Reflection 92: Politics — What Is, What Might Be

I have learned a lot in my years as a couple’s counselor – and as a husband. Among the most important lessons: When it comes to making things better, the most constructive choices are the ones that tend to your partner.

This is not the norm. Instead, in the typical couples’ fight, he listens but in a special way, alert to every inaccuracy or unwarranted attack, waiting impatiently for her lips to stop moving so he can renew his attack, augmented of course by the additional ammunition she’s just provided.  And, needless to say, she is does the same in reverse. And round and round it goes. And the years go by.

The alternative? Avoid this defend/counter-attack approach and, instead listen; affirm your partner’s feelings; and, then, notice and build on areas of agreement. Doing so, we take leadership in facilitating a return to a calmer, more progressed state where in can sort through our differences in a reasoned way, attending as best we can to the emotional and practical needs of each.

Why I am spelling this out in a Reflection that discusses a different, hopefully more effective approach in politics? Because this perspective is so strikingly absent – and so desperately needed – in our political discourse area as well.


The example with which I work in this Reflection is the 2016 Presidential election. As I see it, that election – like none other in recent memory – deeply unsettled all of us, without regard to our political orientation. And this points to a breakdown in our public conversation – decades in the making – that goes far beyond the personalities and figural issues of that election.

If the goal is to nurture a more constructive politics, one that more effectively moves us toward a more humane, just and equitable world, Radical Decency offers an orienting perspective on what ails us and, in addition, a pathway forward that while not exclusive is, I believe, foundationally important.

Applying that perspective, here’s where I come out on Donald, Hillary and the 2016 Presidential election. Hopefully, lessons learned from thay election will help us do better in 2020 – and beyond.


When it comes to Donald, he definitely gets high marks on the 4 values that predominate in the mainstream culture: Compete and win, dominate and control. When it comes to decency’s 7 values, however, the situation is different. Perhaps we can give him a passing grade on “understanding” given his native shrewdness, and maybe on “fairness” and “justice” in the limited area that encompasses the white, working class constituency he purports to represent. However, he shows virtually no inclination to embrace decency’s other 4 values: Respect, empathy, acceptance, and appreciation.

With Hillary, however, things are more complicated. Smart and an enormously hard worker, I give her a high grade on understanding. And she has, in many of her activities, demonstrated a sincere interest/inclination toward decency’s other 6 values. But, like Donald, she has also shown a steady, indeed passionate commitment to the culture’s mainstream, compete and win values; a commitment manifest in her zealous pursuit of private wealth and political advancement.

Thus, in evaluating Hillary, the crucial question is this: What was her priority, decency or conventional success? For me, a fair reading of her history suggests that the mainstream’s compete and win values took precedence. Thus, for example, her:

  • Close association with her husband’s politically motivated dismantling of the welfare system and repeal of Glass-Steagall’s financial regulatory protections;
  • “Smart politics” vote for the invasion of Iraq; and,
  • Failure to take on Wall Street in the recent campaign.

For all of us, Presidential candidates included, the real test of decency comes in those “rubber hits the road” moments when decency’s values conflict with our mainstream ambitions. And by that measure Hillary, in my opinion, fell short.


You may or may not find this analysis persuasive. But the more basic and crucial point is this: This sort of sustained values-based discussion of our candidates is strikingly absent from our dominant political conversation.

To my mind, fully coming to grips with the striking absence of “values” as a category used to evaluate our potential leaders is vitally important. Moving the needle toward greater decency in politics is an immensely complicated challenge. We will never make meaningful progress toward that goal if, accepting the invitation of our mainstream politicians, we never even talk about.


Needless to say, a values oriented political conversation would require an enormous shift in our “business as usual” approach to politics. For that reason, the change we seek is unlikely to come from the top since, by the time someone runs for high elective

office, their investment in the mainstream’s compete/win ways is far too high. Thus, the likelihood that, once elected, they will dramatically reorient their priorities, becoming leaders in creating this shift in our values outlook is surpassingly small.

But below the confusion and fear that our current system so masterfully creates and exploits is this hopeful reality: Most people are fundamentally decent, wanting to love their families and friends and to live in peace. For this reason, the more sensible approach is to focus on the grass roots. Indeed, there is real hope in this approach since most of our elected politicians – far from being strong leaders – are simply polltakers and panderers. For this reason, a growing public insistence on decency would increasingly be reflected in their behavior as well.

We need to recognize, however, that this grass roots approach thoroughly implicates all of us. The “problem,” simply put, is not with some other person or group. We are all very much a part of it.

Why do I say this? Because we all – with the rarest of exceptions – are significantly infected with the culture’s dominant, compete and win mindset. It shows up in our drive for grades and money, in the win-obsessed mindset we bring to the games we watch and play and, as noted earlier, even in the ways that we treat our most intimate partner in life. So, it is not at all surprising that it shows up in the mindset we bring to our political engagements as well.

In that regard, as a Hillary supporter, ask yourself this: Was the great bulk of your emotional energy consumed by your animus toward Donald and, with it, an impatient “paper over the flaws” defense of Hillary? And, if you were a Donald supporter, ask yourself the same question in reverse.

Though there are always exceptions, I suspect the great majority of us – me included – would agree that this defend/attack mentality dominated our thoughts and actions. And, viewed from this perspective, the deeper truth about the candidates is that they were simply reflecting – and to their shame as would-be leaders – magnifying a disease that infects most all of us.

So what needs to happen? We need to fundamentally re-think how we engage politically beginning, very fundamentally, with how to talk with one another.

And it is here that the lessons I have learned in my work with couples come to the fore.

In our political engagements as well, we need to wean ourselves from our reflexive defendcounter-attack approach, cultivating instead a more generous mindset in which we see those on the “other side” as people who, like us, are trying to do the right thing in an incredibly complicated world. And, importantly, we need to remember that neither side “owns” decency’s 7 values. Except for the most rabid ideologues (with whom dialogue is not possible in any event), we all, in our way, want to be respectful, empathic, fair, just, and so on.

Steadily cultivating this perspective – and abandoning it only as a last reluctant option – we will be primed:

  • To far more fully listen to the “other” side’s very different perspective, and to share our perspective in a way that, diverging from strident defense, acknowledges our doubts, confusions, and uncertainties as well;
  • To notice, affirm and expand areas of agreement including, very importantly, the ways in which decency’s values show up for each of us though often in very different ways; and
  • To develop a more nuanced and respectful understanding of differences.

This approach has been thoroughly explored in the work of many fine thinkers including, for example, Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, Philip Lichtenberg’s Encountering Bigotry, and Miki Kashtan’s groundbreaking work with Convergent Facilitation. And, see, Reflections 75 and 76, Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1 and 2.

Our job is to give these ideas the attention they so desperately deserve. And while the work is hard and uncertain, persistence is the key. We need to resist the temptation, when the other person fails to respond in kind, to see him as a jerk; reverting, in that moment, to our old, dismissive, partisan ways. In Gandhi’s words, we need to be the change we hope to create.

Note, finally, this important contextual caveat: Without in any way diminishing the foundational importance of this work, we need to remember that it is not meant to, nor should it, supplant other types of political initiatives. They are many people in the public sphere who are what I call permanently stuck in their indecency. These people can be dangerous and need to be aggressively countered. But if that is all that we do – if we fail to make this values-based substrata an explicit, visible, ongoing priority – our efforts to create a better world will, I fear, never sustain themselves or gain lasting momentum.


In closing, I offer an example of the different kind of dialogue.

Walking into my waiting room, the day after Trump was elected President, a new client smiled at me and said: “Well, we don’t have to deal with that lying woman anymore.”  A Hillary voter, my immediate instinct was to deliver as impatient rebuttal. But I stifled it and said instead: “I think I know what you’re getting at. She seems to carefully calculate everything she says. While I wouldn’t call it lying, it does feel manipulative. And I don’t like it either.”

My comment brought him up short. Unexpectedly finding common ground across our assumed partisan divide, we went on the discuss our shared belief that many, perhaps most other politicians are big-time manipulators as well, including many people on “his side.” His final comment – delivered just before he disappeared into my co-workers office: “I wish we had time to talk about abortion. I’ll bet we could do a lot better than the guys we’ve put in office.”


To think the two of us could have hammered out a wiser public policy on an incredibly partisan issue like abortion is, of course, naïve. But there is nothing at all naïve in believing that, grounded in a values-based outlook, we could have had a far more open, honest and nuanced conversation, even on the thorniest of issues.