by Jay Ogilvy
Esalen eZine Volume III, January 2015
An amazing thing took place last October at Esalen, a place where other amazing things have been known to happen. Two dozen folks got together to share insights on political polarization and the dysfunction in Washington. Though their perspectives ranged from Left to Right, they actually had a meeting of minds. Conversations at Esalen tend to be unlike conversations anywhere else.
What’s in those mineral springs that feed our hot tubs overlooking the Pacific? Something so pacific as to melt the armor and calm the passions of our increasingly strident political discourse? Esalen is known for having hosted Russians during the Cold War. The term "two track diplomacy" was coined at Esalen to denote a citizen diplomacy taking place below the radar of the official, high-level first track diplomacy.
That first track got stuck during the Cold War. In the early 1980s, when we hosted high-level Russians at annual conferences, an end to the Cold War seemed almost inconceivable. Then Esalen hosted former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s first visit to the United States, during which he had an epiphany in a Houston supermarket. The opportunity to choose among dozens of brands of mustard led him to break down in tears. He could not help but acknowledge the nitty-gritty level of consumers’ freedom of choice that decades of Communism had denied his people. After that transformational experience, Yeltsin flew back to Moscow, resigned from the Communist Party, and stood on a tank to deliver a speech that effectively ended the Cold War.
Above: Esalen Hot Springs
Referring to Esalen’s role in those historic events, some called it “hot tub diplomacy.” Could a new, second track politics be taking place three decades later in those same hot tubs? Certainly, the intransigence with which the Left meets the Right in the boxing ring of current American politics evokes memories of the intransigence that gripped opponents in the Cold War.
Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, authors of the New York Times bestseller, It’s Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, argue that the "stuckedness" is largely, but not entirely, the fault of Republicans. According to their analysis, Democrats haven’t changed all that much over the last several decades while the Republican Party has split into factions. On the one hand, we have a diminishing cadre of moderate Republicans harking back to Nelson Rockefeller and Dwight Eisenhower; on the other, an expanding and increasingly strident brand of hyperpartisans—The Tea Party.
It’s a familiar picture and easy to understand. It’s also supported by Alan Abramowitz’s most recent book, The Polarized Public: Why American Government Is So Dysfunctional, which examines the causes and consequences of growing partisan polarization among political leaders and ordinary Americans. Abramowitz was at our meeting, and added the accuracy of an academic political scientist.
Not surprisingly, views about polarization tend to polarize. Ted Nordhaus, co-author with Michael Shellenberger of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, wasn’t so sure. He wanted to be reminded of just why this polarization thing is such a big deal. Maybe, as Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker on December 2, 2013, the gridlock in Washington is not the fault of bums we should throw out. Rather, the folks in Washington are simply representing a split that divides their constituencies. Democracy at work.
Which is it? Gridlock in Washington that some radical plumbing might untangle? Or is it a deep divide in the electorate, a cultural fission that no postpartisan fusion could ever mend?
Steven McIntosh and Carter Phipps take the long view. They see the current polarization through the lenses of an analysis that stretches from the traditional, to the modern and to the postmodern perspective. They see the sources of our current polarization in the inability of postmoderns to acknowledge the real accomplishments of modernity. Why does that make a difference? Because if we Baby Boomers fail to see the benefits bestowed upon us by “The Greatest Generation,” we risk deracination—a cutting off at the roots.
We Skyped in John Avlon, editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast and a CNN political analyst. He is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrism Can Change American Politics and Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. Avlon made a point of emphasizing the importance of Independents. Whether or not they can be divided into those who lean Left and those who lean Right, the fact that they nevertheless care to identify themselves as Independents is important.
Jonathan Haidt, author of the New York Times bestseller The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, was yet another star at this conference. His work is critically important to understanding how Liberals and Conservatives see one another. Using lab experiment and public opinion polling data, he and his colleagues have validated a model of morality in politics that demonstrates some interesting things, e.g., that Conservatives understand Liberals better than Liberals understand Conservatives.
It’s all about values. According to Haidt, five different value bases drive our political choices. The Liberals have the first two value bases in spades: care/harm and fairness/cheating. These two fundamental sources of valuation go a long way in explaining the Liberal perspective.
Conservatives also draw on these first two sources of righteousness. In addition, they draw on three other sources about which the Liberals know less: loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Think about those values the next time you find yourself watching Fox News.
The surprise star of the conference was Rich Tafel, founder and president of Public Squared, an organization that “provides collaborative solutions to our world’s most challenging problems,” says Tafel’s bio, “with a unique ability to bring together diverse sectors and ideologies into win-win-win coalitions to bring sustainable change.” How do we know? Because Tafel has done some amazing things, to quote again from his bio: “In 1993, Tafel created Log Cabin Republicans and moved to Washington D.C. to open a national office as its first Executive Director. There he implemented a values strategy for gay rights, creating 50 grass roots chapters, a PAC and a foundation.” Tafel is largely responsible for much of the gay rights legislation passed over recent years.
At Esalen, he urged us to “start with the opposition.” The worst thing you can do is marginalize the opposition. You set yourself up for the return of the repressed. Look at what has happened after the marginalization of the Ba'athists in Iraq. They’re back, with the vengeance of ISIL at their backs. Tafel charmed us with his insights into the souls of Conservatives. Ironic, he called it, that he, a gay spokesman, should be their representative, but insightful he was, nonetheless.
Along with Haidt, Tafel shed light on the profoundly moral motivation of right-wing zealots. Their world of right and wrong is under threat. And they have every right, don’t they, to their beliefs? Or must we limit forms of extremism that put in danger those with other beliefs? The discussion got down to fundamentals.
We also heard about the work of several organizations that are already bridging the gap created by polarization:
- Ted Buerger told us about the work of No Labels, including how they’d gathered five hundred thousand members around the idea that certain labels were inhibiting our abilities to get stuff done.
- Laura Chasin has devoted her life to expanding the dialogue. Chasin launched the Public Conversations Project in 1989. These days, she’s working on developing a narrative that captures the hopes of Americans going forward.
- Priscilla Lewis, likewise, is working on a narrative that captures the hopes of Americans going forward. There’s a resonance here, not just a redundancy. Lewis is a senior advisor to the National Purpose Initiative, a new project being incubated at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
- Lawrence Chickering, author of a manifesto for transpartisan politics entitled Beyond Left and Right (1993), told us about his work promoting the education of girls in India. Chickering's work has focused especially on a "strong concept of citizenship," empowering citizens to engage each other and partner with governments to help solve public challenges.
- Mark Gerzon is the President of Mediators Foundation, which he founded over twenty-five years ago. Gerzon has worked closely with a wide variety of projects that advance the field of global conflict prevention. He is currently developing the “Center for Transpartisan Leadership” as part of building an effective movement to evolve democracy. At this meeting, he shared his larger reach toward a network of networks, where all are working on the issue of polarization.
There were others. Brevity demands exclusions. But the conversation itself was sweeter than honey on the tongue. It extended from plenary sessions to breakfasts, lunches and dinners in the lodge, and sometimes to those legendary hot tubs.
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.
JAY OGILVY is a member of Esalen’s board. Trained in philosophy (Yale PhD in 1968), he transitioned into contract research and consulting at SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute) from 1979 to 1986. In 1987, he and four friends founded Global Business Network, a boutique consultancy that specializes in using scenario planning to develop long-range strategies for large corporations and government agencies. Jay is the author of Many Dimensional Man: Decentralizing Self, Society and the Sacred (Oxford, 1977; Harper& Row, 1980); Creating Better Futures (Oxford, 2000); China’s Futures with Peter Schwartz (Jossey- Bass, 2001); and Living Without a Goal (Doubleday, 1996). He edited Re-Visioning Philosophy (SUNY Press, 1991), an anthology based on a series of conferences at Esalen and Cambridge University. He also edited An Actual Man: Michael Murphy and the Human Potential Movement (2010).
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