Center for Theory & Research

Volume III: Political Polarization

Reflections on Esalen's 2014 Conclave on Political Polarization

Steve McIntosh

Esalen eZine Volume III, January 2015

Though there seemed to be clear agreement that our democracy’s currently dysfunctional condition is something we need to get beyond, clear differences of opinion emerged regarding whether the polarization is actually representative of the electorate, or artificially manufactured by the two major parties. This latter view holds that ideological polarization in the electorate is actually a myth, and that Americans have been merely “sorted” by hyperpartisans on both sides.

This argument has been advanced by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina, and has been particularly influential among Centrists who would like to believe that Americans are not really divided deep down.

For those who agree with Fiorina’s thesis, straightforward structural solutions such as depoliticizing congressional redistricting and reform of party primaries seem best, especially when these reforms are linked with process solutions, such as those which seek to bring more civility to political dialogue.

At the Esalen gathering, those who accept Fiorina’s arguments and find hope in the fast-growing group of Americans who register as “Independent” included John Avlon, editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast, and “Transpartisan” activists Mark Gerzon and Lawrence Chickering.

However, the “sorted not polarized” advocates were challenged at the Conclave by the research of distinguished political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, who see the polarization as partially reflective of real differences in ideology.

According to Mann and Ornstein, these differences have been produced largely by a significant rightward swing by Republicans since the 1990s. The idea that the electorate itself is polarized was also driven home by the data presented by political scientist Alan Abramowitz, who argued against Fiorina’s thesis.

Abramowitz pointed out that almost all Independents lean strongly to one side or the other, and most registered Independents are actually more partisan than the less committed members of the party they lean toward.

Notably, these mainstream liberal political scientists found allies at the gathering among those who bring an evolutionary perspective to the problem. This evolutionary or developmental view sees polarization as resulting from the natural outworking of cultural change, and accordingly calls for fostering further cultural evolution as the best solution.

In addition to myself and Institute for Cultural Evolution (ICE) colleague Carter Phipps, this developmental perspective was also held by Esalen’s esteemed Cofounder Michael Murphy, and fellow Esalen board member Jay Ogilvy. Somewhat surprisingly, Republican activist and Washington insider Rich Tafel also held this evolutionary view. After finding so much common ground with Tafel at the Conclave, I felt as though I was encountering a long-lost brother (even though I’m a registered Democrat).

L to R: Norman Ornstein, Lawrence Chickering, and Steve McIntosh

Interesting Proposals for Ameliorating Political Polarization

Among the many prominent attendees, influential social psychologist and best-selling author Jonathan Haidt made perhaps the biggest impression by focusing on the values of the Left and the Right. Haidt recommended overcoming polarization by building agreement that our democratic institutions are actually sacred. He called this strategy “moralizing democracy,” and contrasted it with the purely pragmatic approach taken by mainstream bipartisan organizations such as No Labels.

I appreciated and agreed with Haidt’s proposal, but expressed concerns that the implicit endorsement of patriotic nationalism was “cringeworthy” for many on the Left. While ICE’s vision of a more evolved Future Left (discussed below) includes a place for healthy patriotism, the value of “freedom” may be easier to sanctify than democracy, as it is freedom that the Chinese and most Islamic countries still lack.

Another interesting proposal came from Republican Rich Tafel who, together with Andrew Sullivan, started the push for gay marriage in the 1980s. Tafel argued that the best way to make political progress is to find ways to get the other side to champion the issues you care about.  For example, the movement for marriage equality actually originated on the Right. Despite the objections of social conservatives, the issue of gay marriage evoked central Republican values, such as individual liberty and the importance of family.

Although it eventually became championed primarily by the Left, the dramatic success of gay marriage over the past few years can be partially attributed to the way it affirms values that most conservatives support. After listening to Tafel, I saw how this strategy might be used to advance the fight against climate change as the emerging opportunity to build a new energy economy appeals to Republican sensibilities by benefiting American businesses and encouraging entrepreneurial innovation.

At the end of the second day, Phipps and I presented ICE’s campaign to “Depolarize the American Mind,” which calls for a national conversation to help develop and refine “Future Left” and “Future Right” positions that carry forward the core values of each side while better integrating the strengths of the opposition. This strategy accordingly seeks to diminish polarization by increasing the scope of what people are able to value.

Back in 2011, when we first conceived of founding the ICE think tank, my colleagues and I looked to the Breakthrough Institute as an inspirational model of what we could become. Yet before the Esalen Conclave, we had never met founders Michael Shellenberger or Ted Nordhaus, and were not sure whether they would view us as allies or rivals.

But after our presentation, we ended up laughing with them until past midnight, drinking wine on the deck overlooking the crashing waves. It seems like part of the magic of a conference at Esalen is the way the beautiful surroundings help create new friendships—and we made many new friends, indeed, at the Conclave.

The success of this year’s Conclave has motivated the leaders of both Esalen and ICE to make this at least a three-year project, with two more gatherings planned: one for 2015 and another just before the 2016 Presidential election. With luck, this growing fellowship may make a meaningful contribution to America’s continued political progress.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this eZine are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Esalen Institute.

STEVE MCINTOSH J.D. is a founding partner of the Institute for Cultural Evolution think tank:

A leader in the integral philosophy movement, he is author of three books on cultural evolution.

In addition to ICE and his work in philosophy, McIntosh has had a variety of other careers, including founding the consumer products company Now & Zen, practicing law with one of America’s largest firms, and working as an executive with Celestial Seasonings Tea Company.

He is an honors graduate of the University of Virginia Law School and the University of Southern California Business School.

He can be reached at:

The Esalen eZine is edited and curated by Esalen Board member Jay Ogilvy. To make comments or suggestions, please email him at or write to:
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