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III. 5. A Politics That Transforms

Nothing enlivens more than transforming political action. And nothing is harder to achieve.

Our natural desire to become more alive by helping others inevitably leads us to consider politics. In theory, we can do great good through political action - since either extending government help (if we are more liberal), or reducing governmental "interference" in people's lives (if we are more conservative), affects large numbers of people, far more than those we can reach through direct social service. Great political efforts like New Deal programs during the Depression, waging World War II against Hitler, or the women's movement begun in the late 1960s, have helped enormous numbers of people, and involvement in them has enriched and made more alive many of those who designed, participated in, or supported these efforts.

Unfortunately, however, the process of engaging politics in a modern industrial society like America - particularly when there are no great causes like a "good war" or ending a Depression to which individual egos and agendas can be at least somewhat subjugated - usually winds up deadening and destroying our aliveness.

Engaging in political action is tempting. But if we wish to remain truly alive in doing so, we need to practice politics simultaneously with remaining human through psychological and spiritual work, do so as part of a movement whose leaders are accountable to its members, and avoid the temptations of running for office or otherwise practicing the ego manipulations known as electoral politics.

Denial of death plays a huge role, some would argue it is the single most important factor, in a politics that destroys aliveness for both participants and their constituents.

When people run for office, lead or join political movements, develop political ideologies, and/or wage war, they usually do so as "immortality projects", i.e. as unconscious attempts to create a meaning that will live beyond their physical deaths. This helps explain the seemingly paradoxical fact that most political leaders who claim, or sincerely believe, that they are motivated by a desire to "help people" so often mistreat their staff and other people with whom they actually interact, behave narcissistically, and do so much harm, e.g. by waging "wars of choice" or neglecting the destruction of the biosphere.

It also explains why so many followers of members of political, religious, or ethnic movements so often surrender their reason, follow leaders blindly, and commit so much violence. If I believe that my political ideology, religion or ethnic identity protects me from death, I am likely to behave intolerantly. If the other's views are proven correct, after all, then mine will not grant me immortality.

One seeking to become involved with American electoral politics today faces additional problems. The competition between parties, the in-fighting for jobs and power, the necessity of raising money, garnering media attention, and credit for legislative action, poses insuperable problems to remaining vulnerable, human, feelingful, honest, loving, authentic and truly alive. When people are also forced to change deeply held moral positions in order to "retain their electorability," e.g. by claiming to support a war in Iraq that they privately do not, both their aliveness and integrity are sacrificed. ( Why Bad Things Happen To Good People in Politics )

The only possible path for getting involved in U.S. politics and remaining truly alive is to do so through a grass-roots movement with a clear program and goals, and a relatively democratic internal process. Even here the problems are almost insuperable, for both leaders and followers in grassroots movement are usually no more psychologically aware or spiritually evolved than electoral politicians, and are also often motivated by unconscious desires to transcend their creature-deaths. If movement leaders are genuinely accountable, however, there is at least the possibility that both leaders and members can remain relatively alive while doing political work.

An individual working in politics today who wishes to remain truly alive needs not only to work for the goal of the movement or organization, but to seek to transform both its internal and external working so that it, and its members, find a way to remain human. Transformative goals include:

-- Ensuring that leaders and followers alike spend time doing the psychological work required to remain truly alive and human, e.g. work to challenge defenses against death and other feelings, become more vulnerable, revere human and all life, and above all to not use the cause as a death-denying immortality project.

-- Creating genuinely accountable organizations, in which both members and leaders, who are necessary, see leaders as the representatives of the membership and responsible to them. It helps if leaders proactively fight their followers' inevitable projections, e.g. by being vulnerable, human, feelingful and, above all, honest about the mistakes they will inevitably make.

-- Engaging in spiritual practices that focus above all on deepening our identity with all human beings, rather than rigidifying national, ethnic or gender identities. We need at all times to focus on what we have in common with others rather than what divides us, given the natural tendencies of democracies to divide.

-- Focusing on organizing ordinary people to support or join our movement or cause, rather than concentrating on elites and financial donors.

-- Educating ourselves about the issues involved, and keeping them first and foremost, rather than ignoring them for the manipulations required to gain and hold power.

It may be objected that hoping to see such a movement is unrealistic, and that may well be. That is why so few people who value their aliveness and integrity are involved in politics today. But while there are no successful political organizations or movements which incorporate all of these elements at the present time, it is possible for individuals to retain their aliveness by working both for just causes and to transform the organizations seeking to achieve them.

A recent example of the kind of organization in which it may be possible to remain truly alive while still doing effective political work is the One Campaign to end poverty in Africa. While far from perfect, particularly in doing the psychological work necessary to reduce in-fighting and ego problems, it has so far made a healthy start. Its cause is just, its strategy of lobbying governments to offer debt relief and aid smart, and its coordinated Live Aid concerts impressive. If we continue to do our psychological and spiritual work while working for such an organization, it may be possible for us to simultaneously retain our aliveness and engage in politics.

It is more difficult to retain our aliveness in grass-roots politics dealing with the more highly charged and confrontational issues of our day, such as the war in Iraq, abortion, gay rights, the right to die, or drilling in Alaska. One has only to turn on the TV and see the snarling, angry, tormented and patronizing faces espousing and attacking one side of the issue or the other to realize the human cost that involvement in politics can take. But it is possible to find organizations, such as the women's group Code Pink, which make an effort to remain human and accountable. And it is possible for each of us, as individuals, to be involved in such groups in an alive way by pushing both for the cause and transforming its processes.

We may also feel compelled to occasionally get involved in electoral politics, e.g. a Presidential campaign, because the stakes are so high. This may well be appropriate, but we should not fool ourselves that it is possible to be fully involved in such a campaign and be truly alive. It may make sense to try, e.g. by seeking to combine our political, psychological and spiritual work. But, if we wish to remain alive, feelingful and vulnerable, we will probably need to follow any temporary forays into electoral politics with periods of psychological and spiritual rebalancing.