How Can We Make Our Politics Reflect What's Best in Us and Not What's Worst?
Both inner and outer change are essential for political transformation.
How Can We Make Our Politics Reflect What's Best in Us and Not What's Worst?
By Michael Edwards / opendemocracy.net
Jul 24, 2016

Picture a human anus superimposed on President Obama’s mouth, or a smiling Hilary Clinton attached to the giant belly of a hog, or a presidential primary debate “featuring Donald Trump comparing his genitals with those of a group of fellow frat boys.” Disgusting right? Welcome to election season in America.

Some Democrats have also been honing their skills on Photoshop, though they usually limit their efforts to Pinocchio-sized noses or unfortunate expressions captured on the faces of Republicans. Still, Sarah Palin received the same ‘lipstick-on-a-pig’ treatment in 2008 as Clinton is getting now.

But so what? Isn’t this all part of the normal rough and tumble of highly-contested politics? After all, unflattering cartoons have been part of every election season since the U.S. Constitution was adopted. Politics has always been a “contact sport” as Clinton aide Huma Abedin puts it, “it’s not for everyone.”

Or perhaps it’s not for anyone if declining voting rates are anything to go by in many countries (recent referenda in the UK notwithstanding). Why bother to vote if your voice just gets lost in the noise created by mindless slanging matches between uninspiring candidates? And that’s the problem: this style of politics is deeply antagonistic to any genuine expression of democracy, since democracy requires engagement, reflection, compromise and negotiation as well as protest and opposition—and therefore a good deal of empathy and openness to other people’s views. A number of commentators see Trump’s ascendance not as a freakish occurrence that threatens to place the ugliest of Americans in the White House, but as the logical end point of a long-term degeneration in the manners of political engagement.

Writing in the New York Times, for example, David Brooks cited Trump as the apotheosis of “antipolitics,” arrived at through “a series of overlapping downward spirals” revolving around the election of incompetent but determined politicians, a dedicated refusal to compromise, and the exaggeration of all political differences. Bob Burnett went further for Daily Kos by tracing these trends back to Ronald Reagan’s encouragement of “absolutism” in politics (partly to tempt evangelical Christians into the Republican fold), which also encouraged the celebration of ignorance on policy questions and the raising up of opposition at all costs to whatever the ‘other side’ recommends.

‘Defeat, ignore and dominate’ becomes the mantra, accumulating political power for no creative purpose. The human costs of this process must be considerable in terms of dividing the polity still further, fomenting conspiracy theories and mistrust, and rendering progress pretty much impossible on key issues like health, education and inequality—beyond a few tweaks here and there that can actually make it through the logjam of parliament or Congress.

There’s already evidence that the bullying style of the Trump campaign is filtering down into schools and other institutions. For example, an online survey of 2,000 teachers carried out in June 2016 revealed an increase in racist and other taunts that, at least in part, was attributable to the xenophobic rhetoric of the presidential primary debates—with children repeating some of Trump’s statements almost word for word (“You were born in a Taco Bell”).

It’s all a million miles away from President Obama’s final State of the Union speech delivered in January 2016. “How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us,” he asked, “and not what’s worst.” Instead, politics has become a canvass for expressing the most limited and fearful expression of our identities.

So it’s perfect timing for the revised edition of a classic book from the 1970s that goes right to the heart of these dilemmas and offers an optimistic route into the future—Mark Satin’s “New Age Politics: our only real alternative.” Originally published in 1976 by a non-profit publishing collective in Canada, the book became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. Fritjof Capra wrote a foreword to the German translation and Satin was later celebrated as one of Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson’s “Cultural Creatives.”

In an email exchange after the release of his new book, Satin told me of his struggles with diabetic retinopathy and macular edema. These health problems limit him to three hours of reading or writing a day—making the publishing process much more difficult—but he was still upbeat.  “Yes, the term New Age is out of fashion” he said, “but substitute red-green, integral, or transformational” and the story is the same—there won’t be any breakthrough in politics without a shift in consciousness inside those who take part, but those shifts are more likely to occur through new political institutions that encourage openness and collaboration.

The Six-Sided Prison

In exploring these personal-political relationships Satin traces everything back to what he calls the “six-sided prison:” patriarchal attitudes, egocentricity, scientism, a bureaucratic mentality, nationalism, and the “big city outlook” (by which he means living in any oversized place where we are distanced from nature).This prison is responsible for racism, sexism, ecocide and repression, which are then institutionalized in social, political and economic systems like schools, families, religions, hospitals, the military, and the “hyper-centralized state.”

By developing a “prison-free consciousness,” alternative, non-monolithic institutions can be created like trans-partisan decision-making, healing instead of industrial medicine, learning in place of school production lines, job sharing instead of competition, and lots of different kinds of families and sexual partnering. Satin sees these things as forming the essential sub-structure of a different form of politics, but where to start?

His advice is simple and to the point: “inner before outer, but don’t dawdle.” Begin by examining yourself and your role in maintaining this prison, but move quickly into action by creating new institutions. “I wish I was able to tell you how to break down each of the prison walls,” he writes, “But the truth is, I’m still hacking away at my own.” It’s a refreshing dose of honesty in a conversation about personal change, mindfulness and meditation in politics which often seems shallow and self-serving

In an interview for Huffington Post Satin emphasized that “the prison doesn’t exist only in our minds, and we can’t just wish or meditate or educate it away….One thing I have noticed over the years is that some of the most dedicated meditators I know are also some of the most aggressive, manipulative, and competitive people…a transformational mass political movement can’t be generated by telling people what to do. Instead, we need to make our goals and our everyday processes seem so compelling, so life-affirming, and so sustainable that people will want to live in that world even if it means they’ll have to drive smaller cars.” 

With its advocacy of a whole raft of institutions that are now beginning to emerge 40 years after Satin first outlined them, New Age Politics was way ahead of its time. But strangely for a book with that title, it doesn’t contain much concrete guidance on alternative political systems. Localization is suggested as a way of boosting political participation, along with new political parties and systems that emphasize “the obligation of officials to help everyone get their way” (as opposed to serving one particular faction). Yet it’s precisely the lack of detailed working alternatives that bedevils the search for political transformation. 

Of course the screen isn’t completely blank. Satin published a more elaborate account of his political ideas in a more recent book called The Radical Middle. The social and political movements that have unfolded across Europe in the last five years like Podemos and Nuit Debout carry within them the seeds of personal-political change that he would instantly recognize as ‘New Age,’ though in most cases they have yet to be connected to the representative elements of democracy in any sustained or substantive fashion. It’s that question—very live right now in the struggles of the Labour Party in Britain and, to a lesser extent, between the Sanders and Clinton wings of the Democrats in the USA—that looks set to dominate progressive politics in the short to medium term.

Removing the toxic influence of money is also vital, as are mechanisms that allow citizens to vote directly on matters of local concern when the national state ignores them—like the ballot initiatives that supported a single payer health insurance system in Colorado. Research suggests that people are happier in the 24 U.S. states that make such initiatives a part of the political process because they feel more connected and see that they can have more influence—though ballots and referenda are not, of course, immune from manipulation themselves.

The reality, however, is that none of these experiments have made much headway. Perhaps the US needs its own ‘Brexit moment’ to create space for the kind of radical regeneration of progressive politics that may be possible in times of crisis. But in the face of systemic inertia it’s tempting to return to Satin’s core message that new political institutions need new people to make them work, especially leaders who can break out of the status quo and create space for lots of others to follow suit until some sort of tipping point is reached.

In that sense there’s one other, very good reason to heed his call for ‘inner before outer change, but don’t dawdle,’ and that’s because changing ourselves is something that lies largely within our own control. Structural considerations like race, class, gender and poverty always restrict people’s opportunities and choices, but no-one needs to wait for the revolution before getting started.

So the next time you’re tempted to demonize your opponents, take care—it could be the start of a long and slippery slope. On the other hand, resisting that temptation could be the springboard to New Age politics.

Michael Edwards is a writer and activist based in upstate New York, and the editor of Transformation. His website is www.futurepositive.org and his twitter account is @edwarmi.

0.0 ·
0
Trending Today
How a Lack of Touch Is Destroying Men
Mark Green · 4,762 views today · Why Men Need More Platonic Touch in their Lives
Globalization Makes No Sense
Chris Agnos · 4,448 views today · When I lived in San Francisco, I often would marvel at the movement of goods through the ports across the bay in Oakland. Full container ships would enter the bay one after...
Proof of Evolution That You Can Find on Your Body
4 min · 3,120 views today · Vestigial structures are evolution's leftovers — body parts that, through inheritance, have outlived the context in which they arose. Some of the most delightful reminders of...
Those That Did Not Seek Revenge
Dr. Ann Russo · 2,005 views today · Dr. Ann Russo on violence, healing, and transforming justice.
DAPL Opponents Vow to 'Rise' From Ashes of Oceti Sakowin and Keep Fighting
Lauren McCauley · 1,917 views today · 'They cannot extinguish the fire that Standing Rock started,' Dallas Goldtooth declared
Immigrants For Sale (2015)
33 min · 1,111 views today · The detention of migrants has become a multi-billion dollar industry in which immigrants are sold to the highest bidder and traded like mere products. The Corrections...
Stunning Small Homes Form Part of a Communal Compound for Best Friends
Lighter Side · 1,000 views today · If you’re lucky enough to have longtime friends even as an adult, then you know probably already know how much it means to be able to spend time together. Maybe you even have a...
The Foiled Bomb Plot in Kansas That Didn't Make Trump's Terror List
5 min · 924 views today · When a plot by a pro-white militia to bomb a Somali mosque in Kansas was foiled by the FBI last October, the aborted conspiracy received little national coverage - nor did it...
Without Saying a Word This 6 Minute Clip From Samsara Will Make You Speechless
6 min · 882 views today · Can you put this video into words? It's a clip from the phenomenal documentary Samsara, directed by Ron Fricke, who also made Baraka.  If you're interested in watching...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 839 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 835 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 830 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
Compassion, the Antidote
Martin Doblmeier · 799 views today · Thich Nhat Hanh has published nearly 100 books and is one of the best-known teachers of Zen Buddhism in the world today. In the early 1960s his practice of what he termed...
Where the Term "Redneck" Came From
15 min · 740 views today · If you don't know this story, you'll never look at the word the same again.  This is just a window into the sometimes shocking, subversive and untold history of the United...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 668 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
How Wolves Change Rivers
4 min · 633 views today · When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable "trophic cascade" occurred. What is a...
Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men Of Touch
Mark Greene · 461 views today · Homophobic prohibitions against male touch are hurting straight men as well.
10 Words Every Girl Should Learn
Soraya Chemaly · 446 views today · "Stop interrupting me."  "I just said that." "No explanation needed." In fifth grade, I won the school courtesy prize. In other words, I won an award for being polite. My...
Michael Moore Wants to Help You Find Your Next Anti-Trump Protest
Sarah Ruiz-Grossman · 368 views today · The Resistance Calendar lists upcoming rallies across the country.
The Most Astounding Fact about the Universe
3 min · 315 views today · This is Neil Degrasse Tyson's response when asked to describe the most astounding fact about the universe. Background music is the cinematic orchestra - To build a home.
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
How Can We Make Our Politics Reflect What's Best in Us and Not What's Worst?