The day after the US Presidential Election, Ronald Heifetz explored the challenges ahead in a live interview at the Harvard Kennedy School. Here are excerpts from his opening remarks reflecting on the dynamic of distrust in politics.
'Clearly this election reveals some major festering adaptive challenges in the United States. It will be up to all of us in our own local ways and up to our parties, especially the Democrats who are now in the minority, to work on these problems that have been revealed and exposed. It's not that that we didn't know that these problems existed, but that we are now seeing them in a raw form. This potentially has the benefit of calling us to meet these collective challenges. The leadership required then, not only from people in authority such as President-elect Donald Trump, but all the way down to our communities, is going to be to work out these challenges that have now become clear.
There is one interesting set of reflections and analyses that will be done now on how this win occurred, but more interesting is 'what does this win reveal in our communities?' One macro way of seeing it is that it reveals an enormous deficit of trust in two dimensions. Trust horizontally being the first type, between Americans, across the two coasts, across the mid-west and what is called 'the rust belt', and across areas that have swung from Democratic regions that have trended towards the Republican Party if not Donald Trump. There is a deficit of trust between Americans. There is also a deficit of trust in authority, which is the vertical dimension of this distrust.
What frightens me about this election is that we act as if the United States in endlessly resilient. That we can be resilient against any kind of monkey wrench, even a new person who has ways of speaking that are raw and not political coming into power. And I'm not sure how resilient we are. There has to be enough glue and enough holding environments to allow discussion and prevent polarization. In my analysis of the distrust is that it comes down to bonds: the vertical bonds of authority and the horizontal bonds, which we may call social capital. Those bonds, both the horizontal and vertical bonds, are in deficit right now. I think it's really important that we step back and look at how we got here. Donald Trump is a symptom of this dynamic that has been going on for a long time, and he is a special and talented human being that has been able to sense, give voice, and capitalize politically on this dynamic.
People need to understand how distrust became so rampant. There was a key moment when distrust actually became part of the political system, where it became a tool, centered around Ronald Reagan's idea to reduce dependency on the national government. A big side effect to saying "Government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem" is that bashing the government became the name of the game. That became particularly malignant during the Clinton era. Fomenting distrust, creating committees to investigate people no matter what, turning everything into another Watergate, and other such practices became the norm. This culture of distrust became a political marketplace of distrust, used by politicians regularly.
I think that the first thing that Donald Trump can do is develop the narrative on how we got here and then come out against it. He may have gotten here through this politics of distrust, but he can now choose to restore the sense of innocence to politics. He can come out and say that, now, being in Washington, he can see that politicians are not all out simply to make money, but that they actually do care. The second thing that he can do is to go ahead and listen to people, see where they are, and help them to overcome their distrust. If he is good at deal-making, he can help people to cross divides and teach others to do so. This way he may help to bridge the divides in the horizontal dimension that have widened between Americans as well as reducing the deficit of trust in the vertical dimension that has been growing over the years.'
Watch the full interview: