Democrats and Republicans: Are We Going in the Wrong Direction?
The country is headed in the wrong direction. So say 61% of us in the United States, give or take the weekly fluctuation in the polls. Republicans say the policies of the current administration are taking us in the wrong direction. Democrats say gridlock partisanship and the polarization of wealth are taking us in the wrong direction. Everyone says this election is about which direction we choose for our country. Are all directions created equal, and it’s just a matter of our party affiliation to pick one?
No. We know there are better and worse directions, whether we see this in our own lives (“Do I go to college or become a junkie?”), or writ large in the legacies of leaders like Mandela vs. Hitler. An integral perspective helps us see clearly: not all directions are created “AQAL” – that is, honoring the individual and the group and fostering all stages of development. The developmental journey through levels gives us a pretty clear indication of what it means to “grow up” vs. regress, whether we’re speaking individually or for the society as a whole. As we grow, each level of development becomes an embracing/transcendent step up from the one before it. Individually, for example, we move through the terrible two’s, discovering our ego power, then learning to control our emotions and follow rules; rebellion strikes and rationality emerges, we learn to cast a wider net and grow into a more strategic, sensitive self, and eventually to a more integrated whole. At each step in this process, our sense of self changes and, with that, the world we’re capable of creating (for a lighthearted romp through how much this sense of self matters, I invite you to a 9-min video on The Zen Leader Animated).
Another view into this ascension through levels comes from a Zen Buddhist perspective which talks about “6 realms” that we migrate through. These realms are not geographies, but states of mind, ranging from the raging anger of hell to the greed of hungry ghosts, through conflict, animal nature, human mind and the unconditional acceptance of heavenly mind. I’ve come to think of these as something like a 6-story building that we are always moving up and down through. But as you might imagine, the more primitive our developmental level (might is right!), the more likely we are to hang out on the lower floors. Conversely, the more we move toward our integrated self, and ultimately non-dual consciousness, the more we manifest the truth of the Zen koan, “Every day is a good day.”
For society as a whole, we go through these same levels, depending on where a critical mass of people are in their own development. For example, in the West, we fought our way through tribal times when might was right, we organized ourselves largely around the rules of religion in the Middle Ages, we reached the rebellious Age of Rationality, which led to industrial revolutions; we found that we had to expand our net of concerns to keep from blowing ourselves up or destroying the earth, and the peace movement and green movement emerged. And here we are.
So given this backdrop – this in-our-bones understanding that we are all developing human beings and development moves in a direction that we recognize as “growing up” - we have a very clear litmus test for what are right and wrong directions for ourselves individually and for our nation as a whole. A wrong direction is one that moves us backward in development or down through the realms. A right direction moves us forward or up. It’s pretty simple.
When politicians pull us down toward anger and fear, we are going in the wrong direction. When they pull us up toward what’s possible in our lives, we are going in the right direction.
When politicians play to our personal greed (“Vote for me and I’ll never let a tax bill through no matter what.”) we are going in the wrong direction. When they pull us toward sincere efforts to jointly solve our nation’s financial problems (e.g., the bipartisan Simpson – Bowles Commission), we are going in the right direction.
When politicians demonize their opponents to solidify their base, we are going in the wrong direction. When they acknowledge paradoxical differences and use them to get to higher level truths, we are going in the right direction.
If I were polled today, I would probably join the 61% who say we’re going in the wrong direction, but not because of policies of this administration. Far from it. Rather, because in my lifetime, I have watched partisanship increase as political parties figured out they could make more money by demonizing the other side. I have seen party platforms play on fears, at times pointing more toward feudal warfare and the intolerance of the Middle Ages than even the Age of Rationality. I have heard our political dialogue become more angry and less productive. Working with leaders in business, I find they are forced to be productive, to make compromises, to get things done. But many political leaders see no need to be productive and create unending stalemate while our national bills pile up and problems persist. THESE are the wrong directions that would have me voting with the multitude.
But neither do I despair. For, just as we see in our own lives, and as psychologists and sociologists would tell us from their research, development is a messy process. It’s not linear, straightforward or always up. It’s hit and miss, stretch and retrench, two steps forward and one step back. And even this messy time in our collective political life is unfolding as it needs to. Today is a perfectly good day.
But when I vote, and I speak for the growth urge in all of us, I will choose the leader who is most able to move us forward and up. Democrats and Republicans, are you listening?
About the author: Dr. Ginny Whitelaw is a leadership expert and Zen master in the Chozen-ji line of Rinzai Zen. She is the author of The Zen Leader (www.thezenleader.com), President of Focus Leadership, and founder of the Institute for Zen Leadership