Daily Dose: Time to restore humanity, civility to politics - here's how

October 31, 2017


In my last blog, I discussed the reasons (based on the most current research in cognitive science and political psychology) that strategies based on rationality, facts, and issues are so ineffective. This blog will begin a discussion about how to effectively connect and communicate with people in a way that bridges our deep political divides.


Thanks to a friend and colleague who called my attention to a recent article in The Atlantic online. "On Safari in Trump's America" was written by a reporter who travelled around Western Wisconsin with "researchers" from a Third Wave Democrat think tank, conducting post-election listening sessions. Their mission was to listen to people in areas that, for reasons incomprehensible to many Democrats, went from being reliably blue to surprisingly red. The Third Wave team in the article focused on the Wisconsin Third Congressional District. For more than two decades, the 3rd CD voted for a Democratic President - until 2016, when it swung for Donald Trump by more than 15 points.


In a previous blog, I pointed out how Third Wave Democrats are contributing to the death of progressive ideas because of their core message - which strongly reinforces conservative metaphors and ideas. The Atlantic piece is informative for a different reason. It shows that smart, passionate people who really care about listening and connecting with others to make this country a better place are misinterpreting the data, because it doesn't fit their frame, or worldview. As I discussed in the previous blog, that's how our brain evolved - to fit reality to our existing perceptions.


Our political reality is out of whack, and so are our perceptions of that reality. What the Third Wave Democrats in the article don't perceive is a very real cognitive reality - there is no political "middle" - and there never has been. Just as in politics, the vast majority of people have the capacity to perceive and act on both empathy (caring/responsibility for others as oneself) AND in their own self-interest through an authoritarian hierarchy. Think about it - depending on the context, at any given time most of us can feel/act on empathy OR as an authority figure in our own self-interest. 


Here's what's important. You CANNOT be both at the same time. Because of mutual inhibition, only one is active at a time. In addition, when one is active, it gets stronger, and the other gets weakened. But we evolved to live, act, and think within a balance of both those ideas, or frames. This is normal human thinking and behavior. So what happened with our politics? As I said, it's way out of whack. Why?


Because in the 1930's, conservatives (through the US Chamber of Commerce) began a large-scale strategy to equate capitalism with conservative Christian values. In essence, this strategy continues today, and has proven wildly successful in making conservative values and ideas so dominant, that progressive values and ideas are virtually gone from public discourse in politics. 


Where there should be, and needs to be balance, there is none. Our brains evolved for survival, to respond and thrive in our reality, with BOTH cognitive frames accessible and active depending on the situation. Instead, one is barely accessible, hardly ever active, while one is overtly dominant. This explains why our politics is so divided, and why Third Wave Democrats can't see the problem - or the solution.


The cognitive effect and result of what I have just described can't be underestimated. It has led to, and exacerbates our deep political divide. Here's how.


If you are a conservative, you believe in a set of values which are dominant in public discourse. Every issue position you have derives from these values. Most importantly, since your sense of empathy is so weakened, it is virtually non-existent (except in extreme situations). Therefore, you have no understanding of how people don't accept the values you take for granted are THE human values system. In other words, you view people who disagree with you as less human.


If you are progressive, you consider yourself such because of the issues you identify as important. Most importantly, since the progressive values underpinning your values (empathy) are recessive and virtually non-existent in public discourse, chances are you don't communicate them consciously. But you believe them to be THE human values because the issues make sense to you. You sense no empathy from conservatives, make no attempt to connect with them through empathy (because you don't think of it consciously), so you think of them as less human - because of their issue positions. See how this downward spiral perpetuates? 


Since there is no middle, the two ideas remain polarized and divided because they feel no sense of shared values. In fact, they both see each other as less human than the other. This is the result of decades of conservative dominance, and the failure of progressives to keep empathetic values at the forefront of public dicsourse AND political action.


The answer to our political division and extremism is not found in any issue or poll. It's found in understanding that all people, whether conservative or progressive are human. We all act on a very powerful sense of values and beliefs that are largely unconscious - and one is dominant. When we listen, we can REALLY listen for ideas, phrases, and metaphors that evoke the values people act on. We can also then communicate and act on progressive values based on empathy to start bringing a sense of balance back to public discourse and our politics. 


That concept is something I've been focused on for years, and will continue to focus on moving forward. These concepts to restore cognitive balance are now more important than ever.