Co-Intelligence Logo The Co-Intelligence Institute

What's New
Our Work
Contact RESOURCES Don't Miss (Features)
Links JOIN US Subscribe
Take Action
Donate Legal Notices


A Personally Transformational Encounter of Left and Right

by Tom Atlee

see also: Polarization


On June 11, 2004 I was privileged to join in a fascinating meeting of Left and Right organized by Lets Talk America and the Democacy in America Project. This unusual gathering was funded by the visonary Fetzer Institute and generously hosted at their wooded Seasons Retreat Center in Kalamazoo, MI.

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. Lets Talk America organizers had journeyed into that common ground 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.

The Lets Talk America team included Vicki Robin, co-author of YOUR MONEY OR YOUR LIFE and founder of the popular Conversation Cafes; consultant Susan Partnow of The Compassionate Listening Project; and a team of folks from UTNE Magazine and the Utne Institute -- Leif Utne, Julie Ristau and Marian Moore. I'd known Vicki and Susan for years. Leif, Julie and Marian are new friends, thanks to this gathering.

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 Lets 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).


Before I say what happened and what I think it meant, I want to tell you who was there, because this event was overwhelmingly about people -- very different people. The organizers had invited leaders of the liberal and progressive Left as well as some of Joseph's longtime friends and associates on the Right.

People from, ACLU, the AFL-CIO, Sierra Club and Rolling Thunder (Jim Hightower's group) couldn't make it from the Left. But a couple of former Clinton administration officials came -- Shirley Wilcher of Wilcher Global LLC and the National Congress of Black Women, and Carl Fillichio of the Council for Excellence in Government -- and a number of other folks who have roots in progressive politics, like myself, Mark Satin of THE RADICAL MIDDLE newsletter, and Michael Toms of New Dimensions Radio.

Among the pillars of the conservative movement who attended were David Keene, Chair of the American Conservative Union (the largest grassroots conservative organization in the U.S.); Bill Thomson, National Field Director and a leading spokesperson for the Christian Coalition; FBI veteran Gary Aldrich, founder of The Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty (and author of UNLIMITED ACCESS); and columnist and radio talk show host Bob Barr, former US Congressman from Georgia and a board member for the National Rifle Association.

Other participants included Laura Chasin of the Public Conversation Project, Lawry Chickering of Educate Girls Globally (and author of BEYOND LEFT AND RIGHT), Joe Goldman of America Speaks, Barbara Marx Hubbard of the Foundation for Conscious Evolution (and author of CONSCIOUS EVOLUTION), Ethan Leib (author of DELIBERATIVE DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA), Jeff Peters of We The People, Ginny Sloan of the Constitution Project, Pat Spino of the Democracy in America Project, Donna Wiesner of BrainTrain, Zoe Schonfeld of the NY office of the Legal Aid Society, and Jeri Barr of Cobb Family Resources.

The conversations were facilitated by a team including Susan, Julie, Marian and Mark Gerzon. Mark is Founder and President of the Mediators Foundation and author of A HOUSE DIVIDED and the forthcoming LEADERS WITHOUT BORDERS. In 1997 and 1999 Mark designed and facilitated two major Bipartisan Congressional Retreats. His extensive experience creating and supporting productive cross-boundary conversations served us well.


I came to this weekend largely because of Joseph, the strong conservative who had come to believe that dialogue and deliberation -- and, through them, the emergence of an inclusive, dynamic We the People -- 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. Using Google, 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 silent counterarguments 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 (subjects about which I will write more soon). 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 particularly 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 Lets 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 personally struck me most, and with 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.

Taking lessons from my brothers and sisters across the political spectrum, I can now say that my addiction to the Left/Right worldview is partly my own responsibility (the conservative view) and partly the responsibility of the social systems into which I was born and socialized (the liberal view).

Just as I have earlier had to face the fact that cigarettes were poisonous before I could stop smoking, 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. Standing in the remnants of my Left perspective, I now suspect that the Left/Right paradigm is killing us far more effectively than the Right ever could. I would hope that some of my colleagues on the Right feel similarly that the Left/Right paradigm is more destructive than the Left. In any case, I personally want to free myself from that poisonous frame of reference so I can better do my work for the world.

So I am done with that. 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.



Sunday morning we sat in a large circle, with a candle and large leaf representing Life in the center. The arrangement was a bit strange for the conservatives among us, but they tolerated it with quiet if somewhat appreciative amusement. We went arond the circle, speaking of things we were going to do now that we had talked. One of the Lets Talk America organizers offered a statement for us all to comment on, revise and/or sign. She offered it very tentatively, not wanting to put any pressure on anyone. Copies were passed around for people to consider. Half a dozen people later in the circle, one of our conservative participants leaned forward and said, with a clear, strong intention: "I think we all should sign this statement, just as it is, and we should do it now, this morning, while we're here. I think this is important and we need to get on with it." And so it was that a large calligraphed version was passed around and we signed the following declaration:

We the people, gathered at the Season's Conference Center, Kalamazoo, Michigan, June 11-13, 2004, seeking to form a more perfect Union now in 21st Century America, declare:
* We cherish our country and the founding ideals and institutions on which it stands.
* We respect our differences and recognize America needs every one our viewpoints, ideas and passions – even those we don’t agree with – to keep our democracy vital and alive.
* We recognize that meeting here and across our land for dialogues across differences builds trust, understanding, respect and empowerment - the conditions necessary for freedom and democracy to live in us and around us.
* And therefore, each still grounded in our own considered views (conscience and convictions), we commit ourselves and our communities of interest to foster dialogue across the many divides in America, in large and small groups, to build trust, insight and inspired action towards the more perfect union we all desire.
* And we support the work of Let's Talk America and Democracy in America Project - and other efforts - to bring Americans into conversations that are inclusive, non-partisan, respectful and open - guided by hosts and ground rules that allow all the voices of 'We the People' to be heard.


May it be so.



For another perspective on this gathering, see

Mark Satin's article "At last, a movement that would have us listen to and learn from each other"


"Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits.
When minds meet, they don't just exchange facts:
they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them,
engage in new trains of thought.
Conversation doesn't just reshuffle the cards:
it creates new cards."

Theodore Zeldin

The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States;
Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats.
But I've got news for them.
We worship an awesome God in the Blue States,
and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States.
We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States.
There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it.
We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes,
all of us defending the United States of America.

-- Illinois State Senator Barack Obama


Home || What's New || Search || Who We Are || Co-Intelligence || Our Work || Projects || Contact || Don't Miss || Articles || Topics || Books || Links || Subscribe || Take Action || Donate || Legal Notices


If you have comments about this site, email
Contents copyright © 2004, all rights reserved, with generous permissions policy (see Legal Notices)