The Root of The Political Divide

The cause of the current oppositional style of political talk is not a problem with the people we’re talking to but with how humans were designed. Let’s start by asking how the multi-stage processing performed by human brains can keep political conversation from getting nasty.

The Majority of the Human Brain is Associated with Rational Thought


When we give instinct and the limbic portion of our brains free reign, political talk does get nasty. That’s because the limbic system sees opposing or different views as threats, and urges us to fight.  In the political arena, fight means getting louder and louder, repeating our message frequently, ridiculing the opposition, and bombarding opponents with facts, statistics, images, and sound bites that support our views in the hopes of demolishing theirs.

But unlike lizards, our brains are equipped with more than just a limbic system.  Once the limbic system has convinced us that “them was fighting words,” the parts responsible for logical thought (the majority of our large brains) kick in. Generally, we use the thinking parts of our brains to figure out where we stand on an issue and design the arguments we will use to support our view.

What we can do differently is engage our thinking brains earlier. When the limbic system signals to our heart, lungs, and muscles to respond with fight or flight, reason can step on the brakes and remind us there’s no real danger—it’s just Aunt Alice sharing her views of the world in that God-is-on-my-side way of hers.  That is, when we feel the adrenaline rush we can pause, take a deep breath, and make a conscious choice about how to respond to the arguments from the other side.

Some Alternatives

The question is, what alternatives do we have? Our current us-against-them approach to political discourse is so ingrained in us that it can feel as though it’s the only approach. It’s built into our system: We elect one president. We vote for or against referendums and initiatives. We elect the “better” candidate and choose the “winning” argument. In school, we are taught to write essays that prove our points and to debate to win. Even at social gatherings, friends and family members expound on the virtues of their candidates and positions or attack those on the other side. However, win/lose and us-against-them is not the only perspective.

To identify our alternatives, we must first understand what our goals are in interacting with Aunt Alice.

Talking to Encourage Listening

Let’s say it wasn’t Aunt Alice who started the political discussion. Let’s say she said something at the dinner table that pushed one of your buttons and you decided to call her on it.  What is your goal?  As discussed earlier, your limbic system is telling you to destroy Aunt Alice’s ideas. But you are not your limbic system.  What do you really want?

What did Aunt Alice say?  Chances are it was something that sounded like an attack on you and all people holding the same views as you.  Her words might have implied that you were crazy, immoral, or ignorant.  They may have communicated disdain for your sources of information, which is no different from discrediting you and your arguments.  She may have ridiculed your side or your views, or used the words “they” or “them” or “those people”, which sent you the message that she sees you and your ilk as Other.  What she said is likely to have made it very clear to you that she has no clue what you and “your side” is about.

In other words, in this scenario, you probably want exactly what your limbic system wants.  You want to defend yourself and reclaim respect and honor in her eyes.  You want to convince her you are not immoral or ignorant or crazy.  You want her to stop dehumanizing you and instead acknowledge you for the thinking, caring, passionate person you are.

Included in your desire, there’s probably a desperation to get her to see the logic of your position. You care so much about the issue (it could be global warming, abortion, hate speech, or 2nd amendment rights), that you are desperate for the nation to choose the proper path.  So, you don’t just want to defend yourself and your side; you want to protect your country.

This is all good and honorable, but, chances are, all the facts and figures and political battle cries in the world won’t change her mind, because she isn’t you.  She doesn’t think the way you think.  The words you use are likely to have different connotations for her.  Your facts are likely to fit into different contexts.  In addition to that, Aunt Alice has probably heard all your arguments before, which would lead her to discount everything you are about to say before you even say it.

Does this mean you shouldn’t talk to Aunt Alice about those things she said at dinner? No, it means you’ll have to present something other than facts and political speak.  You’ll have to talk to Aunt Alice in a way that encourages her to listen and tell her something she doesn’t already know.

…You’ll have to get personal.

Getting personal about politics involves sharing your internal reality: why the issue matters to you, how your solution fits your values and beliefs, and any experiences you may have had that guide your interpretation of both the issue and the solution.  Share this kind of information with Aunt Alice, and she’ll have nothing to argue with you about. You aren’t telling her want she should believe or think, you’re telling her what you believe and think.  Most often, I see people responding to this sort of political talk by getting curious, and asking the speaker to share more about their experiences.  And almost invariably, these people report feeling more connection and more respect for the speaker than they had experienced for a very long time.

Listening to Connect and Understand

Now let’s look another possible scenario.  Either Aunt Alice started the conversation or it just sort of happened and now you are in it.  What’s your goal in continuing to talk politics with your dear sweet aunt? Let’s assume you are motivated by love.  You aren’t trying to make her wrong, you’re showing her the error of her ways.

But you and Aunt Alice have different wiring.  She’s had different experiences.  She judges  morality using a slightly different mix of criteria.  So, you could present Aunt Alice with missing facts and explain the logic of your views from now until the cows come home but you WON’T change her mind.  How is this kind of badgering motivated by love? The suggestion that it is is simply your rational brain trying to justify the limbic system’s need to combat Aunt Alice’s threatening ideas by destroying every argument that supported her views.

If your actions were truly motivated by love, you’d focus on what Aunt Alice wants and needs.  What do you think that is?  Chances are, she wants to be heard.  She must care about the issues; otherwise she’d have no reason to want to talk politics with you.   And so, we come to a second alternative to arguing with Aunt Alice: listening to her with the goal of understanding her, because that’s what she really wants.  Like you, she wants to be seen as the thinking, caring, passionate person she is.  Like you, she wants others to understand how her views reflect who she is. If you truly love her, you’ll consider listening to her in a way that encourages her to talk.

There’s more to this kind of listening than just letting her words in.   Try to see the issue from her side.

  • When she says something, you must let her know not just that you heard, but what you heard.
  • When something she says makes sense to you, tell her so.
  • When something really doesn’t make sense, ask for clarification: Is she using a word in a way you aren’t used to?  Is she sharing a sound-bite rather than a complete thought?  Did she jump ahead so you aren’t sure how she’s connecting the dots? Ask for clarification.
  • If you aren’t sure why she cares about this particular issue, ask her to tell you why the issue matters and what she is worried about.
  • Most importantly, when she shares data or facts that don’t jibe with yours, accept them as her facts – the ones that she believes – and don’t challenge them.

Let her answers inspire curiosity.  Learn more about who she is, what her history is.

The Win/Win Perspective

These two alternatives to arguing — talking so others will listen and listening to understand — build connection and respect.  What neither of these approaches does is push an agenda or defend a cause.  At first, this may feel like letting your side down.  From the win/lose perspective, you might wonder what’s in it for me?  Why put energy into listening if there’s no guarantee they’ll listen to me.  Why bother sharing my personal perspective if it doesn’t bring me a win?
The Blind Men and the Elephant
Fortunately, we don’t have to look at this from the win/lose perspective.  We can look at it from a cooperative, collaborative perspective. The key to this is taking a long, hard look at the elephant in the room.  No, not the one associated with a political party.  The one beautifully described in an old Indian proverb:
Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the blind men heard the children squealing with delight because an elephant had come to the village.  The blind men didn’t know what an elephant was, so they decided to investigate. Each blind man encountered a different part of the very large animal, which led each to a different conclusion about what the animal was like. “It’s like a wall!” insisted the man at the beast’s side. “No, it’s like dangerous snake,” said the man at its trunk. “You’re both wrong,” said the man holding the tail.  “It’s not much more than a piece of old rope. The other blind men reported the animal to be like a spear or a fan or a giant cow.  The six men argued and argued until the Rajah settled the argument by informing them that each had touched a different part. “We must combine each of your views if we are to understand what this regal animal is truly like.”
The issues facing our country are like the elephant – so large  they must be examined from multiple perspectives in order to be understood.  We aren’t blindmen, but we do each have a unique, and limited, perspective: limited by our lifestyles, socioeconomic status, physical ability, gender, age, profession, marital status, and so on.   How a law or policy impacts my life will be quite different from how it impacts yours.  In a democracy, if a law doesn’t benefit us directly, we hope that, at the very least, it won’t harm us. To arrive at the best laws and the best policies, we need to look at the issues from my perspective and your perspective and Joe’s perspective and even Aunt Alice’s perspective. Embracing this different-by-design philosophy of life and politics doesn’t lead to the instant win our limbic systems want when they urge us to argue.  The wins are more subtle and for many, more far reaching:
  • You have a chance to see an issue from another person’s perspective.
  • You may get a chance to share your perspective with someone who has never really thought about an issue that way, and in the process, practice stating your position clearly and unambiguously.
  • If both of you are open to it, you may find yourselves exploring the issue together, looking at information and events together, talking through the things one notices but the other does not, questioning assumptions one made while the other did not, and in this way begin a journey that has the potential to create a shared experience
  • If you explore an issue together, you may even get to the point of discussion possible solutions, identifying those aspects you both agree on, alerting one another potential pitfalls of any option, and coming to terms with the likelihood that there is no perfect solution that addresses the wants and needs of all Americans.

Share this post

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop

    The Two Types of Depolarization

    Depolarization — the work of reducing toxic polarization — is best understood in terms of the two types of polarization that shape our interactions and perceptions in today’s politically charged climate:

    1. Affective Polarization

    Affective polarization revolves around emotions and feelings. It refers to the emotional divide between individuals or groups with differing political views. It’s about how people feel about others who hold opposing ideologies.

    • Us vs. Them: In affective polarization, people tend to see those on the other side of the political spectrum as part of an “us vs. them” mentality. Emotions like anger, fear, and distrust often come into play.
    • Emotional Reactions: When encountering someone with opposing views, affectively polarized individuals may experience heightened emotions. They might feel threatened, defensive, or even hostile.
    • Echo Chambers: Social media and personalized news feeds can exacerbate affective polarization by reinforcing existing beliefs and isolating individuals from diverse perspectives.

    2. Cognitive Polarization

    Cognitive polarization focuses on thought processes and cognitive biases. It pertains to how people think about the views of others.

    • Discounting Opposing Views: Cognitive polarization leads to a tendency to discount opposing viewpoints without critically evaluating them. People may jump to conclusions, assuming that differing opinions lack validity or logical soundness.
    • Us vs. Them (Again): Just as in affective polarization, cognitive polarization reinforces the “us vs. them” mindset. It hinders open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity.
    • Intellectual Echo Chambers: Cognitive polarization occurs when people surround themselves with like-minded sources, reinforcing their preconceptions and avoiding exposure to alternative perspectives.

    The Interplay Between Affective and Cognitive Polarization

    Affective and cognitive polarization often feed into each other. Emotional reactions (affective) influence how we process information (cognitive), and vice versa.

    Breaking the Cycle: CPL recognizes that depolarization  requires us to address both affective and cognitive aspects. Encouraging empathy and  active listening is not enough.  We must also teach critical thinking and intellectual humility if we are to truly bridge the gap.

    About Bridging

    Bridging refers to the intentional effort to reduce toxic polarization by fostering understanding, empathy, and communication between individuals or groups with differing political views. It aims to build connections and discover our shared humanity, ultimately bridging the gaps that divides people along ideological lines.