How “Integral” is Joe Biden?
Plenty Integral (Especially If We're Not Talking About Stages), and Here's Why
(Photo: Official 2013 White House photo by David Lienemann)
Joe Biden is not a scholar or a deep philosophical thinker. He is not the son of scientists or doctors or executives. He is a father and grandfather from humble blue-collar roots who has survived tragic losses. He is a professional politician with a natural talent for relationship-building that has served him well doing Senate negotiations, international relations, and retail politics on the street.
He would neither recognize the term “Integralist” nor use it for himself (he is a devout Roman Catholic). But an Integralist might reasonably ask: how do we look at the U.S. president-elect from an Integral level of consciousness? and: How “Integral” is Joe Biden?
By “Integral”, I am speaking of a certain way of looking at and being in the world that is developmentally-aware. And when developmentalists look at the sphere of American politics, they tell us that there are certain undeniable patterns that emerge, worldviews, or basic units of culture that inform our values and political orientations.
In Developmental Politics, Steve McIntosh distinguishes between several different major worldviews in American culture: the traditional worldview with “Heritage Values” such as patriotism and religious faith; the fiscally conservative modern worldview with “Liberty Values” such as individual rights and limited government; the liberal modern worldview with “Fairness Values” such as protecting minority rights and an activist government; and the progressive worldview with “Caring Values” such as protecting the environment, championing multiculturalism, and expanding social justice.
McIntosh explains that conflicts among these four major worldviews are the basis of the “culture wars” that have played such a large role in American politics in recent decades. He also holds that the culture wars are not interminable because they can be resolved by a higher consciousness:
Unlike the standard modernist approach of making tactical compromises to try to get most of what our side wants, developmental [Integral] politics seeks to include the values of each camp into the mix from the beginning because it actually affirms these values and wants to see them forwarded. At the level of conventional political issues we’re often faced with a win-lose proposition. But at the level of bedrock values it becomes possible to discover something closer to a win-win solution, even if such a solution does not completely satisfy all parties. Simply put, a developmental approach to politics seeks to accommodate the concerns of all sides, not just to get its way, but to make authentic progress for all sides by creating new value agreements.
In McIntosh’s conception, which I think is a valid and important approach to an Integral Politics, the work of forging compromises between differing political factions can be an expression of a transformation in values from one level of development to another. This value transformation is key to what we might call an “Integral method” of doing politics, or simply, the creation of “Integral dignities”.
Three Bidenesque Integral Dignities
Even though Joe Biden has probably never studied interdisciplinary metatheory or any similar esoteric intellectual domain, he nevertheless walks in the world in a manner that is rich with Integral dignities. In other words, his basic approach to politics is that of one who reconciles conflicting value systems through the hard work of getting agreement on tough issues, forging a new level of coherence.
I will flesh out this understanding of Biden’s politics in a moment by talking about three specific Integral dignities, but even if I convince you that Biden practices one sort of Integral Politics, it’s important to stress that this isn’t the only valid and important way of walking in the world with an Integral Politics.
There are fluid positions for Integral politicians on the right, center, left, and other stations (but there should be no rigid, ideologically-fixed identities). There are persons with an “Integral consciousness” who may identify predominantly with one or more of McIntosh’s key values: Heritage Values, Liberty Values, Fairness Values, or Caring Values.
And there are Integral people working within every political party and trans-partisan endeavors. As for me, I’m an Integral Democrat (but I would happily vote outside my party if there’s a viable candidate who is a better fit for the role).
The Evolver-in-Chief: The First Integral Dignity
Some of you Integralists reading this are possibly having coughing fits at the notion of Biden as an Integral politician. You might be thinking: how could he be? He has never quoted an Integral thinker or used an evolutionary theoretical framework in his speeches?
I think this is a big confusion when looking at development, the idea that one must trace one’s biography in a philosophically coherent framework for development to be real. The truth is that on at least one hugely important developmental line – emotional intelligence – Biden’s life story has given him a constantly expansive and evolving capacity for worldcentric love and care.
Depth psychologists understand that one of the biggest movers of human consciousness from one level to another is the capacity to overcome grief. Mourning breaks down certainties and symbols of coherence into new capacities for meaning-making. In Biden’s life, he has overcome losses in his personal life without losing his open-heartedness and has expanded that concern to members of his political tribe, to his country, and even to the world.
At a time of a global pandemic with all the suffering it entails, Americans have selected a “healer in chief” as our president-elect partly because we rightly sense that he is the man for the occasion. Biden can be the emotional physician for healing a sick nation—and Integralists understand that this is so because of his advanced emotional intelligence, one that has expanded the scope of its empathy beyond egocentric concerns until it embraced the whole world (and beyond into the spiritual realm).
The Scientific Spiritualist: The Second Integral Dignity
Biden campaigned for president as a spiritual person (notably, by attending Mass on election day) and as a man with reverence for science (notably, by wearing masks to comply with scientific public health recommendations). So, it is worth noting that the ability to do both of these things is one of the hallmarks of the Integral worldview.
McIntosh defines “cultural transcendence”, a key concept of Integral consciousness, as
a new collective higher purpose for American society that finds its truth in the intersection of science and spirituality.
He says that cultural transcendence, or values transformation, is a sort of “technology of agreement”.
So far as Integral “super-powers” go, “cultural transcendence” is basically the ability to depolarize a polarized country. The superhero rescues a nation bitterly divided into warring factions by getting them to see beyond their cultural prejudices, even those in his own party and ideology.
It makes sense that Joe stands a good chance at reconciling the conflicts abounding between the modern scientific worldview and the traditional religious worldview because these worldviews are reconciled in himself. He can draw on his personal journey of self-integration when he works on issues involving human rights, religious freedom, the role of science in government, and so on.
In short, Biden is more likely than other politicians to see ways of reconciling apparent polarities in modern and traditional worldviews because the same opposing forces have become complementary energies within himself like yin and yang.
The Pragmatic Uniter: The Third Integral Dignity
Another Integral dignity relates to the ability to reconcile pragmatism with idealism. Like Barack Obama before him who spoke of “No Red States and Blue States”, and walking in the footsteps of George W. Bush who said he was a “Uniter, Not a Divider”, Joe Biden delivered an acceptance address tonight which was a message of unity. His message was a response to a political climate that is widely acknowledged as extremely polarized and toxic, filled with demonization and hostility.
Now, in certain times and places, a political message of unity would not be appropriate. Some historical conditions call for a radical or revolutionary spirit (i.e., the spirit of Eros) and others call for a radical conservative spirit (i.e., the spirit of Agape). But the wise Integralist understands that political theory needs to be flexible enough to adapt to the moment, conserving what needs to be conserved and reforming what needs to be reformed, or even supporting extreme measures in extreme situations.
Biden’s pragmatic spirit is obvious, but couldn’t this be seen not as a dignity but as a disaster, an unprincipled accommodation to a corrupt political system? Indeed, it could, if the pragmatism becomes divorced from the idealism. Likewise, if idealism becomes unmoored from pragmatism, it becomes a disaster in its own right, or “the perfect becoming the enemy of the good” as we say.
I have suggested that the question of Joe Biden’s “Integral-ness” ought to be framed as a matter of the extent to which he seems to embody characteristic norms of an Integral philosophy of life—namely, an evolutionary orientation, emotional intelligence, scientific spirit, spirituality, idealistic pragmatism, and a unifying orientation. There are many other qualities or norms of an Integral nature that we could talk about.
Obviously, not everyone who has some of these dignities would consider themselves an Integralist. And certainly not all Integralists have these dignities. But most Integralists will recognize these dignities as present in their own value systems. They will welcome these qualities in Biden because they have them in themselves.
You might be thinking: “There’s no way that Joe Biden is Integral. He’s boring!”
But I would say: “Don’t demand that Integral Politics always be exciting! That would be very immature of you. There’s a face of Integral Politics that is integrative rather than revolutionary, empathetic rather than lively, effective rather than astonishing, useful rather than avant garde. Biden’s face is not the only face worn by Integral Politics, but you’ve got to appreciate the authentic Integral dignities that he has or you’re leaving a lot out of the picture.”
In my view, Joe Biden’s election is a new day for America, one made all the more hopeful by virtue of his Integral dignities. These dignities endow him with the potential capacity for “cultural transcendence” necessary for solving our national polarization crisis, and he deserves the support of Integralists in his efforts to do so.