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Featured in Soul Light #29

Hot New Political Trends
© 2006 By Corinne McLaughlin

     I’m always on the lookout for positive new trends in politics, as God knows we need them.  I’ve found several that seem especially significant and could have major impact in the years ahead—spirituality in politics, the new internet “webocracy”, the civil society superpower, conflict transformation techniques, and multi-stakeholder policy dialogues.

     The growing spiritual activism of the progressive Left in the U.S. is countering a decade of intense activism by the fundamentalist Right. For the first time, many Democrats openly discussed their faith and spiritual life and won extra votes in the 2006 elections because of it. According to an exit poll by Zogby International, poverty and economic justice topped the list of the “most urgent moral problem in American culture”—rather than issues favored by conservatives, such as abortion or same sex marriage. 

     The focus on spirituality will be changing the face of politics in the next few years, as people openly apply their spiritual values in the political arena, and have to confront their differences with each other. Much of my work over the years with our Center for Visionary Leadership in Washington D.C. has been to help expand the public dialogue around spirituality, so I’m especially gratified about this trend.

     Popular books such as God’s Politics, The Left Hand of God, and Spiritual Politics (which I co-authored) have been looking at politics through new spiritual lenses. The Tikkun Network of Spiritual Progressives and their major conferences on Spiritual Activism last year in Berkeley and in Washington D.C., as well as national conferences organized by Sojourners and Call to Renewal, drew thousands of people and much media attention.  Speakers highlighted poverty, the environment and social justice as spiritual issues, rather than issues such as abortion and stem cell research.

    Other significant trends noted in the 2006 elections are an increasing economic populism and concern about political corruption, and a declining support for war, which all led to a Democratic landslide.  Cleaning up corruption in Washington and safeguarding the voting process is essential for restoring citizens’ confidence in the democratic process.

New Technologies Impacting Politics

    Another arena that is giving me great hope is the powerful, new internet “Webocracy,” which is enabling more direct democracy and changing the political landscape dramatically in just a few very short years. Community sites that draw millions of fans suddenly have major influence and this will transform politics in the years ahead. 

    Internet activism, such as MoveOn.org and similar sites of all political stripes have  hugely impacted political races and issues. “Web2.0” media sites such as Digg.com and political blogs such as DailyKos.com are doing end runs around the mainstream media and becoming so popular that mainstream politicians court them and line up for interviews.

     Voter drives on widely celebrated youth sites such as MySpace.com have registered thousands of new voters. Mobilevoter.org helps organizations set up technology so people can “text in” their voter registration on their mobile phones. 

     Video sharing sites such as YouTube.com enable users to share political video clips with millions of users.  On-line booksellers such as Amazon.com make every political book and expose easily accessible to all. And search engines like Google.com provide more transparency in politics, as anyone can quickly access information on the web.

    However, one major technology that has created much controversy is voting machines that lack paper trails to ascertain how someone voted.  A great deal of  evidence has surfaced in the last two elections questioning their accuracy and ability to be tamper-proof.  If these challenges to vote protection are not resolved soon, they will undermine confidence in democratic institutions and lead to huge unrest in the future.

The New Superpower

    Another powerful political trend today is the dramatically increasing power of what’s called the “independent sector” or “civil society.”  This seems to be currently flying under the media radar. But in a few years it will be seen as the new superpower in the world. Since government hasn’t been very effective at addressing major problems such as poverty, war, violence, terrorism, and environmental pollution, non-profit organizations and citizen activist groups worldwide have taken up the challenge.

    In his forthcoming book, Blessed Unrest, my old friend, visionary activist Paul Hawken has documented an astounding one million or more of these groups worldwide.  In a recent talk to the popular Bioneers conference here in San Rafael, he called this movement “humanity’s immune response to resist and heal political disease, economic infection and ecological corruption caused by ideologies…. It is everywhere.  There is no center.  There’s no one spokesperson.  It’s in every country and city on earth, within every tribe, every race, every culture and every ethnic group.”  Some of these non-profits work primarily to shed light on social problems and confront issues directly; others work to create innovative solutions. 

Conflict Transformation

     The political process itself is transforming as new mediation techniques effectively resolve conflicts and multi-stakeholder citizen dialogues make better policy decisions. These new approaches are emerging in many places around the world, even amidst the increasing polarization of American politics and the so-called “Red-Blue Divide.”  Participants on either side of a conflict do not have to give up their deeply held values, but rather find common interests to act on together.

     This non-adversarial approach, which seeks higher common ground on polarized issues, could become even more widespread and influential in the future. This new politics is emerging most clearly in the global civil society and among the new “social entrepreneurs,” but we also catch glimpses of it in state and local governments, and even occasionally in national governments.

    Conflict transformation techniques reduce violence by helping people listen more deeply to voices on all sides of an issue, even in the midst of generations of ethnic strife.  They help people recognize their common humanity.  Unity is needed before there can be lasting peace in the world, and peace is needed before there can be shared abundance.

    Some years ago, I coordinated a national task force for President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development, which brought together former adversaries--corporate and environmental leaders-- to find common ground and build a consensus on environmental protection and economic development. This was probably the most interesting job I ever had.

    The non-violent change in the South African government and the transition from apartheid was facilitated by the groundbreaking work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—but also by the work of over 10,000 people who were trained at the grassroots level in conflict resolution.  Imagine the results if there were 10,000 trained facilitators in every war-torn nation.

    Many of the breakthroughs in solving political conflicts around issues such as the environment or abortion are based on a common ground, multi-stakeholder approach, where all parties who have a stake in the outcome are invited to a professionally facilitated dialogue to find win/win/win solutions. A triple win means that both sides in a conflict benefit from the outcome, as does the social whole.

    There is usually a grain of truth on each side in any political conflict.  Healing, reconciliation and forgiveness are spiritual qualities very much needed today.  The impact of globalization is generating problems—economic, environmental, ethnic--that are too complex and interconnected to be solved on an adversarial basis.  As Einstein famously remarked, you can’t solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that created the problem. 

     “Understand the differences; act on the commonalities” is the mission of Search for Common Ground (SFCG), the largest organization in this field, founded by my friend, John Marks, in Washington, D.C. over 20 years ago.  SFCG, like many similar organizations in this field, offer a means of navigating through conflict and identifying possibilities that are not apparent from an adversarial mindset.  It draws upon the strengths of diversity and interconnectedness to find cooperative solutions.

     All parties to a conflict are invited to the table and guided in how to shift from an adversarial stance toward a cooperative, problem-solving one.  An essential step is enabling people to communicate and have accurate information about each other.  Sharing stories and feelings helps those on each side of a conflict understand the pain suffered by each side.

     Finding common ground is not the same as settling for the lowest common denominator or having two sides meet in the middle. It’s about participants generating a new “highest common denominator” and identifying something together that they can aspire to and work towards, such as the health of children in a war-torn country. When those who really care about an issue come together and bring their best thinking from their various perspectives, there is the potential for new options to be generated, that neither side might have thought of on their own.

     It is especially important to help people involved in a conflict distinguish between positions and interests.  Underlying someone’s position on an issue are usually broader interests, such as security, respect and/or the well being of one’s family. Interests can be discovered by continuing to ask “why” and inviting people to go deeper.  Interests usually relate to basic needs, while positions are opinions about how to achieve those needs.  Positions may appear mutually exclusive, while interests tend to overlap, and this is the key to having both (and all) sides work together to transform the conflict.  SFCG calls this “cross-stitching”-- a way to reweave the whole.

     It is also essential to distinguish between the problems and the people involved in a conflict.  Helping people focus on common concerns rather than seeing each other as the problem is key.  Rather than facing each other on opposite sides of the table, both parties are invited to sit on the same side of the table and put the problem to address on the other side.

Multi-Stakeholder Dialogues   

    For seven years I served on the Board of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, started by Ambassador John MacDonald and Dr. Louise Diamond in Washington, D.C. in 1992.  It offers training in conflict transformation techniques and helps resolve ethnic conflicts worldwide. Their approach is to involve all stakeholders in “multi-track” dialogues—government officials, businesspeople, media, religious groups, non-profit activists, etc.—and help people to listen deeply to all perspectives. When people hear the personal stories and suffering of those on the other side for the first time, it often causes powerful breakthroughs in entrenched conflicts.  I was continually inspired by the amazing work that the Institute was doing in places as varied as Cyprus, Georgia, Kashmir, and Sudan.

    Multi-stakeholder dialogues are also convened by state and local governments (as well as by various non-profit organizations such as members of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation).  They will become a very widespread approach to policy making in the future, as they are institutionalizing the links between decision-makers and citizens in determining public policy.

     A few years ago I served as a small group facilitator in an amazing experiment in electronic democracy organized by AmericaSpeaks—a “21st Century Town Meeting in Washington D.C. with over 1,000 citizens building a consensus on city-wide policy for Mayor Anthony Williams. Each small group prioritized concerns and issues and fed them in electronically onto a large screen that could be viewed by everyone instantaneously. 

     In the 1980s, Chattanooga, TN was dubbed “the worst polluted city” in America.  But its citizens turned their city around through a series of community-wide “multi-stakeholder dialogues” facilitated by a professional team to envision what they wanted for the future. Everyone’s voice was seen as important, and meetings were held in nine locations around the city. When each person is invited to share his or her opinions, but also to listen respectfully to other points of view, it increases understanding and reduces conflict.  It helps participants transcend their personal needs to focus on a common purpose and the good of the whole.

     Over 5,000 ideas were generated and put into a computer and categorized. Everyone was invited back to a second meeting to see the patterns and relationships between the ideas, and then to create a consensus on strategic goals.  This then culminated in a Vision Fair, inviting citizens to sign up for the goals that matched their priorities. The excitement of creating a community-wide consensus inspired everyone, including government and business leaders and philanthropists, who helped make the visions a reality. Chattanooga has now attracted over $800 million of investments in 223 projects, creating 1,500 new jobs and 7,000 temporary jobs, and the city was designated the nation’s best environmental turnaround story.

     I heard about the Chattanooga experience when I worked for President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development, and I ordered a video about it to share with my cousin, who is Mayor of Malibu.  He became very inspired and created a Malibu Vision project to create a similar project for his town. 

     This type of citizen visioning process is a new model that could become a very  popular process for policy making in the future. All of these trends—spirituality in politics, the new webocracy, conflict transformation and multi-stakeholder dialogues  --give me a real sense of hope for the future of democracy, both here in the U.S. and around the world.
 


Corinne McLaughlin is Executive Director of The Center for Visionary Leadership and co-author of Spiritual Politics.  She coordinated a national task force for President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development and taught politics at American University.

lives and help citizens build communities that are environmentally sound, economically prosperous and socially just.

 

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