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.

Michael Edwards
18 July 2016

Credit: CC0 Public Domain.

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.

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.


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