Stages of Political Awakening

When Neo awoke from The Matrix, it was all at once, abruptly; it was a total change; there were no stages. But in our real world, most of us go through stages of awakening. In this essay I’m mostly describing stages that =I= went through — but I think many other people go through similar stages. Generally it’s a one-way process, because once you see certain things, you can’t unsee them.

The starting position is to not be aware at all; I would call that “stage zero.” 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, the one your family has chosen for decades, because you believe it’s “good” and the other one is “bad.” If you listen to the news at all, it’s probably from just one source, the one that your family has traditionally watched — 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.
  • But when the other major party is in power, then your news source may find quite a bit to squawk about.

What changes things? Well, perhaps some particular issue arouses your concern. Or perhaps some politician will get caught in some crime worse than you are accustomed to — e.g., he may get caught starting a war for lies, or lying about global warming. And perhaps life-changing event also happens in your personal life — e.g., someone close to you dies in a war. Or more broadly, perhaps someone who occupied a big space in your life is suddenly no longer there, for whatever reason, and that leaves you more time to think. These events might trigger your awakening to the first stage of awareness: 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 your party as knights in shining armor, and blame all the troubles of the world on The Bad Party. If only we could elect more people from The Good Party, that would solve all our problems. For some people, this is as far as the awakening process ever goes.

However, in recent decades, the internet has increased the variety of available information, and so some people go further. The second stage of awareness begins when you start to notice that even your Good Party is flawed.

This might be triggered during election primaries, when you’ve picked one particularly good candidate to support (e.g., Kucinich or Sanders) and you see him being treated unfairly by other people in the Good Party, those who are running it. So the Good Party isn’t completely good after all, though it’s still certainly better than the Bad Party.

But then comes another awakening, into the third stage, when you see that the two parties really aren’t very different. It might be triggered when power is transferred from one party to the other, and you notice that this leaves many behaviors of government entirely unchanged. You notice that the unjustifiable wars, the poverty, the ecocide, etc., are all largely unchanged. You realize that they are bipartisan in action, though the two parties may differ in the speeches they make.

You might notice the similarity during one of the elections. A great example was in 2012, when Romneycare ran against Obamacare — two different names for essentially the same insurance company scam. Chomsky said “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” The accompanying diagram is edited only slightly from Political Compass; the little yellow box is the “spectrum of acceptable opinion” covered by the corporate (“mainstream”) news media. Note how small that box is compared to the wider range of political discourse. (My own view is way down in the lower left corner, far from the yellow box.)

In stage three, you may still believe that our society is based on good principles like “democracy” and “freedom,” but you become convinced that we’ve strayed from those principles into corruption. A lot of crooks have gotten into office. We need to “drain the swamp,” evict all those crooks from office, perhaps even jail some of them. We need a clean sweep, to replace the crooks with a “brand new congress.” 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 is as far as the awakening process ever goes. Many people in this stage call themselves “woke” (that’s past tense), believing they already have it all figured out.

After that comes stage four, though perhaps it doesn’t deserve a number of its own — it’s only slightly different from stage three. And far fewer people reach this stage, and I haven’t figured out what triggers those people to get here. This stage begins when you start wondering why so many crooks keep getting into office, election after election. And you finally realize that, although the crooks holding office may be willing agents of the problem, still they are not the source of the problem. There may be some error in the system itself, and in stage 4 you figure it is some small error. It might be the electoral college. It might be the money in politics. And so you join a campaign to make one little change in the constitution. Just think, one little change in the rules could solve all our problems! That’s good news! We don’t have to change our whole way of life! We still have good principles, such as “democracy” and “freedom”! Once we make this change, we can resume our “normal lives”; we can get back to “the good old days.” Again, very few people get beyond this stage; people who stop here also call themselves “woke.”

A few people get to stage five, the highest stage that I’m aware of, the stage I would call “radical.” I don’t know how people get to this stage; it’s a big leap from four. In this stage, people realize that we have a BIG error in the system. The big corporations, and the press and government they own, have been lying to us about everything. There never were any “good old days,” and the world we need to create is one that has never existed before. “Freedom” and “democracy” are just part of an illusion; the basic principles underlying our society really are property and power. And the problems all around us, such as war and poverty, are not just interruptions in normal life; rather, they are part of a system that is perpetuating itself. All the parts are connected; to change any part we must change the whole system. For instance, if we don’t share, we must trade, and that increases inequality, which leads to corruption.

But all that explains why few people get this far. You might imagine changing some little part of the system, but it’s much harder to imagine changing all the parts of the system, creating an entirely new and different world. I don’t think we’ll end poverty until we learn to share everything, but that’s going to be difficult — we’ve been immersed in private property for 12,000 years.

John Lennon’s song “Imagine” describes changing different parts of the world, one part after another. The first two verses start with little changes, things that don’t directly affect our daily lives — religion, nationalism — and he says “it’s easy if you try” and then “it isn’t hard to do.” But in the third verse he mentions sharing everything, and that’s much harder, and so he says “I wonder if you can.” And he’s not asking whether you can share — he’s wondering whether you can even imagine sharing!

And when you speak of a different world, people may dismiss you as a crackpot. Still, we just have to keep talking, and hope some people will hear us and will think about what we’re saying.


2022 Aug 23, version 4.03. (Original version August 2018.)

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