Why the Republicans' View of 'Success' Is a Path to Self-Destruction

After watching the recent Republican debates, last week's New Hampshire primary and the campaigning since then, I'm convinced that the GOP is on a path to self-destruction. And that's regrettable. It deprives the country of a serious debate over different views about the roles of government, business, labor and citizens in general in dealing with the problems we face. Of course, that debate would assume that there's an agreed-upon set of realities about the current world.

Unfortunately, that's a tall order. It's more likely that Mitt Romney, if he's the candidate, and his party will present a vision that's largely disconnected from -- even denies -- facts and realities about today's world. Therefore, they're likely to offer solutions to problems that derive from their alternate reality.

One way to explain this oddity is from a political psychology perspective. That is, let's examine the emotional attitudes and beliefs that may underlie the Republican Party's view of reality and the solutions they offer to problems as they define them. For example, the party appears wedded to a singular view of what "success" in life is, and should be. And yet, that vision is increasingly disconnected from emerging new realities. Those point to the need for a broader, more inclusive view of success in today's world, and how to achieve it.

The New Normal

You've probably noticed the following:
• Unrelenting turmoil, disruption, and unpredictability throughout the world.
• Worldwide interconnection and transparency, socially, technologically, and economically.
• Rising diversity (which will become a majority within the current decade) along with acceptance of working and living with people of different backgrounds, beliefs and sexual orientation.
• Increasing scientific data about the impact of humanly-created climate change upon water shortages, famines, and weather extremes -- events we've already witnessed, with more already waiting in the wings.
• Factual evidence that Keynes was correct and continues to be -- made even clearer by the failure of austerity measures in the Eurozone.

The scope of the new normal is broad and encompassing. Recognizing it as a reality is the basis for creating solutions to the new challenges that worldwide turmoil and interconnection create. And that includes defining what success in personal life and for a society really means, in this new era. The problem is, current Republican ideology doesn't even acknowledge the new normal. Within its alternate universe, success means exclusionary pursuit of extraction and possession for oneself and like-minded associates.

That is, the Republican candidates embrace a self-interest-oriented, wealth-based view of success. It maintains that success and stability occur and prevail through unfettered pursuit of self-interest and in the absence of government regulations. It includes the failed policies of deregulation, lower taxes for the wealthiest and reducing the deficit. It also includes social and religious values that are acceptable to them as necessary for a successful life, as they define it.

In short, the Republican candidates' view of success is exclusionary, anti-inclusive, and opposed to serving the common good. Consistent with that view, Romney sees any criticism of it and of the financial inequality it creates as simply "envy" of the rich. But describing its negative consequences isn't "putting free enterprise on trial," as Romney likes to claim. Nor is it a stepping stone to a "European-style social welfare state." In fact, the recent polls showing opposition to the growing inequality between the rich and the rest of society reflect increased awareness of the negative impact the singular view of success had, the one that Republican candidates willingly embrace.

Until recently, that is. By attacking Romney's work at Bain Capital as "vulture capitalism" and destructive to people's lives, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry have -- perhaps unwittingly -- heightened public awareness of the damage created not by capitalism, per se, but by different kinds of capitalism, as E.J. Dionne pointed out in his recent Washington Post column. It's the contrast between the goals of extracting value vs. building something that generates value; "vulture" vs. "creative" capitalism.

The Republican candidates express a more entrenched, extreme version of an old theme, actually -- the consequences of intoxication by financial wealth, power, and possessions. That view of success can warp and distort the ego to the point of self-delusion, self-deception and self-aggrandizement. We read about examples in the media most every day.

Some recent studies point out the social and individual dysfunction this can create. One found that people in power tend to shift to analytical thinking which then becomes divorced from perceiving the larger context of the problem. While that can enhance the capacity for power and control, it also diminishes the ability to recognize how achieving power and maintaining success depends so much upon others; your interconnection with them. That diminishment fuels what I've called our "empathy deficit disorder" in a previous post.

Moreover, another recent study found that humble leaders are more highly effective than those who are egocentric. The latter are more associated with an exclusionary, self-focused view of their success and importance. In a similar vein, recent research finds that lower class people are quicker to show compassion in the face of suffering. The point is that a singular pursuit of wealth can, in fact, blunt your capacity for compassion and negatively impact your effectiveness in your work roles or other relationships.

What's "Success" In Today's World?

The interdependence and turmoil of the new normal point towards expanding our view of success to one that's more relevant to our times. It includes being able to build, contribute, create and innovate in ways that have impact on and can benefit all people and institutions for the long run, not only oneself or one's allies. Now, more than ever, it's true that "nothing comes from nothing." Creating success for oneself is inseparable from individual actions and public policies that promote security, opportunity for growth of competencies, physical and mental well-being, and a sustainable environment for future generations. Success means contribution to all of those things.

This broader view of success is increasingly framed as serving the common good, something larger than just your own needs and desires. That orientation reflects an awareness that beneath our surface differences we're all One. We experience the same human needs, fears and longings. We're all intertwined in mutual dependency on this shared planet. We're all equal shareholders in the future.

That perspective is the foundation for creative solutions to today's challenges. Psychologically, it fuels the capacity for empathy and compassion; honest self-awareness and harnessing the self-centeredness that's part of being human. It includes mental attitudes like flexibility and openness; "thinking like Google." This is a view of "whole life success." It's less defined by personal financial wealth and self-interest alone, and more by living a successful, sustainable life that is grown through active support of the well-being of all.

The prospect of a societal shift towards a more inclusive view of success and how it can contribute solutions to our challenges is heightened by trends in that direction already visible. Some examples:

• A growing movement towards serving common good through charity and individual acts.
• The application of scientific research to building compassion and diminishing egocentrism.
• The simple expression of a little girl who, in this video, instinctively "gets" the reality of interconnection.
• New management philosophies about sustainability and leadership.
• The growing merger of new psychological perspectives about emotional health, ancient spiritual teachings about the authentic self, and the discoveries of modern science, as Deepak Chopra and others have written about.

Meanwhile, in the political arena, we're witnessing the clash of two visions: one that pulls towards the old extraction-oriented, self-serving way of life that produces "winners" and "losers;" the other, towards behavior and policies that promote successful, sustainable lives and resources for the many, and positive interconnection with others, through tolerance and acceptance of the differences among people on our planet. The political debate would be more honest if it took place around those different visions of life and the consequences they have for our future.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.