10/04/2011 04:16 pm ET | Updated Dec 04, 2011

At the Root of Hard-Hearted Politics

People are talking about the hard-heartedness of politics... and giving all sorts of explanations and excuses. If we are going to resolve the closed-heartedness of our politics and our politicians, we need to find the root. And we need to really understand it so we can do something truly constructive with it and about it.

The root is contempt! But not just the common understanding of contempt. Not just the contempt that people give synonyms for -- disdain, scorn, condescension, hatred. And not just the contempt that people quip (with their own contempt), "Oh he is so contemptuous," and then dismiss or throw 'him' away. I'm talking about the contempt that is, at heart (pardon the pun!), a defense against one's own feelings of helplessness.

You see, contempt is an attitude we 'take on' toward those who are small, weak, helpless, powerless as a way to defend against our own experiences as someone small, weak, helpless, powerless. If we see someone else in that state, our own vulnerable feelings will get triggered (or, as I call it, evoked), without our even being aware of it. And before we can become aware of it, the contempt runs to the foreground -- like the defensive line on a football team or the white blood cells in our immune system -- to defend us against even the slightest possibility of feeling those unwanted feelings... those feelings that we have come to hate... those feelings we so fear.

So who do we see in our country today that is small, weak, helpless, or powerless? And that politicians are contemptuous of? Children? Women? Seniors? The poor? The middle class? Immigrants? People who are different in some way -- racially, ethnically, religiously? And why do those people bring up unwanted feelings in the politicians? They remind the politician of his or her own experiences of smallness, weakness, helplessness, and powerlessness. Maybe with an aged parent or grandparent who didn't have enough money to take care of themselves. Maybe with a mother or big sister who was attacked on the streets, on a date, or even in her own home. Maybe with a next door neighbor from South America who was sent home for no real reason at all. Or maybe -- and this is true for all of us -- maybe the politician is reminded of his own childhood, when he was, in fact, small, weak, and helpless. Again, this is true for every single one of us.

And it is true that we all have an impulse to bury those feelings from childhood, the ones related to our young, vulnerable feelings and sense of powerlessness. But each of us holds those feelings at bay in different ways. Some through addictions, whether substance abuse or addiction to work or technology. Some through bullying. Some through even good acts, which do help someone in the world, but at the same time defend the person who does the good acts against his or her own feelings of powerlessness. And some through contempt. More than you can imagine. Because contempt is a stronger defense against the bursting through of your own feelings of helplessness than most people can even conceive.

But some people realize their contempt is distorted. Some people feel the pain of their own contempt, the pain it causes them and the pain it causes others. And these people find some way to explore or someone to help them get to the root of the contempt -- their own feelings of powerlessness -- and work with those feelings to resolution. Then they no longer need to utilize contempt to make themselves feel powerful by defending against their own experiences and feelings of powerlessness.

If we're exploring who and what to vote for, I vote for this. For the road to healing the contempt and the feelings it defends us against. For the road to holding accountable those who are contemptuous as a way to defend against their own feelings -- holding them accountable, not just criticizing and being contemptuous of them. For the road of politicians who actually do their inner work with their contempt and the vulnerable feelings beneath it. And for the road of citizens who do the same. There's nothing like a healthy citizenry to hold its leaders to a standard of healthy leadership!