Our Political Metaphor Problem

We don't have a political problem in the U.S.; we have a metaphor problem. The two dominant political parties have so much difficulty agreeing because each uses a different metaphor, which in turn affects how they see the world and how they want to change it.

Republicans tend to use a quantitative metaphor to describe what ails us. Government is too big, they believe, and we would all be better off with smaller government so that business can thrive. That they don't extend that metaphor to the private sector to distinguish between big and small business may explain the division in their own ranks between Wall Street and Main Street (or Tea Party) Republicans.

Democrats, in contrast, tend to use a qualitative metaphor. They see the government playing a critical role in improving the quality of people's lives, the quality of the natural environment, and the moral qualities that have made America a world leader. But qualitative metaphors eventually come up against quantitative realities and our ability to fund such continual improvement has begun to reach its limit.

Designers know all too well the power of metaphors. We use them all the time not only to generate new ideas, but to question the problems presented to us to solve. So often a client or a community will come to us with a challenge described in metaphorical terms: something is too small, too old, too inefficient and they want something bigger, newer, better.

The first thing a good designer does is challenge their challenge, so to speak. All too often, the metaphor used to frame a problem limits our ability to understand the real problem that we need to solve, and constrains the options that we have at our disposal. And so getting the metaphor right -- identifying the true nature of the issues we need to address -- remains an essential first step to good design, whether of a product or a political system.

Let's think about our political metaphors in terms of products for a moment. Is big always bad and small always good? It depends, of course: we don't want shoes too big any more than we do pants too small. In politics as in life, one size does not fit all. And is more always better? That too depends: we don't want products designed to last a long time in order to meet a short-term need any more than we want poor quality goods in a situation that demands durability.

The problem of applying quantitative and qualitative metaphors too broadly has plagued our political system as well. Sometimes we need more big government -- the inadequate Federal responses after hurricanes Katrina and Sandy come to mind -- and sometimes we need less, when Federal law, for example, interfered with constructive, local responses to those storms. And sometimes the government can improve the quality of people's lives -- ensuring equal access to housing, for instance -- and sometimes not, as the large-scale public housing projects of the 1950s and 1960s showed.

These examples suggest -- and the current divisiveness in Washington almost demands -- that we look for a new metaphor with which we frame our political debates. Our political parties should consider one that designers use all the time: a scale metaphor. Unlike quantitative or qualitative metaphors, scalar ones embrace the idea that what works at one size or dimension may not at another. Big or small isn't always better or worse; it depends upon the context and the nature of the problem.

How might an attention to scale change our politics? For some challenges, like climate change, a country is too small a scale. We need to work globally, and nothing any single nation does will make much of a difference. At the same time, opposing a united, global effort by claiming national sovereignty or denying the problem altogether, as has happened in the U.S., completely misunderstands the scale of the challenge.

The same applies to myriad other policy problems. Take water shortages in parts of the U.S. This demands regional solutions, at the scale of each watershed, and both the Federal government and local governments need to defer to watershed districts and other similarly scaled entities. This also demands regional oversight of both public and private activities that over-consume, waste or pollute water that others depend on. It's not about big vs. small government, but appropriately sized government for the problem at hand.

Or take job creation and entitlement programs. No two issues have more divided us than these, and yet both challenges encompass a number of scale-related problems. A shrinking city, with a depressed economy and an aging population, needs different job creation strategies and entitlement programs than a growing one able to attract young entrepreneurs. And an impoverished high-school dropout has different opportunity and support needs than an underemployed college graduate or an unemployed steel worker. Scale recognizes that relative size and local context matters.

A major obstacle to this metaphor lies in the idea that the same programs and policies must apply to everyone equally. While understandable in the abstract, that idea actually leads to extreme inequality, as poor communities have jobs created for them that hardly pay a living wage, while wealthy retirees receive entitlement benefits that they don't need, and as Federal laws get applied to everyone, except those with enough money to hire the lawyers needed to seek exemptions or avoid detection. No wonder so many people distrust such an approach.

To regain trust in our political institutions, we need a reset of our political metaphor. Instead of seeing our problems in strictly quantitative or qualitative terms, we need to sort our challenges according to their most appropriate scale and to empower the public, private, and non-profit sectors at the proper level to address each dilemma as creatively and productively as possible. And as to the question of whether government is the problem or the solution, we can only answer: it depends.

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.