Yesterday’s midterm election results demonstrate that the United States continues to be divided and moving to the extremes of left and right. This widely shared analysis, I believe, is wrongheaded, because it looks at a 21st-century reality through a 20th-century lens (i.e., left vs. right). Instead, we are dealing with a profound axial shift that is redefining the coordinates of the political, economic, and cultural space.
By axial shift, I mean a new system of coordinates that shapes the intellectual discourse. The axial shift is not only at display here during the US midterms, but also around the world, as the recent election results in Brazil, Germany, and Italy, among other countries, demonstrate. In all these places, the main axis of political conflict is no longer primarily between left and right, as it was in the last century, but between open and closed.
And this shift is not limited to politics. The coordinates of the economic discourse are shifting from the old debate between more government vs. markets, to more GDP vs. well-being. A third axial shift concerns the educational system, where we see the debate of public vs. private shifting to memorizing old knowledge vs. whole child, whole systems learning through cultivating generative social fields.
These three axial shifts are replacing the traditional 20th-century public discourse with a new axis of conversation and thought that supports a new avenue for societal renewal. The campaign strategy of the Democratic Party during the 2018 midterms, as I explain below, is a clear example of missing a historic opportunity by looking at a new situation through an old lens.
The Political Shift
The shift of political coordinates from left vs. right to what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls open vs. closed is happening in many countries. Figure 1 maps the old 20th-century line of conflict along the horizontal axis and the emerging 21st-century polarity along the vertical axis.
The distinction that underlies the horizontal axis is well known: the “left” tends to respond to problems by increasing government services, while the “right” tends to respond to the same issues by promoting individual initiative — in short: more government vs. more market.
But what about the vertical axis? Through Donald Trump and Brazil’s newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro, we know one part of that axis very well. “Closed” means a mindset that amplifies the triad of Fear, Hate, and Ignorance. It’s a mindset that manifests in the form of five behaviors: blinding(not seeing reality); de-sensing (not empathizing with others); absencing (losing the connection to one’s highest future); blaming others (an inability to reflect); and destroying (destruction of nature, of relationships, and of self).
The playbook of these five behaviors has reshaped politics over the past couple of years. Not because any of these behaviors are new. But because these behaviors are now weaponized with social media mechanisms such as micro-targeting and dark posts that increase our isolation in digital echo chambers and that amplify these toxic behaviors on levels not seen before. To illustrate, let’s look at a few recent examples.
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Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan, a Thousand Talents Program Professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and cofounder of the Presencing Institute.