Excerpt from Steve’s forthcoming book, Truth or Consequences: Truth as a Guide to Personal and Political Action in a Age of Polarization
The best leaders unite people in working together toward a common vision. Divisive leaders invoke a vision that appeals only to a part of the population, while discrediting others to feed their personal ambition.
There has been polarity in politics since it began. Polarity often is encouraged by leaders for their own gain as they promote strife among the people they claim to serve. If we make enemies among ourselves then we have a problem largely of our own making. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Chinese — among others — all had their internal conflicts and intrigues.
The part of our personalities that trusts others seeks to work with them toward common goals, but the part that distrusts others creates divisions. The most dangerous leaders take advantage of divisiveness to become more firmly entrenched at the expense of others. Their followers fail to recognize that the politicians they back work against their own best interests and those of their society. They close their eyes as they become enablers of leaders who also ultimately fail to serve them.
At the height of the Athenian democracy, in the 5th century BCE, Alcibiades, one of the most skillful politicians of his time, sowed discord among the citizens of both Athens and its enemy Sparta by switching allegiances as it suited his career. He worked against those who sought peace by fomenting a war he hoped would make him a hero. He opposed the forces of democracy to further his career and was largely responsible for the end of Athens’ reign.
Despite persecution of those who challenged it, the Roman Republic was founded on the principle of libertas, or freedom for its citizens. They voted for its leaders, and the state took responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. In the first century BCE, Julius Caesar, after leading successful campaigns in Gaul and Britain, went to war with the Roman Senate upon his return. Peaceful politics gave way to increasing brutality as Caesar became a dictator following that civil war.
In more recent memory, Stalin and Hitler rallied their followers in a non-ending effort to defeat imagined internal enemies of the state. Their dictatorships had origins in popular movements that were intended to restore economic status to the average citizen, but in the end they created a nightmare for all.
Each of the above is an example of how a divisive leader can turn one part of a population against another. But leaders cannot run a country without the help of their enablers. They must have unquestioning followers who support them and their mission, and who are willing to buy into the mindset that for some people to win, others must lose.
In our day, many countries have been founded on the unifying principle of democracy — or government by the people — as stated by their constitutions. But democracy is threatened everywhere because many leaders have been able to win over a large part of the population that believes itself neglected. These “populist” leaders promise that the greatness of their nation and the economic status of their followers will be restored. Meanwhile their supporters become gradually more willing to compromise the equality that real democracy represents. This type of populism looks mainly backwards as it promises to restore a nostalgic vision. Some followers long for the resurrection of technologies that are becoming obsolete, whereas the establishment of new technologies — with training in those areas — actually is what is needed to ensure their future.
For our civilization — and the lives of people — to progress we must be bold enough to create and move toward a vision that serves everyone. We must rebuild the infrastructure that allows our societies to function. Leaders who care about their nations — rather than only about ensuring their own power — lead us out of the wilderness to a new and more fulfilling future rather than continuing us on a failed route. Effective leaders draw on courage to move beyond the past to an inspirational vision. Leaders who promote division are dangerous to everyone, including their followers.
People often vote for politicians and parties based on promises that are not kept. But their most ardent followers back them regardless of whether their policies help or hurt them. To their detriment, these followers allow themselves to be fooled by a continuing repetition of how the “others” — often their fellow citizens — really are not valid human beings because they stand in the way of their economic success.
Among countries that consider themselves democratic, the United States was the first to be founded on a vision of revolutionary leaders who sought to overthrow what they considered to be tyranny. Its founders were able to work together and stay focused because of the threat at their door. But the hardest part was clarifying how the young country was to conduct itself once that threat was overcome. When the Articles of Confederation did not work to create a viable nation, the founders reconvened to forge a more forward looking Constitution.
That Constitution, written nine years after the revolution, needed four months of negotiation and numerous revisions. It was a compromise that provided a guideline for how to maintain a democratic vision. But ever since all agreed on George Washington as the country’s first President in 1789, unity has been elusive. During the administration of Washington, his previous allies regressed into partisan feuding. They turned the instinct to identify and defeat an enemy against each other. The disunity made former friends into foes. Adams and Jefferson feuded while Hamilton and Burr dueled. The legacy of combat between politicians and political parties that began with the US founders continues to this day.
In politics we are more easily united by what we don’t want then what we do want. Clarifying a direction for the young American democracy via its Constitution was the political miracle of its time. Its legacy of equality still is with us. Yet in everyday politics we often fail to honor this mandate. When people believe that not only are their ideas superior, but that they also are, it creates an unbridgeable gap. The truth is that none of us are superior, as stated in our US founding documents. Yet politicians often contradict that principle in their daily attitudes and actions.
There is a difference between confronting ideas that we think are incorrect and attacking the individuals who state those ideas. Our politics often are dysfunctional because many try to prove that not only their ideas — but they themselves — are superior to others. But by attacking others personally we impede our ability to move toward mutual solutions. Of course we must be prepared for being attacked and respond as needed, but continual fear of an attack prevents us from seeing the humanity of those with whom we interact.
Everyone believes in their individual truths that they have developed over their lifetime. We all seek validation for who we are, so validating others is needed before we can focus on solutions. Assuming the worst about others distorts our responses and moves us further from our larger goal of solutions that work. A glimpse at the dysfunction of legislative bodies everywhere makes that clear.
We have two possible choices in the function of our government — promoting equality or inequality. For a government to truly serve its people, the truth of human equality must guide it. We must learn from our history — particularly where we have denied honoring human rights. But regardless of the past, we can move forward by creating agreements based on that common vision of equality that we carefully monitor to verify that all are doing their part.
A major issue for many of us is how to know who or what to believe among the many competing views that are presented by our politicians and media. For some of us, the first thing we do in the morning — and the last thing at night — is to check our favorite news source to help us interpret the seemingly non-ending events of our world. We are information dependent on our televisions, radios, computers, newspapers and increasingly on our personal devices, often clinging to the simplest explanation of events to aid our understanding.
But if democracy is to survive we cannot simply believe the scenarios provided by the media, a political party, or a book, including this one. To make democracy work we must consider numerous sources of information, as well as our own observations, and come to our conclusions based on a balanced view of the evidence. But this rarely is done as we become more partisan and less willing to consider that there may be a larger truth beyond our own views.
Yet there are some guidelines that we can follow that can move us closer to the truth. As individuals in a democracy we must seek many perspectives before we settle on our own. Media that supports democracy presents many views rather than telling users how to think. Then we must be open to the possibility of continually revising our conclusions as new information arrives. We also must be wary of politicians and media outlets that encourage us to vilify others as has been done — and still is done — by our most dangerous leaders and media pundits.
There is much talk today in our society about what news is real and what is not. Real news reporting encourages us to examine many sides of every issue, but a network cannot be trusted that consistently comes out on the side of one person or party and wants to do our thinking for us rather than encouraging us to come to our own conclusions. Such sources fly in the face of the spirit of democracy. But real news is not confined to any one source. We must continually keep our minds open as we evaluate the value of the input we receive.
Regardless of whether a government is democratically elected or dictatorial, it requires the support of its people to survive. We are more comfortable staying with what we always have done and believed even if it fails to meet our needs. We often believe that our own advancement hinges on the downfall of others, which remains the message of backward looking leaders and media sources that take advantage of our insecurities. The consequence is that we become stuck in unworkable solutions that leave us unable to successfully meet the challenges of the present and future.
Democratic government is threatened when leaders pursue personal vendettas rather than patriotic priorities. This moves us closer to autocracy. Such leaders play one part of the population against others which allows them to tighten their grip. Enablers and blind followers of autocrats already have cast their die and will go down or up with the leader they have adopted. Enablers exist in a democracy because they lack belief or training in its most basic principle, which is universal respect.
When I become aware of the truth that my welfare is tied to that of every other human being, it changes my views and actions. This is the most fundamental democratic idea. When those who live in democracies understand this principle it becomes reflected in their interactions and their votes. The consequence is a world view and actions that works for the benefit of all. Real patriotism is allegiance to the underlying principles of one’s nation, not to one person or party.
History shows that civilizations self-implode when they are mired in the past and unable to give up their divisions. We move forward only when willing to collaborate toward the continuous progress of all in our society. We are rooted in the past, but what has brought us success is an ability to evolve to meet the new challenges that confront us. We can fight among ourselves for a share of the future, or work together to guarantee a better future for all who are willing to contribute. That choice always is before us.
In today’s world there are two main types of governments. There are those that only are democratic in name; they have lost the momentum of their revolutions and have become autocratic. They suppress internal pressure by their citizens; their numbers are increasing in our day. Then there are those governments that still maintain their democracy for the most part, and respond to internal pressure from their citizens.
How do we overcome our polarities to make democratic societies more functional? That must start with a respectful conversation between those with opposing views. The questions that can be discussed are: (1) What are the most basic principles for those who believe in democracy?
(2) What would following those principles look like? (3) How do we turn this vision into action? That will keep us busy for a while, but hopefully, when an agreement is reached, we will continue on the challenging path of working together toward the realization of the vision we establish.
Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.