The Emotional Psychology of a Two-Party System

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Defense mechanisms against emotional ambivalence incline us to fully embrace one side and fully reject the other -- which makes compromise nearly impossible.

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REL Waldman/Flickr

Last summer in Colorado, I pulled into a filling station behind a pickup truck with political stickers on its rear bumper and window. One sticker showed a red-hued Obama and gave this warning: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid. Another displayed a green hammer and sickle, with this ominous message: Green is the New Red.

Communist Russia used to be Americans' enemy -- over there, across the Atlantic -- but for a large sector of the public, the enemy has now appeared within our borders: President Obama, who supposedly wants to install a communist regime here in the United States; liberal environmentalists who'll tyrannize over the rest of us if we're not vigilant. America seems to be engaged in yet another war, but in this one, both sides to the conflict are domestic.

During wartime, governments often make use of propaganda to instill fear and hatred in their citizens, mobilizing them against an existential threat. On the domestic warfront, our political parties rely on similar methods to stir up their respective bases. The right in particular makes use of rhetoric more suited to wartime, rallying its troops against the liberal War on Marriage, War on Family Values, War on Freedom, etc. The supposed Republican War on Women was a rallying cry for the left during the last election.

Such rhetoric reflects a black-and-white, us-versus-them approach that views each debate over taxation, social policy and the role of government not as a problem in need of a solution but a battle within an ongoing war. During warfare, our aim is of course to vanquish the enemy and emerge victorious; to reach out to your enemy makes you a villainous collaborator, a traitor to your cause. On the right, anyone with the temerity to suggest that Obama and the Democrats have some redeeming qualities is likely to be attacked from within the party. Just ask Chris Christie.

4195885445_494512b943_zinset.jpgREL Waldman/Flickr

Propaganda during wartime typically dehumanizes the enemy. Our current political rhetoric likewise relies on two-dimensional caricatures to de-legitimize the opposition, encouraging us to hate "them." The process is more blatantly vocal on the political right, with the radio voices of conservatism inciting hatred for cartoon versions of President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, members of the liberal press, etc. Rush Limbaugh has gone so far as to compare Obama to Adolf Hitler, the epitome of unalloyed evil. While less obvious, the left has its own set of two-dimensional villains to hate: greedy and heartless bankers, evil corporations, gun-toting religious freaks.

For both sides, the Other often lacks true dimension. In propaganda, the enemy never has a legitimate point of view that needs to be taken seriously and balanced against our own views. Hating an enemy leaves no room for complex, ambiguous problems without an obvious solution. It eliminates the uncomfortable tension that arises from doubt and uncertainty amidst difficult choices.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that the "test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Whether it's a question of intelligence, psychological maturity, or emotional capacity, there's little sign of such activity on the current political front. Instead, our parties encourage us to take refuge in one of those two opposing ideas and reject the other. Complex, ambiguous perspectives are shunned in favor of absolute, simplistic and immutable beliefs about right and wrong, good versus evil.

For the extreme right, each effort to legislate limits on gun ownership represents an ominous assault on that unquestionable good, the constitutional right to bear arms. Even universal background checks are an intolerable infringement: according to Ann Coulter, they would eventually lead to the confiscation of all weapons and the "extermination" of gun rights. Instead of responding with a reasoned argument, she stirs up fear of totalitarian overreach and incites hatred against Big Government.

Voices on the left sometimes employ similar tactics. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times compared Tea Partiers to suicide bombers. Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Washington Post argued that the Republican Party had "strapped a bomb" to the economy. Peter Goodman of The Huffington Post likened the debt debate to the Cuban missile crisis, "with the crucial difference being that we are the ones stacking up the nuclear warheads and threatening to detonate them on ourselves." Suicide bombers and nuclear terrorists are evil, of course, and you can't negotiate with an enemy bent on your destruction.

As the neurologist Robert Burton has noted , ambiguity or confusion is so difficult for many of us to bear that we instead retreat from it into a feeling of certainty, believing we know something without any doubts, even when we actually don't and often can't know. Those of us who have trouble with such discomfort often resort to black-and-white thinking instead. Rather than feeling uncertain or ambivalent, struggling with areas of gray, we reduce that complexity to either/or.

We may define one idea or point of view as bad (black) and reject it, aligning ourselves with the good (white) perspective. Feelings of anger and self-righteousness often accompany this process, bolstering our conviction that we are in the right and the other side in the wrong. Hatred for the rejected point of view keeps ambiguity and uncomfortable complexity from re-entering the field.

Hating an enemy leaves no room for complex, ambiguous problems without an obvious solution.

Black-and-white thinking reflects the psychological process known as splitting. When we feel unable to tolerate the tension aroused by complexity, we "resolve" that complexity by splitting it into two simplified and opposing parts, usually aligning ourselves with one of them and rejecting the other. As a result, we may feel a sort of comfort in believing we know something with absolute certainty; at the same time, we've over-simplified a complex issue.

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Joseph Burgo, PhD, is a psychotherapist and author of Why Do I Do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives and the forthcoming The Narcissist You Know.  He writes at After Psychotherapy and Psychology Today.

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