An ideological battle has been raging between conservatives and liberals in the United States and Western Europe--a battle that would be comical, if not for its ferocity and for the millions of dollars dissipated on political campaigns. Implicit in this conflict is the assumption that whoever controls Congress or occupies the White House will determine the direction the country takes on such fundamental issues as immigration, crime, "traditional values," the future of the family, the work ethic, welfare reform and the size of government.
On these issues, it hardly makes a difference who is President or controls Congress. These tracks are propelled by long-term irreversible forces such as decentralization, diversification, technologization, globalization--and are hardly affected by ideology or partisan politics. Here are some examples:
* Millions of legal and illegal immigrants will continue to cross national borders no matter what policies are adopted or how massive the barricades. It is absurd to think that in our global age, when a mounting avalanche of information and goods and dollars pours across borders every single day, that somehow people would stay and marinate in their ancestral homelands.
If it no longer matters how many Portuguese or Belgians translocate freely across Europe, or how many Indonesians and Thais work in Malaysia, why does it matter how many Mexicans work in the United States or how many U.S. citizens work in Canada? In our burgeoning global economy, there are no "illegal immigrants"--only irrelevant borders. In our global age, territoriality is hopelessly anachronistic.
* It is ridiculous to continue emphasizing such traditional values as "hard work" and the "work ethic" (and by the same token, disdain welfare), yet invest billions of dollars every year on automation and ever smarter machines that permanently jettison millions of jobs and disassemble the old labor-intensive economics. Hard work was a precondition to survival at one time and therefore glorified. In our times of global surpluses and smart self-replicating machines, hard work is dumb economics. Hard work is a deterrent to greater prosperity. We can now produce more while working less. We are like the Japanese who overdose on hard work not because there is any longer the need, but simply because of workaholic programming.
In postindustrial societies, tens of millions of people are now on light-work schedules--temporary jobs, part-time jobs, telecommuting, shared jobs, flex time, etc. These are steps in the right direction. Rather than insist that everyone work simply to satisfy puritanical, workaholic traditions, why not deploy our smart machines to create greater prosperity for everyone so that people can work less and coast more?
* The persistent emphasis on family values is yet another dead issue that sets off peoples' alarms. Even if every federal and state office in the United States were occupied by the Christian right, the nuclear family would still continue its downward slide. Nothing can reverse this trend.
Since the 1950s, the traditional nuclear family has dropped from representing around 85% of American homes to less than 10%. How illogical to think that profound changes could unfold in all areas of society but not in our homes.
Many of the people attached to the nuclear family invest in the thriving genetics industry and in new reproductive technologies, perhaps unaware that their investments are eroding age-old patterns of procreation and parenthood. Rather than attempt to salvage a 20th-Century lifestyle that is in an irreversible tailspin, why not encourage new lifestyles to ensure intimacy and continuity in our new environments?
* Government will continue to have less and less impact on peoples' lives. The trend everywhere is away from traditional concentrations of power. The more centralized the sources of information were, the more powerful the centers of authority (family, church, government). As information decentralizes, the relative power of government declines. This is particularly evident in postindustrial societies like ours. Since the 1960s, the most profound transformations in the United States have been spearheaded by forces and people outside government--the women's movement, the biological revolution, the globalization of life. Government no longer routinely sets the pace and is less able to decelerate the profound recontextings going on everywhere.
No matter who occupies the White House or Congress, trends that started decades ago are now on automatic fast forward. No one can derail them. An administration may call itself conservative or liberal, but the environment in which it operates and which propels it is revolutionary.
In the postindustrial world, elections are no longer an accurate gauge of a society's direction. This is as misleading as assessing the popularity of the Vatican by the size of crowds that greet the Pope in the streets and not paying attention to the fact that these crowds then go on to ignore church teachings on divorce, abortion and women's rights.
It is absurd to want better technologies and a growing economy, yet still call for "traditional values." Technology and values are part of the same continuum--you cannot decouple the two. If you want advances in one area, you have to accept advances in the other.
Rather than dissipate millions of dollars on nasty campaigns that attempt to freeze frame the past, we should encourage new values and lifestyles and policies which will bring us greater cohesion, abundance, leisure and growth as we prepare to liftoff to a new century.