THERE WERE LOTS OF THINGS TO BE WORRIED ABOUT regarding this week’s mid-term election south of the border. In many ways it didn’t matter which party won what because we have seen this film before and the ultimate losers are citizens themselves. The partisan squabbles will only be magnified and the run-up to the next presidential election will be painful to watch.
Perhaps the most sinister portent of all wasn’t about who prevailed but who didn’t show up. Only 38% of voters filled out their ballots, reminding us yet again that politics continues on at the same time as democracy is in danger of dying.
But it’s not merely about the political class and how they just seem bent towards destroying one another; it also concerns citizens and how they appear pre-programmed in their choices.
As if to affirm this reality, New York University is undertaking research on how our brains appear to be hardwired for partisanship. The leader of the team, Jay Van Bavel, put it this way:
“Once you trip this wire, this trigger, this cue, that you are a part of ‘us-versus-them,’ it’s almost like the whole brain becomes re-coordinated in how it views people.”
Through the use of MRI research, Bavel discovered that when it comes to politics the brain regions used to empathize with others aren’t nearly as active when we see the face of someone who is from the opposite side of the political fence. Kind as we may be, tolerant as we might have become, those who are politically active nevertheless lose those qualities far more quickly the moment we encounter a person from the other team.
The research team discovered that even those individuals of opposing views who have never met one another before immediately feel their anger rise and their “opinion meter” rattle on at full throttle. Somewhat surprisingly, they discovered that those tested even experienced pleasure while beholding the pain of those with opposite political opinions.
Bavel thinks this tendency towards partisanship is the result of evolution, where groups survived by besting others desiring the same resources. This helps us to understand why ancient tribes went to war, but in a sophisticated modern democracy it spells serious trouble when the essence of modern life is supposed to be about compromise.
The moment that partisan side of our brain kicks in, it naturally begins pre-filtering facts to suit our purpose, even if the data isn’t true or justified. Again, in Bavel’s words, partisanship of this kind “breaks our brains.”
But its effects are worse than that: it breaks our communities, rendering them increasingly dysfunctional. Partisanship triumphs while democracy decays. If the essence of the democratic experience is attempting to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we should disagree with it, in order to reach compromise, then disqualifying others right from the start makes progress impossible. It all just becomes about one side besting the other – hardly one of the finer traits of functional civilization.
This biggest problem with this recurring situation is the disillusionment it creates within those who don’t harbour such personal biases. Put simply: they pull out, leaving the ballot box to those delighting in the combat. Which means that friction will inevitably beget friction. Some like that kind of political contact sport; most don’t. Pre-programmed brains most often blind partisans to the fact that the majority of fellow citizens are checking out when they should be engaging for the sake of community. Differences are one thing; blindness is another.
At some point democracy itself could become irrevocably lost if our public world is left to the sole property of those who treasure war over peace. And try as hard as they may, political parties have not yet discovered the ability to cooperate together for the sake of better policymaking and more functional communities.
Nevertheless, Bavel and his team, while still in the midst of their research, are discovering some reasons for hope. What would happen if we as citizens came to understand this penchant within us and began working on ourselves to the point where we stay in a situation long enough to understand the other point of view, whether or not we agreed? Would that not be some measure of victory? Indeed it would. And the best place to build that kind of patience and understanding is in our cities, where political parties have less of an impact and where we work, travel, play, worship, and learn together in real-time. We don’t sit across an aisle from one another and lob political grenades; we actually ride the same buses, attend the same restaurants, work with other parents on our kids’ sports teams, celebrate Canada Day together, and grieve in common over the sense of loss.
In other words, real life can save us from the manufactured one politics can create. Instead of being an end in itself, shared political responsibility could be the ongoing process where we build together despite our distinctions, or maybe even because of them.
Perhaps Carl Jung’s insight is more prescient now than ever: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” And if that understanding can lead us to a functional kind of tolerance, then politics can again be useful.