Partisanship has become toxic...can we save ourselves?

April 11, 2019

A recent New York Times Opinion article ("No Hate Left Behind", March 13,2019) reaffirmed something that has been concerning me for months. In particular, the op-ed discusses a survey conducted by very respected political scientists. Their findings resonated with something that I have been writing, discussing, and raising red flags about to Democrats and progressives for a long time. This passage discusses attitudes of political partisans towards people from the opposite party as them, as expressed in the survey:

 

Kalmoe and Mason (the researchers)...found that nearly one out of five Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals."

 

Their line of questioning did not stop there. How about: “Do you ever think: ‘we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died’?” Some 20 percent of Democrats (that translates to 12.6 million voters) and 16 percent of Republicans (or 7.9 million voters) do think on occasion that the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition died.

 

We’re not finished: “What if the opposing party wins the 2020 presidential election. How much do you feel violence would be justified then?” 18.3 percent of Democrats and 13.8 percent of Republicans said violence would be justified on a scale ranging from “a little” to “a lot.”

 

Let that sink in. Especially the fact that based on this survey, more Democrats than Republicans have dehumanized those they disagree with to the point where they rationalize their deaths or violence against them.

 

Our partisanship has become toxic. In my years of experience in using cognitive framing to communicate political messages, I also feel culpable for helping to create the situation we are in - where political identity evokes an unconscious, emotional response that says, "I'm good and right, and you're evil and wrong - so you are less of a person that I am." Because too often, I have used framing to say, acting through empathy as a progressive is good, acting through self-interest as a conservative is bad. No more. 

 

The reality is, that as humans, we evolved to act on, and live in both frames. You can't survive if you don't act in your own self-interest. And you can't survive and thrive as part of a community if you can't act with empathy towards others. The problem is that we lack balance, because you can't act on/evoke both at the same time. It's situational. The problem is, as humans and a society, we are out of balance. As Barack Obama said during his first campaign for President, "we have an empathy deficit." We have an overabundance of people acting in their self-interest (on both sides)!

 

Both parties are culpable. They both perpetuate, and often encourage (for fundraising purposes) the de-humanizing of political opponents and those who vote for them. This is dangerous for our nation, our democracy, and our society. It feeds the spread of fascism, nationalism, and racism. 

 

From now on, my efforts and experience will be used to bridge the divide, overcome fear and resentment, and encourage real-life and respectful discourse between people who care about our shared future. I will be posting more frequent, shorter blogs about this subject. I'm still working on what that looks like, and how it works, but I've been talking to people - and I'm open to having anyone who reads this join in the discussion.

 

I'm looking forward to having you join me in this new effort!

Share on Facebook