I am being manipulated, and so are you. Conservatives are being manipulated. Progressives are being manipulated. We the people have lost control of our government and are being used by selfish and partisan interests hostile to our common good.
Most citizens have at least some vague notion about this manipulation. But then the latest eloquent political hate message - one that really puts the other side in its place - appears on our Facebook page. We share it, as if launching a rhetorical grenade against “the enemy.”
We exclaim to ourselves, “Take that you evil morons!”
And for a fleeting few seconds we feel some small sense of righteous satisfaction.
But what have we really accomplished? We will have whipped up our own side into a slightly higher level of anger. And collectively, with huge numbers of people constantly spreading political vitriol, we will have achieved a nationwide state of perpetual partisan rage. There is no benefit, unless you are a politician, a political party, or a member of the ratings-driven media.
Of course, partisanship is nothing new. It dates back to the earliest days of our republic. But as the above example involving Facebook suggests, our current set of information-age conditions makes today's form of partisanship especially potent and dangerous.
It’s a new kind of hyper and negative partisanship, in which citizens don’t particularly like the politicians on their own side, but they hate the politicians on the other side more. The side that is hated less wins (though in fact everyone outside of the system loses).
The major sources of partisanship are several, and most of these sources are, unsurprisingly, also the beneficiaries of the hyper negative partisanship that they, themselves, generate.
At the most basic level, however, partisanship is a natural product of human evolution, concludes moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his compelling book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
Haidt finds that people are naturally “groupish,” which is why partisanship comes so easily to most of us. Though evolution favors survival of the fittest individuals, early humans discovered advantages when they organized themselves into groups.
As a result of the long evolutionary history, group loyalty is instinctive and a bias in favor of our group’s position is hardwired into our brains, argues Haidt.
When presented with information hostile to the position of our group, we automatically conclude that the information must be wrong, that it is threatening and dangerous, and we look for reasons to discredit it.
Reason is not the tool we use to divine the truth. Rather, reason is the crutch we use to uphold our pre-existing group position, because defense of the group, in evolutionary terms, helps humans to survive.
The second and most debilitating source of partisanship is embedded in our political system itself. Politicians continuously play to their own partisan bases, which mobilizes voters and attracts all-important campaign donations.
Those few elected officials who choose to compromise are branded as heretics by their own side and ground into political powder. Politician-led partisanship is paralyzing our government and poisoning civil society.
The poison is delivered through the third source of partisanship, the mass media. Traditional journalistic standards have given way in favor of ratings-driven partisan reporting of the news. There’s simply more money to be made selling partisan news products than there is in the difficult search for objective truth.
Almost all news now is fake news to one side or the other. Again, the public has some understanding of the problem, since trust in media is at an all-time low, but the partisan reportage is the catnip that drives ratings and profits.
And finally, like chumps, we pass on all of the political hate messaging through social media, which offers us a unique opportunity to make ourselves the voluntary agents of selfish political interests, and in so doing, risk friendships and potentially rip our communities apart.
The first steps to solving any problem is to recognize it. Hyper-partisanship is the greatest threat we face. It is more dangerous than the Right. And it is more dangerous than the Left.
Hyper-partisanship is what happens in pre-authoritarian societies from Nazi Germany to the Chile of Allende and Pinochet. And while we are not there quite yet, it is already undermining our self-government and tearing at our social fabric.
We can’t do much about our evolutionary psychological predisposition to partisanship, except temper it with self-awareness.
We can also choose to stop playing the partisan game. We can refuse to spread partisan hit pieces on social media. We can engage in formal Left-Right dialogue, such as that offered by Living Room Conversations, a group created by MoveOn.org co-founder Joan Blades, a progressive who is sincere and passionate about civil dialogue with conservatives.
Or join the Coffee Party, which despite its anti-Tea Party origins, has leadership today committed to Left-Right discussion and collaboration.
We must find ways for our group identity as citizens of the United Sates to supersede our partisan identities, and thereby harness our innate group psychology for our common good, lest the partisan beast devours us all.
Photo Source: Associated Press