is often hidden even from the individual him /herself.  It’s not easy to “know thyself.”

We know that the ostensible aim of a system often is not its actual aim.  Every system puts its best face forward.  Schools may define their purpose in grand terms — helping children fulfill individual potential, preparing children to be independent thinkers, equipping children with the skills and attitudes needed for effective participation in a democratic society — but, in the end, all school purpose, anymore, is simply to produce adequate test scores.  But even this ostensible aim of schools is not the actual aim of the system. 

The East German, pre-1989 communist made car, the Trabant, as I’ve noted before, was notorious for its poor quality.  But, the Trabant factories fulfilled an important aim in the communist system.  These factories supported the communist bureaucracy, gave perks to communist leaders, employment to the buddies of the communist hierarchy, etc.  The Trabant was a system with an important aim, that for years it fulfilled brilliantly.  It’s just that its aim never was to produce quality automobiles.

It is interesting to look at the United States as system, and attempt to understand what the aim of this system is, and how the system actually works.

David Cay Johnston has a great article, “Fiscal Therapy,” in Mother Jones.  He writes, “For years now, whenever I’ve been invited to lecture students on how our tax system works, I have asked a simple question: What is the purpose of the United States of America? The most common answer, be it at prestigious universities, elite prep schools, rural community colleges, or crowded urban high schools, is this: To make people rich.”

According to Johnston’s anecdotal research, people don’t identify the purpose of the system known as the United States in terms of “freedom and justice for all,” or any other grand idea promulgated by our founding fathers.  People see the purpose of the United States, “To make people rich.”

Johnston writes, “This should come as no great surprise. For anyone born after, say, 1970, the world has been shaped by Ronald Reagan’s remaking of government’s relationship with private interests—a vision of lower taxes, less regulation, and maximum economic leeway for those at the top. In this view, the pursuit of wealth is the warp and weft of America; everything else will follow.”

Johnston says, “By contrast, the preamble to the Constitution tells us the nation’s reason for being in 52 words that can be reduced to six principles: society, justice, peace, security, commonwealth, and freedom. Individual riches don’t make the list. They are a product of American society, not its guiding purpose. ”

A good argument can be made that the system known as the United States is acting similarly to the Trabant system.  Like the Trabant system, it is acting brilliantly to accomplish an aim — to give more privilege, wealth and power to those already privileged — but, it is accomplishing the wrong aim.  It is focused on the wrong aim and, the fact is, in the long run, because the system is focused on the wrong aim, it is not sustainable.  As with the Trabant system, unless there is a major correction, the system known as the United States is doomed to fail.

Johnston says, “Progress must begin with a return to the best of the values that created this Second American Republic—one born, it’s worth remembering, from the failure of the Articles of Confederation, whose principles (weak government, unfettered capitalism) found their resurrection in the economic policies of the past three decades.”

The key question is:  How can the system known as the United States be revitalized?  How can we make our system work?  Johnston, I believe, is right.  We must return to our founding values.  We need to work to create the system Lincoln spoke of — “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” — we need to revitalize our democracy.

We have a great structure for democracy already in place, but we have allowed it to fall in terrible disuse and deterioration.  We need to rediscover the historical aim of the system –”freedom and justice for all”  — and we need to make the system work to focus on achieving that aim.

Revitalizing our democracy is a grass roots project.  An obvious place to start this revitalization is in our political parties.  Here, at the grassroots level in Montgomery County, I’ve discovered that the Democratic Party is very undemocratic.  It utterly fails to represent the Democrats in Montgomery County or engage the Democrats in Montgomery County in any kind of meaningful democratic community.  By all evidence, the Montgomery County Republican Party acts the same.  See here, here, and here.

In March 2010 all 548 precincts in Montgomery County will have an opportunity to elect a person to Montgomery County Democratic Party’s Central Committee.  After this election the party will reorganize.  This procedure is established in state law.  In 2006 at the reorganization meeting only about 100 people showed up to reelect Dennis Lieberman as party chair. We have structures in place that, if used, would make our democracy work.

I believe that The Ascending Issue In Our Democracy Is Democracy Itself.  I believe that democracy will become the ascending issue because, eventually, people will figure out that the reason our country is deteriorating, the reason the future prospects for average Americans is rapidly diminishing, is because our democracy is failing.  We are far from having a government “of the people.”  We are far from having a government “for the people.”

The answer to, “How can we make our system work?”, restated is, “How can we get our democracy to work?”  We need to refocus the aim of the system.  We need to bring to life the underused and deteriorating structures for democracy already in place.