7 ideas that change how you do politics

✊ Empowerment

"Ideas shape the course of history" - John Maynard Keynes
"The value of an idea lies in the using of it." - Thomas Edison

Over the last 2 years of politicwise, 7 ideas emerged that help change how we do politics:

  • Power makes you egocentric, but you can do something about it
  • Powerlessness is fertile soil for authoritarianism. Learn how to give power to the people
  • Nothing is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it
  • Being authentic means being the author
  • Politics is the highest form of flow
  • Politics needs fewer leaders, more followers
  • Healthy politicians, healthy democracy

Let's look at each idea:

Power makes you egocentric, but you can do something about it

"Where does the interest of the country stop and the love of privileges begin? […] Regardless of how pure his intentions may originally have been, it takes a high degree of self-awareness and critical distance for someone in power – however well-meaning at the start – to recognize that moment. […] being in power makes me permanently suspicious of myself.” Vaclav Havel

Gaining power is not the only, but it is the most obvious way that politics can change us.

Power makes you feel in control (even if you have no control), focused on goal-attainment and less willing to consider opposing data or risks.

The paradox of power is this: you gain power by focusing on others, but once you have it, power warps how you think and makes you more egocentric, and this shift away from others to yourself undermines your power over time.

News flash: you can do something about it, but you are not immune.

Only because some politicians seem so foreign to you when they abuse power, does not mean it cannot happen to you once your context changes. It's the winner effect - once you start 'winning', winning changes you.

And you don't need to be in high politics to feel the effects: even thinking about the last time you had power, has been shown to make people more egocentric.

See Adam Galisnky et al. (2006) 'Power and Perspectives Not Taken' and Galisnky's research in general

What can you do about it?

  • Limit exposure to power. Ideally, your term is limited. If not: setting intentions and making public commitments about how long you want to hold office, can help hold 'future you' accountable.
  • Switch context. Be surrounded by people who really don't care about your power, meet old friends who know the young, immature, sometimes helpless you and can see beyond your power and political persona.
  • Find moments of awe. When you experience awe, you forget yourself; you feel small but connected to something larger - other people, nature, ideas etc. Every day, you can experience awe in nature, by listening to music, by being connected with others, by looking at the seemingly ordinary with different eyes.

Powerlessness is fertile soil for authoritarianism. Learn how to give power to the people

„But although foreign and internal threats of Fascism must be taken seriously, there is no greater mistake and no graver danger than not to see that in our own society we are faced with the same phenomenon that is fertile soil for the rise of Fascism anywhere: the insignificance and powerlessness of the individual.“ - Erich Fromm in 'Escape from Freedom', p 239-240

Feeling powerless is fertile soil for authoritarianism. The sociologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm observed this in 1941. He saw the increased sense of isolation and powerlessness in modern society as the flip side of increased freedom: as we gain personal liberties, we are also presented with the existential challenge of making sense and use of these liberties.

When we don't accept this challenge, we escape from freedom toward authoritarianism, conformity and destruction.

He was not alone in this assessment.

In her analysis of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt describes how totalitarian movements exploit individuals who lack traditional support networks (e.g. family, religious community, clubs, unions), purposefully seek to destroy the public realm and suggest a homogenous narrative that chokes off any chance for people to assert their individuality and differences.

If powerlessness is a societal risk, it's also harmful at an individual/biological level: feeling powerless is stressful and over time damages people's health.

Studies (1, 2) find that individuals who perceive themselves as disempowered have higher levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This, in turn, can lead to negative health outcomes such as depression, anxiety, and physical illness. When stress levels remain high, we become more sensitive to stress. Elevated cortisol strengthens the signalling in the hippocampus and amygdala: The myelin that insulates nerves becomes thicker in this region, and electrical impulses are transmitted quicker and more efficiently: we become more sensitive to threats and more stress.

This creates a vicious circle.

So, how do we break the vicious circle of powerlessness?

At a macro level: policies and institutional reform that create the right conditions for people to have a greater sense of control over their lives.

At a meso level: transforming our organizations to make them more inclusive, to create spaces where people can express their individuality and come together for a shared purpose.

Let me focus on the micro level: what you and I can do, right now, to reduce the powerlessness around us.

When was the last time someone made you feel empowered, you had a sense of 'yes, I can do this' - what did that person do? How did they talk to you? How did it feel to be around them? What did they believe about you?

The answer to how to empower the people around you lies in your answers to these questions.

Three core practices of empowering people:

The way you talk to citizens, how you enable your team and volunteers, how you encourage people to make judgments of their own, and being of service rather than only fixing others' problems... plenty of opportunities to do something against feelings of powerlessness around you, starting where you are, right now.

Nothing is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it

In 2011, Daniel Kahnemann, the prominent psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in Economics, was asked: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"

His answer:

"Nothing is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it" - edge.org

He coined this cognitive bias the 'focusing illusion': while you think about something, that something seems more important to you than it would otherwise be. For example:

"Paraplegics are often unhappy, but they are not unhappy all the time because they spend most of the time experiencing and thinking about other things than their disability. When we think of what it is like to be a paraplegic, or blind, or a lottery winner, or a resident of California we focus on the distinctive aspects of each of these conditions. The mismatch in the allocation of attention between thinking about a life condition and actually living it is the cause of the focusing illusion." edge.org

What does this mean for you?

Agenda-setting matters

When public discourse is focused on topic X, it becomes more important to people, merited or not, especially relative to other topics. Whoever had an influence on setting the topics, also made those topics more important in our minds.

That includes not just what we are talking about, but also how we are talking about it. Take public healthcare: is it a matter of "government handouts" or "health security"? Or gun laws: is it a matter of "public safety" or "personal freedom"? These words matter because they point to different value systems aka frames. If you adopt the words (even in the negative), you implicitly adopt the frame: 'Don't think of an elephant' does not work.

Politicians are often criticised for not answering questions. The focusing illusion helps explain why they do it (and why it can be justified).

Bridge political divides

Political divides are more pronounced when all you do is talk and think about differences. Questions can help redirect focus, and the right questions can help bridge divides, questions like these from Warren Berger:

  • What is it in your position that gives you pause?
  • What is it in my position that interests or attracts you?
  • On a scale of 1 - 10, how would you rate my position? And your own?
  • If you didn't rate mine at 1 and yours at 10, why not?
  • Can we imagine a position that might at least partly satisfy both of us?

Considering the bigger picture can also help. Experiencing awe has been shown to make people less certain of and less entrenched in their positions, and more curious about how people come to differing views.

Focus on your agency

Our attention often goes to the leaders of our organizations and communities. For example, we focus on the CEO of a company, the decisions they make, what they talk about. But we ignore less tangible but perhaps more about factors such as timing of a product launch or company culture.

Equally, we tend to underestimate what we can do, when we focus on what our leaders can or should do.

Being authentic means being the author

Authenticity comes from the Greek 'authentes': acting on one's own authority

Being 'authentic' can be an impediment to personal growth, an excuse to remain where you are, if it's interpreted as being authentic to a fixed self (and which part of oneself?).

The alternative is to go back to that Greek original meaning: act on your own authority: be self-authoring. This is what psychological theories of development (see Maslow) have in mind with 'self-actualization.'

And that implies a process. So, authenticity is not something you have or not. It's a process of doing something - and when you are growing and learning, that will be something that is uncomfortable at first.

Politics is the highest form of flow

"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." - Mahatma Gandhi

Major sources of happiness, according to research: helping others, good relationships, being part of something larger than oneself.

It's an opportunity to be of service to others, develop good relationships, be part of something larger than yourself ....

'Flow' is another, but connected peak experience: you are so engaged in an activity that is challenging and requiring your full attention and skill that you lose sense of time & space.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, suggests politics might be the highest form of flow:

"politics can be one of the most enjoyable and most complex activities available to the individual, for the larger the social arena one moves in, the greater the challenges it presents. A person can deal with very intricate problems in solitude, and family and friends can take up a lot of attention. But trying to optimize the goals of unrelated individuals involves complexities an order of magnitude higher.” P190

Two other reasons why being engaged in politics can be flow at its best:

  • Be a 'flow model'. Observing people in flow is inspiring. Instead of feeling the duty of being a 'role model', be a flow model by being fully engaged in complex challenges that matter to you that provide you with feedback and that you can get a sense of mastery in. You are not playing a role, you are actually engaged in flow and people will notice and want to have a piece of that.
  • Shape conditions of flow. We know the conditions in which flow emerges:
    • A challenging activity that requires skill
    • Concentration
    • Clear goals
    • Immediate feedback
    • Deep involvement that removes from awareness other, everyday worries
    • Opportunity to exercise a sense of control
    • Concern for self disappears yet emerges stronger after the experience is over
    • Sense of duration of time is changed

Think of how you can help create these conditions in your immediate environment (your team) and on a larger scale through policy.

Politics needs fewer leaders, more followers

The power of the people is greater than the people in power - Wael Ghonim

We glorify leaders. But they would be nothing without followers. It's the first followers especially who make or break the claim to leadership:

In tech, it's innovators who take the big risk to adopt first. But it's the early adopters who are the bridge to mass adoption by validating, refining and recommending.

We practice and learn about leadership. But what would it mean to more consciously practice better followership:

  • How do we redefine followership as an active rather than passive role?
  • What qualities make a good follower in politics?
  • What styles of followership are needed depending on context?
  • How can followers enable and constrain leadership?
  • Can you be a good leader without being a good follower?
  • What can we learn from historical or current examples about the role of followership?
  • What would be different, if we had more & better followers, especially the kind of early adopters, in politics?

Healthy politicians, healthy democracy

"The job of a politician should carry a health warning" - Ashley Weinberg

Being in politics is a highly stressful job, more so than comparable jobs outside politics.

There are a range of stressors, working at macro, organizational and individual level:

See Flinders et al. (2020) 'Governing Under Pressure? The Mental Wellbeing of Politicians'

Given these stressors, the mental health of politicians takes on significance.

First, for its inherent value.

Second, for its implications: politicians make decisions that affect citizens. Citizens have an interest in politicians making decisions in the best physical & mental state possible.

For that, politics needs to move from being a high burnout environment (high challenge + low support) to a high performance environment (high challenge + high support).

Also see the work by Apolitical Foundation on mental well-being of politicians.

Citizens, media, political parties, civil society and public institutions all have a role to play in creating the right environment.

7 ideas that change how you do politics?

Which one intrigues you most?

Which one are you experiencing already?

Which one do you disagree with?

Let me know - daniel (at) politicwise.org 🙏