“Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”
And, I would add “…and trust destroyed” to get us fully to our American “culture of accountability”.
To spice it up, I would also like to bring in the old Mark Twain saying, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Accountability is the American hammer and we’re nailing ourselves!
This is the 21st Century American zeitgeist. As singular human systems have pluralized and their centralized, simplistic, organizing narratives in global politics (think Cold War or its most recent attempted reclamation the Axis of Evil), democracy (the American model as the only real model), and capitalism (the Bootstraps Story, “if you just work hard enough…”, and the righteous inevitability of American economic dominance) have lost potency, we have grabbed our accountability hammers and started swinging for any nail we can find. We are looking for someone to blame, for clean answers, clear data, and simplistic narratives that reinforce our past but no longer match our work and our world. And, the more we do this, the more we spend our present nailing ourselves to the past. We are grasping for residue.
Despite our American nostalgia for a “simpler time” and our longing for a half-told history of the 20th Century, this sort of pluralization is progress (not an unraveling), and is an indicator of the success of our own very American ideals around the world! We “won” the Cold War and our ideals about democracy and the role of a government “of the people” continue to spread with remarkable speed.
The engine of capitalism, while admittedly creating numerous problems in its wake, is in fact delivering on its promise of economic progress, the only promise it actually makes. Ask China, India, or Brazil. (Equity is a social value, not an economic one, but that is for another post.)
The current angst in the American psyche appears to be a kind of bizarre self loathing as we watch our models and our ideals spread through the rest of the world and reflect back on us. No longer “the only game in town” as we were for most of the 20th Century, we demonstrate a sort of narcissism in which our own reflective love for our past selves is difficult to discern from our disgust for a present in which others look more and more like us (and challenge us to redefine capitalism and democracy).
Our current understanding of our democracy and economy, similar to the nature of accountability measures, is backward looking, based on what we already know and what we have already established as valuable enough to document and evaluate. Precisely for this reason, these all require active investment and vigilance in the present to remain even somewhat relevant.
Accountability without constant attention and evolution keeps us locked in a past in which those accountability principles were standard. Economics without constant attention and evolution keeps us locked in a past in which those economic principles were standard. Democracy without constant attention and evolution keeps us locked in a past in which those democratic principles were standard.
Somewhere along the way, we got lax in our own responsibilities to push such necessary evolution of thought and of our social, political, and economic institutions. We have been lulled to sleep by prior success without realizing the rest of the developed world is no longer a post-WWII bombed-out shell. We got caught up in our own historical inevitability and stopped investing in future iterations of ourselves. We have just continuously maxed out our present state rather than working toward new, improved versions of it.
So, now, in a time of angst and uncertainty in a tired and ragged political and economic present, we seek a culture of accountability in schools, in Washington, and on Wall Street in a way that aligns with short-term reform but obscures the fundamental investments that will keep us relevant over time. We need accountability, but only a newly minted investment in the responsibility of all of us to build our communities, our schools, our political systems, and our economy will allow America to continue to inspire positive global change and to become our best selves at home.
Let’s look forward, not backward.
Let’s invest in cultivating responsibility not just the residue of its absence.