We are Polarized: Politically and Psychologically

   Politically speaking, we are a polarized country. Our politicians are beset by extreme views on the liberal left and conservative right. Congress is paralyzed and even the Supreme Court is split down a razor thin middle.

All this divisiveness reflects an acrimoniously divided electorate, and we are not alone in this polarization: Almost every democracy on the planet, like France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Sweden, Israel, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, India (I could go on), is plagued by similar bitter schisms in their parliaments and among their citizens.

Although there are unique issues in the conflicts of each country, the overriding theme in these diametric disagreements is usually along one major political axis: The left (liberal, progressive) versus the Right (conservative).

I referred above to a “politically speaking” polarization, but the strong disagreement is beyond political: In reality, we are in a house divided, “psychologically speaking.

Perusing newspapers or internet of different countries, it is remarkable how often the liberal-conservative schism is the primary basis for national polarization. This reflects two radically different lenses through which each side views life.

Disagreements might ostensibly be about taxes, governmentreligion, intermarriage, gender, abortion, immigration, corruption, health care or other sensitive areas, all of which provoke strong psychological feelings. The psychological, however, quickly becomes political. The very same people who oppose each other in interpreting and responding to provocative issues do so in both the political and psychological arenas.

Conservatives want to preserve the status quo, as opposed to change. They wish to uphold stability, the rule of law, social order, religion and tradition. They are more comfortable with power and authority, and are quick to perceive threats to their safety or from changes in social values. They are concerned about government size and favor a more laissez-faire attitude toward markets and choices.

Liberals tend to be more open to change. They feel that government should have a major role in protecting the have-nots from poverty, pollution or corporate exploitation. They support government regulation of banks, financial institutions, healthcare, and drug prices. They’re more tolerant about diversity, immigrants, and social changes, like LGBT marriages or the use of marijuana.

The two sides tend to demonize each other, but what is common to both is that their reactions have to do primarily with what increases or reduces their personal anxieties.

When they view the same presentation of facts, they draw diametrically opposite conclusions based on how personally comfortable they feel. This has to do with their backgrounds and upbringing, but there are brain scan studies which show neuroanatomical and neurophysiological differences in some brain structures of liberals and conservatives.

Given the present polarization and incivility, it is vital that we tone down the rancor in our body politic and in our lives. We should be looking at ways to facilitate communication between the two poles. It is important that the perception of personal threat be lessened so that anxiety and self-protective responses are reduced.

If we could establish human goals to foster mutual respect, empathy, tolerance, compromise and cooperation on personal levels as well as in national and international forums, our lives would be enhanced and our world would be much safer.

We should be giving as much emphasis to “Our Emotional Footprint” as we do to our carbon footprint. This is challenging but vital to our survival. We must strive for a cooperative model of existence on both personal and political levels.

If we don’t…I shudder.

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