Go read the rest of the interview.
Beyond Polarization in America: A Trans-Partisan Perspective on the 2008 Presidential Election--An Interview with Dr. Don E. Beckby Jessica Roemischer
As I’ve watched the presidential campaign unfold in my living room, I’ve become increasingly unsettled by the cultural schism it’s revealing. Robo-calls from John McCain, caustic opinion pieces on Sarah Palin (often by women), FOX news, MSNBC, negative campaigning—Left and Right. In this highly charged atmosphere, it’s been difficult to make sense of things. I’ve even questioned my longstanding allegiance to the Democratic Party, which has made it challenging to find common ground with friends I’ve known for years. In search of a different perspective on the election, I was compelled to seek out global activist, Dr. Don E. Beck, whom I interviewed in 2002 for What is Enlightenment? Magazine.
For over forty years, Don Beck has worked to facilitate social change in some of the world’s most polarized environments—notably apartheid South Africa during the 1980’s and ‘90’s, and currently in Israel/Palestine. Don Beck really gets human beings and our widely varying habitats and worldviews. With striking clarity and a disarming optimism, he illuminates the rich and complex mosaic of cultures, as he presents practical solutions to seemingly intractable problems—terrorism, the Iraq War, the AIDS epidemic. Beck’s unique perspective—the basis of the evolutionary theory called Spiral Dynamics—allows him to craft effective protocols where others fail.
Don Beck is a social scientist of a different order. For that reason he has advised world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and F.W. deKlerk; he has met with Tony Blair’s cabinet and with the Mexican government, among many others. I knew we needed his view in America at this critical juncture. In response to my request, Don graciously granted the following interview. True to form, he goes to the heart of the matter—and our divided nation—as he reveals how our next president can emerge as the truly new kind of leader we so urgently need.
Jessica Roemischer: The 2008 United States presidential campaign is turning out to be among the most polarized in recent memory. Could you please begin by speaking about the cultural schism we’re seeing in this country?
Don Beck: I began my study of political campaigns many years ago. My doctoral dissertation was on the United States presidential campaign of 1860. That election, which also occurred during a time of tremendous dividedness in this country, put Lincoln in office and subsequently led to the Civil War. So I’m very suspect of the polarity that occurs during the election process. Today, the fragmentation in America is equally as extreme. It’s reflected in the “hot issues” that polarize people, such as abortion or the Iraq War, issues that are looked upon by the two political parties in ways that are seemingly irreconcilable. And with our 24/7 news cycle and talk radio and so forth, I believe the schism is even deeper and wider than it was in 1860.
JR: Can you speak further about this election and the societal rift that’s being revealed?
DB: Campaigns of this nature confirm the cultural change that’s already happened beneath the surface, but which we haven’t been able to perceive clearly. The analogy I like to use is this: imagine it’s a dark, rainy night and a sudden bolt of lightning illuminates for a nanosecond the structural forms of the landscape. Then the darkness creeps in again. This election is illuminating the cultural landscape of this country, giving us insight into who we have become.
What we’re seeing is that we’re not the same country we once were. Today, there are multiple sub-cultures in the United States. We’ve become sort of a “Rubik’s Cube” society. Accumulated wealth and the increasing economic disparities have augmented differences in worldviews, orientations and political/religious experiences. Immigration patterns are also having an effect. There’s a book called The Big Sort by Bill Bishop. His basic thesis is that we have re-organized ourselves into think-alike, look-alike enclaves within which people can move freely. This has fragmented our society into little pockets of interest, sometimes living side-by-side. As a result, it’s becoming harder and harder to identify a core of Americanism. I’m not sure there’s a clear definition of what binds us together.
In contrast, when I’m in Europe I feel a much greater sense of national identity. For example, I still get a strong sense of “Germany” when I’m in that country. And the Danish value systems are clearly coming to the surface again. But here in the United States, even the Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal categories are being challenged. The Blue State/Red State categories are not holding up anymore. That’s the kind of fragmentation that is going to be displayed in the results of the election. When the vote is analyzed precinct by precinct, we’re going to get a much better image of this country than we would have had otherwise. I think the social complexities we’re about to see in the results of the campaign will force us to seriously look at the way we resolve our difficult issues.
JR: I come from a long line of democrats and never questioned my affiliation with the left wing. However, because of the highly polarized nature of this election, I’ve found it difficult to side wholeheartedly with Obama. I am far more hesitant to put myself on one side of a deeply divided situation.
DB: The behavior from both the extreme left and right wings is very troublesome. The rumor mongering and personal attacks—and both wings have done it—are very dangerous because they can lead to serious polarization following the election.
JR: How can we address this extreme cultural divide?
DB: I hope we maintain some good sense after the election regardless of who becomes president, because if the election turns out to be very close, it could produce tremendous tension. For example, if McCain wins, there will be serious disturbances in many of the African American communities, with charges that the election was stolen. And if the right wing senses that it has been disenfranchised in some way, it may begin to show isolationist tendencies.
I don’t think there’s been serious talk about what’s next, about what kind of government we need to move us beyond the adversarial situation that’s become such a problem. All the conversations about what McCain’s going to do to the existing government, or what Obama is going to do, miss the point. We need a whole new style of thinking about government itself.
In order to accomplish this, the president elect should invite various elements in our society to meet in conventions to redesign the American system. Rather than assume a partisan position, I hope he’ll hold a series of trans-partisan, not just bi-partisan, events—meetings and summits—on how to heal America and rebuild our confidence, and our financial and political structures. That’s critical for us.
So I hope that whoever wins will start a major conversation on many of these matters. Instead of each party shouting at the other, we need a calm kind of inquiry—more than just dialogue—to look at problems in a whole different way so that we restore the essence of Americanism. I imagine a series of White House conferences, where experts are brought in to discuss a variety of topics under the kind of leadership that will look for integral solutions. To accomplish that, we have to learn how to manage the spectrum from extreme left to extreme right. All the positions or viewpoints must be exercised and publicized for us to experience any kind of transformation. It’s important for everybody to be at the table. In that sense, Sarah Palin’s contribution has been positive. She has helped bring elements to the vote who heretofore wouldn’t have participated in it.