Recent political commentary has observed a dissociation from traditional left–right political views and a move towards the extreme ends of the political spectrum. The increasing chasm between the major parties in the US has brought a concurrent rise in rhetorical hostility and disregard. The right is slandered as racist, while the left is slandered as socialist. Common ground between the major parties is incredibly scarce. In response, some political commentators have suggested rationality as an antidote. Ben Shapiro’s mantra facts don’t care about your feelings ridicules the far left. Sam Harris’ plea for the dissolution of political tribalism calls for reasoned political thought. Such statements are useful in curtailing the extremes, but cannot address the depth of the divide. For that, we need to take a psychological approach.
The Significance of Ideas
Politics is the foundation of society. It is the process of making and implementing group decisions (as defined here) and has substantial influence on all dimensions of societal organization: economics, business, education and religion. The state holds such authority that political decisions affect both public and private conduct. Because of its influence, politics is the ideal forum for discussions of how we ought to collectively orient ourselves.
These discussions are about political attitudes. Political attitudes represent our tendency to evaluate political issues favourably or disfavourably. They give specific objects emotional valence, which guides how we interact with them. While this may lead to a simple judgement that a thing is good or bad, we can also hold many different attitudes towards a single item, which can confuse our behaviour. It is also possible to hold similar attitudes towards related things, which can unify behaviour. The conglomeration of a coherent set of attitudes is called an ideology: as Robert Erikson and Kent Tedin put it, it is a “set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved.” Hence, political ideologies are sets of unified beliefs about which political structure can achieve the proper organization of society.
An ideology provides a framework within which to make sense of the chaotic nature of the world. Ideologies satisfy existential needs for closure and terror management. As John T. Jost argues, this allows the ambiguities of human nature, past, present and future to be explained by a coherent system of thought. As a result, there is a strong emotional component to belief structures. This psychological comfort can motivate complete devotion to certain beliefs. As a result, while in normal situations people hold attitudes, in the politically extreme Jung’s maxim holds true: “People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people.”
The Significance of Ideologies
This explains the difficulty of challenging the politically extreme. The existence of competing ideologies acts as an assault on the certainty of one’s own worldview. When you present the ideologically possessed with information that runs contrary to their assumptions, you are not providing them with an opportunity to reassess the facts. Rather, you are presenting yourself as the articulator of a belief structure in direct opposition to the foundation that provides their emotional and psychological safety. Normal individuals can be influenced by conversation, but ideologues cannot. Ideological possession claims too much of one’s ego: a single concession can lead to the complete dissolution of identity. At the individual level, coming into contact with different ways of viewing the world can consume one’s entire psyche. At the global level, these competing ideologies threaten devastation.
The philosophical roots of each ideology run deep and act as the basis upon which a collective can create a coherent, stable society. The values they have inherited from society influence how the public act and these actions organize the culture around a shared ideal. Competing ideologies construct different social, cognitive and motivational systems. If these differences are significant enough, ideological commitments can hinder cross-cultural communication more than any language barrier—one striking example of this is the relationship between the west and Soviet Russia during the Cold War era.
The west is the product of Greek and Judeo-Christian thought, with their emphasis on the individual, who is endowed with certain inalienable rights. No matter how powerful the state, its legitimate claim to authority dissolves when it is too overbearing in its impositions on the individual. Individuals are represented in government through a democratic system and can determine—and are primarily responsible for—their life, work and leisure through the free market.
The ideology of Soviet Russia was Marxism-Leninism. The authority of a centralized planned economy under a dictatorship of the proletariat was established in accordance with a materialist view of the world. Class interests were primary: wealth was redistributed from the individual to the collective for the social good. Truth was regarded as class-specific, and class consciousness was considered a higher form of rational thinking: when science was found incongruent with the party line, the scientist was to recant or face arrest. Objective truth, istina, was considered part of the conservative conspiracy that had previously exploited the working class and, in the search for the ideal world, only the concept of pravda (a higher truth) was immutable.
The differences between these worldviews held the world hostage for several decades. There was an extraordinary drive towards nuclear armament. Capable of causing total annihilation, such weaponry forced the ideological opponents to confront the idea of mutually assured destruction. We were ready to destroy the physical world to maintain our belief structures—because our belief structures are more real to us than matter.
The Problem in the West
Since the end of the Cold War, the west has lacked an esteemed ideological opponent. However, there has been ideological splintering within western countries. According to the Pew Research Center, since the 1990s the American electorate has become more ideologically polarized: 94% of Democrats are now positioned to the left of the median Republican, and 92% of Republican voters to the right of the median Democrat. In 1994, 17% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans reported having very negative views of the opposite party: by 2014, this had increased to 38% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans. Of those respondents who had negative views of the opposing party, most claimed that the opposing party presents a serious threat to the well-being of America.
This increased ideological polarization seems to be accelerating the parties’ shift towards the ends of the political spectrum. Social media exacerbates this tendency by allowing us to curate our newsfeeds and select which viewpoints to engage with. Social media users are more likely to connect with those who share their political attitudes and disconnect from those who disagree, as these reports show. The creation of online echo chambers means that all news is filtered through an ideological sieve: Democrats and Republicans often live in completely different mental worlds. The tendency to filter information was clearly demonstrated in research conducted over 20 years ago.
In 1999, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris conducted the now famous invisible gorilla experiment. Participants were asked to watch a short video showing six people pass basketballs to each other. Their task was to count the number of passes between the players. At some point during the video, a man in a gorilla suit walks in, turns to the camera, thumps his chest and walks out. Around 50% of respondents failed to see the gorilla. Before continuing, take a moment to try a similar experiment on yourself, by watching the first 48 seconds of this video.
. . . . .
Even when primed to look out for non-trivial environmental changes, most of us fail to recognize them, as the experiment you have just done vividly demonstrates. For some reason, correctly counting the number of passes has more motivational significance than the introduction of anomalous material. This provides evidence for the philosophy of functionalism: despite our efforts to interpret the world accurately, we did not evolve to calculate cold facts, but to act functionally. If the instructions given in an experiment like the one above can modify our perception so radically, what can we expect from doctrines as psychologically deep rooted as ideologies?
Ideologies provide us with a framework that guides our behaviour towards an ideal. Different political attitudes unite to create different biases. These biases install a perceptual filtering system that is sensitive to information in line with a particular political ideology. One’s environment then manifests in accordance with one’s ideological goal—the news, daily events and all politically relevant things are considered good if they promote the ideal, and bad if they hinder it. Indeed, as Jonathan Haidt has shown, when people with different ideologies are shown the same information, they often interpret it differently. Hence, insofar as the common ground between the two parties has eroded, Democrats and Republicans may live in different conceptual worlds.
This creates a vicious cycle. We are psychologically wired to look for information through our ideological lens, which in turn motivates us to engage with echo chambers that confirm our ideological assumptions, which then seem to affirm the correctness of these moral assumptions. So, how can concerned moderates encourage the supporters of the two major parties in the US to reunite on common ground—especially when they don’t perceive any common ground in the first place?
A Possible Way Out
These profound psychological issues cannot be addressed using facts and reason. Facts can influence people who are already sympathetic to a certain viewpoint, but they operate at too superficial a psychological level to reach those who have been ideologically possessed. Processes of reason arrive too late in the development of thought to have much influence on premature ideological bias. No matter how reasonable an opponent’s view may be, political bias will filter it as an offence against the ideologue’s worldview and make her disengage from conversation before it has even begun. However, although they are unlikely to reach the ideologically extreme, there are psychological tools that can help us re-establish communication between moderates from the two major parties.
In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of an elephant and a rider to describe the relationship between our emotional and rational systems, respectively. We might assume that the rider controls the elephant. However, if rider and elephant disagree on what direction to take, the six-tonne elephant will overpower the tiny rider and stride out in the direction it desires.
We can’t just appeal to the sympathies of the reasonable rider, then—we need to entice the ideological elephant. While we can influence the elephant to move in one direction or another, our rider will still require significant discipline to coax the enormous emotional beast into something resembling a reasonable gait. However, if we can get the elephant on side, the rider will have a much easier job.
By considering the different perspectives of the politically engaged, we can do a lot to connect with their emotional side. This can be done by simply listening to the other person’s political attitudes and why (they think) they hold them. This motivates reciprocation, and opens us up to the possibility of changing our own minds, as described here. To do this, you need not concede any of your political opinions, just attempt to bridge the political divide by re-establishing common ground.
When the Democratic donkey is taking a step to the right and the Republican elephant is moving to the left, our rational riders can lean toward the centre to look through the ideological filter of those across the aisle (even if only out of intellectual curiosity). This slight lean can achieve a lot: political enemies can realize that, although they may have different suggestions for solving an issue, there is a remarkable agreement in their perspectives in that they both consider there to be an issue in the first place. The major parties in the US were created to embody different aspects of the same constitution, and, despite significant differences in priorities, there are superordinate goals that cross party lines. The United States is not full of Democrats and Republicans, but fundamentally full of Americans.
One Final Caveat
Our everyday conversations can provide an opportunity to do this. Trusted friends don’t turn into psychopaths when engaging in politics. But they do when online, where, as this study has shown, people are far less open to different political opinions. Emotional appeals are only possible one on one. Our online profiles are too removed from ourselves to create a bond that permits a sympathetic reading of another’s perspective. As a result, online comments—no matter how considerate and moderate—are too susceptible to being interpreted as ideological statements. So, Ben, while facts may not care about your feelings, feelings often don’t care about your facts. We can’t address the facts if we are talking past each other in different ideological languages. To insist on our common humanity, we need to talk to each other in person.