Stages of Political Awakening

I’m speaking from experience — these are the stages I’ve gone through (and I’m probably not done yet). But I think a lot of people go through these stages, in this order or in a similar order — but their rates of progress vary greatly.

The starting position is to not be awake at all. In this stage, you simply aren’t paying any attention to the news. Perhaps you vote once every four years, and that is the extent of your political involvement. And you vote for one of the two major parties — you vote for the same one your family has chosen for decades, for as long as you can remember, and you don’t bother remembering why. You listen to the news sources that seem truthful to you — e.g., FOX if you’re a Republican, MSNBC if you’re a Democrat.

And when your party is in power, then your news source has little to complain about, and so you remain asleep. God is in his heaven, and all’s right with the world, as Robert Browning said.

bizarro-worldBut when the other major party is in power, then your news source may find quite a bit to squawk about. And the internet is getting better at squawking than the corporate media ever used to be.

Perhaps some particular issue arouses your concern. Perhaps some politician will be exposed for some crime worse than you could have imagined any politician committing — e.g., lying to start a war, or lying in a way that endangers the entire ecosystem. This might trigger your first stage of awakening. You begin to actually pay attention to some things. You begin to be concerned and involved, and perhaps you join some local activist group or committee.

But you still see the world as a drama in the very most primitive archetypes, a contest between good and evil. Your party as the Good Party, knights in shining armor. All the troubles of the world are the fault of the other party, the Bad Party. If only we could elect more people from the Good Party, that would solve all our problems. (There may also be a drama of conflict between the good people of our Shining City Upon a Hill and the evil Nazis, or communists, or Illuminati, or jihadists, or whatever.) For some people, this is as far as the awakening process ever goes.

However, in recent decades, the internet has increased the variety of information that is available to you, and you start noticing more things.

The second stage of awakening begins when you start to notice that your Good Party is flawed.

  • kucinichThis might be triggered during election primaries, when you’ve picked one particularly good candidate to support (e.g., Kucinich or Sanders) and you notice that he isn’t being treated fairly by the people running the Good Party.
  • Or it might be triggered when the Good Party wins the election, and the Bad Party moves out of power, and you notice that the rhetoric changes substantially but, the policies themselves, not so much. And you realize that the wars and the austerity are bipartisan. And you notice that both parties promise more and better jobs but neither party delivers. And you realize that the economic recovery reported in the news is only experienced by the bankers.

trumps-and-clintonsEvidently, the real problem is widespread corruption. A whole lot of crooks have gotten into office. What we need is a clean sweep. We need to evict all those crooks from office (and perhaps even jail some of them). We need to replace them with a “brand new congress,” or something like that. That way we can get back to normal life, the good old days, the way things were before we started losing our democracy. Again, for some people, this stage two is as far as the awakening process ever goes.

After that comes stage two-and-a-half. I’m calling it that because it’s not entirely different from stage two. And I haven’t figured out what triggers it. But in this stage, you realize that the crooks holding office may be willing agents of the problem, but they are not the source of the problem. The source is some little error in the system, which causes those crooks to get into office. It might be the electoral college. It might be all the money in politics. And so you join a campaign to make one little change in the constitution. Just think, one little reform in the rules could solve all our problems. That’s good news. We don’t have to change our whole way of life! We can get back to the good old days, when we had a democracy! Very few people get beyond this stage.

After that, the only stage that I’m aware of is the one I’m calling stage three, or “radical,” and I don’t know what triggers it. Very few people get here. The radical view is that there never were any good old days; that’s just a figment of our imaginary history. The only democracy we’ve ever had was a sham; most of the people in office have always been crooks. If we want something different, we’re going to have to change all the rules; we’re going to have to change our entire way of life. (And, of course, there are some variations within stage three, as different people have slightly different notions of what the new life should be like.)

Lennon OnoBut all that explains why few people get this far. It’s difficult for most people to imagine changing their entire way of life. “I wonder if you can,” John Lennon sang. Once you reach this stage, you’ll want to talk about it — but if people can’t understand you right away, most of them will dismiss you as a crackpot, and that saves them the trouble of actually giving any serious thought to the unfamiliar ideas you’re trying to promote. Few people make the leap of imagination, to see things in an entirely new way.

I don’t know what can be done about that. I just know that, once you see an idea, generally you can’t unsee it.

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2016 Dec 2, version 2.01.