Our country is seriously divided. A recent Pew Center report indicates that we distrust and fear one another. Among committed partisans, “70 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.”
This crisis of trust threatens the fabric of civil society. But partisan conflict is not new. The Founding Fathers understood its dangers. Ancient philosophers warned against it. And psychologists have explained it in modern terms.
In the Federalist Papers, James Madison warned against “the violence of faction.” He called this a “dangerous vice” and a “mortal disease.” Partisan division inflames us with “mutual animosity.” We would rather “vex and oppress each other” than cooperate for the common good. Madison located factionalism deep within human nature, as a product of self-love.
George Washington agreed. He warned against “the baneful effects” of the “spirit of party.” In his Farewell Address, he said, “This spirit is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind.” Washington connected partisanship with the spirit of revenge and the lust for power.
Two thousand years prior, Plato offered a similar diagnoses of partisan politics. We wrongly think that might makes right. We believe our primary duty is to help friends and hurt enemies. And we lose sight of the common good.
One recent book uses brain science to explain partisanship. In “The Righteous Mind,” Jonathan Haidt traces partisan zeal to the brain’s pleasure centers. Partisan behavior unleashes a rewarding blast of dopamine. This reinforces preconceived notions and our sense of righteous superiority. Noting that cocaine and heroin operate on those same pleasure centers, Haidt concludes, “Extreme partisanship may literally be addictive.”
Sigmund Freud directs our attention to the power of love and aggression. We love those who are similar and hate those who are different. Our desire to belong to a group of worthy people leads us to exaggerate the positive aspects of our comrades. This also leads us to inflate the negative features of those in the other party.
Partisan fanaticism often occurs among those who share much in common. Freud calls this the narcissism of minor differences. When our differences are minor, we amplify them in order to gain power and prestige.
With this in mind, we ought to note that the differences between Republicans and Democrats are mostly minor. A few differences get magnified. But no mainstream party is advocating a truly radical alternative to the status quo. No one in either party offers a radical revision of the constitutional system.
Republicans and Democrats each represent a different side of the same American coin. But, of course, the philosophy and psychology of partisanship predicts that partisans on each side will deny that this is true. Each side vilifies the other. The result is distrust and fear.
Our nation’s founders realized that you cannot eliminate factionalism without undermining liberty. They designed the Constitution to moderate its pernicious effects. The Constitution prevents tyranny. The rights of individuals are protected. Power is distributed. The nation’s size and diversity makes it tough for any single faction to gain complete control.
This approach is pragmatic. It does not hope for a radical change in human nature. Instead, it seeks to minimize the negative effects of our factional affliction.
Let’s hope the Constitution is strong enough to weather the current partisan storm. And yet, partisan hatred leaves us unhappy. And it causes moderate people to disengage. That’s unfortunate, since partisan rancor is curbed by the common sense of the moderates.
One solution points beyond politics to friendship. The Pew Center report suggests that those who have a friend in the other party are less fearful of the other party.
But our polarization makes it difficult to be friendly. We do not socialize in mixed political company. Our preconceptions are reinforced by a closed loop of one-sided media choices and self-selected social networks. This allows self-love to grow – and with it, distrust and fear.
Here is a suggestion for the Fourth of July. Befriend someone from the other party. Search for common ground. Our disagreements are nothing to fear. We should accept them as part of human nature. And celebrate them as a sign of our freedom.