This slightly revised post originally appeared on PsychCentral.com
There's an assumption in American politics that our best candidates have a legal or business background. Indeed, an astounding 43 percent of our representatives and senators are lawyers. What does it say about America that we look to legal and business professionals to guide our nation forward?
This is not to slam attorneys or business-people, nor to minimize a place for law, order, and good financial decisions. But using psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a model, our concerns about rules, regulations, and financial health are limited to our most basic needs for safety and security. The values that Americans claim to hold dear, such as loving our neighbor, creating vibrant communities, and actualizing our spiritual potential have few representatives in Washington.
Congress's approval ratings are at historic lows, but few commentators are addressing the underlying problems. Its members are primarily lawyers and business people who are groomed to win. Much of their training is about how to triumph in an adversarial culture, how to ridicule, outthink, and outsmart their opponent--how to make their views, opinions, and most notably, themselves look good and paint their adversary as a frightening, loathsome creature who is conspiring to crush your precious American freedoms.
What freedoms? Well... your freedom to remain poor -- and get sick and not afford health care. Your freedom to remain in the rat race of pursuing the American dream with a questionable chance of actualizing it. They use their finely-honed debating skills to persuade you to support their interests, not yours!
Apart from a small cadre of divorce attorneys who've figured out that collaborative law leaves fewer wounded bodies behind and that the art of cooperation benefits everyone in the long run, especially the innocent children, not enough politicians are mindful of the big picture: the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of their children: the American public.
As a psychotherapist for over 30 years, I sense the underlying vulnerability in those who have a penchant to dominate and control others. When I work with couples, I'm thrilled to see how connections deepen when they let down their guard and reveal tender feelings of fear, shame, or hurt underlying aggressive and destructive posturing. When the penchant to be right or look good yields to what's really happening inside them, magic often happens.
An amusing and perhaps revealing Saturday Night Live skit would show our representatives gathering in a group therapy session to disclose what's really driving them. For one, it might be a painful sense of insecurity as a child: political power has been a path to overcome a gnawing sense of shame and inadequacy or compensate for shaky self-esteem. For another, it might be a way to win the acceptance and respect of parents whose conditional love was tied to becoming a high achiever. Others may have altruistic leanings born of caring and wisdom.
A more discerning electorate might one day differentiate between candidates who serve others versus themselves. It's not so easy to tell! Do they appear aggressive and angry or can you sense their heart? Do they seem comfortable highlighting areas of agreement with other candidates? Do they boast, "I made it, so you can too" rather than recognize that not everyone has the resources, connections, or good fortune to thrive? Are you seduced by their false air of certainty or do they make room for life's ambiguities?
Along with the sober realism and clear boundaries necessary for international affairs and terrorism, embracing ambiguity is a strength when situations are unclear. For example, clinging to the flawed conviction that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction created a huge debacle.
For a rare few, such as Nelson Mandela, entering politics is prompted by being painfully acquainted with adversity -- and wanting others to experience more fulfillment and less heartache. Rather than use his power for payback, Mandela united a nation through the power of compassion, wisdom, and forgiveness.
Instead of tapping candidates who thrive on competitiveness and divisiveness, what if we turned toward those with a more unifying vision? Plato, the ancient Greece philosopher believed that philosophers made the best rulers because their decisions would be guided by principles of wisdom and beauty -- commodities in short supply these days. What if we elected people who know something about how to raise healthy children (educators), or promote our physical, mental, and spiritual health (health care practitioners), or who might offer spiritual guidance (clergy who adhere to a separation of church and state).
Sadly, people with wise and open hearts often don't have the ambition or funding to run for office, which segues into the bugaboo of campaign finance reform. What it would take to persuade a skeptical electorate to re-examine its displaced anger toward the political system and realize that the best way to prevent elections from being hijacked by corporations and special interest groups is through the public funding of campaigns?
I'm not a political expert, but it seems to me that if you despise politicians, then the wisest way to punish them is by giving them free money! It may be counterintuitive, but if you're disheartened by our political process, then create some equitable way to finance campaigns so that no one has the disproportionate power to bombard us with the distorted, manipulative messages that alienate us from the political process.
Perhaps if enough of us awaken to what it would take to promote true liberty, equality, and justice, we might create conditions where everyone is free to not only pursue, but to actually experience a growing fulfillment of their higher-level needs--actualizing the American dream of freedom, prosperity, and happiness.
Disclaimer: Opinions and statements expressed here are strictly my own views and should not be construed as professional advice.