Integral Theory Part 2, The diagnosis of our political world


The world is falling apart.

Politics has become incredibly polarized.  Opposing sides can’t ever work together, even on issues where they agree, racial and gender issues are boiling over, and everyone seems to be talking past each other.  

The 2016 election of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States is bewildering and angering to many.  How could a country that seemed to have come so far in the last decades elect a man who seems to stand for the opposite of every principle on which our country is based?  Is our country really that racist, bigoted, and sexist?

The depressing answer for some of those whose job it is to explain why things are happening is that we simply haven’t made as much progress as we thought.  Others suggest that what we are seeing is a backlash from poor working class whites who feel left out of the modern economy. There are currently over 25 explanations of why Donald Trump won the presidency, and so it seems the answer is a collective shrug.

Even worse, the outlook is pessimistic. The electorate is hopelessly deadlocked, and the only way out of the rolling disaster is to defeat your opponents by any means necessary.  

Below, I’m going to use the ideas of Integral to explain why all of this is wrong.  I’m going to explain why things are not hopeless, why we have made a great deal of progress, and why the tension of our current politics is just a temporary, and necessary, process we must go through to get to a better place.  

This is part two of a series. You should read part 1, which talks about each stage and where it came from.

For most of human history, these stages of consciousness happened far apart, people weren’t very mobile, and different stages rarely interacted.  But in the 18th century, the modernist worldview of the Enlightenment was in full swing, replacing the previous premodern worldviews. For the first time in history, we had the clash of two worldviews, in a small amount of time, turbocharged by the invention of the printing press.  And this resulted in conflict. At first, it was the American Revolution, and then the French Revolution.

Much later, modern ideas like that of Marx led to the Soviet revolution, communism, and the Cold War.  Separately, fascism, another modern idea was the force behind World War II.

The point is that clashing worldviews create conflict.

While it is true that new worldviews emerge to solve the problems of the previous one, the principles underlying the new worldview are diametrically opposed to the previous one.  And unfortunately, everyone in the world doesn’t move to a new worldview at the same time.

Today, we are living in a world with three major worldviews (complicated by a left and right version of each) and perhaps one or two minor ones, and these worldviews are clashing with each other intensely.  And these clashes are intensified by a global media and the internet, including social media.

Here’s what the political situation looks like in the United States today:

Our politics is broken up roughly into “left” and “right”, which lines up very poorly with what matters.  But when we overlay the stages of consciousness on top of “left” and “right” we get something that looks much more illuminating.  Recently, the categories of “right postmodernism” and “left traditionalism” have been outlined by Richard Tafel, completing the integral map of contemporary politics.

  • Right Traditionalism - Religious and nationalistic conservatives. Important issues are abortion, gay rights, and immigration, otherwise known as “social issues”.  In its unhealthy version, right traditionalism can be preachy and moralistic, attempt to impose its principles on others, and inflexible in the face of social change.  Some contemporary figures in this category would be Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Jeff Sessions.
  • Right Modernism - Globalist and capitalist conservatives.  Libertarian leaning conservatives would fall under this category.  Important issues are free trade, low taxes, and less regulation. In its unhealthy version, right modernists become big business loving corporatists with an obsession of cutting taxes on the rich and cutting regulations even where some are needed.  It is capitalism to its excess. Some contemporary figures in right modernism are Paul Ryan, Grover Norquist, and Rand Paul.
  • Right Postmodernism - This stage has just emerged in the last few years.  Right postmodernists are skeptical of large-scale capitalism, free trade, and open immigration.  They are comfortable with “populism”, generally oppose government power, and are isolationist on foreign policy.  In its unhealthy form, right postmodernists respond to the identity politics of left postmodernism with white identity politics and are prone to conspiracy theories.  They want to shut down the borders and do away with free trade. The right wing of right postmodernism is often referred to as “the alt right”. Some contemporary figures in right postmodernism would be Gavin McInnes, Lauren Southern, and Steve Bannon.
  • Left Traditionalism - This is an elusive group, but mostly consists of minority voters on the left and “blue dog democrats”. Like right traditionalism, they are conservative on social issues, but tend to the left on economic issues. They are generally in agreement with left modernism, except on social issues.  Left traditionalism shares the unhealthy aspects of right traditionalism. Some contemporary figures in left traditionalism would be Al Sharpton and Steve Manchin.
  • Left Modernism - Pro capitalism and pro union, but with a large dose of regulation and a strong social safety net.  In favor of free trade and easy immigration. Generally socially liberal. In its unhealthy version, left modernism leads to an oversized and sclerotic government and burdensome regulation that stifles industry and innovation.  Communism is the worst case scenario. Some contemporary left modernist figures are Bill and Hillary Clinton, Evan Bayh, and Steny Hoyer.
  • Left Postmodernism - Third wave feminists, social justice advocates, democratic socialists.  Left post-modernists are hostile to capitalism because it creates inequality. They believe in multiculturalism and free immigration.  They believe that the world just consists of power struggles, and they use the postmodern ideas of deconstruction and intersectionality as lenses with which to view society.  In its unhealthy version, left postmodernism devolves into moral relativism, identity politics, a rejection of hierarchy and authority, and the rejection of reason and science, ultimately leading to left-anarchism.  Some contemporary left postmodernist figures are Rachel Maddow, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.

Looking at contemporary politics through this lens explains almost all of the simmering struggles we see on a daily basis.  We see the struggle in the Republican party between the traditionalists and the modernists over things like abortion.  Because there's little tension between what the two groups care about, mostly this struggle can be kept at a simmer.  We see the struggle between the modernists and the postmodernists with tax and immigration policy.   Because the views of the right modernists and right postmodernists conflict so strongly, the conflict is all but irreconcilable except where there is a larger threat (e.g. Hillary Clinton).

On the Democratic side, the struggle is between the modernists in the postmodernists: the Hillary Clinton supporters versus the Bernie Sanders supporters.  This struggle is completely intractable, and will result in the postmodernists eventually winning.  What that win looks like is still up in the air.  And we also see the left traditionalists, mostly African Americans and some Hispanics complaining that they are "left out" of the conversation or "taken for granted".

The struggle between the two sides pits the right and left postmodernists against each other, with the corresponding right and left groups lining up behind their side.

Because of the modern media, the Internet, and especially social media, all of these groups are forced to interact with each other every day, on platforms that dehumanize to the maximum degree.  We are bombarded with worldviews that we not only don't agree with, but that we can't understand.  It's not that we can't discuss problems and come to a solution, it's that we don't speak the same language and thus can't even discuss the problems.  

And so we see the result, increasingly balkanized groups yelling at each other ever more loudly.

This diagnosis is dire but not hopeless. In a future article I will lay out where we are in this conflict, how it relates to the 2018 midterm elections, and where we are headed in the long-term.

Find out more about integral theory here: 

About the author

Jeremy Tunnell
I study meditation and write some software.


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You can reach Jeremy at [email protected]