When SiriusXM offered me two weeks of free satellite radio in our car to entice me back into its fold, I took the opportunity to listen to Fox News for the first time in my life, hoping to better understand what a conservative viewpoint sounded like.
During commercials, I flipped over to MSNBC, then back to Fox. Toggling back and forth that way for a couple of days of the 24-hour news cycle, I learned something amazing: there are, in fact, multiple universes; at least two of them here in the U.S. They exist side by side in our current political space; universes where reality is different, laws are different, even facts aren’t the same. Einstein was right: relativity is real. Reality is actually a pigment of our imaginations. Blue or red.
Psychologists have been studying tribal behavior for decades and by now have some understanding of what factors have polarized our nation so. Polarity always comes in twos – two tribes, two teams, two perspectives, two parties. And that’s what we have, two groups fighting now not for the common good, not for our democracy, but for the one thing that will supposedly prove once and for all that they’re right, they’re better: winning.
From their perspective, since this is a battle royale for the survival of their political party, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, and at any cost to the nation and our democracy.
If we have to win the state houses so we can gerrymander districts, even if that un-levels the playing field, that’s what we have to do. If we have to put up voting-access roadblocks to make it harder for the other team’s members to vote, so be it. If we have to deny a sitting president an opportunity to make a nomination to the Supreme Court in his last year in office, we may have to do that, too, because, when winning is the only thing, playing by the rules is not necessary – if we get to make the rules. When we need money to win elections, it’s OK to reduce taxes on those that have most of it – even if that’s only the wealthiest 1% of Americans – so they’ll want to keep us in power. We didn’t take an oath to protect our democracy; we made a promise to our base to win.
Two facts stand out in the research on tribalism. The first is that it’s difficult to get people to change their views when those views are deeply rooted in their identities. I-dentity politics. “I” don’t believe in climate change, and no matter how much scientific evidence you heap upon me, “I” am not going to change my mind. What am I supposed to do, admit I was wrong all these years? Come hell or high water – ironically, the final outcome – I’d rather go to my grave knowing I’m wrong than to admit it.
Republicans know that Donald Trump lies, but he’s the quarterback, the captain of the team. To deny him is to deny themselves. That’s why they listen to Fox News. Liberals listen to Rachel Maddow for the same reason, because she reminds them repeatedly that they’re the righteous ones, they’re fighting the good fight for what’s right and what’s good. Those other guys? They’re the bad guys who play dirty. Republicans know that Trump has engaged in criminal activity but don’t care. Democrats repulsed by Obama’s drone program looked the other way, gave him a pass on that one, because they’d cast their lot with him. Once we’ve made our choice, we stick with it. If our tribe has to do bad things to win in battle, well, then we have to do bad things. That all-important “I” must not be denied a possible victory. It would crush us not to win.
The other factor that keeps us polarized is that our politics is not only part of our identity, it’s our social group. To admit you’re an atheist to your Christian relatives might get you thrown out of the family. Maybe they will. We need our social group and rely on them for support. Republicans can’t speak badly of Trump at the barbecue? They’d be ostracized by the only friends they have. Democrats can’t criticize Obama among their friends. That’d be the last time they were invited to book club. Research suggests that social pressures are even stronger than identity factors when supporting your point person. Interestingly though, it also shows that we’re ideologically closer than we’re willing to admit; closer than we do admit. We need our tribe to survive so we just toe the party line and keep our mouths shut, even if we think he’s a fool.
Here’s a suggestion: next time your favorite legislator makes a decision, ask yourself honestly whether it’s to protect our democracy or your party, to honor that oath he or she took to “support and defend the Constitution,” or was it to win the next election at any cost?
Our democracy will not be destroyed by the Russians. The real threat is much closer to home. Winning at any cost could cost us the democracy we cherish so much. We need to find the truth ourselves, not let Fox’s and MSNBC’s propaganda machines dictate it to us. We don’t need a dictator. We need to support one nation, not two.
Jim Pesout is a retired high school teacher who lives in Mountain Ranch. You can reach him at email@example.com.