The political environment since Trump’s election seems to get worse and worse by the day, as much of the American public becomes increasingly divided, embittered and downright insane. People across the political spectrum are enthusiastically fueling this destructive behavior in their varied quests to show how right they are and how hopelessly wrong everyone else is. Meanwhile, those who truly wield power in our society continue to laugh all the way to the bank.
Earlier today, I came across a prescient and powerful article written by Pamela B. Paresky in Psychology Today titled, Angry About the Election?
Although the piece was composed only a few weeks after the 2016 election, the writing was already on the wall and she identified and warned about the dangerous direction we were headed in. Here are a few choice excerpts:
Peruse any Facebook page and you’re sure to find plenty of anger and disgust there, too. Some Clinton supporters are “unfriending” Trump voters. Others proclaim they are no longer speaking to friends who voted for Trump. It’s not uncommon for people to explicitly state that they have no desire or intention to “come together” with nor even “have compassion” for anyone who voted for Trump.
The hostility is not all one-sided, of course. Isolation from those with different political ideas combined with aggressive political rhetoric has created the sense in people on both sides that “hostility directed at the opposition is acceptable, even appropriate. Partisans therefore feel free to express animus and engage in discriminatory behavior toward opposing partisans,” explain political scientists Iyengar and Westwood. After so many years of feeling trampled, belittled and maligned, for angry Trump voters, one Presidential victory does not clean the slate. Across the country, anger and disgust burn with righteous fervor. But anger eventually consumes everything in its path. Angry people create angry homes, angry spouses, angry children, and eventually find it hard to maintain their relationships and careers. Contrary to Wieseltier’s advice, being angry is a fairly reliable way to become lessprincipled. We need only recall the last thing we said in anger to recognize that it is a rare instance in which principles are more likely to be upheld with anger than with equanimity.
Emotions not only impact the things we say and do, they also have a way of influencing judgment. Increasingly researchers are able to see precisely how. According to psychologists Yoel Inbar and David Pizarro, anger “seems to encourage the use of cognitive‘shortcuts’ such as stereotypes,” so especially for those committed to combatting bigotry, anger is hardly the right tool. Adding disgust to the mix is even more destructive. Psychologists Buckels and Trapnell found that disgust “appears to have the unique capacity to foster the social-cognitive dehumanization of outgroup members.”
Resentment, as Wieselteir rightly appreciates, “even when it has a basis in experience, is one of the ugliest political emotions and it has been the source of horrors.” Resentment is closely related to contempt. Contempt between married couples is the single best predictor of divorce, and is destructive in other relationships, too. In examining speeches given prior to major events by leaders of extreme political groups, psychologist David Matsumoto and his colleagues discovered that anger, contempt, and disgust work together to create devaluing of the other group, and to motivate action against and even the elimination of their members. When leaders speak using these three emotions, they can succeed in generating violence against others—in other words, anger, contempt, and disgust are a dangerous and deadly combination…
Still, we allow for only a single story, and there seem to be only two options for how we interact with people who tell a different one. We can teach them; or if they are unwilling to learn, we can oppose them. The one thing we seem unwilling to do is to listen. We have somehow come to believe that when we have strong views, listening is something we do only when a person’s perspective is one we share, or while formulating arguments to convince people they are wrong—and then we must believe they can be convinced. Otherwise, not only do we avoid conversation, more and more we seem to experience a righteous combination of anger, contempt, and disgust; a poison that propels us to perform the same kind of dehumanization we work so hard to prevent.
Perhaps because at its core, listening is an act of love, we are unwilling to listen to the people we would rather hate. “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard,” contends international peacemaker, Gene Knudsen Hoffman. Rabbi Phillip Bentley, who spent time with Israelis and Palestinians as part of the Compassionate Listening Project founded by Hoffman, discovered, “those who have sympathy for only one side in a conflict become part of the conflict.”
What Dr. Paresky describes above is precisely what’s been happening to a concerning number of Americans over the course of 2017. Many thinkers and writers I found meaningful and trenchant prior to last year’s election, have become dull, partisan and pandering in the era of Trump. It appears the “strategy” of many partisans is to simply dehumanize the other side in a misguided pursuit of a political “win.” This sort of zero sum game thinking when it comes to your fellow humans is a recipe for disaster and can never lead to positive change. I don’t care what those playing this deadly game claim to stand for, I know that this mindset and the tactics they employ represent a very real danger to society and human progress in general.
Moving on, if I claim the above is perverse and destructive, what’s a realistic alternative? My answer is unity, and I wonder why almost no one is talking about that option. If we take a step back and analyze the situation, it becomes undeniable that it wasn’t your average fellow Americans that created the neo-feudal, insufferably corrupt and imperialistic society we live under today. Rather, those who created this world and encourage its continuance consist of both Democrats and Republicans working in bipartisan fashion on behalf of high-powered donors, i.e., oligarchs. Again, this is pretty much undeniable, yet in the emotionally charged, hysterical post-Trump environment we inhabit, everyone seems to be focused on dehumanizing their fellow Americans, 99.9% of whom have absolutely no power over policy.
I want to argue for a completely different approach. I think we need to look at some of the vast problems plaguing our society from a far more strategic and methodical perspective. We need to ask ourselves, what are the issues that donors are united on, but go against the best interests of 99.9% of us. We then need to focus our energy on building unity movements against this predatory donor agenda.
These aren’t minor issues either. We’re talking about stuff like the two-tier justice system (the rich and powerful gets slaps on the wrist, while poor people go to jail), pointless, barbaric wars abroad, monopoly capitalism, Wall Street bailouts and more. I’m confident we could build widespread consensus on the issues above and many others. In aggregated, these issues have a tremendous impact to society as a whole and our ability to improve our everyday lives.
We need to start reframing politics in terms of “the people” against the donors, as opposed to one half of the public against the other half. We seem to be doing much more of the latter versus the former, and if it continues, we’ll be building our own graves.
That’s not to say there aren’t very real, meaningful differences amongst the population. I’m not arguing that these must be discarded or totally ignored, I’m pointing out that we are spending almost all our energy on fighting about our differences, as opposed to talking about the stuff we agree on.
Tomorrow I’ll write about how I propose we think about some of these differences in the context of a new politics we must start to build. If we fail to unite against donors on key existential issues — and do it soon — we’ll be rapidly divided and conquered into a dust cloud of anger and violence before we realized what happened.