A short essay originally published in Soulfully Gay (Sept. 4, 2004) with a contemporary afterword.
In this election season, everyone’s talking about politics. Everyone has strong opinions, and mostly they’re convinced they’re right and everyone else is wrong. When looking at politics, I strive to embrace whatever wisdom can be found, regardless of who’s speaking or what party they belong to.
Of course, not everyone can be equally right. Some politics are better, more inclusive, and more enlightened than others. Yet I am convinced of the value of starting by embracing as much wisdom as possible from the widest number of perspectives.
I wasn’t always so open-minded. My working-class, Mexican-American family raised me with strong Democratic values. As a child, I asked my parents if they were going to vote for Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan. They explained that the Democrats are the party of the poor and middle class and that the Republicans are for the rich.
For many years, I believed in variations on this theme, thinking that donkeys represented compassion and enlightenment, elephants greed and bigotry. Being part of the gay community only intensified my left-leaning tendencies.
I still find myself sympathetic to progressive politics. However, now I see the world through a more complex, independent-thinking lens. I see truth and good ideas among Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Greens. I applauded when Barack Obama said, “We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states.”
Looking at the Democrats, I see a party that is concerned with advancing the rights of gays and other minorities, protecting the environment, and bettering the lives of the poor and middle class, especially by making health care more affordable. At their best, Democrats honor the traditions that protect individual liberties and oppose attempts to impose the moral values of a majority on everyone else.
Looking at the Republicans, I see a party that understands the importance of empowering individuals to succeed by creating jobs through free enterprise, keeping America’s defenses strong, and maintaining limited but effective government. At their best, Republicans understand that government must protect religious freedoms for all and get out of the way of private organizations that are doing charitable works that otherwise the taxpayer would have to provide.
Truth isn’t limited to the parties of red states and blue states. Libertarians understand the value of individual freedom and seem to have figured out that government can’t solve all our problems. And the Greens support full marriage rights for gay people and recognize the importance of taking a global perspective on the important economic and environmental issues of our day.
Many of the values and beliefs of the Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Greens are noble, and in my opinion each party has a key piece of the truth. The biggest problem with politics isn’t that people don’t have the right values. What’s messed up is that everyone thinks their values are the only ones worth taking seriously.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there are no differences between the political candidates or parties. There are important differences. In this election, I believe the Democratic Party is clearly the best option for making America a safer, stronger, more inclusive country.
What separates me from political partisans is that I don’t think the sky will fall if the other guy is elected. And I don’t pretend to believe that if my guy gets into office America will transform overnight to match the rhetoric of his stump speeches.
To put it another way, I keep an eye tuned to politics because I want to stay connected to the world and do good. I keep abreast of the news and I vote, but my days as a political junkie are mostly behind me. Today I rarely find myself using political intrigue as a drug or distraction.
It is possible to bring a sense of detachment and equanimity to the voting booth. But I must confess, it’s not nearly as much fun as being a raving partisan! Part of me misses the days when I could have shouted slogans like “BUSH LIED!” from the rooftops. Ah, how good it used to feel to have a nice, convenient target for projecting my hatred and venting my rage at an unjust world.
I remember my days as a knee-jerk, left-of-center partisan with nostalgia, just like a recovering alcoholic talks about Bombay Sapphires. I could hardly utter the name of Jesse Helms or Newt Gingrich or Pat Robertson without sneering and wanting to start bashing some skulls. I was a hostage to my emotional reactions and had a desperate need to blame others for everything bad.
Self-help author Stephen Covey offers a simple distinction that explains what’s changed in my life. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey says that an excellent way to become more self-aware is to look at where we focus our time and energy. Everyone has a wide range of concerns, from the personal domains of health, intimate relationships, and work issues to those unfolding in the wider world around us, such as global warming, the national debt, and terrorism. We could draw a circle and put inside it everything in our “circle of concern.”
Inside this circle, we could draw a smaller circle. We could identify those concerns that we can actually do something about. We could call that our “circle of influence.” Covey says that by figuring out which of those circles receives our largest investment of time and energy, we can be more productive. Gradually, I’ve begun placing more of my time and energy inside the smaller circle.
Spirituality begins by being present to experience as it arises and avoiding life’s tempting distractions. In other words, we must try to stay focused on our circle of influence. We can’t “be here now” if we’re always analyzing the latest Karl Rove attack ad or mentally solving the crisis in Liberia (unless, of course, we work as a political consultant or columnist).
We grow spiritually by expanding our circle of concern to the widest possible degree. We all start out by caring only for ourselves, and then we grow to care for those close to us. From there, we may grow to care for everyone in the world and for all life. Our heroes are folks like Mother Teresa and Gandhi precisely because of their universal care and concern for all living things.
Political wisdom is the art of bringing increasing amounts of love and compassion into our circle of influence.
About two months later, George W. Bush won re-election to a second term. My diary reported:
This is a bad day for democracy. I will not spout platitudes about despair not being in the American character; nor will I reassure you that I still have faith in democracy even in this dark hour. At the moment I have precious little faith in the whims of the majority. If only I knew of a better alternative to the theocratic majoritarianism that rules America today! If I knew of a better form of government, believe me, I would be getting to work.
Time will heal the heaviest wounds from the election of 2004. But I have deeper doubts and frustrations about what’s transpired that cannot simply be dismissed. When democracy produces oppression of a minority by a majority and denigrates our human rights, something major is broken. But how do we define this problem? And what is the solution?
I’ll tell you something. These excerpts from my spiritual autobiography were written when I was only 34 years old and originally published as a newspaper column for a LGBT magazine. I hope they’ve aged pretty well. But the thing is: the story continues.
My political autobiography is nothing less than the story of my relationship with the political entities exerting the most influence on my life (local, state, national, international). Back in 2004, gay marriage was not legal and health care was unaffordable for persons without means. In those days, Republicans defined the major issues of the day as privatizing Social Security (didn’t happen) and comprehensive immigration reform (didn’t happen either), and these were the days before total government dysfunction was widely acknowledged. Although I wasn’t happy with the election results, my life continued much as it had before without disruption.
In 2008, I was once again brought into awareness of my political side with a new presidential election season. The Democratic Party continued to have my full support for presidential elections, but I remained open to supporting candidates from any party at a local and state level who demonstrated competence and a good mix of values. As Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama competed for the Democratic nomination, they each showed a strong mix of the qualities that I sought in a potential president. Obama’s more limited experience in government worried me, but in the end I felt that he was the sort of inspirational figure that exuded both youthful vigor and the capacity to bring wisdom. When his supporters said, “Yes We Can”, I wasn’t convinced, but I sure hoped that with Obama’s leadership, yes we could.
Obama’s eight-year tenure marked the reign of what might loosely be called “America’s first ‘integral’ president.” He earns this award for his relative cognitive complexity, his comfort in handling ambiguity, and his unflagging effort to use reason guided by spirituality to work for progress, peace, and justice. The way he embraced all the truth he could from every side, while pushing forward into progress with what is possible is very integral. The moderate center-left neoliberal policies he embraced? These are neither ‘integral’ nor ‘anti-integral’. Let’s just say that Obama’s center-left stands carried him into office and won him re-election, and his complex cognitive perspective-taking abilities were well suited for enabling him to play the hand he was dealt quite skillfully. (Those who criticize Obama for being neoliberal seem to be missing the actual target: the vast majority of the American public has for decades — until quite recently — been very comfortable with neoliberal policies and unwilling to consider political leadership offering something different.)
No, Barack Obama wasn’t a card-carrying member of an Integral Party. There is no such thing (today). He was a full member of the Democratic Party, a cautious, coalition-based party that is about half liberal and half moderate. Obama proposed big ideas that could have an immediate impact on the lives of tens of millions of Americans, but he was constrained by moderate Democrats and a stone wall by virtually all Republicans. While Mitch McConnell turned the GOP into the “Party of No”, Barack Obama continued to work for “Yes We Can”, building up victories big and small on issues such as health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxation, education, and LGBT rights. He simultaneously drew down US forces from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and used his soft power to soothe relations with the Muslim world. And so on.
2016’s Democratic Party primary presented a choice that came to be framed as a fight between the center-left and the father-left wings of liberalism. With only a few minor exceptions, Bernie Sanders’ campaign offered far-left activists the chance at fulfilling their entire wish list of every policy position they ever dreamed of, but never thought a Democrat would support. Bernie wasn’t a mainstream Democrat; he was a self-described Democratic Socialist offering a policy program of Social Democracy, a political philosophy a few notches more exotic than neoliberalism. At first, I was delighted that Bernie was running because I felt he was likely to have the effect of raising the profile of the left-wing and build support for important issues such as the need for sharply higher taxes on the wealthy and providing universal healthcare through a single-payer system. However, by the Iowa caucus in February, my feelings had become far more ambivalent.
Facebook had gradually become my central tool for contacting friends inside and outside the Integral community. On this social media platform, Bernie’s most ardent supporters demonstrated frequent bullying tendencies, pushing Hillary Clinton supporters mostly offline or into small private forums. Not only were they rude, but they often spread malicious conspiracy theories and fake news. These patterns applied as well to many of Bernie’s supporters on the Integral community’s main forums, which were unmoderated and deteriorated into a fest of conspiratorial nonsense and political memes divorced from integral theory, and I said so. I eventually found myself feeling rather isolated as a Clinton supporter and formed an alternative forum where bullying towards Clinton supporters would not be tolerated. Our initial group poll revealed that a majority supported Clinton but over a third were Sanders supporters. (Over time, this group evolved into the Integralists forum.)
Although I was occasionally insulted by leftists as a neoliberal on account of supporting Clinton, actually I detested the detriments of liberal economics (which were all that leftism saw). To many leftists, neoliberalism was a bugaboo which was “the root of all our problems”, to quote George Monbiot. I had no doubt that was a limited but basically valid perspective, a hard truth about a wicked problem with the economic machinery keeping much of the world operational. The thing was, the left didn’t have a workable alternative to liberal economics, and they knew it. I had a feeling that the first step to unwinding the problem and finding a solution was to set the left’s construct of neoliberalism inside a prism of other perspectives from other coordinates in the ecosystem of political ideologies. I said so, for what it’s worth. Something had changed about people’s political stories: more than I had ever heard, they were hardened into brittle and angry sentiments which were set at war with every other viewpoint.
Of course, Donald Trump won the 2016 election by only tens of thousands of votes in Midwestern states, losing the popular tally by nearly 3,000,000 votes. The low turnout among progressives and liberals, depressed by lingering anger from the Sanders camp and enhanced by Russian propaganda, were major factors in the Democratic defeat (alongside other factors including the Green Party’s competition). Were Trump not himself, he could have ruled like the sane and decent and generous leader America needed. Sadly, many hopes that he would emerge as a positive center-right figure were dashed when he revealed himself to be a narcissistic personality, pathological liar, vulgar and corrupt occupant of the highest office of the land. He is a non-ideological thinker who governs mainly by whim, bullying, and paranoid fantasy while listening to the whispers of white nationalists and Sean Hannity. I didn’t hate him because he was a Republican, but I hated the way that he remade a distinguished party that had long been an important institution in America, making it sleazy and subservient to his dictates. Despite his incompetence and many failures, through cabinet and judicial appointments he has managed a significant amount of harm, the most consequential being delaying action on climate change and a reversal of environmental progress.
In August 2019, I started the Integral Politics blog to connect progressives and conservatives to give us hope that together we can solve our most wicked problems with wisdom and defeat our sickest foes by warring peacefully. Let’s go for it!