05/05/2012 03:29 pm ET Updated Jul 05, 2012

Transform or Get Left Behind

Perhaps the most radical of America's Founders, Thomas Jefferson, believed every generation was required to re-invent itself politically. This wasn't some bizarre notion concerned with shaking things up for the sake of shake up. It was an extraordinary perception of one of life's absolute certainties: times change. And societies and nations either adapt to change or they get left behind.

Some eras, featuring political, industrial or technological revolutions, are more dramatic than others. We are in the middle, or perhaps even at the beginning, of one of those eras. Our government, our political systems and structures, must adapt to these revolutions or inevitably they will get trampled or left behind and our country with them.

There is nothing wrong with being conservative, repairing institutions and systems, once a storm has passed. But today, there is radical conservative resistance to the massive disruption of traditional structures -- families, communities and economies -- by using the very government that must adapt our country to globalization and information revolutions instead to stand in the path of change.

This will not work. Instead, this effort to hold onto the past, to resist political transformation, will lead to the very result the conservative mind most fears -- chaos. As historians, most notably Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., have documented, there are periods of progress, usually in the midst of turmoil, and there are periods of consolidation. What the government of the United States cannot permit itself to do is to seek to create a period of retrenchment in the midst of a revolutionary era.

The younger generation's reaction to conservative-led stalemate is to consider our government irrelevant. That's a big mistake. To paraphrase: you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. Transformation does not mean, as some now argue, wholesale "reinvention of government" in the sense of restructuring our Constitutional structures. It does mean the ability to adopt new laws and policies that stimulate U.S. response to this revolutionary era. No need for a lengthy shopping list. We all know what this means: a world class education system for a larger number; public infrastructure systems that work; a healthy, trained work force; new research and inventions; a healthy environment.

If anyone can prove that markets and the private sector will produce these public goods necessary for this revolutionary era, he or she has yet to appear. Many people are fearful of the era in which we live (not me; I believe it holds great opportunity), in part because there are so few leaders capable of explaining what it all means and how we transform ourselves to take advantage of it. Instead, the political wind tunnel in Washington, stimulated by cable media seeking stale confrontation, avoids addressing revolutionary ideas to promote America's transformation.

American politics is not adapting to a dramatically changing world. Instead, it is seeking to retreat into a past that never existed. This is folly on a grand scale and our children will pay for it. The world will not wait for us. We do not possess a Divine Mandate regardless of our folly. Jefferson knew that our Republic would survive and flourish only if it managed to transform itself to respond to economic, political and cultural change.