The Emotional Psychology of a Two-Party System

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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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.

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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.

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.

On the emotional front, splitting comes into play when we feel hostile toward the people we love. Holding onto feelings of love in the presence of anger and even hatred is a difficult thing for most of us to do. Sometimes hatred proves so powerful that it overwhelms and eclipses love, bringing the relationship to an end. More often we repress awareness of our hostile feelings; or we might split them off and direct them elsewhere, away from the people we care about.

In other words, splitting as a psychological defense mechanism resolves emotional ambivalence -- love and hatred toward the same person -- by splitting off one half of those feelings and directing them elsewhere, away from the loved one.

One of the helpful functions of society is to provide us with outlets for that anger -- to identify places where it's okay to feel and express (split off) aggression, even hatred. Consider the uses of professional sports, for example, where most spectators identify with one team or competitor and wish to crush the opponent. Not only does this provide a needed outlet for competitive urges, it also allows us to channel many aggressive feelings away from our intimate relationships and express them in a safer context.

Warfare, with an identified enemy combatant, may also serve the same function, providing a sanctioned outlet for our aggression. In times of war, splitting becomes powerfully evident: people at home "come together" more easily, put differences aside and unite against the common enemy. For a time, it can create a sense of domestic harmony and unification, especially important when confronting an existential threat from the outside.

On the other hand, if we make use of splitting to gin up hatred against a two-dimensional Other, we undermine our ability to think. The enemy is rarely as monochromatically evil as governments like to portray; the other side often has legitimate complaints against us we might do well to heed. Fomenting hatred rather than encouraging rational thought may lead us into ill-considered wars we later come to regret.

In politics, to the extent our parties rely more on splitting and hatred than appeals to thought, they create a wartime atmosphere on the domestic front. We are good, the other side is bad, and we hate them. Preoccupied with vilifying the opposition, we're unable to perceive both sides of an issue and find a way to accommodate them both, albeit imperfectly. Pursuing total victory takes precedence over problem-solving.

None of this is new, of course. Richard Hofstadter long ago identified the "paranoid style" in American politics, tracing it back to the earliest days of the Republic. According to Hofstadter, the politician who speaks from the paranoid perspective "does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish."

Such a Manichean world view is the result of splitting: the gray middle ground gives way to absolute black and white, and hatred toward the other side keeps the split in place. If Hofstadter's description sounds depressingly familiar, it's because the paranoid style is alive and well in America. A hostile fight-to-the-finish mentality holds sways and the capacity for constructive thought has been its primary victim.

You can find evidence of this all-or-nothing wartime approach just about any time you tune into the political news cycle. Right now, we hear it in the blame game surrounding the sequester as we once again approach the debt ceiling. Speaker Boehner insists that "the revenue issue is now closed" and further cuts to the budget are the only way forward. While not as unequivocal as Boehner, Leader Pilosi periodically announces that direct cuts to benefits are "off the table."

Much of this is political posturing, of course, as each side speaks to its base and tries to stake out the most advantageous position in future negotiations. Still, the strident my-way-or-the-highway rhetoric makes future compromise exceedingly difficult. How can you return to your troops and admit you ceded ground without sounding like a traitor? After denouncing the enemy, how can you go back to your base and acknowledge that the other side might have some valid points?

After fomenting hatred in your supporters, splitting complex reality into simple black and white, how can you possibly ask them to think?

This post is adapted from Why Do I Do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape our Lives.