Reflections on Esalen’s 2014 Conclave on Political Polarization

By Steve McIntosh

This past week I was at The Esalen Center for Theory and Research on California’s legendary Big Sur coast. I came to Esalen to participate in an event I’ve been helping to plan for close to a year: The Conclave on Political Polarization. Since December 2013, The Institute for Cultural Evolution (“ICE”) has been working with Esalen’s Chairman Sam Yau and fellow board member Jay Ogilvy to bring together a group of twenty-five distinguished public figures, political scientists, pundits, insiders and activists to discuss how to ameliorate the hyper-partisanship that has now made America’s democracy dysfunctional. ICE co-hosted this gathering as part of our larger campaign to help “depolarize the American electorate,” as detailed on our website.

In planning the Esalen Conclave we did our best to assemble a diverse group from across the political spectrum, but most of those who came were centrists or center-left. This was predictable, however, as these are the folks who are most concerned about the problem. The gathering did include seven self-identified Republicans, but they were fairly centrist themselves. Nevertheless, we managed to uncover some interesting differences of opinion, together with a variety of promising proposals for ameliorating the problem, which I describe in this brief article.


The author talks to John Gable of

Interesting Differences Regarding the Primary Causes of Polarization

Although there seemed to be clear agreement among the group that our democracy’s currently dysfunctional condition is something we need to get beyond, clear differences of opinion emerged regarding whether the polarization is actually representative of the electorate, or artificially manufactured by the two major parties. This latter view holds that ideological polarization in the electorate is actually a myth and that Americans have been merely “sorted” by hyper-partisans on both sides. This argument has been advanced by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina, and has been particularly influential among centrists who would like to believe that Americans are not really divided deep down. For those who agree with Fiorina’s thesis, straightforward structural solutions such as depoliticizing congressional redistricting and reform of party primaries seem best, especially when these reforms are linked with process solutions, such as those which seek to bring more civility to political dialogue.

At the Esalen gathering, those who accept Fiorina’s arguments and find hope in the fast-growing group of Americans who register as “independent” included John Avlon, Editor of the Daily Beast, and “Transpartisan” activists Mark Gerzon and Lawrence Chickering. However, the “sorted not polarized” advocates were challenged at the Conclave by the research of distinguished political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, who see the polarization as partially reflective of real differences in ideology. According to Mann and Ornstein these differences have been produced largely by a significant rightward swing by Republicans since the 1990s. The idea that the electorate itself is polarized was also driven home by the data presented by political scientist Alan Abramowitz, who argued against Fiorina’s thesis. Abramowitz pointed out that almost all independents lean strongly to one side or the other, and most registered independents are actually more partisan than the less committed members of the party they lean toward.


Attendees gather in the Murphy House’s main room

Notably, these mainstream liberal political scientists found allies at the gathering among those who bring an “evolutionary perspective” to the problem. This evolutionary or developmental view sees polarization as resulting from the natural outworking of cultural change, and accordingly calls for fostering further cultural evolution as the best solution. In addition to myself and ICE colleague Carter Phipps, this developmental perspective was also held by Esalen’s esteemed founder Michael Murphy, and fellow board member Jay Ogilvy. And somewhat surprisingly, Republican activist and Washington insider Rich Tafel also held this evolutionary view. After finding so much common ground with Rich at the Conclave, I felt as though I was encountering a long-lost brother (even though I’m a registered Democrat).

Interesting Proposals for Ameliorating Political Polarization

Among the many prominent attendees, influential social psychologist and best-selling author Jonathan Haidt made perhaps the biggest impression by focusing on the values of Left and Right. Haidt recommended overcoming polarization by building agreement that our democratic institutions are actually sacred. He called this strategy “moralizing democracy,” and contrasted it with the purely pragmatic approach taken by mainstream bipartisan organizations such as No-Labels.


Jonathan Haidt, right, speaks with Michael Shellenberger, Rich Tafel at left

I appreciated and agreed with Haidt’s proposal, but expressed concerns that the implicit endorsement of patriotic nationalism was “cringeworthy” for many on the Left. While ICE’s vision of a more evolved Future Left (discussed below) includes a place for healthy patriotism, the value of “freedom” may be easier to sanctify than democracy, as it is freedom that the Chinese and most Islamic countries still lack.

Another interesting proposal came from Republican Rich Tafel, who together with Andrew Sullivan started the push for gay marriage in the 1980s. Tafel argued that the best way to make political progress is to find ways to get the other side to champion the issues you care about.  For example, the movement for marriage equality actually originated on the Right. Despite the objections of social conservatives, the issue of gay marriage evoked central Republican values, such as individual liberty and the importance of family. Although it eventually became championed primarily by the Left, the dramatic success of gay marriage over the past few years can be partially attributed to the way it affirms values that most conservatives support. After listening to Tafel, I saw how this strategy might be used to advance the fight against climate change, as the emerging opportunity to build a new energy economy appeals to Republican sensibilities by benefiting American business and encouraging entrepreneurial innovation.

At the end of the second day Carter Phipps and I presented ICE’s campaign to “Depolarize the American Mind,” which calls for a national conversation to help develop and refine “Future Left” and “Future Right” positions that carry forward the core values of each side while better integrating the strengths of the opposition.


Jay Ogilvy talks to Michael Murphy, on the right

This strategy accordingly seeks to diminish polarization by increasing the scope of what people are able to value. Our ideas were warmly received by a number of Conclave participants, including Thomas Mann, and the dynamic duo of Shellenberger and Nordhaus, founders of The Breakthrough Institute think tank.

Back in 2011, when we first conceived of founding the ICE think tank, my colleagues and I looked to The Breakthrough Institute as an inspirational model of what we could become. Yet before the Esalen Conclave we had never met Michael Shellenberger or Ted Nordhaus, and were not sure whether they would view us as allies or rivals. But after our presentation we ended up laughing with them till past midnight, drinking wine on the deck overlooking the crashing waves. It seems like part of the magic of a conference at Esalen is the way the beautiful surroundings help create new friendships. And we made many new friends indeed at the Conclave. It is thus my hope that this emerging network of those who care deeply about the success of our democracy may eventually blossom into a politically effective fellowship of activists.

The success of this year’s conclave has motivated the leaders of both Esalen and ICE to make this at least a three-year project, with two more gatherings planned: one for next year and another just before the 2016 Presidential election. And with luck, this growing fellowship may make a meaningful contribution to America’s further political progress.

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  • Matthew Kalman

    Hi Steve,

    I’m so impressed by what you’re doing, by the people and perspectives you brought together at Esalen. I’d love to see something similar in the UK…!

    You may be interested to read my analysis of Jonathan Haidt’s most recent book – I really think he would benefit from understanding the research findings of developmentalists. He presumably thinks all that kind of stuff can be left in the dustbin of history, along with Kohlberg 😉 (One bit of research I didn’t include – perhaps it hadn’t been published at the time? – found that Haidt’s moral foundations in fact actually overlap very significantly indeed with Kohlberg’s developmental moral stages, after all).

    Here’s what I wrote:

    Some other thoughts to throw into the mix… Have you heard Prof Kegan talk about the developmental stage impact of Boston’s Public Conversations Project – which worked on the abortion issue – bringing both sides together – after a doctor had been killed? (The sides didn’t change their views, but developed a huge respect for eachother – and in places possibly even grew beyond the the narrowness of the self-authored inner compass, into the more integral ways of thinking that are arguable best able to work on the world’s ‘wicked’ challenges).

    Also, I’d really recommend you involve the integralist Jack Crittenden, an Associate Professor who’s been looking in depth at areas relating to Citizen’s Juries, Wisdom Councils etc. (Eg in his book Democracy’s Midwife).

    It doesn’t directly relate, but didn’t I read in a book about Esalen that Michael Murphy became very impressed with the ideas of Haidt’s mentor Richard Shweder, and felt he had to put aside the (rather too neat, and overweening?) Integral model, and presuably his senior role at the Integral Institute? I’d love to hear Michael’s thoughts on this – it seems such an important topic – such an important fork in the track – that I’ve never seen discussed further.


  • Tom Atlee

    I had my own epiphany about how de-powering the L/R dichotomy is at a transpartisan gathering in 2004 Despite my bone-deep progressivism, I no longer trust those impulses. Likewise, the work of the Public Conversation Project has demonstrated that polarization is a product of our majoritarian winner-take-all dynamics which “force” us to take sides in order to have political impact (2 options fit the system; 3 or more options make it hard to get a 51% win). Outside of that L/R framing, people’s views are often unique and all over the map.

    This has led me to favor efforts which bring together citizens AS citizens/members of the community charged with coming up with solutions that are good for the community – in forums such as Citizens Juries and Wisdom Councils (see and ). In such forums people tend to think together outside of the L/R boxes and to make new sense and new options together. Was anyone at this conclave speaking from/for that perspective/approach?

    • Steve McIntosh

      Hi Tom,
      Thanks for commenting on my blog post. Would love to get you more involved. Please keep in touch.

  • LD

    I listened to Steve discuss Depolarization on the Daily Evolver with Jeff. Visited this website; for some reason, could not download either the complete or abridged Depolarizing… white paper. Have now read the blog on the Esalen Conclave.

    I think your intentions are sincere and brilliant. Using the example, Steve (on the Evolver call), of masculinity and femininity as evidence that polarization is “hardwired into consciousness” and also capable of evolving, is very persuasive.

    Which indirectly brings me to something I’d like to inquire about. This blog states you tried to assemble a diverse group across the political spectrum. I wondered if there was some attempt to also assemble a group more inclusive of women. I wondered if people were assembled through direct invitation or otherwise.

    I ask because of 25 attendees, it appears only 3 were women. This of course may have been beyond your control. I do not doubt the integrity of the men attending when it comes to female inclusion; I do not doubt their relational/communal qualities or perspectives. And certainly if Elizabeth Debold was in attendance, the female point of view was well-represented (and perhaps by the other women there as well). And yes, I get that an integral consciousness has to some extent transcended a purely sex or gender-based perspective.

    However, I was still a bit disappointed to notice so few women in attendance at the conclave, and wondered how this came to be.

    Thanks for listening and for your work.

    • Steve McIntosh

      Hi LD,
      There were actually six women. We invited a lot more, but they were not able to attend. Four of the women who had agreed to come had to drop out at the last minute due to scheduling conflicts. So believe me, we did our best to create gender balance, but the final outcome was not completely within our control. We will, however, continue to strive for greater diversity for next year’s conclave.

  • Cynthia

    I like the atmosphere of curiosity and inclusion of different perspectives that I see happened at this conclave. How exciting it is to work together and I am curious about how the other perspectives will affect the next steps.

    I was also excited to be on the caucus call on October 25th and the discussion of the new Left. I am not sure where to post as there is no blog specifically about the call. It felt like a breath of fresh air as well as a good look at some of the shadow’s that I carry with me regarding the attitudes I have. I liked many things presented…but especially the idea to stop whining and wringing our hands and rather….look at our deepest spiritual inspiration to find power and vision for the future.

    I could see my own self-righteousness and harsh judgement in regard to many on the right. My challenge as a Christian is to really walk the talk of “loving our enemies” and practice tolerance and forgiveness, while at the same time owning what I think is most true. It is ironic that my “enemies” are those who also are Christians, but that is where I find myself.

    Grateful for all you do and who you are…

  • David Sinclair

    Thanks,ICE,for existing,for “being”. Actually, for “interbeing”(Thich Nhat Hahn’s term) that is, for supporting interdependent coexistence.I will await any future newsletters.

    Tampa, Florida

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