Election 2016: Politics in the age of polarization

By Saybrook University

mass of people walking

In an ideal world, democracy is conducted in a civil manner with the rights of individuals respected and preserved. But the behavior of politicians and voters alike in the months leading up to the current presidential election has been anything but civil.

As the often raucous public debates between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump have come to a close, we turned to two of Saybrook University’s most prominent humanistic voices—legendary Dr. Stanley Krippner and noted author Dr. Kirk Schneider—to discuss the political fractures that have divided our society.

With the election just days away, these Saybrook luminaries were eager to offer their analysis of from a humanistic psychology perspective.

Our round table discussion opened with some sage words of perspective from Dr. Krippner himself: “Humanistic behavior has many components, two of which are respect and humor.”

SAYBROOK: Ah yes, humor. We often forget that. How have you seen these things play out in the current campaigns?

KRIPPNER: Neither candidate did so well with the humor part, but there was one brief moment of respect. At the end of the second debate when the moderator asked each candidate if they could make a positive statement about their rival, Clinton praised Trump’s children—and justifiably so. Trump granted that Clinton was a fighter who never gives up. That was the most humanistic part of all three debates.

SAYBROOK: That’s not saying a lot though, is it?

SCHNEIDER: Not at all. The debates have been glaring examples of polarization, where inflammatory accusations, sweeping generalizations, and “us/them” extremes are dominant, whereas deliberative, more personally secure attempts at engagement with substantive issues have been muted. That said, the debates still provide a vital function of giving the American people a vivid sense of their candidates as people, and hence their inclinations to act as the people they show themselves to be. It is evident to me as both citizen and psychologist that our candidates, as with our country, are in deep emotional trouble. Without the right treatment or intervention, this will only intensify their polarization, and hence likelihood of destructiveness.

This country, and much of the world, needs an army of deeply attuned psychological facilitators of dialogue—as much if not more than its present army of military combatants. To the extent we ignore that imperative, we edge ever closer to self and world extinction. It’s that serious.

KRIPPNER: Yes, it is serious. Kirk’s book, The Polarized Mind, spells it out loud and clear.

SAYBROOK: How has that concept of the polarized mind played out in this election?

SCHNEIDER: The polarized mind operates on both an individual and societal level. It seems to me that Donald Trump and many of the constituents he reflects have been on parallel paths of perceived disenfranchisement, depersonalization, and outrage for a very long time. They form an almost perfect storm of anti-establishment fervor that resonates with a very notable swath of American electorate, some liberals notwithstanding.

KRIPPNER: Of course Trump continues to garner support. His hard-core supporters have had it with both the Democratic and GOP establishment. Republicans are in control of the House and the Senate, yet are governing no differently than did Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

SCHNEIDER: The problem is that, as with many fear-based movements throughout history both liberal and conservative, there is a tendency to become militant, single issue stakeholders in reaction—to throw the baby out with the bathwater and to block out alternative points of view. It is very hard to be deliberative when one is in a panic, and it seems to me that Trump and many of his supporters are living out a low-level panic that manifests as defensive, reactive militancy. In Trump’s case, this militancy has too often exacerbated into reckless imperiousness.

On the other hand, at a deeper level, I think our social structures have also failed Trump, his followers, and most of us living in this world. As a society we have placed too little premium on the humanistic practices, such as “I Thou” dialogues that could counter or at least delimit polarized mentalities. As a result, we too often feed the very polarizations that we later decry. We have done this in family settings, job sites, religious and spiritual settings, and international-governmental settings, wherever polarized minds prevail. Hence, it is no wonder that we have so many polarizing and outraged citizens, they/we have had very few models of depolarized leadership.

KRIPPNER: Kirk is on target. Neither Trump nor Clinton are examples of “I Thou” dialogue. Clinton does better than Trump, but she ranted on and on during the third debate, often veering far away from the question. When Bill Clinton said “I feel your pain,” most people tended to believe him. They could forgive his womanizing because he was able to communicate.

SAYBROOK: Low-level panic is the right word for the mood right now, with the election just days away. How did we get to this point?

KRIPPNER: This country has been politically fractured for years. At most, 60 percent of the population votes in presidential elections. Those missing 40 percent are finally making some noise. And many of them are going to vote for Trump. Many others have given up on the political process and will not vote at all. They say “a plague on both your houses.”

SCHNEIDER: Exactly, and that again speaks to the historical dynamics of the polarized mind. Many people today feel that they don’t count. They have been disenfranchised economically, racially, and religiously. But added to these experiences of devaluation is the too little recognized depersonalization of our socio-economic system, which tends to prize profits over personally and socially meaningful service or innovation—which frankly, for many people in many sectors of our society, is a physical and emotional grind. As long as we prize the “quick fix,” efficiency-oriented culture, we will be operating at a very devitalized and emotionally volatile level.

SAYBROOK: What needs to happen from here? How will we move forward after this election is over?

SCHNEIDER: In the long run, we urgently need the equivalent of a public works program of psychologically attuned facilitators and mediators to help humanize the many fractured groups and individuals in our polarized world. This is needed at the level of education, the work setting, the spiritual and religious setting, and the communal/governmental setting.

In the short term, pilot studies could be done with the few courageous souls on contrasting sides of issues who would be willing to engage in such a personal, competently facilitated encounter. The results may not be some storybook idea of peace or harmony, but are likely to be notable in their facilitation of greater personal understanding, empathy, and increased probability for common ground.

KRIPPNER: I am very pessimistic at this point. But Kirk’s suggestion of psychologically attuned facilitators is actually being tried in Beijing, China, where 500 psychologists are being trained to improve the mental health of the city. I do not think Congress would ever appropriate money for the public works program Kirk calls for, but I suggest the new administration and the new Congress revive President George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light”. They could keep that title to insure bipartisan support, and then recognize and reward programs that engage in these encounters.

SAYBROOK: Any final thoughts or observations on these candidates or the election at hand?

KRIPPNER: Yes, I have one final point, and that is that humanistic psychology does not label people. Donald Trump is called a narcissist, but how can someone diagnose a person without knowing that person? One can say that he engages in narcissistic behavior, and that is as far as we can go.

In the same way, Clinton has been called a pathological liar. Again, that is a diagnosis. If a statement of hers failed verification, that is fair game. And if  several statements do not match the facts, that should be brought to voters’ attention. But humanistic psychology would opt out of at-a-distance diagnoses.

SCHNEIDER: Thanks very much for your rejoinder, Stan. I see your point about labeling, and humanism is right to be very circumspect about it. On the other hand, our dilemma is that so many through history who have been labeled mentally ill have been the poor and powerless, while others who have been many times more destructive—in politics, religion, and even professions, have not only been spared of such disparaging labels but actually celebrated. The whole thing is rather topsy turvy.

Partly my idea of a polarized mind is a provocation for all of us to think more seriously about the potentially destructive traits we all harbor and to call them out—particularly when the stakes are high both individually and collectively. As long as we go about this in a comparatively egalitarian way, we’ll be in a better position to address our problems holistically rather than from whatever parochial standpoint seems to be in fashion.