Confronting the Shadow in Politics

If we are honest about it, we are not always the person we aspire to be. We are often not even the person we believe ourselves to be. We have a view of ourselves as kind and respectful…and yet are coldly dismissive in our interactions with a colleague. We believe ourselves to be open-minded and curious…and yet respond to new perspectives with resistance and anger. We believe ourselves to be committed to helping others…and yet we act in ways that serve our egos while perpetuating a problematic status quo.

Living with a gap between who we aspire to be and who we actually are is a universal aspect of the human experience. Sometimes the gap is relatively small and only appears occasionally; sometimes the gap is enormous and essentially permanent. In any case, it often takes considerable courage to simply recognize that this gap exists, and a fierce commitment to personal growth to clearly confront this gap within ourselves and work intentionally on addressing it.

This unwillingness to see within ourselves ways of being that we don’t like is a problem for all of us, as it causes us to create problems and dynamics in our own lives that undermine—instead of advance—our espoused values. When the individuals who have not done this personal work go into politics, the consequences are amplified beyond one’s personal network, influencing the lives of entire communities, states, nations, and sometimes the entire world.

Here at New Politics Leadership Academy, this understanding of the human condition informs our response to a question that lives at the heart of our work:

How should we develop aspiring politicians so that they are powerfully prepared to transform our current political culture?

As an organization dedicated to recruiting and supporting service program alumni—both military veterans and alumni of civilian service programs like Peace Corps and AmeriCorps—this is a question we grapple with on a daily basis. Our organization takes a comprehensive and holistic approach to developing leaders: In addition to trainings related to technical skills and knowledge, we also focus on how to create an intentional, positive and productive campaign team culture, and challenge future candidates to get crystal clear about their own personal values and mission.

We also go one step further, entering terrain that is rarely explored in any professional context, and is surely outside the box of traditional political trainings: We challenge our aspiring candidates to confront their own shadows.

Our understanding of the shadow is deeply informed by the remarkable insights of psychologist Carl Jung, who used this term to describe the dark, socially unacceptable parts of ourselves that every one of us has, but very often refuse to acknowledge – never mind embrace. Jung explains the shadow this way:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspect of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.

Jung suggests that those who have not confronted and owned their own shadow side operate with a problematic lack of self-awareness. When we have not done this work, our behavior is often driven by dark emotions like fear, anger, cruelty, and shame, yet we believe ourselves to be unfailingly kind, decent, and good. Jung also asserts that when we have not confronted our own shadow, we project the dark forces we are unwilling to recognize within ourselves onto others. We insist that some chosen “others” are hateful, or untrustworthy, or violent, or lacking empathy, or some other anti-social quality; all the while remaining unaware that these are aspects of ourselves that we have thus far refused to confront and own. Until we do, we unconsciously see in others the darkness that we refuse to see in ourselves.

In our politics today, we see shadow everywhere. We can see the projecting of shadow in the relentless “We’re good/they’re evil” partisanship of the moment and the related insistence that all our problems would be solved if only “they” would change, or go away, or be soundly defeated. We can see it in the discord, disrespect, and coarseness of our politics.  We can see it in the gap between our espoused national values and the realities of inequality and injustice in our communities that remain intractable decade after decade.

As Jung notes, the work of confronting our shadow is profound and challenging personal work, and it goes without saying that it is a much deeper undertaking than mastering technical skills like learning how to knock on doors or look confident while speaking in public. We view this work as an essential part of the developmental process for anyone aspiring to attain elected office.

Our approach to this work is both simple and profound. First, we invite individuals in our programs to craft their Personal Leadership Mission Statements, which inevitably articulates a noble, inspiring, and ambitious set of aspirations for oneself as a leader. Later, though, we challenge these same individuals to craft their “Shadow Mission”, which reflects the choices they make when they choose NOT to align with their Leadership Mission. Significantly, we note that shadow is most often the result of withholding light, as opposed to the active spreading of darkness. So an individual whose actions do not align with an espoused mission to “fight for justice” makes a choice to “be a bystander who allows injustice to continue”. An individual who departs from a commitment to “serve others” confronts the truth that he or she is “placing my own needs above those of my constituents”.

It is a rare thing to clearly and courageously confront the implications of not living up to our own aspirations for ourselves. Yet once it is written out, these implications are deeply uncomfortable to encounter and so simple and stark that they are impossible to refute. Individuals with noble aspirations to create positive change are compelled to stare directly at the truth that when they don’t align their actions with those aspirations, they are spreading shadow instead of light. If they want to have the positive impact they aspire to achieve in the world, they must engage constantly in a conscious, intentional, daily struggle to choose light and confront darkness within themselves.

At New Politics Leadership Academy, we believe this difficult inner work is essential for all aspiring politicians. It surely goes beyond a more traditional understanding of candidate training, but nothing short of this deep commitment to personal self-knowledge and self-mastery represents a sufficient response to the political challenges of our time.