How Psychology Can Heal the Political Rift
A kinder approach to political differences can help the country's mental health.
Posted September 2, 2021 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- To promote a positive social political climate, it is necessary to teach the citizenry healthy attitudes for political discourse under democracy.
- We should cherish freedom of speech as the basis for both good government and good interpersonal relationships.
- We need to realize that our friends, relatives, colleagues, and neighbors are far more valuable to us than the politicians we vote for.
- To maintain good relationships despite political differences, the best guide is the Golden Rule, which is both moral and good psychology.
My previous article, a preamble to this one, discusses the failure of psychology to promote a politically tolerant society. To succeed in this mission, we must resist the urge to jump on the bandwagon of the latest political causes. Instead, we need to actively “apply the psychological sciences to benefit society,” as per the APA. The following are five simple attitudes the field of psychology can promote so that we can live in harmony with those of differing political affiliations.
1. Appreciate freedom of speech.
Like any other thing of value, freedom of speech (FOS) can be lost if we fail to appreciate it, which is precisely what has been resulting in recent years from psychology’s misguided campaign to protect people’s feelings. Thus, the “cancel culture.”
FOS is fundamental to a government that represents the will of the people. It prevents tyranny and warfare. Leaders of nations with robust FOS do not go to war with each other because they know they will get voted out of office if they unnecessarily sacrifice the lives of their citizens.
Totalitarian regimes, on the other hand, forbid FOS. They may imprison or kill their own citizens for questioning their policies. Thus, they will freely declare war if they feel it is in their interest.
FOS is also necessary for good interpersonal relationships. Try denying someone the right to say things you don’t like to hear. You will discover they push their views even harder while turning against you.
2. The vote is the great equalizer.
Equality is fundamental to a good society. There are many ways to exert political power, but for most of us it’s the vote. Democracy recognizes that citizens inevitably harbor conflicting political views, yet are still on the same side. Each of us believes our political approach is best for our mutual benefit. Who knows for sure who’s right? So, we vote to determine the way we go.
3. Be grateful for different political views.
So many of us with strong political opinions would like opposing voices to be silenced.
Truth is, we would be miserable if only our political stance were permissible. We’d find ourselves in a totalitarian police state that punishes people for having the “wrong” view. Who can guarantee we wouldn’t be one of them?
As much as we may despise the opposing political viewpoint, we should be grateful that people are free to voice it, as the alternative is incomparably worse.
4. Our favorite politicians are far less important than our friends, relatives, and neighbors.
To be successful, we need to make smart choices. Breaking off with good friends and relatives because they support the politicians we oppose is incredibly stupid. If you have a choice between a grant of one dollar or a thousand, there is no question which you would take. But when we give up a friend or relative over a politician, it is like choosing the dollar over the thousand. The politicians we vote for do not know or care about us personally. They will not dig out our car when it’s stuck in the snow. They will not invite us to their parties, unless they're fundraisers. They will not help with housekeeping and childrearing, or give us a shoulder to cry on when we're in the dumps. The only things of ours we can be certain they care about is our vote and contributions.
So, if you find yourself wanting to cut off contact with someone close over politics, remember what's more valuable.
5. Our vote is important yet insignificant.
Elections are the essential mechanism of a government that represents the will of the people. We may be so passionate about our vote that we cast it as though we're personally determining the course of the future. But we're not. Our personal vote has virtually no effect on the election. It’s only the aggregate ballots of the thousands or millions of voters that matters.
The vote of our parents, spouse, children, siblings, friends, bosses, etc., is equally insignificant. It is pointless to be upset with them for voting for the candidate we hate. Appreciate that they have a right to vote for their preferred candidates, as stupid, incompetent, or evil as you may think they are, just as you have a right to vote for yours.
So, what do we do practically?
Even if we accept these five principles, we may still find it difficult to avoid angry conflicts when people contradict our political views. How can we prevent that? By following the Golden Rule. It instructs us to treat others the way we would like them to treat us. It means that just as we want to be free to say what we want, we need to let others say what they want, no matter how much we don’t like it. Not only is it the moral thing to do, it is good psychology.
The Golden Rule works by taking advantage of reciprocity. Reciprocity is our default biological programming. That’s why we all feel like being nice to people when they are nice to us, and mean to them when they are mean to us. Reciprocity is an effective strategy for the lawless life in nature in which we evolved, where might makes right.
In civilization, reciprocity often leads to endless hostility when we respond to hostility with hostility. But when we respond with friendliness, the other person soon follows with friendliness because they, like us, are also programmed for reciprocity.
We'll demonstrate how this works with a situation that has actually destroyed many real-life relationships. Let’s say a man who is a devoted Trump supporter is being disparaged by an adult daughter who supported Biden. First, we'll have Dad respond naturally, with reciprocity:
Daughter: How could you have voted for Trump?
Dad: There’s nothing wrong with Trump! Biden is a liberal fool with no backbone!
Dad: How dare you compare Trump to Hitler! He’s just a tough guy who knows how to stand up for our nation’s interests!
Daughter: He can’t possibly stand up for our interests because world leaders see him as joke!
Dad: No, they don’t! They respect him!
Daughter: Well, I have no respect for you if you think he is respectable! I can’t believe I have such an idiot for a Dad! I’m glad I got my genes from Mom!
Dad: Me, too! Thank God your brother has more sense than you!
Daughter: Then I hope you enjoy him because you’re never going to see me again!
Reciprocity leads to a fatal rift in one of the most important relationships in both these people's lives! Now let’s see what might happen if Dad follows the Golden Rule:
Daughter: I never want to see you again! How could you have voted for Trump?
Dad: I know it’s hard to understand. Lots of people despise him.
Daughter: Because he acts like a psychopathic bully who wants to become a dictator like Hitler.
Dad: It can sure seem that way.
Daughter: So what in the world do you see in him?
Dad: I’ve been around a few decades longer than you, and I’ve discovered that people aren’t always the way they appear. Though he comes across as a bully, I think Trump has a clear vision of what’s good for the country and knows how to stand up for us.
Daughter: He may stand up for us, but he'll get nowhere because he’s rude and world leaders think he’s a joke!
Dad: That’s true for many leaders. Others actually like him because they see him as down-to-Earth.
Daughter: Sure! Other dictators!
Dad: Sharp observation! He does seem to have a gift for getting along with dictators! But, believe it or not, there are also democratic heads of state who like and respect him.
Daughter: Well, I don’t believe it.
Dad: How about getting together for coffee tomorrow? I would love to show you some serious leaders who like him and think he’s good for the world.
Daughter: I'm not interested in hearing you justify that madman.
Dad: Then we don’t have to talk about Trump. We can talk about anything you want, including Biden. I’d love to know why you like him.
Daughter: To attack me for it?
Dad: No. I’m proud to have a daughter who thinks for herself.
Daughter: Okay, Dad. I’ll see you tomorrow. Thanks for not being mad at me.
Dad: Mad at you? Because of politics?
Dad: I would never be mad at you because of politics. You’re my daughter! You’re more important to me than all the politicians in the world put together!
Daughter: Aw, Dad, you’re so sweet!
Of course, there’s no guarantee it will come out as nicely as in this hypothetical scripted dialogue. But it's far more likely to end well with the Golden Rule as guide.