12-Step Program for America: Step 4

By Jim Selman | Bio

Read the rest of the 12-Step Program > Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

We’ve been drawing an analogy between the state of affairs in the governance of our country and the various kinds of addictive conditions we face as individuals. Specifically, we’ve been saying the ‘system’ is broken, we’re out of control and we need to find something larger than the political gridlock driven by special and self-interest groups we’re witnessing in Washington.

In watching the final hours of the healthcare debate, I was heartened when one of the Republican leaders began an impassioned speech saying we should be celebrating a bipartisan effort on behalf of the American people. Unfortunately, he then dove into a ranting, all-too-familiar attack on the other party, relying on language that could only further divide us and leave half of us afraid and resentful of the majority vote. This did not sound like a ‘loyal’ opposition. It didn’t sound like people committed to the rule of law and the democratic process. This rabble-rousing rhetoric and similar rants from media pundits can only drive us further into the kinds of self-destructive patterns all too familiar to anyone who has been trapped in a downward spiral of addictive behavior.

This is not the democracy I learned about in school.

We’ve created a culture in Washington that is bigger than the “Will of the People”. A culture that is bigger than even sincere elected officials who might wish to change it.

The A.A. literature calls alcoholism a ‘disease of self-centeredness’. I claim that the ego is to the individual what culture is to an organization or society. They are both ‘self-referential’ structures that work to maintain the persistence of the status quo. The genius of our Constitutional Democracy is that it is designed to evolve through discourse over time and be a ‘living system’ for the nation to ‘navigate’ into a long-term future that is beyond anyone’s ability to predict or control. The problem for an individual or an organization or society is when the system loses its capacity for changing itself—when there is nothing outside its own point of view (or institutional culture) through which to create new directions and choices.


n 12-step recovery programs, the first three steps focus on acknowledging the problem and ‘getting out of the box’. The next three steps concentrate on dealing with the past and breaking long-standing patterns of thinking and behavior. For many people, the fourth step is the most difficult because it requires a kind of ‘rigorous honesty’: we complete a comprehensive ‘inventory’ of our past actions and the impact of those actions on ourselves and other people. Although we may feel remorse, the purpose is to be honest with ourselves in acknowledging the impact and the costs we pay when we give into self-justifications, self-deceit, resentments and fear. The costs can be high. Self-deception has us not only deny reality, but also justify our unacceptable behavior. But we lose the advantage when the ‘truth’ becomes visible to others and our self-deception is seen for what it is: a symptom of the larger disease. Resentment kills relationships. And fear traps us in reactive and automatic patterns of behavior that destroy our capacity to choose and create new possibilities.

We are not alone in our need to apply these steps to ‘recover’ our nation. Other governments and societies have systematically attempted to deal with their history and break long-standing patterns of thinking and behavior using these principles. After apartheid was declared over in South Africa, Mandella and other leaders recognized the need to put the ‘past in the past’, to forgive and move on. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to undertake a ‘rigorous inventory’ of what happened. Getting past crimes and mistakes out in the open allowed the population as a whole to let go and begin a process of healing. Argentina is just beginning to approach the pain of its own dark past and the ‘dirty war’ in a similar manner. In Canada, a reconciliation process has been initiated to deal with the decades of abuse in ‘residential schools’ set up for aboriginal children. The need for such structures can be found in a long list of societies where institutionalized conflict has become a core component of the culture.

Institutions don’t act. People do. If we are to ‘recover’ the American spirit of democracy and restore respect, civil discourse and trust in our leaders, we must recognize and acknowledge the dark side of (at least) the last 30 years or so of ethical deterioration in our politics and business practices. We must acknowledge we’re sliding into a fragmented and polarized state and that we’ve lost control. Let’s look deeply at our own values and our actions. Let us as citizens acknowledge our role in fanning the flames and histrionics that ace currently passing for ‘political debate’. Let’s acknowledge where we’ve sold out to expediency, cleverness, or cynical justification (“It doesn’t really matter”) for cutting corners or compromising who we are for short-term gratification or position. This is a step we as individuals can all take. 

Telling an ugly truth is always a painful process. But in the end, it is the only pathway to freedom and full recovery. For those who have traveled this road, we also know that, at the end of the day, exercising this kind of rigorous honesty helps us find power, joy, freedom and love for ourselves and our fellow human beings. And that is where we may begin to recover the possibility of our constitutional democracy.


© 2010 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.