In an article in Dutch newspaper Trouw (31.03.2018, Letter & Geest, pp 4–8), Femke Halsema (former leader of the Dutch Green-Left party, criminologist and sociologist) laments the fact that conservative politicians seem to have “stolen” the values of national pride.
This is something I have been feeling for a while and her article at last pushed me into writing this piece. My first intervention on this topic was to play William Blake’s Jerusalem very loudly to a progressive conference in London about 10 years ago accompanied by images of things that the UK should be proud of. The reception was very mixed. Some people felt liberated and uplifted, others felt very uncomfortable and downright hostile.
In 2006 the well-known British folk singer Billy Bragg published a book called The Progressive Patriot — A Search for Belonging. It is a story of his struggle with feeling hemmed in by extreme rightwing fascists calling for all foreigners to be exported combined with religious extremists carrying out terrorist bombings and killing innocent people. As a progressive activist, how do you position yourself in that debate?
There is no doubt in my mind that it is a critical question for progressive thinkers, politicians and activists to answer. If progressives vacate the ground of patriotism and identity then it will be filled by ethnocentric voices driven by fear.
Understanding the Challenge
As the scenes have unfolded of populist politicians gaining ground and progressive politicians failing to find an adequate response, there is a map of reality that has always been at the back of my mind.
Ever since the murders of politician Pim Fortuyn and journalist Theo van Gogh, the Netherlands has been struggling with the appearance of populist politics that seem to strike a chord with a significant segment of the population. The latest and currently most impactful of those is Geert Wilders. Leaders from mainstream parties have systematically failed to engage with Wilders and others of his kind effectively, leaving the door open to an increasing vote for a politics that is dangerously ethno-centric and shortsighted.
The work of Dr Don Beck provides a map for understanding the dynamics around a politician such as Wilders and the pointers for an effective engagement strategy.
Two elements are key to that map: 1. An understanding of individual and collective stages of values-based development, as outlined in developmental psychology; 2. An understanding of the Assimilation and Contrast Effect (ACE) that describes how extreme positions interact with more mainstream positions.
Understanding Individual and Collective Development
This table summarises the research carried out into the development of value systems in individuals and collectives initially by Prof Clare W Graves and later applied in the South Africa transition out of apartheid by Dr Don E Beck:
What becomes clear as one studies the above map, is that Wilders and populist politicians generally appeal to the population with a center of gravity in the Red Power-Driven value system, combined with tinges of Purple safety and belonging needs and Blue One-Truth authority needs. The reason that more progressive politicians fail to effectively engage the populists and the people who resonate with that tone is that they generally have a profile in Orange (success-driven scientific-rational) and Green (postmodern pluralism and tolerance). The ethno-centric energy of Purple-Red-Blue resonates with passion, emotion and clear positions, not with rational argumentation and relativising of values and behaviour. The task for progressives is to access the underlying motivational value system codes for populist politicians and their supporters while bringing in content that draws boundaries where needed and creates the conditions for a more informed and world-centric society.
Understanding Polarisation Dynamics
Dr Don Beck’s research into the Assimilation-Contrast Effect (ACE) builds on an understanding of the value systems above to show how they combine to create relative polarisation and reconciliation across groups. Populist politicians engage at levels 4 (Ideologues), 5 (Zealots) and 6 (Flamethrowers), trying to pull out the middle ground by casting Pragmatists and Conciliators in one group as compromisers and enemies of the group itself.
Understanding this spectrum enables one to give language to the different value systems and positions that one sees in various population groups. All these levels exist within all the various ethnic, religious and political groupings in our societies.
A Way Forward
This suggests the following strategy:
1. Anticipate the radical chit-chat of the populists and depress any polarising dynamics.
2. Innoculate the general population and decision-makers against “Us” vs. “Them” rhetoric and conflicts by unmasking what is going on and demonstrating more constructive responses.
3. Drive a wedge between the radicals (Flamethrowers and Zealots) and more moderate perspectives within each grouping (e.g. the radicals and moderates within the right and left political parties), simultaneously. This enables moderates to engage with each other constructively as they both contain their own polarising radical elements.
4. Enhance the capacities of Pragmatists and Conciliators to resolve deep level conflicts and meet people’s needs.
These maps would enable more world-centric politicians and policy-makers to be able to name populist approaches for what they are, adapt to meet the underlying needs of the population that they appeal to, and design approaches that will prevent greater polarization and increase a healthy integration of diversity into the society.
The Human Element
This strategy is a very functional and technical approach to dealing with the challenge of polarisation. It is an essential part of the puzzle, but needs to be accompanied by another piece.
The value systems described in Table 1 are ways of experiencing the world that fundamentally influence how we interpret and respond to the world around us. In themselves, these underlying codes are not good or bad. They are the coping mechanisms that develop in us as a response to the life conditions around us.
As we solve new sets of existential challenges, we transcend yet include the previous phases of development in a general direction of an increasing ability to understand and engage with complexity (from Beige to Turquoise in the Spiral Dynamics model). The design challenge is to ensure that there is as good a match as possible between the value systems that are most alive in people and the habitats that they spend their lives in (work and community). That means finding content (behaviours, systems, structures) that are healthy expressions of those value system codes. An example I often give is that ecologically sustainable behaviour can be stimulated through multiple value system lenses e.g. for our survival (Beige), for safety (Purple), as it’s heroic e.g. a direct action activist (Red), because God or the Holy Book tells us to look after His Creation (Blue), because it’s the latest thing with the coolest tech e.g. a Tesla (Orange), because life on earth needs us to care for her (Green).
The job of any leader is to be able to meet people where they are at in their value system journey. That is the only way to get their attention and respect. The challenge is that in order to authentically be able to engage with someone within their own value system world, you need to be able to light up that value system in yourself.
For people who have moved through a number of the value systems and operate at Orange Strive-Drive and Green Sensitive Self or beyond, this means one has to activate value systems from one’s past in order to be able to engage with the cares and concerns of people attracted to the populist messages of safety and identity. The problem is that many people have buried that past, and often have traumatic experiences related to it, so that re-awakening it and engaging it in a healthy way is easier said than done. It requires a disciplined inquiry into dynamics of resistance in ourselves and a reconciliation with past experience so that we may remove any judgement and charge we might have around those earlier value systems and engage with them constructively in the world.
Once progressive politicians have that healthy relationship to those earlier value systems, it means they can show up and express them in all their glory and authenticity, in such a way that they will gain the respect of those who naturally operate within those less complex value systems. The progressives will then truly be able to see and feel that section of the population, and find solutions with them to the challenges that they are experiencing. It will remove the sense of distance and elitism to the political class, and pull the rug out from under ethno-centric populists who exploit that dissatisfaction through fear-mongering and polarisation.
It is a not an easy journey of personal development for us to take, but it is crucial to our ability to be able to create vibrant societies in which everyone is seen and honoured for the contribution they can make.
A Progressive Patriotism
So what are the implications of this for a progressive reclaiming of national identity? The need for group belonging emerges initially with the Purple safety-driven value system. It is a pre-cognitive felt need. You see it in the “irrational” passion people have for their local and national sports teams, and the colour and rituals that all surround that. This is not something you can engage with rationally, yet certainly cannot deny. It is alive in people at the deepest levels, and in order to be able to relax, we need to feel that that need for belonging is being recognised and met. That means that politicians need to be able to resonate with it as well, so that when they speak, the emotion and feeling of that belonging fills any words they may speak. This value system isn’t about words, it is about what lies behind the words.
The identity with a nation state or religion and a sense of belonging to something with a higher purpose that transcends the egocentric needs of the individual is what emerges with the Blue Order-Driven value system. That value system needs to feel that it knows its place, that the rules are clear and applied with consistency and fairness, and that there is something beyond a mundane everyday existence that we can be part of.
All of these value systems emerge out of the previous ones, and so transcend yet include. Progressive politicians who may operate naturally out of the more complex world-centric value systems still have the ethno-centric safety and order-driven value systems in them. They need to recognise the value and importance of those earlier value systems as stepping stones on a journey to a world-centric perspective and as foundations for the later value systems. If you remove an earlier value system, then everything beyond it comes crashing down.
The invitation is therefore for progressive world-centric politicians to embrace and give voice to the need for a sense of belonging to our ethnicities, religions and nationalities. Value it, talk it up and create space for it in the society. The qualification that is added from a world-centric perspective is that the expression of those value systems through a sense of ethnic, religious or national belonging may not limit the healthy expression of any of the other collective identities in the society. From the Assimilation-Contrast Effect perspective, that means coming down hard on any Flamethrowers and Zealots who look to polarise their particular identity with that of any other, while seeking other ways for them to constructively express the value systems that are alive for them.
The reason that this is so important for us globally is illustrated by the graphic below:
This graphic shows an estimate of the percentage of the global population currently operating out of the various value systems. The big bulge is the Red power-driven value system that is highly susceptible to ethno-centric populist messages. Our progressive politicians need to learn as soon as they can to understand these dynamics through this developmental perspective, come up with strategies to constructively provide for people’s needs at those earlier stages, and deal with any allergies they may have in themselves that are preventing them from being able to value and engage this part of the population.
When potentially highly destructive technologies that have come out of complex cognitive levels of development start to fall into the dissatisfied hands of ethno-centric value systems, then trouble will never be far away. On the other hand, we have a moral human duty to understand the deep developmental needs of our fellow human beings across the planet, and to provide them with contexts within which we can all express ourselves creatively to the highest of our amazing human potential.