Election 2016 — How Do We Respond?

Part III

Spiral Dynamics — Ending the War Between Left and Right?

by Thomas Neilson

It is not, as T.S. Eliot said, humankind cannot bear very much reality, but that it is hard to have the grand view of the angel at the same time as we have the intimate view of the man who wants supper with his family, of the boy who wants to run and run forever without coming in to supper.

— John Tarrant

We cannot solve our problems from the same thinking we used when we created them.

— Albert Einstein

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.

— Mary Shelley

In Part I of this article, I wrote about becoming less reactive in response to the current election and politics in general, which allows us to have greater clarity, understanding, and vision. Part II summarized the Spiral Dynamics model, which I believe can bring fresh understanding to our current political situation. In this third and final installment, I will outline the beginnings of that vision — a Spiral Dynamics understanding of politics and political strategy.

Because of the stark differences between the values and perspectives of each level of the spiral, working together, finding common ground, and compromise has been impossible. In fact, our current political problems stem in part from the conflict between the perspectives of these different stages. We will not solve our current political problems from any of these perspectives or from simply continuing the conflict between them.

Spiral Dynamics’s vision is a larger perspective, and its approach is holistic and integrative. The model highlights the qualitatively different perspectives of the two political parties, and points to the fact that neither party can comprehend or appreciate the fundamentally different viewpoint of the other party. The Republican Party appears to operate mostly from the red to blue to orange perspectives, while the Democratic Party functions mostly from orange and green. Because neither party can understand the values and views of the other party, politics has become an unyielding conflict. The Democratic Party has been striving mightily to push the country forward into green perspectives that are multicultural, socially progressive, and environmentally sensitive. Republicans, in contrast, have been working to maintain traditional blue values while attempting to exert red dominance.

The table below illustrates the different first tier perspectives by summarizing five of today’s current political issues from the perspectives of red, blue, orange, and green. The table is offered as a set of examples only; please remember that each level is defined by characteristic values, worldviews, and coping mechanisms, and there is no absolute set of political positions for any level of the spiral.

Table 1: Spiral Dynamics — First Tier Political Perspectives

Because of the stark differences between the values and perspectives of each level of the spiral, working together, finding common ground, and compromise has been impossible. In fact, our current political problems stem in part from the conflict between the perspectives of these different stages. We will not solve our current political problems from any of these perspectives or from simply continuing the conflict between them. However, a second tier approach offers hope. A second tier perspective offers a larger, more holistic approach that respects the values and coping strategies of each stage. A second tier perspective also brings a new objective into focus; helping the larger culture move up the spiral of development. Unfortunately, Spiral Dynamics does not offer quick or easy answers; in fact, Spiral Dynamics suggests that progressives will need a great deal of patience and perseverance in the political world. Following are my reflections on politics from a second tier Spiral Dynamics perspective. These are my personal ideas, and they may or may not prove to be useful in the long run. What I’ve written is just a beginning; there is much more to be said from a Spiral Dynamics perspective on how to proceed in the political realm.

Second Tier Political Reflections

As fivethirtyeight.com reported, education levels, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump or Clinton in this last election. Clinton did quite well in the 50 most educated counties in the U.S., and she did quite poorly in the 50 least educated counties. Education is extraordinarily important.

It is important to recognize that there is value in each level of the spiral; this second tier recognition makes it possible to work with the entire spiral of development. Here is a brief reminder of the value of each of the major first tier levels:

Red is willing to own and use power. Too often, this capacity is disowned at higher levels of the spiral, particularly at green.

Blue values the “tried and true;” it recognizes and appreciates what has worked in the past. There are many traditional ideas and values that are still useful in today’s postmodern world, e.g., being faithful to one’s spouse and telling the truth. In government, there is value to the traditional idea of balancing the budget (although there are other factors to consider at any given time — for example, trying to balance the federal budget in the middle of an economic recession or depression is probably unwise economics). Blue values the traditions that often serve as the glue that holds fragile societies together. At least occasionally, blue’s absolutistic thinking is useful. Blue’s capacity for guilt also serves as a check on the red level; those at aggressive and exploitative red can at best grow into blue’s respect for authority and rules.

Orange is marked by an appreciation for rationality, science, competition, and capitalism. It is difficult to overstate the value of rational thinking and modern science. Orange rationality serves as a check on blue’s tendency to be dogmatic, fundamentalist, and opposed to scientific truth.

Green is valuable for its sensitivity, pluralism, and appreciation of consensus. Its sensitivity serves as a check on the cold rationality and harsh competitiveness that can be characteristic of orange.

The important progress we have made on social and political issues appears to have moved ahead of the center of gravity of our culture. Progress made in recent years in racial and gender equality, LGBT rights, and sensitivity to minority groups has been vitally important. One of the most important qualities of a decent and humane society is its ability to treat all citizens with respect and care, including people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, people of both genders, and people of all sexual orientations. In recent years, Western culture has shown significant movement in the direction of becoming a truly decent and humane society, and the value of this cannot be overstated. But if Spiral Dynamics is correct and 60% of the population is still in red and blue (20% and 40% respectively), with 30% at orange and only 10% at green and slightly more than 1% of the population at the Second Tier, then this important progress is ahead of the values held by most of our population. Even if we assume that the American population is 20–25% green, which is possible, as the numbers above represent the entire world rather than the United States, green values are still in the minority. It is difficult to sustain progress that has moved ahead of the values of the majority of the population, and this may be part of the difficulty we are seeing in politics today.

Laws and court decisions in support of social progress have made invaluable contributions but have done little to change the consciousness of the country. The Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision recognizing gay marriage, and other socially progressive laws and court decisions have resulted in important changes in our society — fairness and equality extended to ever larger parts of the population — but laws and court decisions primarily affect the surface of the culture; they do not have a large immediate impact on the overall consciousness of the country. Over time, these laws can have an impact on the deeper consciousness of a culture as new norms are established, but this change appears to take decades or longer. Liberals often assume that new, progressive laws and court decisions create an instant change in our societal norms and mores; unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. The Equal Pay Act of 1963, meant to equalize how men and women are paid for the same job, has not had an obvious, large impact on sexism in the United States; in fact, it hasn’t even equalized pay for men and women. Women are still paid less than men for performing the same jobs (and usually doing better work than men). Likewise, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has done little to change the ethnocentrism of traditional blue America. The Supreme Court decision recognizing gay marriage certainly has not eradicated traditional prejudice against gays and lesbians.

Following from the above, it is important to find ways to have a more significant impact on the social and political consciousness of our country. As progressives, we must do more than advocate for laws and court decisions; we must work to have a more direct, progressive impact on the values and consciousness of the United States. How to actually have this impact is a challenging question. Here are some possibilities:

1. Continue to advocate strongly for education. Education correlates highly with progressive values. As fivethirtyeight.com reported, education levels, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump or Clinton in this last election. Clinton did quite well in the 50 most educated counties in the U.S., and she did quite poorly in the 50 least educated counties. (No wonder Donald Trump likes the “poorly educated). Education is extraordinarily important.

2. Create and implement a curriculum in the schools for early adolescence that teaches empathy, emotional intelligence, and post-conventional moral reasoning. (Post-conventional moral reasoning is characterized by the individual developing his/her own abstract moral principles rather than blindly following traditional, absolutistic rules of morality, and it relies on broad empathy for all, i.e. all ethnic groups, both genders, all sexual orientations).

3. Find public platforms for constructive, progressive Second Tier values and ideas. This will need to include television, radio, print, and Internet platforms. Red and blue reactionaries have been successful in spreading propaganda characterized by divisiveness, paranoia, extremism, and self-righteous anger. An assertive campaign by progressives that emphasizes the value of empathy, open-mindedness, acceptance, tolerance, responsibility, truth, rationality, and holistic thinking is needed. For at least a generation, right wing extremists like Rush Limbaugh have been educating the adult public in ethnocentrism, divisiveness, and sometimes outright hatred. We need to counter by educating the public vigorously in life-affirming, progressive values.

As Table 1 above summarizes, the different levels of the spiral have vastly different understandings of personal responsibility. This has important implications. Green tends to feel a sense of responsibility for the self, for family, for the larger society, and for the world. People at green usually believe that it is an affluent society’s responsibility to help the less fortunate, and from this perspective the value of social programs like Welfare, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Affordable Care Act are obvious. But what seems obvious to green is not always evident to the other levels of the spiral. Exploitative red vigorously opposes social programs (but individuals at red will be quick to make use of the programs when they are in need). Ethnocentric blue and capitalist orange will also often oppose social programs, but as people move up the spiral, they increasingly understand the value of these programs: blue will support social programs that help family and friends and orange will support social programs when the programs can be shown to truly help the majority of the population. Orange tends to be particularly sensitive to the reality that social programs, at their worst, can enable those who do not wish to take responsibility, e.g. the man receiving Unemployment Insurance or Welfare benefits who avoids looking for a new job.

A second tier understanding of social programs recognizes that these programs are somewhat at odds with the values of red, blue, and orange. A second tier approach to the creation of a new social program would include vigorous initiatives to persuade those at blue and orange of the importance of the program by speaking to the values of both levels, program design that would make it difficult to take unfair advantage of the program, and objective ways to measure the benefits of the program. Program benefits would then be widely publicized.

In the political sphere, red, with its emphasis on domination and power, must be met assertively with equal or greater power. Red’s nature is to dominate and bully until it is met with resistance capable of stopping it. Hitler was a classic example of red at its worst, and it took the combined might of most of Western Europe and the United States to stop him.

We can discern red’s blatant abuse of power in recent attempts across the United States to change voting laws and limit voting by minorities. Red politicians have claimed widespread voter fraud that requires stricter voter identification laws, yet there is absolutely no evidence of significant voter fraud. In fact, the existing evidence contradictions claims of significant voter fraud; these laws are poorly-disguised attempts to reduce voting among liberal minorities. Fortunately, the courts appear to have seen through this abuse of power. It will be necessary to continue challenging voter suppression laws in the courts, as it can be predicted that red will vigorously counter these challenges. Another example of red’s abuse of power can be seen in recent developments in North Carolina. When a Democrat narrowly won the governor’s race, unsubstantiated, false allegations of voter fraud where made and the election results were challenged to the state elections board. When this strategy did not work, the Republican state legislature passed two bills that would severely curtail the incoming governor’s power. These bills were quickly signed into law by the outgoing Republican governor. The passing of this legislation was a blatant abuse of power by the red Republican legislature and governor. Clearly, these laws were meant to weaken the new Democratic governor; no one believes they would have passed if the Republican had won the election. As of this writing, the laws are being challenged and a court has delayed their implementation. I am hopeful that the Republicans will be unsuccessful and that these overreaches will hurt their cause in the long run.

The red abuse of power must he met with strength and power. Unfortunately, green, with its emphasis on sensitivity and consensus, is ill-equipped to do so. Green tends to be uncomfortable with the exercise of power and lacks a certain pugnaciousness that is needed in dealing with red. However, as green moves into second tier, it becomes more able to respond from power. Second tier power is different from red power; it is a mature strength that speaks the truth forcefully and empowers rather than dominates others. Gandhi’s behavior is a good example of this kind of power; Gandhi helped end the conflict between the Hindus and Muslims in India by walking through the countryside, insisting that it was time to stop fighting, and refusing to eat until they stopped. His strength, integrity, and willingness to speak the unvarnished truth helped change India. We will need to follow his example, and respond to red abuse of power by vigorously protesting, speaking out, appealing to the courts, and working to elect new officials.

Another strategy that can be used successfully in responding to red is shaming. By shaming, I mean the clear and vigorous public articulation of red’s abuse of power, and not the traditional psychotherapeutic meaning of the word (which is to tell others that they are inadequate or fundamentally flawed — this type of shaming is a terrible thing to do to others). While red consciousness lacks the capacity to feel guilt, it is capable of feeling shame, and shame can be used in response to red’s predatory behavior. An example: recently, the Republican-dominated U. S. House of Representatives voted to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics, which would have taken essential ethics oversight away in Congress and made it easier for Congress to abuse its power. Fortunately, public shaming from multiple sources led to the House abandoning the plan in less than 24 hours. The Huffington Post’s headline makes my point perfectly: House GOP Faceplant on Ethics Coup Shows Public Shame Still Matters.

The second tier works to create an environment in which people at each level can grow into the next level. Here are some thoughts about facilitating growth in the four major first-tier levels:

Red. The less the world seems like a threatening jungle, the less people will be inclined to stay at a red level of development. Social programs, like Welfare and Unemployment Insurance, are helpful in this regard, but programs that assist with education, job training and placement are likely to be more helpful because these programs also genuinely empower people, which can lead them to be less defensively focused on power.

Blue. Second tier thinking recognizes that cultural change is usually slow, often conflictual, and marked by the occasional quantum leap to a new level. Promoting positive change and respecting tradition at the same time can be a challenge, especially with issues like LGBT rights that are contrary to blue values, and yet finding a ways to be respectful of blue values whenever possible is important. When people at blue feel less threatened, they are generally more able to move up the developmental spiral. Educational interventions that emphasize the rational, scientific approach of orange will also be helpful to facilitate movement up the spiral for some who are at blue.

Orange. Green liberalism, with its emphasis on sensitivity, compassion, and sharing, can be overly-critical of orange’s rationality and focus on competition. The second tier recognizes that rationality and compassion are not competing virtues, and competition and inclusion are not inherently contradictory. Orange has tremendous gifts for the culture at large, and it is important for progressives to remember this. The growth of some at the orange level can be facilitated by education and programming that teaches the value of empathy, open-mindedness, acceptance, and tolerance.

Green. Green’s sensitivity and inclusiveness are fundamental characteristics, and yet Green paradoxically has difficulty being inclusive with the earlier levels of the spiral and with second tier thinking (this appears to be where political correctness goes awry). It is important to appreciate Green’s sensitivity, inclusiveness, and pluralistic thinking, while encouraging the next developmental step of integration. Some at the green level are ready to make the leap to the second tier. Articles like this and other forms of education will help some people at green begin to move into yellow.

I believe that it is only at second tier that we can fully understand our cultural and political situation, and find a constructive way forward. Unfortunately, less than 2% of the world’s population appears to be at second tier. Perhaps 5% of the United States population is now at second tier, but even that is a small minority of the population and a sobering figure. Although this is a small portion of the population, even a few people can make significant contributions that can lead us through our current quagmire. It may be helpful to remember that the number of people at second tier is growing all the time. If this article speaks to you, then you are likely either at second tier already or in the process of moving into the second tier, and your voice is needed in these troubled times. Please consider becoming involved politically, if you haven’t already. One of the most important things you can do is to help facilitate the continued development of the spiral. The impact you may have on others, helping them move up the spiral and perhaps even into the second tier, may be the most meaningful thing you can do.

Order Out of Chaos?

I will finish with the thinking of Illya Prigogine, a leading thinker in complexity theory and chaos theory who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1977. Prigogine described the evolution of complex systems in chemistry and elsewhere. His approach has been applied to many disciplines, including biology and sociology. Prigogine theorized that when a complex system is put under severe stress, the functioning of the system begins to deteriorate. Chaos and confusion are the inevitable result. A complex system under enough stress will either collapse and fall apart, or unpredictably reorganize itself at a higher level. I believe this describes the political and cultural situation we are faced with, and it is unclear whether our liberal democracy will collapse or find a way to reorganize itself at a higher level. We — each of us — will contribute in small or large ways to the outcome. There is a lot at stake here. It is imperative that we each do what we can.