How Do We Transcend the Polarization That Threatens America?

America's in trouble if both sides don't learn to transcend mutual hatred.

Posted Nov 11, 2020

Disclaimer: I don't claim that what I say is totally "true," because the truth is elusive in this complicated world. Rather, I'm offering some ideas to help perceive the world, others, and ourselves in a manner that opens pathways for change and growth.

“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand." –Jesus, from the Gospel of Matthew 12:25 in the New Testament

Pict Rider/iStock
Source: Pict Rider/iStock

After a bitterly contentious election, Joe Biden claimed enough electoral votes to become president-elect on November 7. For millions of Americans, Biden's win represents much more than a victory of a Democrat over an incumbent Republican president. To many liberals, Biden's victory over Trump represents a triumph of good over evil. From the Harry Potter series, it's like House Gryffindor defeating House Slytherin. From Star Wars, it is the Rebel Alliance defeating the Empire. It is the united races of Middle Earth defeating Sauron and his dark forces of Mordor from The Lord of the Rings. From Game of Thrones, it is House Stark defeating House Lannister.

Many liberals reading this description are likely thinking: Yes! That's why Biden supporters were literally dancing in the streets when his electoral college victory was clear. For Democrats, Donald Trump's reign of terror is finally going to be over. 

However, if you are a conservative, you might be thinking liberals have this all wrong. They are the forces of evil. It was President Barack Obama who was Darth Vader. How can liberals be so blind that they don't see that it is they who threaten to destroy America? Trump has been a champion fighting for good.

We Are Right, You Are Wrong

Here's the truth that we already know: Whatever side we are on, we think we are "right." If we thought that what we believed was wrong, we would change our views and our allegiances. While we might vehemently disagree with how the other side thinks and acts, we must accept the reality that they believe they are right.

In a way, this makes liberals and conservatives the same. Each side believes they are correct, and the other side sees things wrong. Each side believes they know what is best for America and the other side's policies will ruin us. Fox News and other conservative outlets spin a completely different narrative to their viewers than MSNBC and CNN. However, they are the same in portraying their side as the "good guys" and the other side as "the bad guys." It's as if we are living in two different worlds. That's a major problem for the "United" States of America. We are becoming increasingly the house divided about which Jesus warned. 

What's the Nature of This Problem?

A fundamental problem here is that we have a dominant two-party system in the United States. All the complexities of the world and within each one us are reduced to this binary choice. This is, well, inherently insane. Life is not binary and cannot be contained by two choices.

In his presidential farewell address, George Washington warned that party allegiance could be destructive. He wisely understood that we cannot take our democracy for granted. He knew that our respective party allegiances could cause party members to put party over country. 

Although we are tribal by nature, we live in a world that is infinitely more complex than that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Our artificial separation into two political tribes pits one side against the other. There are many studies that show, through what is called the minimal group paradigm, that people separated into arbitrary groups quickly favor ingroup members and derogate outgroup members. This holds true even when the separation is based on some random or insignificant distinction such as eye color. Dr. Seuss captures this quite well in his story of "The Sneetches."

If we can easily become judgmental and hateful of outgroup members based on random, fabricated, and trivial distinctions, just imagine how strong such feelings can be when they are based on more profound or emotionally-laden distinctions such as race, religion, or political affiliation. 

As we more strongly identify with one group or another, we are more likely to become resentful of people who are in the other group. As we have become more polarized in Americais , the opposing political party isn't just another tribe who holds different views. They are transforming from our political rivals into our enemies. 

Our Political System and Dualism

The polarization that we are experiencing in America is a manifestation of dualism. As discussed in my previous post, the world, humans, social groups, politics, and so on are quite complicated and do not fit into an either/or, binary system. The trappings of our binary, dualistic, political system look something like this:

  • The world and people are complicated. 
  • This complexity is an inherent reality. 
  • Forcing complicated realities into a binary system is incongruent with that reality.
  • This "forced fit" causes us to make many cognitive distortions to try to fit reality into a dualistic framework.
  • Distorting reality to fit a dualistic framework causes suffering because of the inherent mismatch.
  • Our two-party political system is a form of dualism.
  • Therefore, it causes suffering for those same reasons. 

How Do We Transcend Our Political Division?

"We cannot solve the problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." –Sentiment attributed to Albert Einstein

Within a Buddhist framework, much of the suffering in life is caused by not seeing the world as it truly is (not seeing the dharma). Part of the practice of Buddhism is to see reality more clearly; a goal similar to that of cognitive-behavioral therapy. In turn, this allows us to think and act more skillfully so that we can reduce suffering and improve our lives. 

We need to accept the reality that reality cannot be captured by a dualistic framework. The world is not either/or. Our dualistic political system creates an "us vs. them" mentality that is inherently destructive.

Continuing to try to view reality within this dualistic framework is going to contribute to even greater levels of polarization. It sows the seeds from which our hatred toward "others" grows. However, in truth, the other side is not our enemy. It is our hatred toward them that is the true enemy. 

Republicans and Democrats are both caught in the trappings of our two-party political system. While we might be tempted to "defeat" the other side, it is more likely that we inadvertently fuel their opposition toward us. This is how the house is divided and why it will not stand. 

As difficult as this is, we must use the truth to light our way. We need a more flexible and adaptive way of thinking to transcend the dualism of our two-party political system. In my previous post, as an alternative to a dualistic, either/or approach to life, I offered the Way of Both/And (WOBA). The Way of Both/And is a form of nondualism that allows space for nuance, subtleties, and contradictions. It creates room for change and growth, which is one of our purposes in life

The Takeaway

Are you tired of the anger, hate, and vitriol? Are you tired of demonizing the other side? It's time we look within ourselves to see that our way out of this anger and hate is through a different way of thinking. Our world is not either/or. The reality is that we are already living in a both/and world. If we don't start acting in accordance with that reality, we will continue to suffer. The good news is that change and growth are always possible.