Center for Theory & Research

Volume III: Political Polarization

Tackling Political Polarization: An Unconventional Gathering

Carter Phipps

Esalen eZine Volume III, January 2015

Perched on a narrow stretch of the Big Sur Pacific coastline, Esalen Institute is about as far away as you can get from Washington D.C. and still be in the same country—geographically, but also politically, culturally, and institutionally. Yet, for a few days in the first week of October, those distances were bridged, and Esalen played host to a carefully curated, invitation-only Conclave of 24 experts to address the subject of political polarization.

The result was three days of political and cultural analysis that surprised the insiders, educated the outsiders, engaged both Republicans and Democrats, and left everyone encouraged—not a small achievement when it comes to such a notoriously thorny subject.

“The polarization between the parties exists even when the issue under debate has no ideological content,” explained Brookings Institution scholar Tom Mann on the first morning. He pointed to a telling statistic: “In the 1960s, five percent or so of Democrats and Republicans said they would be unhappy if their child married somebody from the other party. Today, it’s 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats. People today are more unhappy if their child marries someone from another party than someone from another religion.”

Mann and his longtime intellectual partner and coauthor Norm Ornstein (American Enterprise Institute) headlined the Conclave, which was co-sponsored by the Institute for Cultural Evolution (ICE), a new think tank addressing political issues through cultural analysis, and the Breakthrough Institute, a growing Oakland-based environmental and political think tank.

Other notable participants included NYU scholar Jonathan Haidt, author of the acclaimed The Righteous Mind; Rich Tafel, founder of the Log Cabin Republicans; and John Avlon, editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast.

“Political polarization” is one of those terms that can mean different things to different people. However we define it, as Mann and Ornstein pointed out, its consequences can be disastrous. Constant gridlock, little interest in governing or lawmaking, no movement on key issues facing the country, a disaffection with the political process in all forms, and a growing distrust of government institutions are all faces of the fallout—not to mention the inability to respond effectively to domestic and international crises.

Yet the stark urgency of those concerns also seemed far away from the soft sunsets, organic farm-to-table food, cliffside hot springs, and generally idyllic nature of the setting, providing a gentle cognitive dissonance that kept the atmosphere light even when the subjects were decidedly heavy. It didn’t hurt the intimacy of the gathering that cell phone signals get decidedly weary as they make their way down Highway 1, fading to practically nothing at Esalen’s gates.

So while the waves crashed against the rocks outside, participants had only each other for company as they discussed and debated a number of subjects: electoral reform, filibuster reform, campaign finance, the tribalization of media, the rise of self-declared Independents, and even constitutional amendments.

Some, like Avlon, argued that the recent rise of registered Independents is a healthy sign of a nation bursting out of ideological categories. Others, like political scientist Alan Abramowitz, countered with political data showing that most Independents reliably lean left or right and can, in fact, be more partisan than self-declared Democrats and Republicans.

Ted Buerger, of the popular advocacy group No Labels, presented his organization’s work in forming coalitions of “problem-solving” legislators that reach across ideological lines and challenging party politics. Haidt responded with a friendly challenge, suggesting that No Labels would be well-served to move beyond its pragmatic, technocratic approach and develop a more direct “moral appeal” to better inspire the electorate.

Laura Chasin of the Public Conversations Project shared her dialogue work aimed at promoting greater solidarity and authentically transpartisan relationships among political and cultural combatants in the public sphere. In fact, several participants expressed similar visions of a new spirit of civility in public discourse. Although, Mann cautioned that incivility may only be a consequence, not a cause, of a highly polarized political environment.

Steven Hayward, conservative professor at Pepperdine and AEI fellow, gave a rich (and humorous) analysis of conservative philosophy as something much more important and substantive than a simpleminded resistance to progressive change. He also detailed the ways in which he had worked with the Breakthrough Institute to find rare common ground on environmental issues.

Whatever the topic, the conversations were direct, frank, and friendly, whether during official sessions or unofficial evening hangouts where the salty darkness of the Big Sur coast brought consoling closure to the day’s difficult deliberations.

Whatever their differences, most agreed on one thing: America’s turn toward hyper-partisanship will not be easy to arrest. Ultimately, its source is neither institutional nor political. “It’s a cultural problem more than it is a structural problem,” one presenter explained. “And so it seems to me, we have to think about ways to change the culture.”

Above: Cocktail hour on the deck.

A Polarized Culture: Causes and Consequences

“To say that we have asymmetric partisan polarization is not a partisan statement, but a description of reality,” declared AEI scholar Norm Ornstein on the opening day. Translation: It’s mostly Republicans who are causing this mess. Ornstein, along with a number of other prominent political scholars, trace institutional hyper-partisanship back to Gingrich and his 1994 Contract with America.

Few at the Conclave disagreed with Ornstein’s portrayal of the Republicans’ rightward shift in recent years, but interestingly, most were less willing to let the blame for polarization fall so narrowly on the GOP’s shoulders. In fact, there were several who argued that the progressive Left were responsible in another way, tracing the roots of polarization back to the countercultural movements of the sixties and seventies.

Indeed, Nordhaus and Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute noted that the reactionary side of Republican politics was originally born as a counter-reaction to the progressive movements of the later decades of the twentieth century. Nordhaus pointed to the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley as being the catalyst for Reagan’s rise to the California Governorship and eventually the Presidency—a sort of ground zero for the rise of the Republican Right. He suggested that “the new progressive Left and modern conservatism were born in the same moment and from the same event.”

The so-called “Reagan Democrats” who carried Reagan to the Presidency in the eighties blamed their disaffection, rightly or wrongly, on a perception that the Democratic Party had been too influenced by the excesses of the counterculture.

ICE’s Phipps agreed and suggested that the breakdown of the “post-war liberal consensus” was largely due to these “very important, but nonetheless immature” progressive movements. Therefore, he argued, polarization can be seen as “a natural consequence of the evolution and development of American culture, not as a sign of its degeneration.”

But with all new stages of development come significant new challenges. America’s political polarity is not a problem to be solved, McIntosh added, but a developmental system to be managed. Cultural change may be extraordinarily difficult and take time—“more like gardening than engineering,” as he put it—but we can still do our best to prepare the soil, plant the seeds, and nudge the system toward better long-term outcomes.

“We may not be able to make much impact on the next ten years, but perhaps our efforts can effectively change the course of the next ten years after that,” suggested Haidt during his well-received presentation on the moral roots of hyper-partisan polarization.

Several participants cited future generational shifts as their source of hope, pointing out that political polarization was partially a Boomer phenomenon, born in the sixties and seventies, and institutionalized in the nineties and the early 21st century when that generation came to power.

There is reason to believe that a generational change will bring with it a natural change in the level of polarization, Haidt argued, suggesting that younger generations are already depolarizing themselves around social issues, with gay marriage being one of the more dramatic examples.        

Political polarization may very well be “even worse than it looks,” as Mann's and Ornstein’s book by that name points out, but hints of optimism did also poke through the justifiable realism of the event’s grizzled political veterans.

“I do believe that networks like this can transform American democracy,” Tafel declared, citing his own experience as part of the improbable multi-decade march toward legalized gay marriage.

That transformation will likely take decades, and require the hard work and the political and cultural acumen of many broadly aligned individuals and institutions. But who knows, perhaps a few of those alliances were formed in the burbling hot springs of the Big Sur coast and in the give-and-take of this very unconventional political gathering.

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.

CARTER PHIPPS, a founding partner of the Institute for Cultural Evolution, is an author, a journalist, and a leading voice in articulating the emerging evolutionary worldview.

His acclaimed first book, Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea, was published by Harper Perennial in June 2012, combining the insights of Integral Theory, evolutionary science, developmental psychology, the social sciences, and evolutionary philosophy.

From 1999-2011, Phipps was executive editor of EnlightenNext magazine, where he honed his perspective and his writing skills at the forefront of contemporary spiritual, philosophical, and cultural discourse. His writings combine the rigor of investigative journalism with a passionate personal concern for the development of human culture.

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:
Esalen eZine, c/o Jay Ogilvy
3771 Rio Rd. Suite 101
Carmel, CA 93923

Photo credit: Ali Kaukas