Politics and the Catastrophe of Us and Them
We have to change the way we view the opposing party for our nation to thrive.
Posted November 5, 2018
Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire describes a civil war breaking out between citizens affiliated with the two main circus teams -- the Blues and the Greens --in Constantinople in 532 C.E. It “almost laid Constantinople in ashes.” I laughed at the absurdity of it when I read about it decades ago. The arbitrary distinction of a sporting rivalry had escalated into fear and fury that overwhelmed any commitment to cultivating their common well-being. The nation went to war against itself over a game.
And now we have the Blues and the Reds fighting in their own self-destructive circus. Tension usually does not rise to physical violence. I am writing this post in an office in Charlottesville, VA, that overlooks the place that Heather Heyer, a counter-protester, was run over by a rage-filled protester at a Unite the Right rally on August 12, 2017. Two weeks ago, pipe bombs were sent to Clinton, Obama, Biden, CNN, and ten other political opponents of the President. Then a white supremacist armed with an AR-15 and three handguns opened fire in a synagogue in the worst anti-Semitic act in America’s history. But it is not the rage of extremists few people on either side identify with that is the core of the problem. The resentments, fear, and fury that underlie these actions have seeds that exist in each of us (not just “them”). And it is those seemingly benign seeds in people living decent lives that have the most corrosive effect on society.
The political situation today has crossed a line of self-destructiveness that most of us want to see change. We are frustrated with our politicians, have lost faith in the process, and are well aware that it is taking us far from focusing on solving real issues. Whatever one side builds, the other one tears down. And yet we continue to see the other side as primarily responsible for the problem. We continue to hope that the issues will calm down when the values our side brings to the table are more established. This is a false hope. If half the nation feels we are moving forward at their expense, they will continue to fight back. Like a distressed married couple, we fight for our identities -- and, in the process, we get more and more stuck. We believe our position is the reasonable one, the moral one. As any couples therapist knows, that is an illusion held by both sides in any distressed dyad. It is only when people recognize that the toxic cycle is the enemy, not the individuals, that there is hope of something better. For real change to come, our side does not need to win. There is no winning. The mode of discourse needs to change. Changing it is the real fight.
Humans are social animals wired with two opposing mental processes, one which facilitates collective action and one which mobilizes against threats to ourselves and our tribe. Collective organizations, like governments and marriages, depend on a firm grounding in the former. When the latter processes are dominant, it sets in motion a toxic cycle that is doomed to fail.
Shifts in the populace towards “negative partisanship” are evidence that we currently are standing firmly in the latter. Over 90% of both parties have unfavorable views of the other party, and the majority have the type of deeply unfavorable views consistent with the identification of an enemy. “They” are against “us.” Almost all of us, not least myself, find our emotions, our thinking, and our actions shaped by this identification, and it drives a toxic cycle in which both sides feel more and more threatened by the other.
The biology that underpins collective action in primates is clear: A central mechanism occurs when our brains are bathed with oxytocin, the hormone that attaches mothers to their babies. The hormone increases empathy, which is the ability to take the perspective of others and feel their interests as valid. We feel pain when others feel pain, and we act to relieve it. Oxytocin gives us a sense of belonging -- a sense of well-being and meaning in being part of a greater whole. It also provides an extraordinary window that improves our thinking: It allows us to “mirror” someone else’s vantage point and the feelings that come with it. The result is that our thinking is expanded, as we have the invaluable opportunity to see complex issues from other vantage points that are different from our own limited perspective. These processes are at the heart of good social thinking and of human progress.
But humans also need to be able to protect themselves and their group against threat. In order to do it, we have to be able to turn off the mechanisms of collective action and turn on something very different. You cannot view the people you are killing in a war as being as fully human as you are. Ironically, the biological processes that underlie this ability to disengage are also influenced by oxytocin. In the same way a mother is motivated to protect her babies against anyone who threatens them, people under the influence of oxytocin are more likely to show dehumanizing biases against groups of others who threaten our family, tribe, or party.
The problem is that, when we mobilize against people with whom we are interdependent, they almost always mobilize back against us. The result is a toxic, self-destructive cycle where both sides are trapped in a dynamic that is as damaging as it is unnecessary.
Here’s what mobilization against "them" looks like:
- We identify people or groups of people who are a threat to what we value and begin to have intense automatic emotional reactions to them. These emotions are well-studied and arise before we have even mentally processed the content of what the other person is saying.
- That gut emotional response shapes and informs all of our opinions and attitudes. The reaction precedes any rational awareness of the content of the issue, and our attitudes are very hard to change from that point. We create very elaborate and convincing arguments for what we already felt. People are wired to assume what they see is all there is, so we fail to realize that we are becoming entrenched in a very limited perspective.
- We minimize or marginalize the other person or group. We process them as less human, more limited or impaired on a moral level, and as less “right” than we are. How else could they fail to see what is so obvious to us?
- We mobilize against them to protect what is “right” or “good.” Sometimes we do it with the sense of being engaged in a moral good; sometimes we do it with a frustrated defensiveness. Regardless, we fight for what we believe is right.
The result, in any situation where cooperation is required, is disastrous. We genuinely become a threat to the people on the other side, because we see them as more limited than we are. They reciprocate, and the dynamic escalates in a vicious cycle. Many books, like Difficult Conversations by the people at the Harvard Negotiation Project, can be read as ways to disarm the cycle of seeing each other as personal threats and re-engaging the cycle of collaboration and empathy that can lead to productive positions.
Marriage is the best-researched organization built for collective benefit, and this cycle is well-documented as completely unworkable in that context. John Gottman’s famous research looked at 15-minute interactions between couples talking about a difficult issue. He and his colleagues found that indicators of this cycle -- criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt -- predict divorce over the next 10 years with 95% accuracy. The strongest predictor by far was contempt -- looking down on the other person. Contempt was coded based on seemingly benign behaviors, such as an eye roll. When contempt was present at high levels, divorce was a virtual certainty. A house divided against itself truly cannot stand.
But subsequent research has shown that the situation can be improved under the right circumstances, even when the cycle has gone into full force. Sue Johnson’s Emotion-Focused Therapy is an intervention that often works even for very distressed couples. The premise of the intervention is simple: Help each person communicate about what they feel on a deep enough level that the other one can listen and relate to the humanity of that experience. Pressure lifts as the vantage point of an “us” returns.
This ability to break down entrenched distinctions between “us” and “them” is not an anomaly peculiar to marriage. It is, in fact, the course of history. Psychologist and MIT professor Steven Pinker has written two books now chronicling the fact that, despite the horrors we face in the modern world, on virtually every dimension human beings have progressed through the centuries towards more tolerance, more freedom, more health, and more protection of basic human rights. There is less war, less death, less tolerance of slavery, of abuse, less delight in killing, and more respect for people across divisions of culture, race, gender, and any other division of groups of people than at any point in history.
The same thing that happens within a couple who gets back on track happens across history. More people are seen as an “us” and fewer as a “them.” Over time, there is more interaction between people, more communication, education, and awareness of alternate experience. Just like the individuals in a couple understanding the experience of the other person in a way that they can feel it, people begin to recognize the validity in the experience of the other side. As a result, “they” become an “us.” We treat more people as fully formed human beings and fewer people as something less important or less morally or intellectually evolved than we are.
When I started graduate school in the 1990’s, researchers saw the average person actively trying to suppress the contempt that arose from racial stereotypes, but they made no such efforts towards homosexuals. Two decades later, that situation has improved radically. But one place we continue to embrace contempt is towards members of the opposite political party. Will that change over the next 20 years?
It is time we recognize that it is each one of us who treats the members of the other party with contempt. If marital research shows evidence of contempt, with all of its toxicity, in an eye roll, who among us can say we do not have contempt for the other political party? Who has not been bewildered by the bizarre judgment and blatant irrationality of the arguments of “them?” Who does not have a gut reaction of hostility when they begin to talk about a sensitive issue? Contempt like that is personal. It leaves people fighting for their own validity against someone or a group of people who do not accept it. Marriages cannot survive contempt, because there is no room for a collective whole working together when the validity and value of our basic judgment are not recognized by the other party.
We cannot divorce the other half of the nation. Sooner or later, we have to do what couples who have rebuilt marriages do. We have to treat the other side as people who make judgments and decisions based on the same basic needs and the same mental processes as we have. And then we have to invite them, again and again, to engage with us in the same way. When they fight, we have to step out of the fight and make clear we will engage only in an entirely different kind of dialog: One that is collaborative. One that works.
What does it look like in practical terms? It means looking to leaders for something more than a clear and ringing espousal of our own side’s ideals. It means looking to leaders who open an alternative to the us/them dynamic:
- They try to find the wisdom in members of the opposing party’s perspectives.
- They fully humanize the other side -- in the way that they talk about them and in how they spend their time. Are they personal friends with members of the other side? Do they eat lunch with them, trying to find common ground? Do they keep inviting them to the table even when the other side wants to continue at a pointless war?
- They use collective language and speaking of one nation that requires the spirit and ideals of all its citizens working together to build and thrive. And they need to back this up, when either side throws a sucker punch, by a continued and determined stand that this is the only way forward. It means never getting to the point that we say, “There is no talking to them.”
These steps will take a courageous leader. Such a person is barely electable right now. Many political moderates are not even running for re-election. And we citizens are getting kicked, and so we say, “There is no working with them.” We speak of them as irrational and unreasonable. We look to leaders who will help us wrest power from them. In that context, talk of collaboration sounds weak or absurd to us. It doesn’t feel “right.” In other words, we have contempt for the other side. The leaders who will move us forward will fight back hard against this toxic cycle, not just advocate for our position within it. They are the ones who walk towards the path of collaboration with unwavering clarity and determination, reminding us over and over that “us” and “them” cannot exist under one roof and thrive.
If those leaders are unelectable right now, that is our fault. We are not demanding them, and so they will have trouble getting elected at first. But we will recognize them as the leaders we need in the end. Churchill took a courageous stance against Nazism and was without senior office for nearly a decade. But, because he took the only valid stance at a time no one wanted to hear it, he was prepared to be one of the greatest leaders of all time when the fact there was no other way forward became clear. We need to demand our leaders point us towards the only way forward that will work -- the path of collaborative respect for the citizens and party we disagree with. We need to inspire the leaders we want to follow.
Dawkins, Richard (2006). The Selfish Gene. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (2015). Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Harmony Books.
Johnson, S. (2004). The Practice of Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
Pew Research Center (2016, June 22). Partisanship and Political Animosity. Retrieved from www.people-press.org
Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature. New York: Viking Press.
Pinker, S. (2018). Enlightenment Now. New York: Viking Press.
Sapolsky, R. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin Books.