Barry K. Weinhold, Ph.D. Barack Obama said he wanted to change the way politics is practiced in this country. Many see him as a dreamer or a clever orator, but not someone experienced enough to change the political landscape of Presidential politics without first bulldozing the White House lawn. I believe what Obama is seeking in politics is something more dramatic than moving dirt in Washington. I think he is talking about shifting the political landscape to a higher level of consciousness. The Order of Consciousness The research of Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan revealed five progressively more complex orders of consciousness that that can help us understand what Obama is seeking. Each of the orders are characterized by: 1. a lack of good cause and effect thinking. 2. an inability to understand abstract terms like freedom or human rights. 3. either-or thinking that causes people to play out victim-victimizer dynamics. 4. both-and thinking that helps people to find common ground on important issues. 5. systemic thinking that enables people to change themselves and the world around them. Kegan’s research shows about 70% of U. S. adults operate at the third order or below, although about half of them have one foot in fourth order consciousness. Our research has shown that people cannot shift from third order thinking to fourth order thinking unless they first understand how their family of origin and their cultural roots have impacted their current values, beliefs and choices. We found that once people can connect the dots between their current thoughts, feelings and actions and what happened to them when the grew up, they can then connect the dots between the elements in larger human systems such as our political system. They understand how these larger human systems work and are not as easily fooled by the political propaganda designed to keep them voting against their best interests and electing people who do not have their best interests in mind. Obama seems to have connected the dots between his early family background and his current values, beliefs and choices, so he may be a fourth order thinker. If so, he will have to apply what he has learned to avoid getting pulled into third order campaign strategies that his opponents will try to use on him in this campaign. What Are the Major Challenges Obama Faces in This Election He will be encountering a political system where third order thinking is the most entrenched. The two-party political system and the Electoral College System are classic third order systems. If elected, he would be faced with changing the win/lose thinking that causes gridlock in Washington. In order to get elected, he will have to find enough fourth order advisors who can help him create the collective shift he is seeking. However, his biggest challenge will be to get a majority of the American people who are still first, second or third order political thinkers to relate to his message. This task is made even more difficult by a media that fuels divisive third order us vs. them political conflicts to drive up ratings. There is no guarentee that the media will support his both/and campaign against an opponent who uses either/or tactics because they might believe it will hurt their ratings. In addition, he has to overcome the natural fear of change in people. He has to reassure them that the changes he is calling for are what the American people want and can handle without getting too scared. Finally, he has to transcend the latent racism in this country. Some of that comes from people typically vote for candidates who look like them, talk like them and have a background similar to theirs. That will be a difficult challenge to overcome. What Fourth Order Strategies Can Obama Use to Meet These Challenges He has to present positive metaphors such as Change we can believe in, Looking to the future instead of the past and We are not a collection of red states and blues states, we are the United States of America. These messages provide a framework that can help people to think about their own personal experiences in a new way. For example, the question, Are you better off today than you were eight years ago fits with the metaphor of the future versus the past and helps people understand change they can believe in. He has to show the American people that he is one of them and that he understands and identifies with their struggle by including stories of his life that that many Americans can identify with. This means getting people to see beyond color and identify with his human qualities that transcend racial stereotypes. He can attempt to do this by emphasizing his single parent family, his alcoholic father, experiencing poverty and achieving great success despite these handicaps. He may have to play down some aspects of his background including his multi-cultural or mixed racial background. He also will have to appear as an underdog who fulfilled the American Dream because the American people like to identify with and root for the underdog who made it. His campaign strategies have fourth order consciousness imbedded in them. For example he asked people to join his grassroots-financing plan, which makes them stakeholders. He also asked local groups of supporters to contribute planks to the Democratic Party Platform, which led to 1,200 such group contributions. Delivering his acceptance speech at the convention before 84,000 people in Investco Field in Denver was another example of changing politics as usual and proved to be a huge success. Finally, he has to set up campaign offices in all 50 states, instead of just the blue states. To overcome the fear of change, Barack has to provide voters with reassuring, but realistic visions of the future to identify with that are less scary than those of his opponent. His campaign has to show how ‘staying the course policies of the previous administration contributed to a collapsing housing market, high gas prices, higher health care costs, increased threats to the environment, a long, costly war in Iraq, the loss of many jobs overseas, threats of inflation, and many more hot button issues. Then he must convince the American people that he has a good plan for solving these problems. Another challenge is to craft campaign messages that reach people with first or second order political consciousness. Research shows that if his ideas are two or more levels beyond their current level of thinking, they will dismiss them. If he is not successful at reaching this group of voters with his message they will likely define him as the anti-Christ, a Muslim or an elitist and refuse to vote for him. The jury is still out on how successful he will be in shifting the political consciousness of America. Others before him have tried and have failed. If he knows his own personal history and the history of why others have failed to accomplish this task, maybe he has enough fourth order consciousness to be successful.
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