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Searching for Republicans…and Other Elephants in the Community Living Room

Posted on September 7, 2008 by
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Author: Chris Roth
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #140

In May 2008, in an attempt to elicit further perspectives for this issue of Communities and to get a sense of the range of ways that communities deal with politics, I conducted an informal survey of people closely involved with intentional communities, ecovillages, and cohousing communities. My survey was far from scientific or comprehensive: I interviewed two members of my home community, then emailed 12 optional questions to members of a few other local communities, to past Communities contributors, and to the Fellowship for Intentional Communities’ internal email list, asking recipients to spread the survey further. While the roughly dozen respondents who answered by our deadline cannot be considered a statistically representative sampling of communitarians, they did hit upon some common themes, perhaps given added weight by the fact that many of them had “been around the block” in community. But even if each individual reflected only his or her own experience of politics in community, I found what each had to say fascinating. The respondents included:
DB— Dianne Brause, Lost Valley Educational Center, Dexter, OR
JF— Josh Fattal, Aprovecho, Cottage Grove, OR
LP— Lisa Poley, Shadowlake Village Cohousing, Blacksburg, VA
MB—Monty Berman, EcoVillage at Ithaca, NY
ML— Matthieu Lietaert, professor and writer on community, Italy
MT— Marc Tobin, Lost Valley Educational Center, Dexter, OR
NE— Name Withheld, cohousing community, northeastern US
NW—Name Withheld, small urban community, northwestern US
RB— Rob Bolman, Maitreya Ecovillage, Eugene, OR
RS— Ramon Sender, communal archivist/historian, former community member, CA
SE— Name Withheld, cohousing community, southeastern US
TB— Tree Bressen, group process facilitator,former community member, Eugene, OR
A late-arriving response from a member of a spiritual community (Celinas Ruth from the Global Communities Communications Alliance, AZ) matched some but not all of the patterns described below, and a response from an ex-member of another spiritual community represented a decidedly different outlook. Those two responses are examined at the end of this article. Meanwhile, here’s what the secular communitarians had to say.
External vs. Internal Politics
Almost universally, the responses indicated a greater focus on internal politics than on external politics. To the question, “How much does your group discuss external politics?,” most who answered directly responded with some variation of “seldom if ever,”(SE) “very little,”(MB) “we don’t discuss external politics as a group,”(NE) and “it’s not a big part of our culture.”(DB) One cohouser said “a fair amount,” but even that was qualified by “politics and ‘issue’ conversations are far less common than gardening, family, community, event, or community work focused conversations.” (LP) When asked about the etiquette of discussing politics, one noted “it is not considered good etiquette to pressure neighbors into a particular political view—or into supporting a particular candidate—but some heated ex changes over issues or different opinions have been known to happen from time to time. Generally, people with widely divergent political views seem to be more likely to keep exchanges focused on ‘safer’ topics where disagreement is less likely.” (LP) Another reported that “There is no political discussion on email because we all have different opinions…we neither want to defend them or start a big discussion for which there is no resolution.”(NE) Yet another echoed that cautious approach to email: “Email has been the most difficult form of discussion here. People tend to feel affronted and attacked at a much higher rate through email than in interpersonal conversations. If we have a general rule of email etiquette now, it’s ‘Don’t put inflammatory writing out over email, especially to the general list.’”(DB)
To the parallel question, “How much do you discuss internal politics as compared with external politics?,” the answers were, predictably, “a lot,” (SE) “more internal than external,” (MB), and “much more. External politics, whether local or national, are more of a novelty discussion item, whereas I think people talk about internal politics just about every day.” (MT) But one respondent did express a preference for discussing external politics over discussing “internal (community) politics— mostly because I really detest getting into gossip, and too often internal politics discussions seem to bleed over into gossip.” (LP)
Political Activity/Inactivity
Asked if community members tend to get involved in external politics on the local, state, national, and/or international level, answers were more mixed, with a larger number reflecting political involvement closer to home: “Local politics sometimes, if it impacts our zoning issues or adjacent neighborhoods.” (SE) “Some of us very much so, especially local.” (MB) “Voting is the most common way of participating—but also attendance at town council meetings on hot local issues, hosting candidates at community dinners, or serving on the town council or planning commission. We have a group that usually organizes activities around national elections, or joins in with larger campaign efforts, hosting call parties at the common house etc.” (LP)
Several respondents indicated disappointment that community members were not more politically active. For example:
“I had been working on a local political campaign for several months—knocking on doors, registering voters, and making phone calls reminding them to vote. It was a tight race and every vote counted so I encouraged everyone in my community to vote early, gave them my recommendations on the slate of candidates, and even offered to take their ballots to the drop box. Half an hour before the polls closed, I noticed that a member of our community had his unopened ballot in his mailbox. I called him but couldn’t reach him. Later he told me he had forgotten to vote. I was so discouraged—if I can’t even get someone I live with and see every day to vote, how can I have hope that citizens in this country will ever reclaim democracy?” (NW)
Similarly, another observed, “In the European cohousing movement, I was actually pretty surprised to see that most cohousers I met were not involved in direct politics. By ‘direct politics,’ I mean what environmental or social activists could do on a regular basis. Most of the people I met have pretty conservative lives in a sense. However, they do politics ‘indirectly’ because they are showing a new model to society at large.” (ML)
Another offered a clue as to why communities might choose this kind of focus: “We live together on 40 acres. The natural thing for us to garner consensus around is caring for our land and caring for our community. It is harder to agree upon a cohesive way for our community to relate with society. For instance, what are the most effective actions to take to alter society’s path of ecological and human degradation? It is a very political question: what do we do with the surrounding, overwhelmingly strong capitalist economy and military apparatus that is eager to degrade the entire world? The easiest answer (and most typical liberal response) is ‘education!’ When that education satisfies our mission statement, our finances, our ‘grantability,’ it becomes all the more attractive. So, we have consensus on education as our primary function: we host residential courses and school field trips. Without a consensus on the tough political questions it is hard to go much further than agreeing on the land, the community, and ‘education.’” (JF)
For some communitarians, the choice to focus internally rather than externally seemed to be a matter of scale and perceived effectiveness: “Even folks who do participate in voting and read some basic news on political issues have a certain sense of apathy about that scale and the way that money and corporate influence skew the system. They feel that part of the reason they’re here is that this is the scale of community where it’s realistic to really be participants. I think most of us care deeply what happens on the national political scene, but are frustrated about our ability to actually have our efforts make results—which is probably pretty common in mainstream America as well.” (MT)
Political Diversity?
Asked to characterize the range of political opinions in their group, virtually all respondents indicated a left-of-center orientation: “left and inclusive,” (JF) “progressive/mostly Democratic,” (MB) “all within the liberal to progressive orientation,” (NE) “liberal leaning in general with a fair number of independents and political iconoclasts thrown in.” (LP) “Some of us are rather traditional liberal/progressive political. Others are more like anarchists who don’t even vote. We all get along and don’t seem to fixate on these differences.” (RB) “Probably 60 to 70 percent vote—almost all of those, from the center to the left of the political spectrum. For some the left goes pretty far out. The biggest disagreements were over whether to vote for Nader or Gore in 2000. Some don’t vote no matter what.” (DB) “We tend to attract people on the left end of the political spectrum. I’d guess that half of the people are Democrats, almost all of them by American standards liberal Democrats. The other half—or maybe less than half—fall into the category: ‘the political system is so hopelessly corrupt that I don’t even want to vote. The Democrats are basically sellouts to big business. The Republicans are even worse, but I don’t want to vote for either of them.’ Some people in that category see being at a place like here as their political expression, as the best thing they can do politically as opposed to participating in the larger politics.” (MT)
Asked what types of political viewpoints wouldn’t “make it” in their groups, most sounded variations on a theme:
“Republicans; Bush.” (SE)
“Socially just perspectives carry the weight here, so regressive ones wouldn’t fly.” (MB)
“To the best of my knowledge, we’ve never had a Republican here. Republicans wouldn’t be able to deal with the unwashed hippie element of this place.” (RB)
“I rarely if ever hear of any Republicans living in intentional community. I presume that, like people of color, they find their community through other means rather than living together. Churches, for example. And i think that community living doesn’t fit their ideology nor culture.” (TB)
“There’s not a screening for people’s external political beliefs, but there are all these agreements about how we do things in terms of our shared intention, and those have political implications. We have a mission statement around sustainability—people who disagreed with that would screen themselves out. Republicans have been generally anti-environment in their voting records, although it wouldn’t have to be that way. If more conservatives were pro-environment, we might get more conservative people. But most environmentalists seem to identify as Democratic, Independent, Green, etc.” (MT)
“We don’t seem to attract right-wing people. Corporate America probably doesn’t want to live with us. It’s interesting to me that probably 60 to 70 percent of us have parents who are Republicans, staunchly voting in ways that we don’t, or at least not actively aligned with us politically. Some of us are here because we grew up in pretty conservative situations and are reacting to that, wanting to make a difference in a different way.” (DB)
“Not too many arch-conservatives have attempted to move in so far. They would definitely feel in the minority here.” (LP)
Despite the leftist makeup of all of the respondents’ communities, several noted that their communities were open to other political viewpoints, but not to those who tried to force those views, or any views, on others:
“My sense is that members of this community would extend acceptance [to right-wing people] on an interpersonal level— even if there was a wide divergence in political views. But I suspect that there would be pretty low receptivity (and maybe even outright hostility) to someone who was really conservative and also very in-your-face or proselytizing about their views. Actually, there would probably be hostility to a liberal doing this as well, even if there were basic agreement a priori.” (LP)
“As long as people are generally willing to live and let live, we’re pretty open to people. If, on either end of the spectrum or on any topic, someone is proselytizing and not wanting to listen to others’ positions, it doesn’t go over very well. We’re very open to a variety of ideas, but not open to people who want to push those ideas onto someone else, even if they’re similar to ours.” (DB)
Internal Politics
In discussing the internal politics of their communities, many mentioned the important role of consensus in providing a positive alternative to larger-scale politics. A commitment to open communication seems to help too: “Traditionally we’ve dealt with internal politics fairly well. We have an ethic of dealing directly with people, and being honest; if we have something to say, of saying it to the person it concerns.” (DB)
Direct involvement in community politics can reveal nuances and complexities often absent from larger-scale politics as experienced through (and simplified by) the mass media: “When there’s a tricky issue here, instead of being on the sidelines, watching two superstars battle it out, people are able to participate. A committee is created, the interested parties are encouraged to join the committee and figure out the tricky issue, and then once people are doing that, they see that it’s really a lot more complex and most things can’t be broken down into dichotomies. They realize how false it is to separate the world into dichotomies all the time.” (MT)
This seeing beyond dichotomies within issues can also allow community members to transcend “sidechoosing” and “us vs. them” politics: “There’s no one here that I’ve always agreed with, and no one here that I’ve always disagreed with. It’s always a combination. There are people with whom I’ll tend to agree on spiritual issues, but tend to disagree on financial issues, for example. Because I am constantly finding myself agreeing with one person, then disagreeing with the same person on the next subject, this keeps me from picking sides. I wouldn’t know whom to pick sides with; it is never that clear.” (MT)
Cooperation and Competition
Asked to describe the roles of cooperation and competition in their groups’ internal workings and decision-making processes, respondents expressed a range of viewpoints and feelings: “Decision by consensus; historically, one or two difficult people have used consensus to hold the group hostage. Decisions have taken literally two or five years to make. Serious factionalization has occurred. Some of those people are gone now, and our consensus process has evolved, so we hope that problem is behind us.” (SE)
“I think there is a fierce shadow dynamic of competition in many community settings. Because according to our values we’re not supposed to be thinking or acting that way, we pretend that we (and our fellow communitarians) aren’t doing so, whereas really it’s happening all the time. I rarely hear anyone call a fellow community member on this attitude or behavior.” (TB) “Much more focused on cooperation—but we are still learning how to do that well. Burnout and meeting fatigue seem to be a greater danger to good cooperation in our community than competition and competitive impulses.” (LP)
“Over the years we’ve been very good at not doing competition in terms of ‘I don’t like you and therefore I’m not going to vote for your idea.’ Each idea or topic is its own thing. When I bring up a topic, I don’t know that x voting block is going to be against me and y voting block is going to be for me. I trust that each individual will consider the merits of whatever we’re talking about, and come up with a decision—which I think is quite magical, actually. We make our decisions in an open forum. For the most part even couples don’t always gang up on particular decisions.” (DB)
“Compared to mainstream America, we are very effective at being cooperative. I’m pretty amazed…it seems that every week there’s an issue where people are on very different sides, and then there’s a breakthrough and a win-win solution appears that makes all parties happy. Maybe because we select for people who believe in being cooperative, pretty much everyone here feels enjoyment when an impasse is resolved through some sort of winwin; it doesn’t seem like lose-lose. In the external political world, I sense that it’s so competitive that people don’t even want a win-win solution; it might not even be perceived as possible. There’s so much of a mindset of win-lose, and there may be so many people with a vested interest in maintaining win-lose; their whole career as a political consultant relies on beating the other guy. For them, the victory isn’t as sweet if the other guy didn’t fall harder. I’m really glad that we’re not like that.
“I do need to say that there are some issues where I have seen us be unable to be cooperative. At times people’s personal agendas or beliefs or hangups or woundings keep them from taking a cooperative approach. We do have ego battles and competitions here, competitions for ideas and directions, and sometimes it feels a little much—but overall we seem to have a shared ethic that competitions and ego battles are not ideal, whereas I think in the mainstream mode they are just seen as the way things are done, and are rewarded.” (MT)
Biggest Internal Political Issues
A question about groups’ biggest internal political issues, greatest generators of controversy, and the core issues behind these, yielded an array of responses: “I could say dogs, but the dog in question was owned by one of the difficult people, so really it’s the personality not the dog. Participation, or the expectation that everyone should participate either with labor or money, caused a big rift. The biggest core issue, IMHO, is the lack of a mission statement that people are passionate about.” (SE)
“Pets. Kid issues. Different views about land stewardship, animals raised for food, pesti cides, etc.” (LP)
“The biggest political issue for both communities I was part of ultimately came down to avoiding arrest by the various sweeps the county made, either ‘in hot pursuit’ or enforcing the permanent injunction that forbade anyone to remain on the land.” (RS)
“The core issue in my view is getting the group to move ahead and deal with, i.e., address and stay with, issues that some are resistant to, e.g. noise in the neighborhood (anything that might seem to restrict anyone’s ‘sacred’ rights to live and express themselves as they wish).” (MB)
“A big issue that I see is that some people want to try to keep new members to a certain caliber of health and functionality while others want to be more accepting of all who come here with the idea that we can heal whatever dysfunction may come with them.” (RB)
“We did have one person who was very political. He believed it was necessary in groups to slide decisions by because it was ‘in the best interests of the group.’ He would say ‘we agreed’ when the issue hadn’t even been discussed. In other instances, he just kept something quiet. He was in an officer position so he had access to financial information the group didn’t have. Fortunately he moved, ostensibly to take a job elsewhere, but I think because the chickens were coming home to roost and he increasingly had too little influence. He was an older man with some stature in the larger community and had a ‘silver tongue’ so he was hard to pin down.” (NE)
“For cohousing communities, setting work policy seems to be the biggest ongoing issue. Certainly it’s the one i’ve been asked in to facilitate most frequently. It is a complex issue that brings up all of people’s stuff around autonomy vs. community, form vs. formlessness, trust, and so on.” (TB)
“Our biggest issues include someone being accepted into membership or being asked to leave the community; pets; job situations; food; financial decisions; visitor behavior and etiquette, especially when the visitor is connected to a member; emotional issues (for individuals, couples, groups), and how much space to give someone to go through a life process.” (DB)
Other Thoughts
Respondents also offered additional observations: “It’s very politically incorrect here to attack someone personally for their beliefs or treat them with any emotional or verbal violence. People are expected to be respectful of each other even if they strongly disagree. If someone doesn’t end up agreeing with that, it creates conflict—and over time either the person is asked to leave, or decides to leave.” (DB)
“Living together helps people get to know each other in a way that makes them able to come to decisions better together. There is a level of cooperatively making decisions together that is really remarkable here.” (MT)
“Throughout this last election cycle, various people have put up lawn signs for various candidates in front of our eco village. When I ran into the idealogical ‘leader’ of the local anarchist movement, he immediately attacked me over it. Bottom line for me: If I’m gonna go off the edge of a cliff, I’d rather be going 40 MPH than 75 MPH.” (RB)
“I feel that something really needed in the world right now is an evolution of consciousness toward a way of being in which, when you have a disagreement with someone, instead of just trying to fight for what you think is right, you actually transcend some of your ideas, change your ideas. The debate club approach in high school was really frustrating for me, because in it you’re rewarded for sticking to your point and conveying your point strongly, but there’s no reward for changing your mind. If you change your mind, it is seen as a loss in a typical debate club. Most politicians go through something like debate training. “I think that the consciousness we need now in the world is that changing your mind can be much more wise than just sticking to the point you came into the room with. Instead of seeing this as weakness, we can see it as a personal growth opportunity, and define ourselves as always growing and changing, and be happy to do that. We can thank others who help us in this, and say, ‘I came in here totally disagreeing with you on this issue. I don’t totally agree with you now, but I thank you for enlightening me on some of these subjects. I have changed.’ I think it would be great if people did that more.” (MT)
Spiritual Communities
Our two responses from members of spiritual communities reflected some perspectives different from those above, as well as some that were similar. Celinas Ruth from the Global Communities Communications Alliance characterized the range of political opinions in her group as “cohesive…our group has and is daily growing its common world view and vision for the future.” She also described a wide array of political involvement, and observed, “Most people vote and would probably support progressive humanitarian types of people. People are encouraged to vote and take part in the electoral process although we are quite aware the system is broken and not fixable without a spiritual solution.” While her group gives a much larger role to hierarchical decision-making structures than any of the other groups surveyed (including a general willingness to put trust in “God” and in the group’s leaders, who are seen as interpreting divine intent), she also struck some common chords.
“Viewpoints which support war, exploitation of people, maximization of profits, promotion of unsustainable corporate interests, or activities harmful to the environment anywhere in the world” would not make it in her group. “Life experiences are our laboratory. External politics come up at times. Our choice to live in this community is, in part, because of the external politics which failed us in our desire to serve and help bring change to the planet.” Her communal experience “of necessity has grown me up and faded away a lot of self-directed thoughts. I know we all grow and heal together and not separately. Looking at the world through our community’s spiritually- directed eyes, we cannot see separations and compartmentalization of ‘politics’ away from daily living. We talk religion and politics in the same breath, since we do not separate the parts from the whole.”
Our other response describing a spiritually- based community came from a disillusioned ex-member. She observed the group’s betrayal of its founding spiritual principles and formation of a “State within a State” which oppresses its own members, “moving and working on the same principle as the big political platform they seem to want to break away from.” The group “has done away with all the hard-fought for and difficultly-earned principles that made them different, that made them stand out as a radical movement who lived by what they said and believed.” Contrary to their original commitments to stay free of electoral politics, “they vote and take part in elections, especially if they can profit by doing so, in their regional areas and states or counties— anything to gain governmental influence on decisions to protect and expand their land and influence.” Within the community, politics “are controlling the families, schools, and members, even more than could happen in any democratic or dictatorial country.” Because it was not within the scope of this survey project to solicit additional responses from each community named, and be – cause of the unflattering portrayal of this particular spiritual group, we have decided not to name either the respondent or this community in this article (although the respondent made it clear that we were free to do so). Instead, we present her story as yet another window into how “politics in community” can manifest.
We welcome further insights and perspectives on these topics from readers, for possible future publication. Please let us hear from you!


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