The Bigger Picture
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The Bigger Picture

Society & Culture

Our Political Divisions Explained

What human developmental theory can teach us about our beliefs, identities, and worldviews

(Photo by Tiffany Tertipes on Unsplash)

Don Beck was at the heart of South Africa’s apartheid in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The country was on the brink of civil war with racial tensions at a boiling point. Beck, a professor and practitioner of the human developmental theory Spiral Dynamics, was determined to unite the largely divided society. He believed that he could use the model to undo the divisive social conflict by aligning the various value systems of the disparate parties in a way conducive to balance and harmony from which the country could prosper. Beck met with the likes of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and F.W. de Klerk among others, demonstrating his level of influence in the run-up to the pivotal 1994 elections when Mandela was elected into office. As a matter of fact, it was Mandela himself who read about the theory during his imprisonment and, through his work with Beck, used it to reconcile the afflicted nation.

The Theory of the Spiral

On the surface, Spiral Dynamics can seem like an intimidating model reserved for the halls of academia. However, in actuality, it is a quite intuitive and insightful way of looking at the successive stages of human development and our competing value systems.

Spiral Dynamics in many ways is a more sophisticated and nuanced version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In fact, Clare Graves, Beck’s predecessor and colleague, worked closely with Maslow, debating the merits of a single self-actualized level in human consciousness. Rather, according to Graves:

“The psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiraling process marked by progressive subordination of older lower-order behavior systems to newer, higher-order systems as a man’s existential problems change.”

In simpler terms, humans are constantly developing new ways of thinking and acting in order to effectively adapt to new life conditions. Consequently, due to disparities in life conditions, differences emerge between groups of humans, most notably along generational, socioeconomic, racial, and political lines.

To visualize the successive stages of human development, Graves and Beck developed the Spiral Dynamics model displayed below. Juxtaposing the two extreme ends of the Spiral, Beige is the first level based on a value system focused on survival and satisfying basic needs while Turquoise is currently the highest level, assuming values centered around pursuit of global order and harmony.

(Source: Beck et al., Spiral Dynamics in Action)

As Beck explains, “Codes are types in people. They are not types of people.” This means that no individual or entity is entirely one color. Instead, each successive stage encapsulates the ones that precede it similar to the way Russian dolls fit inside one another as they increase in size. In other words, the various codes coexist within us, manifesting in what can be seen as a barcode where each strand of code varies in width depending on how much it influences the individual’s value system. This is important to note because higher levels on the Spiral are not necessarily better than the ones below it, rather they are simply unique value systems that evolved to solve specific sets of human problems.

It is with this understanding of Spiral Dynamics that Beck’s accomplishments in South Africa can be understood, and the plight of American politics explained.

A Populace Divided

When looking at America’s current political landscape, there is no denying we are as divided as ever. People on the left cannot bring themselves to understand how some can support Trump despite his notable flaws, and those on the right are put off by the social justice warriors who demand extreme political correctness. It does not help that most of public debate occurs over social media where the extreme views of each side are elevated and communication is largely reduced to one-way discourse.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As satisfying as it is to bash the other side, regardless on which side of the aisle you fall, we need to stop focusing so much on what the other side thinks and more on understanding how they think.

Major shifts in the two political parties hinge on recent changes in demographics. Democrats have become more diverse, better educated, and less religious than the country as a whole while aging at a slower rate. On the flip side, Republicans are growing older than the rest of the country while advancing slower in terms of diversity, level of education, and religious devotion.

In addition to the drastic demographic changes, both sides have become more divided on certain social issues in recent years. The majority of Democrats advocate for the U.S. to be more engaged in world affairs (e.g. combating climate change) while over 60% of Republicans think the country should be more inwardly focused. Similarly, over 70% of Democrats believe the government should help the needy even if it means taking on more debt whereas only around 25% of Republicans hold that view.

The list of partisan differences that have been accentuated over the past few years goes on, but these few differences — changes in demographics, views on world engagement, and proclivity for helping those at the bottom of society — speak to much larger forces at play responsible for the ever-widening schism in American politics.

The reason for our political divide is often blamed on Trump, the media, and a toxic two-party system, but despite those being factors, the reality is that America’s social development is at an inflection point.

Looking at the political divide through the lens of Spiral Dynamics, one need not look too closely to see the competing value systems at play. For the U.S. as a whole, there are three colors that dominate the country’s barcode: Blue, Orange, and Green. As I alluded to before, hints of the lower colors still exist, and for certain, a small segment of the population has surpassed the Green paradigm, but it is those three colors that account for the majority of America’s social consciousness. Unfortunately for us, these three value systems are incompatible.

(Adapted from Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux)

It is not so much that Blue and Orange are incongruent, rather it is Green that is opposed to its predecessors. Where Blue and Orange can coexist with the former creating the institutional structures the latter developed to succeed within, Green seeks to undo the hierarchical system it believes has led to social inequality, loss of community, and overconsumption. Simply put, the Green paradigm directly threatens the stability and security of the Blue mindset as well as the rigid meritocracy Orange worked so hard to achieve.

The reason for our political divide is often blamed on Trump, the media, and a toxic two-party system, but despite those being factors, the reality is that America’s social development is at an inflection point. While the Blue-Orange paradigm dominated during the economic prosperity following World War II, the 21st century has seen large segments of American society evolve to adopt a value system based on Green ideals.

This has occurred most notably with the advent of younger generations who diverge drastically from their parents and grandparents in terms of beliefs, identities, and worldviews. Compared with past generations, Millennials and Gen Z in particular are far more likely to value experiences over material possessions, question the efficacy of institutions, be radically inclusive, and take a stand on social issues that matter to them. Although Millennials may be more of an Orange-Green due to their tendency toward individual success and competition, Gen Z has made the full leap to the pluralistic, progressive values that comprise the Green paradigm.

Alongside generational shifts, the rise of the information age and heightened global connectivity have accentuated the transition to a higher-order value system. Present life conditions involve a world where barriers between people are flattened. Individuals and organizations half way across the world are just a touch away and increased economic integration has led to the inexorable flow of goods, ideas, and entertainment across the globe. This reduction in barriers between individuals in conjunction with a deeper understanding of the cultures and histories of other peoples is conducive to a worldview that values community and harmony as opposed to an Us vs. Them mentality.

Couple heightened connectivity with an array of social movements that have shaped the current political climate and the transition to a value system based on plurality instead of achievement or conformity is all but inevitable. From Civil Rights to Gay Pride to Me Too to Black Lives Matter, the topography of the political landscape has shifted to be more diverse, inclusive, and empowering to those who have been suppressed for too long.

For progressives, this is encouraging. It means that going forward, more of society will continue to transition to Green values as well as those higher up the Spiral; the lower value systems will slowly fade away. For conservatives, this is nothing short of disquieting. The odds are not in their favor, and the institutions upon which their values rest are gradually eroding. For those in the middle, feel free to grab some popcorn and enjoy the ride.

Bridging the Gap

In the case of South Africa, Beck and his colleagues ensured to remember one key law of the Spiral: each value system has critical strengths it brings to the table that are fundamental to the stability of the country. In other words, to avoid civil war, the Spiral needed to work “harmoniously with ebb and flow between each value system.” For this reason, Mandela worked closely with the white population to guarantee they were part of the fabric of the new democracy, and avoid the economic turmoil that had ensued in other African countries that had ousted white elites following liberation from colonial rule. It was Mandela who said:

“Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.”

Here in the U.S., we must adopt that same mindset if we hope to advance toward a more stable, equitable, and prosperous society where unity instead of division is the norm. In the words of human developmental expert Frederic Laloux: “Green is powerful as a paradigm for breaking down old structures, but often less effective at formulating practical alternatives.” The up and coming generations alongside the recent movements have exposed the deep flaws that have manifested as a byproduct of the previous value systems. But, in order to usher in a functional future, we must find a way to bridge the gap between the old and the new.

Instead of setting aside our differences, let us embrace them and use them to our advantage. At the end of the day, we are all American. We need to stop chastising others for having differing viewpoints and start striving to find common ground upon which we can build a system that works for everyone. Each of us wants a country we are proud to call home, that values our individual freedoms to lead lives of our choosing, and that serves the needs and aspirations of our families. Despite the differences in our internal value systems and the inevitable change forthcoming, the underlying goals and desires of the competing factions are not mutually exclusive. Whether we come together and begin to build toward a brighter future or continue to tarry with trifles and tear each other down will be paramount for what awaits us on the other side.

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