Governance – the Cross-Cutting Political Crisis

The world is facing mounting threats – true crises. They include such major issues as climate change, nuclear arms proliferation, trust in information and communication, and artificial intelligence (AI), one of the latest crises to be portrayed as an existential threat. Each has unique and evolving histories, but I take some solace in that many talented people are prioritizing these big and generally well-recognized issues.  

One issue, however, is less commonly found on any list of existential threats: governance. Why is there not more concerted effort to address governance as one of the biggest and inherently cross-cutting issues. Possibly it is because it is political and therefore less susceptible to scientific inquiry and resolution. For whatever reasons, we seem to speak about everything but a political crisis. And when we speak of political crises, they are most often associated with politics, like hanging chads in counting ballots in an election – not in the context of other worldwide crises, all of which require governance at multiple levels to address.  

A symptom of a governance crisis is the inability of localities, nations, and world governing bodies to make decisions, particularly long-term policy choices. That could be a cross-cutting factor exacerbating any crisis. There are virtues to having a high threshold for making decisions, avoiding hasty mistakes, particularly if people genuinely disagree over the path ahead. US political institutions are almost designed with multiple checks and balances to ensure against any authority – president, Congress, the courts, even the voters – being too powerful. The American humorist and critic of politicians of all stripes, Will Rogers, jokingly spoke of the virtue of biennial legislatures in some US states, which met only every other year. By not meeting every year, Rogers argued, they made fewer decisions – doing less harm.  

Gridlock on such issues as climate change is undoubtedly a large part of the problem. I was taken by interviews with some survivors of the horrific fire that swept through the village of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui in August 2023, some who chose to leave their cars and run for their lives. They lived. Many of their fellow passengers could not decide what to do, or decided to stay in their car, and perished. It’s a horribly sad analogy and fails to capture the need for more consensual decisions, and it is not every one-for-themselves for climate change. But it does convey the life or death centrality of decision-making in responding to some life-threatening events.  

While governance is an issue at all levels, approaches to the greatest threats are becoming more dependent on global responses. But institutions set up to grapple with global issues, such as climate change, are not working well, and climate activists are understandably critical. While governance is becoming increasingly important on a global scale, it is arguable that global governance is also becoming more fragmented. Take the Russian invasion of Ukraine as another example of an evolving set of events that are directly involving one region of the world but which have massive global entanglements and consequences. However, given governance structures, such as the make-up of the United Nation’s Permanent Security Council, the UN has very limited potential to exert a powerful influence on the outcome.

In fact, international alignments appear to be more fractured as they divide over appropriate actions to address this war, such as in moves to expand the nations associated with BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) nations, an association based on an acronym invented in 2001 by an American economist Jim O’Neill. In some respects, all collaboration internationally could have a positive influence, but how will the coalition of BRIC nations fall on the invasion of Ukraine or climate change?  

Courtesy: Arthur Berger

Perhaps everyone accepts that political failures are at the heart of multiple crises. That might help explain why efforts to address climate change or nuclear proliferation entail so many heroic efforts to generate public awareness and support. The solutions require a sufficient level of consensus to make and implement decisions on workable policies and practices. But that perspective is undoubtedly overly rational – the idea that if everyone had the same information, we would all agree. That dismisses real conflicts of interest on decisions that do not benefit everyone in the same ways – their implications are redistributive. And the facts change. Take the developing consensus, one day, on the virtues of diesel engines, that was reversed another day.   

One major worry is that much debate seems to place blame for political paralyses on democratic institutions. The apparent rise in autocratic regimes in the twenty-first century is often interpreted as a sign of the failure of democratic institutions.[i] Yet autocracies exhibit many failed decisions, poor public policy making and human rights violations, but often without mechanisms for checks and balances and public accountability. In an era of political truth, democratic pluralism is one of the only ways to ensure that facts and policy prescriptions are subjected to scrutiny from multiple perspectives. That is, one of the only mechanisms to support trust in decision-making is political not technical or social.  

When policy change is gridlocked, governments can often move in the ‘wrong’ direction, such as critics impulsively turning to structural or institutional change. But when institutional change is promoted to support a particular policy aim, then it becomes as politicized as the issue change seeks to promote. Structural changes can be important, as they change the rules of political decision-making, but can therefore politicize the structural changes, which are as often more symbolic than real policy change – failing to usher in new practices.   

What can be done? At this point, all I am advocating is the certain point, obvious to me, that politics is at the heart of many crises from local to global levels. Governance failures are not simply a symptom of wicked and redistributive problems being faced at all levels, but a reason behind the problems being intractable. Problems could also be exacerbated by too many failing to focus attention on this political crisis of governance. Government is often believed to be the solution to problems. But government is not the solution if it cannot foster genuine debate and make decisions or if it governs poorly and in ways that are untrusted and unaccountable. We need to raise the level of attention placed on good governance processes to address the myriad poly-crises our world is facing at all levels. The world needs as many scholars, scientists, policy experts, practitioners, and civic-minded individuals, such as the Fifth Estate[ii], focused on the dynamics of governance and politics as we have focused on other worldwide existential threats. Politics cross-cuts them all.

An obvious response is that we need and have schools of governance. However, studies in many schools of governance are focused on problems, such as the climate (good), but not on governance and politics. Perhaps a start would be for academic and policy-oriented units that say they are focused on government and governance to directly address the crisis of governance. Is that a fair point? 



[ii] William H. Dutton, The Fifth Estate. New York: Oxford University Press, 2023.

Comments are most welcome