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Polarization in Politics and Life

Sunday, December 11th, 2022

by Douglas L. Anderson, PsyD


Finally.  The 2022 election is officially over now that the Georgia runoff is done.  I was very ready for it to be done.  Of course, the 2024 presidential race has already started with numerous potential candidates testing the waters.  We seem to live in an era where election cycles actually run into each other.

This republic of ours has the ongoing aspiration of being a government of, by, and for the people.  It aspires to be a place where all men and women are equal.  It aspires to be a nation where thoughtful dialogue in the halls of congress moves us toward the “good.”  

But we all see and hear the vitriol and venom in our culture.  We see our aspirations taking some nasty hits.  Polarization has replaced dialogue.  Our culture, broadly speaking, has become increasingly an “all or nothing” culture.  We have lost the middle ground.

In such a space we tend to see everything through our own choice of glasses (think ‘polarized lens’) without any interest in considering alternative views.  Psychologists refer to this as “cognitive inflexibility,” which could be described as the inability to take other views or opinions into consideration.  

Psychological research indicates that “mortality salience” may be a contributor to the development of polarization.  Mortality salience can be described as a sense of helplessness and groundlessness.  Said differently, it is the felt loss of significance.  

In other words, the more we perceive that we lack significance and that there is little we can do about that, the more defensive we become.  And that defensiveness manifests in a polarized mind.  One author described the polarized mind as the “elevation of one point of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view.”  

How do we find our way out of this kind of mindset?  Psychologists have been researching this for a long time, but recent years of increased polarization in our culture have led to increased research in this area.  Here are a few ideas to consider.

One approach suggests that we need to face our mortality.  Doing so can cultivate a greater sense of the significance of life, and of the meaning and values that promote such significance.  This can lead to seeing and hearing others, and to the experience of being seen and heard by others.

Another approach encourages us to engage in mindful dialogue with “others.”  For example, consider choosing to enter into a thoughtful conversation with those who have different political views than you.  Be curious about what they value, believe, and desire politically.  Learn from them rather than writing them off as lunatics just because they are (you fill in the blank).  

I am a fan of intersubjectivity.  Here’s a simple definition.  Intersubjectivity means that we all influence and are all influenced by others to some degree. The principle of intersubjectivity can be applied to almost any decision we make, big or small. We always have to consider how our actions will affect others.

An underlying principle of intersubjectivity indicates that true connection and intimacy results when we become grateful for others exactly as they are with no need for them to be different.  Imagine a world where we exercised deep gratitude for all others no matter what they believed, no matter how short or tall they are, no matter who they voted for, no matter how they identify.

Democracy is messy.  Relationships are messy.  The more we measure our interactions with others based on love and gratitude for them, the less polarized we will be.  And that will result in a psychologically healthier nation where the messiness of diversity of all sorts becomes our greatest aspiration.  It will also help us discover the pleasure of difference in our relationships, and we will no longer need to be so polarized.  Vitriol and venom will gradually dissipate.

If you need help with this in your own life, give us a call.  We have competent and caring therapists in all four of our locations - River Counseling Services in Platte, Sioux Falls Psychological Services, and Stronghold Counseling Services in Sioux Falls and in Yankton - who will meet you where you are, offering hope. That is our mission. You may schedule an appointment at the Platte office at 605-337-3444 or meet with one of our Sioux Falls or Yankton based therapists from your computer, smartphone, or in person at any of our clinics. To schedule an appointment, please call 605-334-2696.