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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Partisan Politics Stunt American Youth

"Is there any way we can calmly, rationally,  and respectfully work out these competing ideas?  Are we even interested in trying?   Or are both the liberal notion of fairness as equality (people get the same basic rights and basic goods) and the conservative talk of fairness as desert (people get what they deserve), really just empty talk -- something that each side trots out to paper over and disguise their real motives and interests when they are pushed to defend themselves?

"I mean if you really want to have it all, what better way to defend yourself than to appeal to fairness as desert.   And if you really want to take something that belongs to somebody else and redistribute it, what better way to defend your self than by appeal to fairness as desert.  It’s as if the interest comes first, and the justification in terms of fairness is thought of post hoc to disguise the real interest.

"I suspect that there is some deep truth to that disturbing outlook.  I wouldn’t say that partisan politics is all based on pretense and false consciousness.  But I do think that all sorts of hidden and subterranean motives drive us to do the things we do. 

"And that’s why politics is so very unlike like reasoned philosophical arguments.  So very, very little of it is completely above board and transparent.  So very little of it deserves to be taken at face value.  And that’s precisely why we need to into the dark reaches of the human psyche if we really want to understand how partisan politics really works."

(Ken Taylor. "The Psychology of Partisan Politics." Philosophy Talk. 2013.)

In the quote, Ken Taylor, Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University and director of Stanford's interdisciplinary program in Symbolic Systems, addresses the psychology of partisan politics. It is an issue well worth our consideration during the presidential candidate campaigns.

Any young, impressionable person listening to the Republican debate can readily understand that all candidates -- Trump, Carson, Rubio, Cruz, Fiorina, and all the others  -- can agree upon one issue and one issue alone. That believe all of them share is that the country cannot risk another extension of President Obama by electing the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

And, yes, Democrat frontrunners are just as guilty of promoting partisanship over substance. So, I understand the necessity of promoting party lines.

But ...

The messages about politics in our beloved democracy that scream out at young America is that partisanship supersedes all else and that the opposing political party is the hated enemy. Period. Believe in the party without question – just vote for the candidate no matter who gets the nomination because the party, not the government which is comprised of members of both parties, represents all of what you must believe.

Is it any wonder our youth grow up now with a conviction to choose party lines over facts and logical progressive understandings? And, after the election, they are subjected to watching a continuum of uncooperative members of Congress -- Republicans and Democrats --  become gridlocked with very little dedication to working out bipartisan solutions to problems that affect all Americans?

Partisans Hate the Pain of Change

Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan says on a range of issues, partisans seem partial to their political loyalties over the facts. When those loyalties demand changing their views of the facts, he said, partisans seem willing to throw even consistency overboard.

Along with Jason Reifler at Georgia State University, Nyhan said, he's exploring the possibility that partisans reject facts because they produce cognitive dissonance -- the psychological experience of having to hold inconsistent ideas in one's head. Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

Nyhan explains ...

"When Democrats hear the argument that the president can do something about high gas prices, that produces dissonance because it clashes with the loyalties these voters feel toward Obama. The same thing happens when Republicans hear that Obama cannot be held responsible for high gas prices -- the information challenges their dislike of the president.

"Nyhan and Reifler hypothesized that partisans reject such information not because they're against the facts, but because it's painful. That notion suggested a possible solution: If partisans were made to feel better about themselves -- if they received a little image and ego boost -- could this help them more easily absorb the 'blow' of information that threatens their pre-existing views?"

(Shankar Vedantam. "Partisan Psychology: Why Do People Choose Political Loyalties Over Facts?" National Public Radio. May 09, 2012.)

Wow! Isn't this what most of us who are disgruntled with politics want? Despite which party sponsors what initiative, we wish our elected officials would forget about infighting and partisanship, consider all logical alternatives to issues, and work together to compromise and enact workable solutions. They cannot do this by being politically partisan egotists bent strictly on preserving party allegiance and reelection.

And, shouldn't we be teaching our young people the same – to readily accept information that challenges their pre-existing views and to use politics to forge positive changes that benefit the common good, not a select group of individuals. I believe this would would reinforce positive connotations about much-needed bipartisanship to institute a climate of care for all Americans.

Strengthening political effectiveness is grounded in the scientific study of human functioning. Susan G. Kerbel, consulting partner of Cognitive Policy Works who brings a wealth of insight into psychological theories and practices to the political world, says ...

“In its simplest form, it seems obvious: politics is about people, and so is psychology. Understanding the workings of the human heart and mind, it would seem, could only be an advantage in figuring out how to help people make a society that works better for them. All in all, not rocket science, I thought, to sort out the connection.

“Through the use of techniques, we reasoned, progressive values and messages could be articulated in a more effective manner; our policies could be given a fairer hearing by the public; and our democracy, economy, society, and culture could begin the lengthy and difficult process of being restored to more human and sustainable dimensions.”

(Susan G. Kerbel. "From the Couch to the Culture: How Psychological Analysis Can Strengthen the Progressive Agenda." Cognitive Policy Works. 2015.)

Isn't it distressing to find that most politicians are operating as part of the current system that has lost the recognition that civic life is about actual human beings? They seem to have lost the association between people and politics, and constantly divorce the two so efficiently with the aid of their stubborn partisanship.

Kerbel says, “Isn't this supposed to be the United States of America?  The united part seems to be endangered as we watch partisan politics play out in Washington.” Legislators agree only with members of their own party as to the strengths and weaknesses of most legislation.

Then, this adherence begins the ritual of dramatic disagreement across parties as to a bill's merits. If legislators believe that voting with their own political party and against the opposition is more important than seriously considering the merits of the bill, they are putting partisan politics ahead of the national interest.

What Dads and Moms Teach

We raise our children to be respectful of all others and all of their diverse opinions. In doing so, we acknowledge the wide range of accepted opinions in our democracy. We want our sons and daughters to be skilled in critical thinking and wise in independent thought so that they can discern the issues with great skill while practicing open-minded esteem for others.

Yet, “with liberty and justice for all” just does not ring true when these same children watch politicians sell their souls to their parties and preach partisanship above all else. Then, when their parents swallow the Kool-Aid of strict party lines and begin to disrespect those with whom they disagree, the children learn that political sides demarcate “right” and “wrong.” The result is a new generation of indoctrinated citizens who reject the real, necessary “pain” of dissonance and choose to adhere stubbornly to the platform of one party and its extremely limited viewpoints.

Cross party and even inter-party attacks are so common that the political process resembles bloodletting more than statesmanship. John D. Mayer, Psychologist at the University of New Hampshire and author of the Mayer-Salovery-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, says …

“I am concerned that perhaps we have become a nation of people so disrespectful of one anothers' beliefs that we have lost the habit of respecting those with whom we disagree. Rather, we prefer to demean others so as make ourselves look better, or to amuse one another, or simply because it is so much easier than seeing the other person's point of view.

“If I were a member of the legislative branch and I truly, deeply respected those on the other side of the aisle, I believe I would be deeply disturbed by the sort of inter-party attacks and struggles that are currently taking place... What about their personal principles of respecting not only those with whom they agree, but also those with whom they disagree?”

(John D. Mayer. "On Partisan Politics." Psychology Today. February 15, 2009.)

The constant political spew of aggressive attack, witch-hunting, and dirty tricks is offensive to those who want officials to find common ground.

Mayer sums this up so well when he states ...

“What makes that (finding “common ground”) so challenging at the personal level, however, is that the best compromises often require us to question our own beliefs and our own ideas, to realize that we ourselves are as prone to be mistaken as the next person. Although such self-awareness is challenging, it allows us to better understand what is really more open to pragmatic negotiation than might first appear to be the case.”

My View

I remember how much fun we had in junior high during presidential elections. It seemed that everyone in school wore buttons of support for their candidates, participated in rowdy and opinionated debates, and enjoyed all the political hubbub that culminated in a highly contested mock election.

Without a doubt, partisan spirits ran high during our youth. We generally followed our parents' views, and voted for their choice of candidate. Still, after the election – no matter the result – our parents advised us to respect the office of the President of the United States as the elected leader of the free world. I think those of us who were losers did so grudgingly, but still the order came down.

Then, as we grew just a little older and developed a few more connections in our frontal cortex, the issues took center stage – it was the '60s and the time for ripe for exhilarating social changes and bold, new, political ideas.

Civil rights, voting rights, the Vietnam War, poverty, women's liberation, the space race, the cold war, the counterculture – it seemed suddenly a wave of issues swept into our young lives. It was a new frontier for us, and we mattered … a lot.

Soon, after high school, our campuses become a breeding ground for political activism. What politician took what stand on what issue? We wanted to know. Political parties? With names like Kennedy (John and Bobby), Johnson, McGovern, Nixon, Goldwater, Rockefeller, McCarthy, Humphrey, and Wallace the party lines took a backseat to the issues. Sure, candidates were backstabbing opposing parties, but very little seemed “black and white” about where the Democrats or the Republicans drew their lines of party allegiance.

I believe it is time to think about the significant reforms that took place when politicians still believed in the power of reconciliation, compromise, and needed reaction instead of government shutdown. Supporting a candidate or an issue shouldn't make us sworn enemies of the other political side. This division should make us work even harder to find common ground that benefits our nation. As bad as that feeling of partisanship may have been 50 years ago, I feel it is 50 times worse now. It's junior high; it's juvenile; it's downright ugly. We must teach our children well.

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