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Stop the Insane Political Polarization and Divisiveness

After amusing myself by using the word “insane,” as I am, after all, a psychologist, let’s get down to the reality of the grim political situation. The political polarization afflicts the left and the right, not just half of the political spectrum. This intense emotionality continues to divide our country and is perpetuated by strident leaders and influencers on both sides of politics.

I had thought that when the master manipulator of emotional division, Trump, was forcefully displaced from office and Twitter, some of the emotion and tension on both sides would begin to subside. Alas, no, that has not happened. Instead, Trump’s torchbearers, trying to exploit his influence over certain people, have continued to perpetuate conspiracy bunk and awful characterizations of Democrats and even those few courageous Republicans who stand against Trump. For instance, all Democrats who favor human rights for abortion or LGBTQ must be extreme liberals, far left progressives, unchristian, unpatriotic, or Communists/Socialists. On the other “side,” some Democrats have continued to angrily view all Republicans as dumb, crazy, corrupt, fascist, and anti-diversity---even if the sole point of evidence is that the person happens to own a gun or won’t get vaccinated.

This extreme mischaracterization of others with differing points of view is beyond absurd and ridiculous, although parody and satire may abound. However, this extremity results in actual harm to the strength of our democracy, which is based on compromise and mutual respect, and to the well-being of individuals, who suffer when there is intolerance and hate. The “us vs. them” mentality has not been effective throughout history and in findings from psychological research. One has only to look at the famous “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” classroom experiment, first conducted by Jane Elliot in 1968, and since replicated in a myriad of ways, to see how quickly people can become divided and discriminatory based on superficial characteristics.

Further, in examining the group processes that can occur after enmity has been engendered, the series of studies initiated by Sherif on group conflict and prejudice are quite interesting. The most famous of the studies was done in 1954, entitled the “Robbers Cave Experiment.” While this study would not pass an ethics committee to be conducted today, the results showed that using typical therapeutic means to get adversaries to stop fighting did not work; instead, having to cooperate on mutual, shared goals in the best interest of all was what brought people together.

The USA, and indeed the world, missed a golden opportunity to heal rifts and become more cooperative with each other in facing the universal threat of the pandemic. Rather, our nation became even more splintered as the pandemic itself was politicized and added to the extremity of division. Both sides of the political spectrum have strongly judged other points of view. I have even found myself being critical and judgmental of anyone unwilling to wear a mask or vaccinate—because I care about vulnerable people and the community overall. But, shouldn’t I know better? After all, I am a psychologist (poking fun at myself a bit!) who should be self-aware and tolerant enough to avoid stereotypes!

The fact that I am susceptible to the same cognitive and social influences, if I am not careful, illustrates just how difficult it is to detect and combat our own biases. However, that is the first step to achieving more harmony and resolution. Secondly, it is not too late to use the survival threat of the pandemic to work together across the political divide. I will confess, though, that I am afraid that the polarization has taken such deep root that we can’t find enough reasonable, rational, and ethical people to begin to bridge the gap. Sometimes I would love to be wrong, as when my concerns outweigh my hope, and this is one of those occasions. My hope is that many of my fellow Americans and Texans will re-think their beliefs and behavior, using logic and ethics, and join the effort to build more cooperation. Part of my motivation in running for the state legislature is to help restore “sanity” in leadership, as I would rather contribute to solutions than to sit by and bemoan the state of our imperfect union.

Editorial by H. Denise Wooten, PsyD

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