Peter Drucker

Philip K. Howard: Action, not moderation, is the salve for American polarization

Polarizer in chief

Polarizer in chief

Polarized politics is a formula for public failure, a downward spiral of distrust and greater paralysis. Pulling out of this spiral is difficult because polarization is good business for politicians and pundits. Political coffers fill up with contributions from people who loathe the other side. President Trump has a unique genius for sowing division — playing to people’s fears and attacking the weaknesses of his opponents. Social media fans the flames of the latest outrage.

Some think the cure to polarization is more moderate politicians. By fixing electoral machinery that appears to favor extremists, such as gerrymandering and restricted primaries, reformers hope to return to the happy days when leaders from both parties could sit down and work things out. They long for Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

Moderation is just happy talk, however, without a new vision of how to govern better. How would moderate leaders fix schools, or reduce health care costs, or issue permits within a year’s time instead of a decade? None of the candidates in the 2020 presidential election offers a cure to the alienation that Americans feel towards Washington.

Washington, meanwhile, plows forward, a giant bureaucratic state crammed with red tape and obsolete programs. Democracy has degenerated into a kind of legal perpetual-motion machine, taking upwards of a decade to approve vital infrastructure projects. Bureaucracy is everywhere. According to the World Bank, the U.S. ranks 53rd in ease of starting a business. Practical choices throughout society are stymied by overbearing law — whether maintaining order in the classroom, being candid with an employee, or letting children walk to school alone. Is your paperwork in order?

Reformers have confused cause and effect: Paralyzed government, not polarization, is the original sin of modern government. Bureaucratic densification since the 1970s has made government beyond human control. Government’s inability to respond to public needs is the chicken that laid the egg of polarized politics. The inability of Americans to roll up their sleeves and fix things leads inexorably to extremism. Political leaders who can’t get things done compete instead by pointing fingers and screaming louder.

Populism thrives on fear and anxiety. A collective sense of powerlessness spawns the instinct to vilify “the other.” Government is toothless to deal with dislocations of global commerce, new technology and waves of immigrants. Self-reliance is stymied by faceless bureaucracy. Unresponsive government prompts anxious citizens to embrace populist solutions.

In 1939, the organizational expert Peter Drucker wrote that fascism had taken root because the establishment had offered “no new order” to counteract the dislocation of the Great Depression. But fascism was doomed to fail, Drucker argued, because its popularity was based on attacking scapegoats, not a positive governing vision. The solution to a destabilized society in which people feel powerless, Drucker argued, must be “built upon a concept of the nature of man and of his function and place in society.” People must be able to help themselves and their society.

The way out of America’s downward spiral is not moderation but a radical spring-cleaning of government to re-empower Americans at every level of responsibility. Liberating people to act, not top-down solutions, is the cure to paralysis.

The only cure for alienation is ownership. This requires not wholesale de-regulation, but rebooting government with simpler, open frameworks that set goals and governing principles. Simpler codes will allow Americans to understand what is expected of them and afford them flexibility to get there in their own ways. Only then will officials and citizens have the freedom to make sense of daily choices.

Action, not moderation, is the salve for polarization. Conventional wisdom is that letting individuals use their judgment will exacerbate social conflict. Evidence suggests the opposite: A study in Britain found that professionals with opposed ideological views generally arrive at similar solutions when confronting concrete problems. Studies of American judges and of German bank regulators also found remarkable consistency.

Local communities must be able to run schools in their own ways. Health care providers must be accountable for overall quality, not to compliance police playing “gotcha.” Officials must be empowered to set up and give permits in “one-stop shops.” Governors must have freedom to try new ways to manage unemployment relief and other public services. Citizens must have someone to call, and to blame, when things aren’t working.

Reviving human responsibility does not solve societal challenges such as income stagnation, climate change, or immigration. But it reinvigorates a culture of practical action that is the antidote to corrosive polarization. Empowering people to be practical in their daily challenges will likely rub off in their political views. Polarization will fade away when Americans, waking up each morning, feel that both they and their officials in Washington can make a difference again.

Philip K. Howard is chair of Common Good and author of the new book Try Common Sense (W.W. Norton, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @PhilipKHoward. He’s also a friend and occasional colleague of New England Diary editor Robert Whitcomb. This piece first ran in The Hill.


David Warsh: The disrupted life of a business guru


Chances are, unless you are an MBA, you’ve never read anything by business guru Clayton Christensen, the author of a series of self-help business books beginning with The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, in 1997. Now, however, an interesting brouhaha has erupted surrounding Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s systematic evisceration of the arguments of Christensen last week in The New Yorker.

Lepore describes the Harvard Business School professor’s “disruption theory” as the product of a particular mood and moment in time – “the manufacture of an upsetting and edgy uncertainty,” as she puts it, a “competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.”  In the end, she says, it turns out to be an unreliable guide to action. “Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.”

Christensen immediately responded in an interview he gave to Bloomberg Businessweek. “I hope you can understand why I am mad that a woman of her stature could perform such a criminal act of dishonesty—at Harvard, of all places.”  The American Enterprise Institute, Paul Krugman and Salon's Andrew Leonard oeach chimed in. Harvard computer science Prof. Harry Lewis, himself something of an expert on disruptive change, added a couple of illuminating posts, "The Bogosity of Disruption Theory'' and "Clayton Christensen is Mad''.  Meanwhile, Harvard Magazine dubs Christensen a "Disruptive Genius" in a lengthy story in its summer issue.

To understand the contretemps, it helps to begin with a profile by staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar that appeared in The New Yorker two years ago.  To describe ''When Giants Fail: What business has learned from Clayton Christensen'' as credulous is an understatement; it is, in fact, a modern-day hagiography. It begins this way:

'“You can tell from the way I speak. I had a stroke about eighteen months ago. I’ve been learning how to speak English again, and you’ll see I still can’t come up with the right words sometimes.” The most influential business thinker on earth looked up and smiled apologetically. He stood with his hands in his pockets. His hair was neatly parted on the side. He was very tall. “I have a tendency to speak to the floor,” he said. “It’s because if I look at you, you distract me.”'

I would like to have been in the room when the magazine fact-checker asked for the source on the “the most influential business thinker on earth.” Later in the article, it turns out to depend mainly on a magazine cover story at the height of the boom:

"Andy Grove [CEO of Intel] stood up at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, holding a copy of The Innovator’s Dilemma, and told the audience it was the most important book he’s read in ten years.  The most important book Andy Grove had read in ten years! A man from Forbes was in the audience that day, and in 1999, Grove and Christensen appeared together on the cover of Forbes, and things were never the same for Clayton Christensen again.''

Thereafter, Michael Bloomberg sent copies of the book to 50 friends.  Bill Gates invited the professor to his home. Christensen partnered (for a time) with technology writer George Gilder.

By 2012, a couple of former columnists for The Times of London had invented Thinkers50, a biennial poll seeking to identify top management “thought-leaders” Christensen won twice in a row.

To that point, MacFarquhar’s article had been a chronicle of the early studies of computer disc drives and steel mini-mills (no mention of unions or foreign competition) that sparked Christensen to write The Innovator’s Dilemma, plus an account of his growing up Mormon on the wrong side of the Salt Lake City tracks. Well-managed businesses frequently remained too close to their customers’ needs to recognize, much less develop, new technologies that anticipate future needs, he had discovered; it was at the less profitable low end of the market where disruptive innovations most frequently emerged. Like his innovators, Christensen was “a low end kind of a guy,” MacFarquhar wrote, a diamond in the rough who nevertheless attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

A key moment in MacFarquhar’s exposition came when Christensen is hired to find a way to grow the market for milkshakes at one of the big fast-food chains. Survey data were extensive, but no improvement the company made seemed to increase the market. The consultant took a different approach, asking himself “what job is a customer trying to do when he hires a milkshake?” Extensive observation and interviewing followed; it turned out that most purchasers wanted a breakfast drink, one that wouldn’t spill and  that would last longer on the drive to the office.  Thus more viscous, not less, was the answer, along with tiny chunks of fruit to surprise and briefly stop up the straw. The implication is that the market for milkshakes began growing again, though how much, MacFarquhar didn’t say.

Christensen concluded that the only way a big company could avoid being disrupted would be to start a “skunk works” – a small spinoff unit located far away from headquarters, staffed by out-of-the-box thinkers who are charged with entering new businesses inimical to the interests of the company’s main business. This is not exactly a new idea, but Christenson applied it with greater abandon than ever before. He told Then-Defense Secretary William Cohen his parable about mini-mills and sheet steel, whereupon the Defense Department sets up a counter-terrorism unit in Norfolk, Va., Later, Christensen himself became Harvard University’s skunk works, taping a lecture for the University of Phoenix to demonstrate the potential of massive open online courses.  Harvard promptly entered into a joint venture with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue the possibilities.

So much for Christensen, New Yorker release 1.0. MacFarquhar is an accomplished writer, but in dealing with business history, she was operating outside of her comfort zone. Her Christensen article was one of a series of profiles of “moral saints,” part of a book about extreme morality that began with a 2009 New Yorker article about a series of persons who donated kidneys to others whom they did not know.

Harvard’s Lepore on the other hand, approaches her topic as a professional historian.  She is the author of several well-received books, beginning   Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (Knopf, 1998). She is at pains to establish the sources of her background knowledge as well. For a short time at the end of the 1980s, as an assistant to an assistant, she answered phones for Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter, the business guru whom Christensen has gradually displaced.  (Before Porter there was Peter Drucker, and before Drucker there was Bruce Henderson, of the Boston Consulting Group.)


Lepore does a good job of marshalling evidence against Christensen’s more sweeping claims as an industry analyst.  His sources, she writes, are “often dubious and his logic questionable;” his theories lack predictive power. His stylized graphics may provide the underpinning of the analysis of The New York TimesInnovation Report.”  but most of its would-be disrupters have yet to turn a profit. And his 2011 book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, with Henry Eyring, contributed to a frenzy for MOOCs, which hasn’t begun to live up to expectations.


Hooray for The New Yorker for permitting one staff writer dispute another, even obliquely (MacFarquhar is married to fellow staffer Philip Gourevitch). Hooray, too, for Harvard University, for merely wincing as one professor attacks another, and, from the citadel of the faculty of arts and sciences, mocks the methods of the business school.  Disruption vs. continuity?  Lepore has broached an important topic. You haven’t heard the last of it.

David Warsh, a long-time financial journalist, is proprietor of and an economic historian.