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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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