The New York Times
continues to run a series of in-depth articles on Hillary Clinton, not just because she is a U.S. Senator from its fair state, but clearly because it is has an inkling she may well be our next president. The most recent, an October 26, 2007 Times
article on Hillary Clinton's management practices, referred frequently to her attachment to "process" (and for some reason, the reporter typically puts this word in quotes when referring to it - as if it is so foreign, so unfamiliar, that we can only become attuned to it if he does so.) Here are the mentions of process (or should I say, "process"):
1) It is indeed likely that a Hillary Clinton White House would be more punctual, precise and process-oriented than her husband's.
2) In the White House, Mrs. Clinton often sat silently for long stretches during strategy sessions that could spiral into long-winded free-for-alls. She would grind her elbows into the table, then let fly.
"If she felt a discussion was being organized in a haphazard way, she would not hesitate to challenge the process and say, 'What are we doing here?'" Mr. Panetta said.
3) When Mrs. Clinton was first lady, her ill-fated effort to overhaul the nation's health care system was clearly a political defeat, but it also involved management missteps for which she drew wide criticism. "There was a level of perfectionism there," said John B. Breaux, a former senator from Louisiana. Determined to create a comprehensive "process," Mrs. Clinton allowed the project to become unwieldy -- convening a "task force" that included 412 government employees, 82 "special" or temporary staff members and 17 consultants who helped produce a 1,342-page document.
Mrs. Clinton concedes she made numerous mistakes in the effort. "I'm very interested in how you reach and implement decisions in a very efficient way," she said. "Certainly, there was a lot of pressure on us to do things that, now in retrospect, I don't think were in the best interests of the overall plan."
4) The people who thrive within Mrs. Clinton's "process" are those who best provide the currency of choices. "She wants to know, 'O.K., what are my options here?'" Ms. Solis Doyle said. "She wants a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C. She wants recommendations. Then she'll make a decision."
I have a sneaking suspicion that if Senator Clinton becomes our next president, the word "process" is going to become a new catchword in the American lexicon - much as "organic" became so popular in the last decade, when big corporations realized its moniker would sell billions of dollars more in products, and so was no longer a lonely, marginalized concept, the use of which was confined mostly to longtime progressive farmers and their customers. As the concept of process becomes more popular, I fret that it will become diluted of its value - that it will come to stand for so much, it in fact will connote very little.
Because the time may loom when the concept of process may come to mean so many things that it means next to nothing, the time may be nigh to explore not only what we are explicitly referring to when we are talking about process, and particularly as it relates to deliberative discourse and decision-making - but to explore types and degrees of process, the values that must undergird process inquiry if it is to be of worth, the ends and ethos, method and means with which it should be imbued.
In reading the Times article ballyhooing Hillary Clinton's managerial style, I kept asking myself, what in the world does the reporter mean by "process-oriented"? Just because Senator Clinton and her staff describe it as such, does that make it such? I was further befuddled by what he meant when he said that during her failed attempt as first lady to pass sweeping health care reform, her principal shortcoming in doing so was her insistence on creating, come what may, "a comprehensive 'process.'" I fail to see what was comprehensive about it. I remember that it was chaotic, that it was largely put together behind closed doors, that it did include a lot of federal bureaucrats and consulting groups (who made a lot of money in putting it together), but I don't recall that it ever comprised many, if any, everyday people. To be sure, it may have claimed to be the result of the nightmarish experiences of ordinary people who could no longer afford healthcare, but the "experts" who planned and plotted it did not seem to encompass them as equals in the decision-making "process" - and if this is so, I wonder whether a Clinton presidency will be much different from preceding ones.
In announcing her candidacy, Clinton said that in an ideal world she would like to enter the living rooms of each American family and pick their brains before making any decision. But it would appear that she covets the role of being the ultimate "decider" (as our current president coined it) as much as any of her predecessors. It doesn't appear that she wants us to come out of our respective living rooms and take part as equals in deciding policies that affect us all. Rather, as sympathetic as I might be with her politically in some respects, all evidence so far would seem to indicate that she would leave the decision-making institutions and apparatus within the government intact, and yearns to attain the highest office in the land in order to decide for us what is best for us. The mere fact that she engages in a process that at least provides her with some variety of options may make her (or most other contenders, for that matter) a welcome relief over her predecessor. Yet I can't help but feel we are still selling short ourselves and our capacities to steer and be equal contributors to the process.
The Times article notes that those who best thrive in Clinton's particular decision-making process are those who provide her with a "currency of choices" - and "then she'll make a decision." What if - and I know this is pie in the sky right now - there were no sole decider? What if, the more critical the decision and the more citizens it potentially impacted, it was incumbent that the process include a vast array of citizens of diverse experiential, educational, and socioeconomic and political backgrounds?
Even if one considered this possibility, one might well say I'm putting the cart before the horse. One might ask: What in the world do we mean by process? What is its function? What should be its overriding ethos? What should be its ideals and ends? Should it have fixed ideals and ends, a fixed method of deliberation, or should it be evolutionary in bent, changing continually over time? What constitutes "sound process" in any sphere of discourse - social, spiritual, professional, political, aesthetic, what have you? Are there "universals" to process that transcend any particular human sphere, or does sound process change from context to context, situation to situation, culture to culture, sphere to sphere? Is all process-oriented dialogue good, redemptive? Or can there be bad or not-so-good types? If so, how so?
What IS process?
Here's a Merriam-Webster definition: 1 a: progress, advance b: something going on : proceeding (1): a) natural phenomenon marked by gradual changes that lead toward a particular result (2): a): continuing natural or biological activity or function b) : a series of actions or operations conducing to an end.
One process, or set of overlapping processes, we need invest much energy and passion in now, in my view, is one that rescues our attenuated democracy. To do this, the process must ever widen the circle of inclusivity when it comes to the public citizenry, problem solving, and decision making. It is one that should not just lead to a concrete end in any specific context, but should be a dynamic entity whose overall end should be to engage all Americans, to bring them together to discourse and experiment in ways in which we can evolve our ideals over time, even revolutionize our functional notions of what democracy might be. Process may well be a natural, organic phenomenom, but this is not to say it will ipso facto grow in healthy ways; indeed, depending on the process used, it may lead to a further withering on the vine of our beloved democracy.
In coming years, those of us involved in bringing about more participation in the public sphere need give great thought to the processes we hope to cultivate as ingrained habits among citizens and mainstays of the democratic fabric. Moreover, it behooves us to consider that, contrary to dictionary definitions, process -- in the context of deliberative discourse for the ends of evolving a creative participatory democracy -- may not, in some contexts, lead to gradual changes, but, as with the processes inherent in physical evolution, may at times lead to sudden and dramatic changes, and we need to be expectant of and open to that exhilarating (and, perhaps at times, alarming) possibility and prospect.
Most of all, dictionary definitions typically are devoid of making mention of the fact that our concepts are human inventions laden with values, with philosophies, with functions - and depending on the values and philosophies we bring to the table when engaged in process, we may well wind up evolving our society (and the concept of process itself) or devolving it. At least, it's something to think about - just as we may want to incorporate types of process that do not always lead to particular results, but that lend themselves to leading us continually to the surprise of the novel and unfamiliar, to what Emerson called "newness," to new discoveries about ourselves, our capacities, and those of the universe itself. Dewey for one believed that all processes, not just physical ones, were natural and organic, and that only if we grasp how wedded our political processes are to the larger physical sphere could we then be inspired to harness it in ways that made the universe itself more emancipative.