Leadership and Depolarization in These Times

December 2022

It’s not clear to me that the long-term generational rise of liberal values, which I do think is happening, and [of] which there’s solid evidence in the polls, is necessarily going to trump all these other aspects which are changing the political institutions in America and really are weakening democracy and the public’s faith in the norms of democracy in America.

Pippa Norris, comparative political scientist, on the Ezra Klein podcast

I was born in 1966, between two notorious pairs of politically-motivated assassinations in that decade. President John F. Kennedy Jr.’s in 1963 and Malcom X’s in 1965 preceded my birth, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s both happened in 1968.  All four men were icons of vast movements to shift American culture towards the more inclusive and equitable values represented by the broadest interpretations of the U.S.’s imperfect founding documents.  But context is everything; without having deliberately repaired the profound traumas caused by our genocidal history with indigenous peoples and nations, slavery and the Civil War, a failed Reconstruction that became Jim Crow and an unfinished Civil Rights project, Women’s Suffrage without an Equal Rights Amendment, the devastations of two World Wars and questionable-at-best forays into Vietnam, etc. (among many other mass cleavages), to this day our heap of unhealed wounds make all Americans incalculably vulnerable to our own and each other’s excruciating frustrations. 

As the saying goes, pain that is not transmuted is transmitted.  In its fragmentation, American culture – rather than teaching us to lean into what we can learn from our own and each other’s extreme discomfort – pushes us to deny, resist, fix or assign blame for it.  We’re entranced by a mass delusion that a pain-free life is possible if we possess certain things.  Understandably then, driven by mirages created by social-media algorithms and derange rhetoric, we are confused about power.  We are mistaken that power is a zero-sum game, that exclusion works, that power-over is more effective than power-with, and that any other force (like money or “likes” or guns or votes) is more powerful than love – the behavioral hallmarks of which I’d argue, in the political realm, are curiosity, compassion and optimism.  As a citizenry and a democracy, we are certainly still resilient enough to heal our civic body, and to shore up or redesign our political institutions if we commit to learning how to inhabit these three things in our day-to-day discourse.  Post-traumatic growth is possible.  But ever since the January 6th insurrection, many of us wonder whether or for how long resurgent public violence will delay or prevent this possibility.  So what is the call to leadership – including as the leaders of our own lives – in These Times?

It may be an unwelcome prospect (at least it is to me…), but the foundational step is to dedicate ourselves to transforming our own individual shit into fertilizer.  When we gently allow the roots of our psychological distress to surface into awareness, we gradually find our way through our unique suffering with increasing self-acceptance.  If we can do that, we simultaneously cultivate the vital self-love that quietly animates our singular contributions: to a healthier family, community, national and planetary situation.  As the late Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh put it, “No mud, no lotus” – i.e. without the ugly nutritious muck, nothing inspiring blooms.  If you’ve been putting off therapy, AA, coaching, talking with a clergy-person, joining a peer-support group, or starting an emotion-expression technique like journaling, don’t wait any longer.  It’s astounding how elusive and challenging self-love can be (she declares, from experience!), but this is the only process I know of to intentionally open our hearts up enough to make sincere political inquiries that strengthen muscles of curiosity (“what can I learn from someone else who believes something so different from what I believe?”), compassion (“what does the world look like through ______’s eyes?”) and optimism (“what else is possible for us, starting in this immediate moment?”).

Life is hard to begin with, and humans aren’t curious, compassionate or optimistic when we tell ourselves that our sources of safety, security or status are being taken away.  Under stress, we’re neurobiologically wired to shrink into reactive, constricted and sometimes aggressive and even violent patterns. In the United States, where our culture’s scarcity mindset meets our irrational caste systems, the effects of our unaddressed historical depravities seem to manifest in pathological behavior around four constructs in particular: whiteness, masculinity, land and treasure.  In my view, and as recent tragic events attest, the pressure of this country’s unresolved stuff triggers an astonishing amount of self-destructive energy (by suicide, mass shooters trending toward younger men, and the amount of white supremacist violence now fueling the recent rise in domestic terrorism, prompting other countries to issue travel warnings for their tourists here). 

I wonder what would have to happen to force us to fully pause and look at our cultural truths with clear-eyed vision.  As a citizenry, will Americans ever have enough honesty, courage and will to face the complexity of our anguish?  Is it possible for a national healing process to emerge from this era (perhaps through transformative justice projects and/or resilience-based indigenous approaches)?  Will the faith and values of our young people – who voted in the 2022 midterms at the second-highest rate in 30 years – continue to shape a stronger future for our weakening democracy?  These huge questions remain to be answered.  In the meantime, I humbly offer my personal list of what I believe are the smallest depolarizing things we can each do as leaders at work and at home that make the biggest difference in 2023 and beyond:

  • Start with ourselves.  We know this intuitively: how we engage in the inevitable conflicts within ourselves is also how we engage in the inevitable conflicts we have in our interactions with others.  So – without judgment – notice your patterns, and then work on them.  Reach out for support when you need it.  Practice seeing with a “full moon in each eye,” beginning in front of the mirror. 
  • Be conscious of our language.  Observe when and where we use disrespectful or contemptuous language about people whose politics we disagree with, including around kids.  How conscious are you of whom you disparage?  (What would you say if they were right there in the same room with you?)  My practice is challenging myself to separate humans from political stances.  We wire our brains – and childrens’ brains – with repetition, and our polarizing words polarize the world. 
  • Get off social media.  I suspect much of my personal hopefulness comes from where I’m not: luckily, I never created a Facebook or Twitter account, and I go on a “news diet” when my curiosity, compassion and optimism start fading. 
  • Volunteer.  Whether for an effort that transcends politics, like your local food shelf, or for an organization specifically designed to address political depolarization like Braver Angels, donate time to finding common purpose with others.  (Consider checking out New Politics, a bipartisan nonprofit that helps candidates with a track record of national service run for office; for the last couple of years, I have been offering pro bono and discounted executive coaching for internal leaders there.)
  • Tiny gestures of connection are meaningful.  Polarized politics is one symptom of our culture’s “crisis of belonging” and our need for more connection.  Micro-connections (the opposite of micro-aggressions) make a difference. Driving my car this summer, I was stuck trying to make a left-hand turn into a parking lot, waiting for the relentless oncoming traffic to subside.  Suddenly, an older white man in an enormous pick-up truck flying a six-by-ten-foot “FUCK BIDEN” flag stopped for me, and waved my little Subaru Crosstrek across his lane to my destination.  I smiled and held up my hand in thanks.  Ditching my cynical narratives (“what he was really doing…,” “who he wouldn’t have done that for…”), I decided to accept his gesture as the courtesy it was – period.  Anything else would be me making stuff up in service of keeping my polarized worldviews intact.  Now I’m just curious.
  • If you’re a Vermonter, read and share the engaging new comic book about how democracy works here.  Titled “Freedom and Unity” after our state motto, the book explains how Vermont attempts to navigate the polarities between individual and statewide needs through its unique blend of processes.
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