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The Left / Right Trap: Moving Beyond Polarization

by Tom Atlee

EarthLight Magazine #51, Autumn 2004

On June 11, 2004 I was privileged to join in a fascinating meeting of Left and Right organized by Let's Talk America and the Democracy in America Project. When we said our good-byes three days later, I knew my worldview had been changed forever.

The event had been born in the newly emerging, deeply democratic political space some are calling “the radical middle” or “the radical center” —a space filled with creativity and dialogue. Let's Talk America organizers had journeyed into that common space from their home territory on the Left, while the head of the Democracy in America Project, Joseph McCormick, had arrived there from his home base deep on the Right.

I met Joseph McCormick when he organized the videotaping of the remarkable November 2003 Rogue Valley Wisdom Council in Medford, Oregon. Only a few years ago, he was a military man and right-wing Republican politician in Georgia. Now thoroughly disillusioned with the political battlefield, he believes, with almost religious fervor, that our most important task is to build an inclusive We the People. Toward that end he advocates broad cross-boundary conversations (such as his own Democracy in America Project, as well as Let's Talk America and the Public Conversation Project) and the formation of official institutions designed to clarify and promote the legitimate voice and will of We the People (such as Wisdom Councils and Citizen Deliberative Councils).

I came to this weekend largely because of Joseph who had come to believe that dialogue and deliberation offer better answers to our predicament than win/lose battles over positions and candidates. His journey had brought him to the same place mine had, but through the opposite door. I had tremendous respect for him, but I couldn't relate to his Right-wing past at all. Even as I joined him in our common dedication to dialogue, I couldn't quite figure him out through the lens of my progressive analysis.

What I experienced before and during the weekend gave me a gut-level understanding of how my own ideological righteousness could close my mind and heart. I researched the people who were coming to the conversation. I read articles by the conservatives and listened to their radio talk shows—and I got triggered by what they said. I reacted with anger, frustration, and rejection of who they were. I thought through silent counter-arguments and felt the rise of adrenaline. Friends warned me to be careful—or couldn't even imagine going to talk with such people. The dialogic side of me was despairing. I doubted I was up to the challenge. I knew I should set aside my reactions and try to see these conservatives as people, but the task seemed daunting. I was anxious, determined to work hard to be open, and half expected the whole effort to be a disaster

So what happened? I had a remarkable time. Right at the start, in small mixed breakout groups, we explored what America meant to us when we were 12 years old—and now. We told each other what we cherished about America. I told my story of growing up in a progressive activist family that sided with socialist revolutions and learned all the bad things America did in the world—and yet how I still held on to the dream that America had a major positive role to play in the world, a powerfully positive myth to live out for the benefit of all humanity.

We explored our experiences of political difference. I heard a conservative's story of speaking out in a public forum as a college student. A radical progressive student had responded “When the Revolution succeeds, your kind will be the first to be shot!” The audience had cheered the radical, and this man had never forgotten that. I could understand why. We went on to explore the psychological and tribal dynamics of polarization, and what was lost and gained by seeing others as the enemy and by feeling certain we were right. We came to a place where we didn't want to use those labels at all. We were searching for some other ways to relate that had more positive possibility in them.

I talked with one conservative, learning that he, too, was very concerned about the Patriot Act and the current administration's global ambitions. He had other serious disagreements with the current administration that he would never voice in public because of his persona as a conservative opinion leader. He shared a fascinating perspective on the history of the abortion issue, suggesting that decades ago the old Dixiecrat Democrats used to favor abortion for racist reasons, so many Left civil rights leaders were Pro-Life, while Conservatives promoted the Pro-Choice position as a matter of personal liberty. Republican encroachments in the Democratic South combined with internal party politics, new prenatal science and the rise of feminism ended up generating a reversal of those stances. He felt many positions on both sides were being held more solidly than was justified by the facts of the matter, and he was intrigued with the possibility of randomly selected citizen deliberative councils investigating important public issues.

It was immensely clarifying to me to find out what lived on the other side of the wall I had built in my own perceptions. I could feel how my determined ignorance was limiting my options, the options of my fellow progressives and, most importantly, the options of my entire country and the world.

I ended the weekend with great new friends and associates—people who'd started out identifying with the Left or Right but who were now more intrigued with each other as people and with new possibilities to make a difference together.


Perhaps my biggest insight was that if we stepped out of the Liberal/Conservative, Left/Right dichotomies, we would find ourselves individually very different and usefully unique in our perspectives, with vast areas of workable common ground. The Great Political Dichotomies present us with artificially polarized—and polarizing—differences and little common ground. They lead us to gather together in our tribes, preparing for war and totally losing sight of our actual differences (as unique individuals), our many similarities (offering many diverse possibilities for alliances) and our real common ground (as human beings with universal needs, living in communities, nations, and a struggling world that require our shared attention).

I see my challenge now as nurturing an open curiosity, with less fear, judgment, and preconceptions in engaging with those I see as conservative, as well as with everyone else. If they are spokespeople for the Right—as several of the attendees at this meeting were—I now know that their public statements are called forth by the system we live in, as are the provocative statements of the progressive Left or Democratic partisans. I now expect that, on meeting them, I will probably find them different from whatever I may have concluded from their media persona and their Google results.

Similarly, if they are ordinary people who happen to be conservative, then I'll likely find, if I really listen to them, that I agree with them more often than not—and even where I don't agree with them, I'll be able to understand where they're coming from, and be able to see their very real humanity under all their opinions. I may even come away wiser, with a more nuanced sense of the issues we discussed and what they really mean in the big picture. As Let's Talk America says, “What if what unites us is more than we realize, and what divides us is less than we fear?”

All that said, I'm not at the point of “loving everyone.” I realize there are extremists out there who would not tolerate real dialogue or consider recognizing the humanity and legitimacy of the Other. But I also realize that such people exist on both sides and are often leaders in creating polarization for their own ends. In fact, extremists exist wherever differences have coalesced into “sides” and solidified into polarized stereotypes. They are a natural part of polarized systems. But the ideologues are seldom the majority—or even a sizable minority—of either side. Most people are not that unapproachably righteous and dehumanizing. However, the many people on all sides who could potentially hear each other can only show up as the complex, unique, diverse human beings they are when they are provided with forums that support them in relating to each other across political divides in respectful, non-threatening ways. Such forums are hard to come by in today's political culture. It is up to us to make them.

In the end, I experienced a deep, gut-level transformation. I had a profound personal shift away from Left/Right framings that was comparable to my earlier shifts away from sexism and homophobia. As with those other shifts, I still have impulses from my earlier state, but I don't believe in them anymore. I am quite convinced that the whole Left/Right frame is a trap, and that we are deeply embedded in it in ways that are crippling us. It is also clear to me that we have a long, hard slog ahead of us as we try to free ourselves from this worldview, because the deep psychological and tribal impulses driving it are extremely powerful.

What struck me most, and not without tremendous irony, was that I had bought into a frame of reference that prevents us from achieving true collective wisdom. I was indoctrinated into this framework by my culture, my family, and most groups I have been part of. I accepted Left and Right as real without realizing that, through my acceptance, I was collaborating with those who have conquered whole societies by dividing them using these simple, compelling ideological boxes. I enjoyed the benefits of righteous certainty and was able—even eager—to project blame onto others. I dehumanized the Other (in my case, those called “conservatives”) in ways that prevented me from engaging with them to discover their fuller humanity and their reasoned viewpoints and, perhaps worst of all, from seeing the systemic dynamics that were driving us apart so we couldn't even imagine working together.

I now believe that the Left/Right model is most significantly a source of poison, rather than a source of wisdom, pleasure, or power. I believe it is poisoning my own thinking and poisoning us all. I will dedicate my life to changing the social structures that uphold that polarized way of seeing the world. I will promote and support well-facilitated opportunities to encounter Others in creative, heartful, intelligent ways that empower us all to take back our future and make it our own, together. I'm not sure anything short of that will save us from the shadows we fear and free us into more inclusive ways of thinking and living that are filled to overflowing with possibilities.



Tom Atlee is founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute and author of The Tao of Democracy.


For more articles on moving beyond polarization, see the following page on Tom Atlee's website:





“What if what unites us is more than we realize, and what divides us is less than we fear?” —Let's Talk America


Let's Talk America:


    Let's Talk America (LTA) is a national dialogue initiative that is bringing Americans from all points on the political spectrum together in cafes, bookstores, churches and living rooms for lively, open-hearted dialogue to consider questions essential to the future of our democracy. This is an effort to change the tone of political discourse in this country from the polarized, divisive, either/or rhetoric we hear from the politicians and pundits, to an inclusive dialogue that welcomes all voices to the table and recognizes that we all hold a piece of the truth.


PBS Deliberation Day:


    On October 16, up to 3,000 Americans will have the opportunity to meet in communities around the nation for simultaneous Citizen Deliberations where they will reflect, discuss, and deliberate on key issues facing the nation. This democratic dialogue will focus on what, not who, is at stake. A national PBS broadcast will complement the distinctly local Citizen Deliberations that will be linked together under the banner “PBS Deliberation Day.”


The “We the People” National Convention:


    We need to talk... only through conversation can we overcome division. When we overcome division and speak with one voice we become “We the People.” The Convention is set to take place September 26-29, 2004 in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln once said “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” It will bring together people from all 50 states to “ignite the unified voice of `We the People'” through dialogue and deliberation.


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