Looking Beyond the Midterm Elections
In Quest of Humanity’s Master Code
By Dr. Don E. Beck
I want you to stand 30 years in the future and tell me if the America you see is the one you envisioned in November 2018. Has the “us v them” polarization disappeared? Have we become a stronger union because of it, or did one side of the political spectrum overpower the other and forever silence it. If it’s the latter, then look closer and see what has become of the other side. Has it transformed ideologically or has its repressed voice become even a greater vehicle for division sewing seeds for another civil war?
The question posed here might have caught you by surprise, but it is the type of exercise that triggers a mass learning experience. I have used it in academic settings as a professor of social psychology to address the unrest we experienced in 1960s. In later years it became a conversation started for large-scale systems change that take years if not decades to fully manifest as the next cultural expression of values.
As a doctoral student of Muzafer Sherif, one of the founding fathers of social psychology I learned early in my career about the psychosocial characteristics of conflict resolution. Oftentimes, competition for political leadership can lead to negative prejudices, frozen stereotypes and fractious interparty conflicts. These are the early signs of trouble. As competition increases, each side moves towards an-all-or-nothing end point making it difficult to find common ground. Under this type of political division, one side enjoys the spoils of victory, while the other waits in the wings for its turn ignoring the real damage the discord is causing to the very fabric of a country.
I have been a witness to these political dynamics several times in my life in many hot spots around the world. They were present in South Africa where, over a 10-year period I helped the country’s leaders design conflict-minimizing measures to insure a smooth transition from Apartheid. If you’ve seen the movie Invictus then you’ve seen the work I’ve done on nation building through sports after years of helping Mandela and de Klrek create a future vision for South Africa. Similar efforts were undertaken in the West Bank and Israel. In both of these initiatives, what gave people hope is the idea that a peaceful, conflict-free future is possible. This type of optimism and long-term thinking is exactly what is absent from today’s political debate in America. Just as the right vilified President Obama, the left is doing the same with President Trump. Both sides of the political spectrum have become closed minded, set on demonizing the other side and rejecting any and all ideas on compromise regardless of their merit. Things can’t possibly get any worse.
But here’s where solutions begin: the creation of super-ordinate goals. This concept comes from one of Sherif’s research efforts called the Robber’s Cave Experiment. At the heart of this model is the idea that groups in conflict, who don’t see compromise with the other side as a possibility, must be made aware of the bigger picture and the resulting consequences should division worsen. The definition of a super-ordinate goal is one that both sides to a conflict desire to achieve but cannot do so on their own and must enroll the help of the other. It is working together to avert disastrous outcomes that neither side desires. This is what responsible leadership at the highest level must undertake, but unfortunately the world has not seen it happen too many times. Historically when countries fail to properly formulate superordinate goals the results, at best have been further division and at worse devastating wars.
Unfortunately the belief systems of both political parties in America today have become so rigid that ideas like saving the planet or stopping climate change as superordinate goals don’t speak to all sides equally. These values are generally associated with the progressive liberal side of the political spectrum that has been demonized and thrown into the enemy camp. Similarly, ideas on merit, self-reliance, limited government and jobs for all Americans receive the same level of vitriol as they become rigidly demonized into the conservative side of the political spectrum. When there’s clarity on a nation’s superordinate goal, it is the middle that’s made up of pragmatists and conciliators on both sides that kept the system moving smoothly. Seniority and political craftsmanship was its hallmark. Unfortunately today, that middle has disappeared and those who hold seniority on both sides are choosing not to run for reelection leaving the nation more polarized.
The solution to our predicament does not lie in whom we elect in the upcoming midterms. It has more to do with a political system that needs to be informed by a new superordinate goal that speaks to the future. Our current political parties are beholden to values of a bygone era informed by the standards of the Industrial Age. This is the narrative that suppresses the emergence of new paradigms. The voices of our politically ambitious youth are muffled. The minute they declare their desire to change the system, they’re thrown into the dark rigid confines of the two political parties. The result is more of the same gridlock.
I can’t claim to have all the answer for, or to know the finer details of a superordinate goal that has a future pull for all of America. But I do know this: the future of American politics is not a fight between the left and the right. It is a fight between the future and the past and we have to make room for young leadership to emerge. Solutions in the future will be based on leadership that deploys the talents of the “best fit” that champion the values of “thrive and let thrive” not on rigid ideologies of the left or the right which today only produce “win-loose” outcomes and create further division.
Historically, we have called on the youth in the military to defend us against enemies. Today, we must help our youth create a positive superordinate goal and empower them to pursue it so when we stand 30 years in the future, we can look back and be proud of our actions today. That’s leadership at the highest level that’s sorely missing from politics today.