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The Real Meaning of the 2016 Presidential Contest

What is really happening in the 2016 race for president of the United States is a contest of consciousness within the American people.

What is really happening in the 2016 race for president of the United States is a contest of consciousness within the American people. By “consciousness,” I refer to the degree, higher or lower, to which an individual is free in thought and emotion to perceive the reality and equality of other beings and to decide how best to help them when help is needed. To get at the relationship of the presidential race to consciousness, today’s politics need to be set against the background of the most intense political conflicts of the last two centuries. A fairly complete list fits in one long paragraph.

Whether slavery is permitted. Whether Black citizens may vote. Whether laborers may work together to improve the value and meaning of their labor. Whether women have rights — in the voting booth; over their own bodies; over men who harass or violate them; to equal pay for equal work. Whether children have rights, even though they cannot sue for or enforce them. Whether people no longer able to work will be secured by public funds from collapsing into penury. Whether members of society’s dominant classes will relinquish their economic, social, legal and literal physical chokeholds on people of color — in a word, whether Black lives matter. Whether all young people are to be well educated at public expense. Whether by law all workers will receive a living wage. Whether people declared to be “enemies” of the United States may be subjected to internment without charge and barrages of fire, bombs and torture without consideration for the aims of war or the humanity of noncombatants in war zones. Whether society has obligations to future generations and may limit the exploitation of natural resources. Whether (or more accurately, when) human fetuses have a right to life. Whether dominant religious groups may impose their beliefs, practices and values on people who do not share their beliefs. Whether persons who live with disabilities have a right to — and society a duty to pay for — accommodations that make participation in public life possible. Whether the people may possess weapons designed to kill quantities of other people quickly. Whether the state is right to kill (some) people who kill people to show that it is wrong to kill people. Whether gay and lesbian persons are accepted as free moral agents and guaranteed legal rights to conduct their lives on the same bases as other citizens. Whether (Black) people who use illegal drugs need treatment or punishment. Whether, in addition to the penalty of imprisonment, people involved in crimes may be harmed in the criminal legal system before, during and after incarceration. Whether persons who flee poverty or violence in their own countries in order to gain wages and relative safety in the United States are treated as humans. Whether health care is a human right or a commodity made available to those who can pay for it.

Add to these the huge knot of conflicts over the rights of capital — antitrust and bankruptcy laws, regulations of economic activity, tax and trade policies, campaign financing — and behold: the great political conflicts of two American centuries. [1] All of these conflicts have to do with whether the strong may overwhelm the weak. The political crisis in all of them is whether enough people consciously affirm the humanity of beings whom they or their group once feared, loathed or ignored — and require change. The oldest of the conflicts are more or less settled in law because consciousness of the reality of the people in an oppressed class dawned a long time ago. If some of the conflicts which vex our politics now seem new, that is only because the dawning of awareness for the unseen began recently. To the unseen themselves, of course, the feel of the heel of the boot of oppression was never new.

Though it takes time for a large part of society to see once-invisible men, women and children, sometimes things change. Seen from a distance, and notwithstanding tragic regressions and unconscionable violence, the development of consciousness tends upward.

Many thinkers have written extensively [2] on stages of consciousness through which individuals are capable of growing — after the development natural to childhood and adolescence is complete. The characteristics and numbers of levels identified by philosophers vary, but common to all is the observation that at a new level of consciousness, a person is able to organize more-complex reality. She is able to comprehend circles of being once beyond her field of vision. He has a new capacity to understand his former way of seeing because he is no longer immersed in it. She can incorporate what was good about her former worldview and also acknowledge amazing grace: Once I was blind, but now I see.

All humans function much of the time in ordinary animal consciousness; bodily security depends on it. Still, human consciousness diverges absolutely from animal consciousness in the capacity to shed, like a too-small shell, a once-stable identity and worldview and grow into a new identity and a higher consciousness. Because nothing engages human capacities more completely than consciousness development; the wisdom of the great religions has from ancient times marked pathways along which a person can prepare to shed an old identity and receive the gift of a new way of seeing. Nevertheless, the vast majority of people shy away from deep-going changes in how they see and meet the world. Even religion is commonly bent from its original aims and forced to serve the base function of keeping structures of self and society unchanged. Yet higher consciousness still dawns upon some people sometimes. They move history forward. As a glacier moves mountains, higher consciousness moves the nations.

If politics is thought of as alignments of large blocs of citizens who want to consolidate some core values in law, it follows that levels of consciousness — the most fundamental force in shaping core values — are the basic building blocks of political organization. Since only two or three levels of consciousness can be manifest in large numbers in a society at a given historical period, it follows that only a few parties can form around the basic tension between higher and lower expressions of consciousness — namely, whether to share power, wealth and protections with beings still mostly unseen; or to intensify the wealth, authority and coercive power of the dominant classes to preserve current social arrangements.

The two parties of the US political system have fought each other on just these terms, of course, though not predictably. The Democrats of 1860 were the conservative pro-slavery party that refused to acknowledge the humanity of Africans and their descendants, while those pressing for an end to slavery became Republicans. Through the labor and women’s suffrage battles of the Progressive era, Republicans and Democrats slowly exchanged roles as defenders of the rights of capital or as champions of human rights. That said, the existing political parties only vaguely correspond with the levels of consciousness in the people as a whole. Serious, thoughtful disagreements over how best to develop the potential in all kinds of people often situate knowledgeable citizens on opposite sides of many policies and much politics.

What is coming into view in the unusual 2016 race for the presidency differs from the ordinary tension between these two political parties. A new level of consciousness is expressed in the large numbers who feel wary of highly centralized uses of power, authority and wealth. Up until now, most Americans have been dazzled by wealth and annoyed by populists. The majority have also approved the nation’s military exploits — at least at first blood. This was no surprise. Animal species are wired to be easily provoked and satisfied by the wanting and the getting of pleasure, security, control and predictability. For animals, these goods are life itself. This is why humans drape armies and wealth with honor and admiration; they symbolize a quasi-sacred access to the source of life itself. So deeply imprinted is this association in the human animal that it overwhelms the wisdom from every ancient tradition, which warns against the moral and psychic dangers coiled in the desire for wealth and power.

Yet wealth is not itself the problem. Wealth is a manifestation of human consciousness. It is formed from the conscious capacity to understand and grasp an object or an idea and change it to make it desirable to others, who want to acquire it, not by tooth and claw, but by trade. To gain wealth through more intensive applications of consciousness (rather than brute force) is what humans do — or can do, if seen and supported. Generating wealth does not of itself cause political conflict because it does not inherently shield a person from the reality of other beings. This is why many societies are able to accommodate fairly large discrepancies in the amounts of wealth generated by their members while still supporting the diverse goals of their people.

Things begin to fall apart when the wealthy desire wealth itself, and use force, including the force of law, to protect and increase their wealth at the expense of the not-wealthy. When much of a society’s relationship to the meaning of money is wired in animal consciousness, however, the people cannot understand what is going on. Because they adore wealth, they cannot see that the wealthy are often stuck in low levels of consciousness, using money and power like tooth and claw to take wealth and life from weaker beings. They cannot see that they themselves have the power to apply laws of higher consciousness and self-regulation to the unregulated accumulation of wealth at the top. Unhappily, when love for money rules in a society’s consciousness, the people literally do not have access to their own power and cannot change their world. Their power is locked away in low consciousness.

With the 2016 presidential race, the conflict between higher and lower consciousness ramps up to a new level. The realization is dawning that the age-long obsession with wealth and military power can destroy us, is beneath us and must be put behind us. Perhaps the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 was the first sure sign that many Americans are starting to see the pervasive destructiveness of unregulated wealth — how it controls governments, eliminates regulation, revs the engines of war, overheats the planet and shovels up into the 1% the wealth of the nation, created by unseen millions.

Even if Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders do not receive their parties’ nominations, their enormous popularity signifies that this time, the political conflict of lower versus higher consciousness is laid bare. The stultifying rhetoric of ordinary politicians has been tuned out. A critical mass of citizens is undergoing what Paulo Freire called “conscientization.” This means a radical shift in consciousness. The unseen and often despised other — who not seldom includes oneself — at last becomes visible as a person whom I myself will stand for and fight for and sacrifice for. This willingness to relinquish advantage at the right time for the sake of the other is the strong sign that consciousness is undergoing a transformation to a higher level and that the other has at last been seen. A human being.

The coming election will reveal as none have for generations what part of the people wants rule by tooth and claw, and what part wants to rise to a new level of consciousness and freedom. It is time we learn our fractions.


1. Some evils do not appear in this list because no great feeling has emerged in a critical mass of citizens to demand political redress. Foremost among these is the slaughter and destruction of Native Americans and their lifeways.

2. Some of the best-known of these thinkers are Søren Kierkegaard, Clare Graves, Ken Wilber, Robert Kegan, Lawrence Kohlberg, James Fowler and Otto Scharmer.

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