The Better Alternative Not on the Table

Last fall, I was driving and heard a snippet of a news story that has stayed with me. I was listening to a reporter in Syria talking about the opinions of “people on the street” in Damascus amidst this civil war. She said that they are faced with the choice of the brutal dictator Assad and opposition forces that could be equally repressive and violent. They have a choice and most do not want either option.

I’ve been thinking about what a metaphor this is for this time. In the US, our politics are ever more partisan in a division of Democrats and Republicans. We have two choices, at least when we vote. The vast diverse range of issues, needs, and possibilities in a country of millions of people are grouped into two options. When I look at the policies and solutions being proposed, whether from the left or right, they are often incremental changes within established systems that inherently driving us to greater inequality, continued destruction of the earth’s ecosystems, etc.

I want something else altogether from what the two parties are offering. I am tired of these false narrow choices and wonder how we create the better alternative that is not on the table. Steve Johnson in his book, Future Perfect, said: “parties are institutions stuck in older ways of organizing the world, the electorate has to distort the square peg of its true political worldview to fit the round holes of the two parties.”

In a gathering I was in recently a participant said “we have all the pieces, we can put them together in new ways.” So many possible solutions could be created by hybrids of ideas, pulling some from liberals, some from conservatives, some from indigenous traditions, some from what works in business, some from what works on the web, etc. We can start many experiments in communities, workplaces, and on issues in a region to explore how we can move beyond political party positions and that “I win/you lose orientation.”

Here are some elements of how to get started:

  • Get people talking to people – So much of our time is on a computer or Smart Phone screen. For most of us, it is a rare opportunity to meet and talk with people in our community or to people from a different political orientation or social class. The more fragmented we are in geography, experiences, and world views, the harder it becomes to find common ground and the easier it becomes to hold fast to our opinions and perceptions about “others not like us.”
  • Start with a question – questions open up possibility, rather than debating one choice versus another, e.g., “what can we create together that will make a positive difference in our community?” When open questions are explored and people are given time to reflect on them, engage in conversations and tell stories, and really listen to each other, new understanding starts to develop. Assumptions about what is possible can shift. What felt like a choice of A vs. B opens up into seeing C, D, and E possibilities.
  • Hold our ideas loosely – One of the challenges is that our professional roles and/or identity get strongly tied to a set of ideas and beliefs. If we want to create a future distinct from the past, our ideas and beliefs need to be held more loosely. Dee Hock said it well: “The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out. Every mind is a building filled with archaic furniture.”
  • Create spaces for real conversation – Building on that point, this means we need to create ways to have real conversations where people can drop their professional identities, let go of espousing “the party line,” and have real conversations about what is needed. For example, in a cross-sector initiative about how a state could take action on climate, the meetings to explore solutions were held in a public way and were not making much progress. The organizers decided to change the format to make them closed door meetings and invite people to talk more openly about what was needed. This shift enabled more frank discussion that built more trust and understanding and opened the door to more viable solutions.

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