Portrait Of A Political Instigator

A forty-year veteran in the struggle to introduce positive change believes the time has come to move "beyond democracy"

One of the articles in Reclaiming Politics (IC#30)
Originally published in Fall/Winter 1991 on page 26
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute


What lies "beyond democracy"? According to Robert Theobald – an economist and instigator who has been involved in fundamental change issues for four decades as a writer, speaker and consultant – it is the complete abandonment of power as a political means, no matter what the ends. This is certainly a radical idea; but then again, Theobald has made a career of being a decade or two ahead of his time. We’re grateful to him for suggesting the theme of this issue and acting as an editorial advisor on its contents.

One of Robert’s quirks is that his writing is done collaboratively. He’s offering a special package for readers of IN CONTEXT interested in collaborating with him: For $25, he will send you his last book, The Rapids of Change, and his forthcoming volume Turning the Century (in draft). Your feedback on the draft, which includes more material on his political ideas, will affect the final draft. Write to him at 330 Morgan Street, New Orleans, LA 70114. He’d also appreciate feedback on any of the ideas in this interview.

Alan: According to the Kettering Foundation report on "Citizens and Politics," Americans no longer believe that they can have an effect on the political process, and feel as though they have been dealt out of the game. These findings support your contention that we are experiencing a breakdown in "decision-making structures." What does that breakdown consist of?

Robert: What’s really happened to us is that we have decided – as a culture – that consumption is more important than politics. Willis Harmon said it well when he remarked that if his grandmother had been asked if she were a "consumer," she would have thrown a skillet at the interviewer. But we contemporary Americans have chosen or been forced – it’s a bit of both – to put our time and energy into consumption, and as a result the very tricky balance between the citizen and the decision-maker has gone out of the window. We now have a culture in which the decision-maker is perpetually seen as being on the take.

Meanwhile, the politicians feel that nobody is willing to support them. Once, at a meeting in Washington with some members of the House and Senate, someone commented to me, "Bob, I wish I could believe you when you tell me that there are people interested in the ideas you put forward, but I never hear from them." Politicians mostly hear variations on the theme of "not in my backyard." They hardly ever hear from the people who are thinking more broadly.

My biggest concern lately is about the lack of courage in our political system. Sometimes we must be willing to say, "Look, on this subject, I know." That’s not the style for all issues at all times, but I think we disempower ourselves by saying that participation is always better than empowering a decision-maker. I think more people in politics need to follow the example of Martin Luther and say, "Here I stand, I can do no other." You may not get anywhere, but you have to try.

Put all those elements together and you have an extraordinarily murky brew. A number of my friends talk about the need for glasnost and perestroika here in the US – which is tragic, because we supposedly live in a democracy. But it also makes sense, because in many ways our culture is as dysfunctional as the Soviet Union’s.

Alan: Is that kind of large-scale "reformation" – since Luther has been invoked – really possible in the United States?

Robert: Well, anybody who is not convinced that the whole system can suddenly slip into a different shape is not looking far enough ahead. If enough people decide that they are not willing to live with the structures we have, and decide to use the freedom that does exist in our culture to change them, a system shift might occur extremely rapidly.

I think our system may be a lot closer to that than any of us are willing to accept. There are so many fissures – so many places where it’s unstable. Mayors are saying that the cities are not working. Our economic system is vulnerable to breakdown. Millions of people are saying, "This isn’t the right way to do it."

As I look back at the Gulf War, for example, the most remarkable thing to me is that while the approval ratings were supposedly as high as 90% at certain stages, most people I know were wondering, "Where are all these people who are supposedly in favor of the war?" A friend in Minnesota reported that she talked with Republican women, very high in the party, who were saying exactly the same thing. "I cannot find the people who are in favor of the war," she told me.

I think there was a very significant opinion group that wasn’t following traditional patterns. It wasn’t right or left, it wasn’t necessarily anti-war. It was a group of people who said, "This is stupid." Such people need to mobilize themselves.

Alan: You’ve alluded in our previous conversations to "the hard issues we’re not facing." What are some of these political issues that aren’t on the table as clearly as they need to be?

Robert: Let’s start with education, because that’s what the president is now pushing. He has trivialized the issue by saying that we know how to educate and that all we have to do is do it better. But as I go around the country and talk to education audiences, people tell me that the goals of education are all wrong. Now, if the goals of schooling are wrong, the school system is going to be terrible. We’re allowing the inertia of a system that most people know to be wrongly directed to continue to drive us.

The real goals of our current education system are to bring people up to take orders, to sort into positions of superiority and inferiority, to believe that the information (not knowledge) they get in school will be relevant over their lifespan, and to believe that education stops when they’re eighteen or twenty-two. That’s all got to change.

A second issue is health. We clearly cannot pay for all the health care that’s feasible, given modern medical technology and its costs. The fact is, we are going to have to ration medical care. Indeed, we already do: we look after the poor, the rich, and those with health insurance – and we leave out the 35 million people who don’t have health insurance. So the real question we face is how to ration – what principles to use. Nobody wants to talk about that issue, and I’m not surprised.

Alan: There is the exception of the "Oregon Plan," which sticks the nation’s first toe in the water on the question of medical rationing.

Robert: And Oregon keeps getting in trouble with the federal government every time they try to implement it. But in general, I do believe that more of the interesting decision-making ideas – politics, after all, is only a way to talk about how you make collective decisions – are coming out of the Northwest. That’s one place to watch.

Another hard issue is the justice system. We don’t really have a justice system – we have something that creeps and crawls. It only survives because of plea bargaining, and because we throw people out of prison early to alleviate overcrowding. And we still have a larger percentage of our population in prison than any other democratic country.

I’ve seen figures that as much as 75% of the crime in this country is drug-related. Mine may be an unpopular stance, but I believe that so long as we continue to have a prohibition on drugs – which to me, as an economist, means guaranteeing profits to everyone in the drug trade – nothing will improve. I cannot understand why we are incapable of at least launching a debate to consider the relationship between the failure of alcohol prohibition of the twenties and thirties and drug prohibition today. We are training a huge generation of people into criminal behavior. The alcohol prohibition created criminal institutions that have carried through to the present era. Now we are creating an international drug mafia, and when we eventually become intelligent, this mafia will be looking for something else to do.

Those are three issues. I could go on. The point is, what goes on in Congress is basically around the borders of real issues or about even more trivial matters, such as flag-burning. In a nutshell, we spend our political time and energy on issues that are marginal.

Alan: You’ve been prodding at the American political system in this way for a long time now. What change has there been in how your message is received?

Robert: What’s startling to me is that when I started talking about ideas like these 30 years ago, they were so new and strange that people looked at me as if I had two heads. In retrospect, I think I was looked on as something of a cultural clown – a "crazy" who was fun to listen to. The reaction I get now worries me a lot more, because what most people say is "Bob, today you’re right, but we’re not going to do anything about it."

When speaking I often use something I call the "Titanic Quiz." I ask audiences – many of them very mainstream groups – how much change the culture needs and wants, on a scale of 1 to 10. Lately they’re all up in the 6 to 9 range. People know we need change, but none of us seem to be able to get our act together to find out how it can be done. If this were the 1850s, we would create a new political party. This was done very successfully – it took less than a decade for the new party to win a Presidential election. But while I do look for the creation of a new third party, I don’t think that’s where we’re going to get the real shifts we require – because what we need this time is to change people’s individual thinking rather than to force change by power.

Alan: And over the years you have been an enormously influential instigator for such individual change. What are some of the most effective strategies you’ve used, and what lessons have you learned from the efforts that didn’t take off?

Robert: There’s no easy answer for that, because one of my basic philosophical beliefs is that "Everything I do is critically important, but nothing I do matters a hill of beans." Both are true for all of us – if I believe only that what Bob Theobald does is going to change the world, I become an arrogant bastard. If on the other hand I believe that nothing I do matters a hill of beans, I cease to achieve anything. It’s a question of balance.

Looking back on my career, one of the efforts that seems most successful was creating a document called The Triple Revolution in 1964. It basically said that we are moving out of one period of history and into another – and in 1964 that was an extraordinarily new idea. It also came at the right moment. People heard it. The rhetoric it introduced – the idea of a change in eras from hunting and gathering, to agriculture and industry, to something new – has stayed around and, I think, been very helpful.

In a sense, that was a humbling experience, because it was the right document at the right time – and it wasn’t even an especially good document. It just proved that timing is everything.

Another thing I was associated with – which has also changed our thinking – was an idea called "basic economic security." This came to be known as "guaranteed income" and was almost adopted by Nixon as part of the Family Assistance Plan. I don’t usually get public credit for this – Milton Friedman usually does – but actually, if I hadn’t pushed it, it might not have happened.

Why did that idea fly, despite many people’s doubts? Because people were in fact already getting guaranteed incomes. We weren’t about to let anybody starve in the US – or if we did, it was by mistake. But they weren’t getting that income very efficiently because of an incredible bureaucratic mess. Providing assistance would have been done more simply and more cheaply by a far simpler scheme.

Then in 1984 several of us, including Robert Gilman [IN CONTEXT founding editor], did a 20-year follow-up to The Triple Revolution called At the Crossroads. We sold 100,000 copies – it wasn’t as successful as I had hoped. We tried to repeat an old model and that rarely works.

Now, I have made one big mistake all through my life, and that is that I have underestimated the inertia of the culture. I have assumed, incorrectly, that people can see their self-interest and will therefore change.

That brings me to another piece of my diagnosis: the real battle of the 1990s is between fundamentalism – people getting into a hole and pulling the covers over themselves as they get frightened – and our ability to come up with new models and ideas that people can grasp and manage. Much of my recent work has been around what we can do in community – because that is where people can move. What can you do in your work place? What can you do in your church, school, or college? What can you do as a consumer?

We have enormous power as consumers. Our purchasing decisions have driven the development of diet foods and lighter alcohol, for example. In similar fashion, it’s important that people buy the right information sources. Why do all the people who want change still buy Time and Newsweek and not IN CONTEXT? Please leave that in rather than edit it out because that’s a plug.

The other thing you can do is to be less of a consumer. As people at the New Road Map Foundation have foreseen, thrift is becoming a big thing [see IC #26, "What Is Enough?"]. Growth supporters say we’ve got to buy more and push the economy harder so we don’t have a recession – but thrift will allow us to spend less time at our jobs and more time on our own purposes. We can get off what someone once described as a "whirling dervish economy" that’s dependent on compulsive consumption.

Alan: What are some of the most exciting things you’ve been involved in recently?

Robert: One project was in The Riverbend, a community in Illinois just across the river from St. Louis that wanted to revive itself. It started with a large public gathering, out of which 300 people came together in groups to work on new directions for the community. From my perspective it was a much more effective leadership effort than most of the things we call "leadership programs," because it put people into positions where they had to think and do something about what they wanted for the community. I think leadership happens through doing.

The remarkable thing about this program was that the existing leadership of the community was totally willing to allow these groups to do what they thought was important. I don’t want to overstate what we achieved – that’s always dangerous – but we did have an impact. We created 300 new leaders, all of whom will do something.

The primary change came about as people did the best they could by working with people rather than against them. That’s part of what’s wrong with our democracy at the moment – we are caught in an election process that focuses on "I have to beat the other guy" rather than "I have to care about the community."

Alan: You also helped the Alaska Round Tables get going, didn’t you? What’s the story there?

Robert: The idea behind the Round Tables is that in every community there are people who would like to meet creatively to think about where the community ought to be going. I helped start the Wednesday Round Table in Anchorage. People meet for an hour and a half, anybody can come, and they just talk about the future of the city of Anchorage. The same model has spread to Fairbanks and Juneau. Round Tables are groups of people who are willing to work with each other, and it’s a place for creative thought – which is in very short supply these days.

But the weakness in such processes, and this has taken me some time to realize, is that unless creative talk is combined with action steps you end up with an enormous amount of discussion that doesn’t go anywhere. There needs to be a combination of the trust-building and creativity in a process like the Round Table, but people also need to take on some project. Of course, anyone with street smarts knows that. These days I would rather work with people who have street smarts than with intellectuals. Intellectuals assume a connection between policy and action, but people with street smarts aren’t stupid enough to make that mistake.

Alan: What are you passionate about at the moment?

Robert: I want to help people understand that they are not alone in their drive toward a more compassionate society. I want to enable institutions and communities so they learn to trust and understand their interdependence. I want to encourage creativity. And I want to demonstrate the new action styles which are effective now that top-down leadership is being abandoned.

I am now developing processes which should enable institutions and communities to make progress at far lower costs in energy and resources than often occurs at the present time. I’m looking for people and groups who want to achieve these goals, and I would like to help them become effective.

Alan: You’ve mentioned to me before the need to get "beyond democracy." What do you mean by that? What lies beyond democracy?

Robert: I’ve been hinting at this issue throughout our conversation. The problem with democracy is that it has simply taken the power of the king and moved it into the power of a congress or parliament. It is still a power system – it gives a majority the right to force a minority to behave in a certain way. It rests on an assumption that there is one right answer, and that as soon as you have 50% of the population lined up behind it, you can impose it on other people. It places an emphasis on law instead of on education.

Current democracy also depends very much on a balance of powers, all struggling against each other. This is problematic when the culture is becoming increasingly fragmented into the Blacks, the Whites, the gays, the feminists, the Jews, the Hispanics and the Asians, and many other groups who all say they are being oppressed.

Alan: It’s the American equivalent of Balkanization.

Robert: Right, not geographic, but very terrifying. You end up with a culture where everybody is fighting each other for their slice of the pie. Unless we can create a system for working with each other to look for the best policies, we can’t survive. It was all right to fight each other when we had trivial impact on the outside world, or at least a geographically limited one. When you have unlimited destruction and productive power, and when human beings are indeed as gods, then the only hope we have is to work as well with each other as possible.

Now, I’m not arguing that there shouldn’t be conflict. Conflict is inevitable. But when you get into a conflict situation, there are two types of responses. You can either say, "That is the most stupid idea I have ever heard in my life, it isn’t tolerable, and I will fight you about it." Or you can say, "Hmm. That’s a very different way of looking at things. Maybe if we combine your idea and my idea we’ll get somewhere."

Take an issue like abortion. I think there is a very simple way out of it. We should aim to ensure that no child is conceived who isn’t wanted. That’s an ideal about which a large number of people could agree, instead of fighting about whether somebody should have the right to an abortion or not. Neither stance in the current debate is very attractive. I don’t think there are many people besides a few extremists who really believe in the rhetoric – but they believe they have to win the battle between pro-choice and pro-life.

Alan: And of course, the technology is shifting, which may soon make abortion an obsolete technology and change the nature of the battle.

Robert: Yes, but we are very capable of continuing battles which have long since been won. We need to help people decide when they should have sexual relations, how they should manage them, and whether there should be kids.

So I believe we have no choice but to move beyond democracy. What my work is about, really, is the end of power. Many people say everybody wants power – yet I don’t sense that to be true. I see in people a real desire for a different way of living which doesn’t force them to be superior or inferior to other people. If we had unlimited time, I have no doubt that we’d get into this new state. The question is whether we could do it in the time period we have, given situations like that in Yugoslavia and our own cultural fragmentation.

People who say democracy is the end of the process, as in "the end of history," have completely missed the point. Democracy was a way of controlling power so it was not used as dangerously and as destructively as it used to be by dictators and kings. Now, it is power itself that has to be abandoned.

Alan: The title of your previous book, The Rapids of Change, seems to have captured in a phrase the feeling of contemporary life. Given the continuing acceleration of change since that book was published in 1988, what "P.S."would you add to it now?

Robert: I would say much more clearly than Rapids says that unless the change process is balanced by some fixed and stable points – by habits, by icons, by having lunch together every Sunday – everything becomes impossible. There must be some things you don’t have to talk about, some cultural pieces that remain untouched. Anybody who attacks the flag, for example, isn’t helping anything. One must think very clearly: does this change achieve anything good?

Long ago my wife said, "We may need to have new standards of beauty and order and new values by which we live our lives, but until we do we had better preserve the ones we’ve got." In the 1960s I ran around saying, "You need to hit the mule (i.e., society) on the head with a two-by-four to get his attention." But now the mule is hyperactive, and hitting it on the head with a two-by-four isn’t sensible. You need to feed it hay at a regular time every morning.

Alan: If you were advising a political candidate now, what would be the most important advice you’d want to give that person?

Robert: I believe there is an enormous hidden vote for guts, for honesty, for compassion, for caring. I’m not talking about the traditional liberal agenda – I’m talking about the need to deal with the problems that are destroying the heart of our society. I would tell a candidate, "Don’t trim your sails every time a new poll comes in. Stand for something. If you can’t run on a platform you really believe in, don’t run at all."

Prayer For The Unemployed

Lord, enlighten employers to respond promptly to applications, to advertise all jobs for the purpose of hiring and not for some other purpose, to treat all applicants fairly regardless of race, sex or age, and to treat all applicants respectfully with full knowledge that in this insecure world those representing the employer might someday themselves be seeking employment.

Lord, enlighten career counselors to cease relying on teaching the unemployed to pretty up their resumes, dress, and interview techniques in favor of organizing their clients and themselves as a lobby for job creation. Lord, enlighten career counselors that the unemployed need expanding employment opportunities, not a course in salesmanship.

Lord, enlighten policy makers and politicians to empathize with the unemployed to understand that a root cause of family instability and the many social ills is a lack of money to pay bills and have a decent life. Lord, enlighten those men and women of power to feel shame rather than comfort or pride when favoring layoffs of workers as a cure for budget deficits; to feel shame when promising tax cuts and not better employment opportunities; to educate voters and themselves that the health of public finances and the health of the people whom they serve are best achieved through the appropriate mix of government and private sector jobs. Lord, enlighten our politicians that our top priority is creating a system of full employment for the reduction of needless suffering, the reduction of social ills, and the increase of citizen participation in government.

Lord, enlighten the very rich and major investors to understand the folly of short term thinking and greed which are sapping our economy and ability to compete in the world market. Enlighten them that increasing profits by reducing labor costs through layoffs is not only inhumane but discourages or reduces the shrinking number of persons who can buy the products which keep workers working.

Lord, enlighten the unemployed to vote no matter how despondent they feel. Enlighten the unemployed to use the ballot as a weapon against those politicians who are either unwilling or incapable of understanding their plight. Let the unemployed voters convey to politicians the importance of full employment in our land, especially now that the Cold War has ended and the monies for war are now available for peace.

– Irving F. Franke


The author is a former sociology professor living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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