Years ago I read a very enlightening book by a man named Charles Hampden-Turner called Radical Man, in which he argued, from a psychological viewpoint, that when people spend enough time seeing things in a dualistic manner, they can lose the ability to perceive opportunities for cooperation across whatever lines separate them from their opponents. If this is true — and intuitively it seems to me that it must be true — what good end can political parties and ideological divisions come to?
You can already see it on AM talk radio, and political blogs, and any venue that clusters people of similar beliefs and emotional mind-sets. That way leads only downhill.
Nothing in our life is more dualistic than the concept of elections. In any given race, only one person can win; at least one person, and often more, must lose. It’s hard to turn that situation into a win-win. I wonder, sometimes, that we get any cooperation at all out of our elected representatives, given that their first priority, if they want to be reelected, must be to claim all possible credit and cash all possible blame upon their opposite numbers. If they don’t play the game that way, chances are they will be defeated and replaced by someone else who will.
Last month as I drove to the polls I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if there were some way for Democrats and Republicans to get together after the elections are over and remind each other of what they have in common, and how we are all in the same boat, regardless where we are seated? Wouldn’t it be nice if people could have their stereotypes blurred a little by contact with members of the opposite party, or holders of the opposite ideological position?
But I don’t see how it could happen, because always hovering over people’s minds is the fact that there will be another election and some will win and some will have to lose, and nothing in such circumstances is more suspect than affectionate contact with the enemy.
But of course we do have such affectionate contact with the enemy every day, or most of us do. We all have relatives or neighbors or coworkers who are in the “opposite” camp. We deal with them not primarily in terms of politics or ideology, but in terms of whatever it is that we have in common with them, be it blood or work or even just physical proximity. Chances are we recently sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with family or friends who do not entirely share our political or ideological beliefs.
In small towns, people used to know each other’s politics and accommodate themselves to that knowledge. Their neighbors were at the same as they were, and weren’t expected to be. Certain of their relatives may have been traitors to the party, but that was an eccentricity perhaps no more outstanding than other eccentricities that were routinely accepted.
Today our lives are more mobile, hence less deeply rooted, hence more likely to be lived largely among strangers, or shall we say relatively newly found acquaintances. Our friendships are likely to be long-distance, virtual, and centered upon interests, attitudes, or other chosen attributes. We are less likely to have friends who are very different from ourselves than we would have been in the days when our choices were by necessity limited to those within a certain geographical range.
So it becomes easier to associate only with those with whom one agrees, and easier to demonize those unknown others who inexplicably have values and behaviors that negate our own. It becomes easier to believe websites that claim to know that everything that occurs is actually the over part of deeply late conspiratorial plans that go back hundreds of years. It becomes harder to remember to inject common-sense contradictions into plausible scenarios. And so for many reasons our political divisions become more radical, more bitter, more high-stakes.
What does this do to a country, over time? I can’t believe it’s good. And, seen in this context, every election makes the situation worse, because it continually reduces our ability to see the possibility of seeking common ground with those “others.”
I can see the problem clearly enough. What I can’t see is a solution, or any approach to a solution, other than an increase in human consciousness, tolerance, hope, etc. But that’s asking a lot.