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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Is there a genuine new politics beyond left and right?
Is there a genuine new politics beyond left and right?
AbstractFor the past ten years at least, the ideological formulas of “left” and “right” have failed to satisfy Western electorates. They have failed to address critical issues facing modern democracies, such as preserving ecological balance and maintaining shared values in an increasingly atomised, rapidly changing society. However the attempt by some politicians and policy makers to transcend left and right has tended to lack substance and so lead in practice to muddled compromise. From this experience, this article concludes that a politics beyond left and right requires to not compromise between the two positions, but a creative synthesis of the two. This will produce new policies that combine the most positive elements in progressive and conservative thought. The article describes a number of very hopeful experiments from the USA, and Europe, which might point the way towards new approaches to politics.
Keywords: Politics, Political theory, Democracy
In Washington, as well as many European capitals, there has been much talk in recent years of the need for bi-partisanship, for policies that transcend left and right. This makes a neat rhetorical formula, but in itself offers little insight into what might be found in the new lands beyond liberal and conservative. The present state of political polarization, and the revival of old certainties, makes the task of fleshing out an intelligible new politics more urgent than before.
To transcend left and right and create a better world, a fundamental shift is needed. We must address our polarized, adversarial way of thinking and create a profound change in consciousness at a deep level. Einstein reminded us that we cannot solve a problem with the same level of consciousness that created the problem. “Two sides disagree,” he noted, “because they’re both wrong.”
But from a spiritual perspective, is there any deeper reason for left and right or for a two-party system? Yes, there is: behind each party is a key principle or essence, even though our modern Democratic and Republican parties may not clearly embody these essential principles. The liberal or progressive party theoretically represents the future, the next evolutionary ideas and the need for change. The conservative party theoretically preserves the best of the past, and makes sure that change is not so rapid that “the baby is thrown out with the bath water.” Clearly there is a certain wisdom in both of these principles, and each is needed to balance the other.
Although there may be many good political arguments for third parties (or for many parties, as in European politics), the two party system can exemplify polarities for us to see differences clearly. Often in life we can best perceive one polarity by experiencing the contrast of the opposite – e.g. the colour red is more vibrant when seen at the same time as blue. The alternation between opposites is what creates consciousness or awareness on a higher level. On a material level it’s what creates electricity. The great poets know the secret of polarity and often put two words with opposite meanings side by side, as Shakespeare did in his sonnets. Just as each atom needs both positive and negative particles to be complete and create a physical object, so we need the best of both sides of a political issue to construct a whole picture of reality.
“All great truths are paradoxes” was a profound teaching of the ancient philosophers. In the great mystery schools of Greece and Egypt, the initiates were given training in paradoxical thinking – how to hold two opposing truths in their minds at the same time and then resolve them into a higher synthesis. Learning to do this could be an important skill for today’s politicians seeking to bring together the best of conservative and liberal ideas.
This is not to say that partisanship is always wrong or that all polarities must always be resolved or that common ground (or even compromise) is always the highest spiritual path. Each party has the responsibility to present their point of view with clarity and reason and allow the people to decide how much of their viewpoint to embrace. Also, there are clearly times to fight against injustice. Nearly every religion has a tradition of the spiritual warrior who defends the weak. Although peaceful conditions can be fruitful for nurturing the spiritual development of a nation, for example, if the peace is an enforced, authoritarian one without justice, then forcefully challenging the status quo is an act of spiritual power.
If the motive for bi-partisanship is not genuine, when it’s not undertaken to serve the highest good of all, but merely a power move disguised in idealistic language – then it should be challenged, not embraced. There are often wolves in sheep’s clothing, cloaking their nefarious goals in ideals such as bi-partisanship.
But when the motives are at least relatively pure on both sides, and yet there are clearly different perspectives on policy issues, based on different philosophies, cultures, histories, etc., this a real opportunity to find higher common ground and synthesis. More effective and creative policies can result from a synthesis of the best ideas on both sides of an issue.
Synthesis is very different from compromise. Compromise is not the most effective way to deal with polarities, as sometimes the deeper wisdom in each side is lost. Compromise usually includes half of each position and can be seen as the midway point between two polarities (Figure 1).
Figure 1 Compromise
We must broaden our consciousness so that we can appreciate the best in both liberal and conservative perspectives on an issue, and hold the highest aspects of both in our consciousness at the same time. We can use our intuition to raise them up to discover a higher level – a true synthesis. Then we see that a political issue that seems to be a paradox on a lower level is actually a great political truth on a higher level.
To transcend the polarities in a true sense – to achieve what Carl Jung called the “creative function” – we have to go to a higher, spiritual level. The two polarities are drawn at each end of a straight line, and a triangle is drawn from each end of the line up to a point above, the point of synthesis (Figure 2).
Figure 2 The point of synthesis
George Hegel described this approach over a century ago as: “thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis.” To move into this position of synthesis, we must be willing to see the good in an opponent’s position and realize each of us sees only a part of the whole view. It also helps to distance ourselves from the problem and develop more detachment from our own position – so that change won’t threaten our sense of identity.
The philosophical dividing line between the liberal and conservative positions is a disagreement over whether social problems are caused by economic factors or by a breakdown in individual values, and thus whether government or individual solutions are best. Conservatives argue that the problem is with values, and so see little benefit, for example, in the Government spending more on the poor. Liberals argue that having good values does not help if there is not equal economic opportunity for all.
In the USA, policy deadlocks tend to arise when there are attempts to separate economics from values, with neither conservative nor liberal admitting any wisdom in the other’s perspective. For example, although the poor may suffer from some of their values and lifestyle choices (such as smoking), the poor also suffer from inadequate diet and a lack of access to health care, both of which can be partly cured by government spending.
Both liberals and conservatives promote important spiritual values. The liberal left promotes values of generosity, tolerance and inclusiveness. The conservative right promotes values of self-help, hard work and initiative. Some of their opposing views on each side of an issue are shown in Table I.
Table I Opposing views
Until we recognize and appreciate the contribution of both liberal and conservative principles, we will remain in polarized positions and will be unable to draw out the best of each to create a higher synthesis.
The Public Conversations Project in Boston found that a first step in finding common ground or a higher synthesis is to refrain from polarizing rhetoric and to avoid personal attacks and stereotypes of the other side. Toning down the rhetoric is critical and is also better politics, as it reaches more people, they realized.
A key approach in synthesizing liberal and conservative polarities is learning to listen, and listen genuinely, to those with opposing positions, to find the grain of truth in each. For example, Project Victory, based in Palo Alto, California, organized a “mediated dialogue” at the Los Alamos Labs in Berkeley for over 350 nuclear weapons designers and peace activists – the entire spectrum from right to left – asking people to enter a dialogue with a willingness to be changed by that dialogue. Because people really listened to each other, and weren’t preoccupied with making their own case of trying to prove the other person wrong, they each discovered new insights. A key step was to explore the interest or goals behind the different positions, and find common goals in their joint quest for peace.
Another technique for helping people transcend the left/right polarization, used by Search for Common Ground in Washington, DC, is to show both groups their own and their opponent’s propaganda films. Each side finally notices that they both employ the same exaggerated portrayals to evoke fear of their opponent and to smugly suggest that their own side has all the answers. When supporters of both disarmament and strong defence sat together to view each other’s films, for example, it was harder for each side to hold onto certainty of its own position and act smug about having all the answers.
A synthesis of the conservative position of “right to life” and the liberal “freedom of choice” has been developed by Network for Life and Choice convened by Search for Common Ground. This approach honours the values on both sides, the sacredness of both mother and foetus, rather than continuing the emotionally devastating focus on abortion. Instead of arguing about exactly when life begins, and whether abortion is murder, they instead reframed the debate to include the causal level (conception), and so found common ground. Both sides wanted to prevent unwanted pregnancies, so they agreed to work together on promoting conscious conception and pregnancy prevention through “The national campaign to prevent teen pregnancy”. Both sides also found a whole range of options on which they could work together, such as promoting adoption, reducing infant mortality rates, and preventing violence around abortion clinics.
The Character Education Partnership, based in Washington, DC, has created a synthesis of the conservative interest in teaching values in the schools and the liberal concern for inclusiveness and diversity. Through the use of a common ground, consensus building approach among teachers, students, administrators, parents and the community, diverse schools from Berkeley, California to Kansas City, Missouri have come up with a similar list of values to teach, such as honesty, integrity, courage, compassion, etc.
A synthesis is also emerging from the conservative interest in promoting school prayer, and the liberal interest in separation of Church and State and sensitivity to the diversity of religious expression. One approach is to allow a few minutes of silence to begin each school day (where students can pray or meditate or just do nothing quietly). A second approach is an educational one that is more inclusive than having only Christian prayers. This approach develops understanding and tolerance, as students take turns researching and presenting the major beliefs and prayers of different religions (as well as of the non-religious humanist tradition). With each presentation, students can either join in the prayers or just remain silent.
Some effective models of synthesis are emerging in many non-profit organizations around the world. For example, the liberal urge to help the poor and the conservative emphasis on self-help and entrepreneurship has been synthesized by organizations such as FINCA and the Grameen Bank. These groups give the poor very small loans to start businesses and then depend on peer relations to pay them back, generally with a 98 percent payback rate.
Conservative principles of individual ownership and liberal principles of central ownership have been synthesized in the model of worker-owned cooperatives, such as the highly successful Mondragon cooperatives in Spain with over 20,000 workers. Mondragon businesses produce major appliances and have their own banks, schools and hospitals.
Liberal and conservative are values are also synthesized in the social investment movement – investing in companies that express good social values such as protecting the environment or donating a percentage of profits to their communities. “Doing well by doing good” is their slogan.
The conservative concern for reducing crime and the liberal concern for rehabilitating criminals has been synthesized by the restorative justice movement, which brings together victims and offenders on a one-to-one basis for reconciliation. After the victims hear the offenders’ personal experiences, and the offenders hear about the pain they have caused the victims, tremendous breakthroughs, forgiveness and restitution often spontaneously result, and recidivism is lowered.
In the polarization between protecting the environment and protecting a free market economy, new solutions are emerging. A synthesis of the liberal environmentalist’s knowledge of energy-efficient ways to create products and the conservative industrialist’s knowledge of cost-effective production techniques is reflected in the growing new “market approach” to environmental problems. This synthesis includes approaches such as emissions trading (companies can trade emissions credits based on maximum pollution allowed), extended product liability (producers must recycle their products), performance-based regulations, and the inclusion of environmental impact costs in business accounting practices.
A synthesis of conservative and liberal economic approaches can temper free market capitalism with other values such as community, equity and compassion. Balancing market efficiency with social justice could create a better society. Tax incentives could be created for corporations to expand the bottom line from mere profit to profit and values (such as greater employee benefits, “flexi time,” or protection of the environment.) Competitive markets could be balanced by government policies that provide workers with access to job training, health care and transportation. Or the rewards of a market economy could be redistributed through a progressive consumption tax that encourages investment and assures a minimum standard of living for all. The Government could create greater opportunities for the poor, but those who receive benefits would then be required to live up to certain obligations and give something back to society.
The “communitarian” or civil society movement balances the rights of the individual with the interests of society as a whole, and promotes a return to values and morality fostered by community organizations. The non-profit sector could be strengthened through increasing tax credits for donations from individuals and corporations and for volunteering.
To create a truly new politics that transcends left and right, new ways of thinking are needed. There are, as yet, no complete roadmaps. An expansion in consciousness is required and a developing ability to transcend apparent paradoxes and enfold them into a higher unity. An identification with the good of the whole rather than with just our own group’s needs will take us far in creating a new approach. A spirit of goodwill towards those with opposing views, a win/win rather than win/lose approach, a release of self-righteousness, and a compassionate, healing spirit are the keys to this new politics.
Corinne McLaughlinCenter for Visionary Leadership, San Rafael, California, USA