Is Political Health A Thing? Asking For The Kids…

Tuesday May 24, 2022

3 days ago, I woke up and felt 9 years younger. The results of the Australian federal election had given me back a sense of wellbeing I had lost over the course of nearly a decade. And it wasn’t just the end of 3 terms of conservative government that had seen so many of the issues I care about deeply, neglected or abused. I lean to the left, always have, and becoming a dad only cemented that desire for a more progressive society.

No, this was something bigger than whether my crowd was in power or not. For starters, I don’t have a crowd. All the political parties have put me off in one way or another; although the ABC’s Vote Compass puts me somewhere between the ALP and the Greens, I don’t belong to a party and may not ever.

My work as a therapist shows me the best in people of all kinds, up close and personal. I also get to see how group dynamics work, and have found that while group efforts are much more powerful than individual efforts, group thinking is rarely as wise as individual thought, especially where members of the group are not equal in power.

Political parties seem to suffer terribly from group thinking at times, not least because they all have to sort out how power is handled, and it’s hard to think together well unless you’re handling any power differences well. The larger the group, the greater the power of combined human effort, but also the harder it gets to handle it well and therefore to think together well.

Happily, on Saturday I think we saw power being handled well in this country for the first time in a while, maybe for the first time ever in some ways. The fall in the primary vote for the elderly duopoly of Labor and the Liberal/National Coalition has been well-documented, as has the division of that power among diverse groups, especially of an orientation opposed to the direction of dominant forces of the last decade especially.

Much though the major parties warned against the perceived chaos of a hung parliament or minority government, I actually think that since Saturday, we might be closer to political health than ever before.

Political health as a concept has been on my mind for a while, and I’m sure I’m not alone or original in thinking about it. It seems pretty straightforward really: we can talk about the health of a society measured in life expectancy, quality-adjusted life years, gross domestic product, average BMI, level of education reached and so on, because measuring how well we are doing matters. From my training in psychiatry there is the Global Assessment of Function measure from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association – an attempt to put a number on a person’s overall mental health.

All these measures have their utility and shortcomings, but have in common the fact that enough of us thought it was worth trying to measure how we are going, individually or as groups of us. Can that be extended to politics? We can measure wellbeing individually or at a group level, of our cardiovascular systems or our education systems; how do we measure the health of our political system?

I have never studied political science, but would love to hear from people who have, because there could be a synergy between their field and mine, between what they know and what I as a therapist and parent learn every day, about human power and health of the systems that transmit its energies.

The good news from my end is that the more I learn from people about human suffering, trauma and growth, the more hopeful I feel for our species. This has been in sad contrast with the hopelessness I have so often felt about politics both nationally and globally in recent decades. At the individual and small-group level I see how healing of some kind is nearly always possible. How is it then that at a larger-group level we can seem so far from healing?

If anything, it seems to me that our Westminster political system is built on denying healing any opportunity to take root. We must apparently fan the flames of conflict to ensure the Darwinian contest of ideas produces apex predator policies that can kill off all competitors. This has helped produced the competitive, individualistic society the West has spread globally, and which now threatens our planet’s many well-balanced systems.

That centuries-old political system seems unlikely to be changed radically from within any time soon, and yet if we were using something even a century old for our physical or mental health, we would still be locking people up in Victorian era asylums, or bleeding people with leeches as first-line emergency care.

Innovation and bravery from diverse sources saw us shift from those antiquated practices – think John Cade’s courageous self-testing of lithium, Semmelweiss’ ridiculed discovery of antiseptic hand-washing, or Marie Curie’s ultimate death from the radioactivity she investigated which we now use indispensably in healthcare globally.

On Saturday night we saw that diversity flourish alongside a good measure of innovation and bravery. Maybe there is just too much inertia, vested interest and large-scale groupthink to get our dinosaur of a political system to change itself in the time we need it to to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Maybe change must be forced on it from outside in multiple tiny ways that add up to waves like the one we have just seen break over us.

May there be many more, and soon. Our kids and other precious lifeforms on Earth can’t wait for politics that serve their needs ahead of the adults’ tribal preferences.

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