Two Teams, No Winners: Can Americans Let Go Of Partisanship?

There are 10 seconds to go, and it’s not looking good.

Seemingly untouchable in the first half, the Minnesota Vikings are now down by one point against the New Orleans Saints — and I’m getting nervous. Not because I’m particularly passionate about them winning, but because I know my boyfriend Matt will sink into temporary depression if they lose this playoff game.

…Of course, at the time, I didn’t know they would get stomped the following week, but I digress…

As you may know, miraculously, a Vikings player leaps into the air for the ball, and barely holding it together he sprints to the end zone, snagging a touchdown just as the clock runs out. Even I had to admit it was pretty awesome.

And then came the phone call from Matt:

“Oh my god I can’t believe it! We won! I was so sad, and then I was, like, losing my mind, and then we won! I think I’m having a heart attack or something! I can’t even explain this feeling right now and I’m freaking out and — I have to go.”

Click.

Ironically, while watching the end of the game and receiving this call, I was in the middle of reading an article titled, “The psychology of why sports fans see teams as extensions of themselves.”

I’m sure you know sports fans like this if you aren’t one yourself. And you had to notice Matt’s use of the word “we.” He didn’t say “the Vikings won!” he said, “we won.”  This view, where he sees himself as part of their team and them as part of his, to the point where his emotions are so intense they can actually mimic those of the players, can also be seen in politics today.

Whenever a particular party promotes legislation, it’s common to hear people talk about it in terms of “us” versus “them.”

We did it!” – or, if on the other side of the aisle, “They are going to run this country into the ground.”

You may even know people who, after the 2016 presidential election, seemed to sink into a slump if they were strong Hillary or Bernie supporters, or who were riding on a high for months if they were especially fond of Trump.

Psychologists can explain this tendency by explaining “in-groups,” which are groups of people who share the same interests or identity. Someone’s in-group may be a pro sports team, it may be kittens, it may be “The Walking Dead.” They can immediately connect with people over these things, feel safe, and determine them to be “on their team.” This same psychology applies to politics of course, which is part of the reason why polarization exists; People like to be around people who are like themselves.

This will always be true.

However, in our country, this preference for in-groups became more extreme in the past few decades. According to data from the Pew Research Center, political polarization changed considerably since the 1980s, with people increasingly moving from the middle to either the right or left.

political polarization changed considerably since the 1980s, with people increasingly moving from the middle to either the right or left.

Considering picking teams is our nature, it got me thinking: Is the idea of a nonpartisan society even in the cards for us? Do people want to reel back their passion for rivalry in favor of focusing on issues and solutions rather than the party? Is there even a difference, given that parties formed for the very reason of connecting and bringing together like-minded people?

THE TRANSITION TO PARTISAN

People have not always been so separated. It’s really just in the past 40 years that parties have become clearly divided, causing gridlock in Washington which led to vitriol across the country. There is no cut and dry answer as to why, but there have been several events that can help explain it.

  1. America is pretty new at this whole “being a country” thing, and we are going to go through periods of being more connected and more divided as we figure it all out. China, which established sovereignty in 1800 BC, has had thousands of years to work out the kinks. That isn’t to say that time is the answer, but it’s definitely part of the equation of learning life’s lessons. And while America is one of the oldest established democracies, our size and cultural diversity complicate things compared to other European countries established hundreds of years earlier.
  2. The advent of Super PACs and changes to how Congress functions gradually forced representatives to follow the money, versus working across parties to create meaningful change. Politicians have always had to rely on the financial support of others. But as the country became more divided and billions of additional dollars flowed into campaigns once Super PACs were legalized in 2010, the ones with deep pocketbooks are making more extreme demands of their representatives. Seemingly small changes to Congress, such as fewer politicians living amongst each other in Washington and eliminating seniority rules for committee seats, may also contribute to a “party first” mindset versus negotiation and compromise.
  3. Television and technology advancements opened up a world of knowledge for the public to consume, but as ratings and viewers increasingly dictate dollars and power, tech pandered to the people and what they want to hear. A goal of this news site is to offer a nonpartisan take on political issues, not to stir up emotion and further validate someone’s beliefs or values – but there are many sites, shows, and channels that work to do just that. Because there are so many takes that claim to be the truth, people are more skeptical than ever of each other, which can lead to even more distrust, conspiracy and polarization.

As Americans increasingly align with one side or the other, the hopes of productive conversations that involve empathic listening and allow space for views to shift lessen.

THE SOCIOLOGY AND PSYCHOLOGY BEHIND POLITICAL BELIEF 

Was it the chicken or the egg that came first?

When it comes to political belief there are various theories around whether sociology or psychology is the ultimate determiner – sociology being the outside factors including family and experience that impacts thought, and psychology being how the brain functions and is structured.

In the book “American Government and Politics in the Information Age,” family, school, peer group, media, group differences, and political generations are seen as the most influential outside, sociological factors that contribute to forming one’s political belief system.

If someone grows up in a family that is particularly passionate about politics, they are more likely to also be passionate and involved as they grow older. But even for those who grow up in households that are politically neutral or passive, peer groups, media, their political generation or school – especially college – can spark interest or beliefs.

Group differences can also be a substantial divider in political activity as wealthy people, who have more means, time and dollars to put towards anything of their choice are more likely to be politically involved than those who do not have these means.

Some studies hint there may even be structural differences in brain structure between those who describe themselves as liberal or conservative. To be sure, more research is needed around this, but additional findings could help us better understand why and how someone picks a side.

Depending on how you grow up and what sorts of experiences you have, there are also mental processes that help further validate these beliefs:

  • Anchoring is relying heavily on the first piece of evidence you find that validates your beliefs.
  • The halo effect is viewing things you believe in a favorable light and things you don’t like in an unfavorable light.
  • Confirmation bias is looking for information that confirms your views and unconsciously disregarding information that disproves what you believe.

Why are we “guilty” of these things? Because we’re human beings, and if we could we’d simply preach to the choir all day long surrounded by those who value what we do. Having our beliefs challenged can be an uncomfortable, even painful process to go through if we’re willing to hear the other side out and understand they may be right.

But, it’s hard for us to admit we might be wrong, isn’t it?

SO, DO PEOPLE WANT NONPARTISAN SOCIETY?

In today’s political climate, and just weeks after a short government shutdown (or days after a mini one), it might seem like no, people don’t — or at the very least our representatives aren’t doing their best to compromise.

The United States can’t continue to function as it’s meant to if we can’t find a way to come to an agreement on issues dividing our country, such as immigration or healthcare.

But, there might be some hope out there:

  1. It’s necessary. The United States can’t continue to function as it’s meant to if we can’t find a way to come to an agreement on issues dividing our country, such as immigration or healthcare.
  2. Moderates still make up the majority, as they have for many years. In fact, the most recent numbers from Gallup’s party affiliation poll which has been running since 2004 shows that 44 percent of Americans consider themselves to be Independent. Yes, this has not shown recently in terms of elected officials, but there are many hurdles that are holding Independents back from being elected, including not garnering enough votes from the public who are overwhelmed by major party stances and being expected to caucus for one side or the other, effectively wrapping them into the Democratic or Republic pool.
  3. People are beginning to demand change after seeing the problems that new media, including social media, and biased coverage of politics create. In January, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced the company would work harder to make interactions more meaningful so that “time spent on Facebook is time well spent.” We’ve also seen news agency reflect on their coverage this past election cycle as many of them so wrongly predicted the 2016 election results. The majority remain especially focused on the White House, and many are likely biased, but as public trust continues to erode in the press, agencies will need to sort out how they can better serve citizens.

WHERE DO WE START?

Everyone thinks they’re the good guy.

If you can understand that, you’re going to be a lot better off. Even if you vehemently disagree with who you may deem as the “bad guy,” if you can use that team mentality to your advantage to empathize with their view, you can understand that they, just like you, think that their way is the answer, and they want to win.

1. We’re all wrong sometimes, and we need to own it

Robb Willer, a social psychologist puts it best in his Ted Talk, “How to have better political conversations” by emphasizing empathy and respect as the main tools to tap when speaking with someone you disagree with, as well as trying to understand the moral values that influence someone’s views.

Part of having productive conversations around politics is accepting that you might be wrong — that yes, you did assume X, Y, or Z was true simply because you wanted it to be, or because it came from a source you trust and respect. Beyond just accepting this, which can be embarrassing, you also need to admit it, out loud, and to the person you are speaking with.

There are proven methods that make an admittance of wrongdoing and apology more likely to be accepted, helping to strengthen a relationship rather than causing additional conflict:

  1. Admit you’re wrong
  2. Offer to make it better

Not necessarily easy, but simple.

2. Part of owning it is understanding your biases

Make it a point to increase your awareness around how you think about and respond to political statements or news, as well as how you go about searching for it. In those moments, remember what anchoring, the halo effect, and confirmation bias are and actively challenge them.

Seek to understand more, rather than to prove a point. When you feel the need to put someone in their place, step back for a moment and decide to ask why they view something the way that they do and be sincerely interested in their response. Choose to deescalate and connect, understanding that just because you think something is right doesn’t mean someone else should.

3. Look at the bigger picture, and take a chill pill

With an endless news cycle, we are bombarded with seemingly life-or-death stories that can create strong emotional responses along party lines, making it more difficult than ever to keep a straight head when it feels like the world is ending every single day.

For your own mental health, zoom out and avoid obsessing over the day’s biggest headline. Chances are there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it aside from worrying, anyway. Yesterday there was a headline just as crazy, and you’re still kicking it, aren’t you?

This isn’t to say that everything’s just going to sort itself out without taking action and standing up for what you think is right. It is to say, however, that we could all be a bit more strategic about how much energy we put into worrying about the fate of our country and how much time we spend staring at screens.

Don’t let political happenings, which are at most a short-term discomfort and at least an infinitesimal blip in the universe, steal too much of your joy and precious time.

WE ARE THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Parties formed with the intent of uniting us, and it worked — too well, you could say.

Regardless of this, we all want to live in a country we can be proud of, that we love and believe is doing the best job it can to provide us all with a chance at doing something great in this world.

It makes sense for each of us to be fighting so hard for what we believe is important, but we have to remember that beyond our preferred team, all of us, collectively, are a team too. And if we refuse to acknowledge to each other, we can’t function and we’re never going to win.

And one thing we can all get behind? None of us want America to end up the loser.

This column was written by Kylie Gumpert

Kylie has a background in journalism and is currently working for a nonprofit in Omaha. For a long time she had a hard time understanding politics, and while she still does, she’s grown increasingly interested in how divided people have become and what values and ideas drive them to such strong beliefs. She’s also passionate about media literacy and ensuring people have the skills they need to discern “fake” news from what is hopefully the truth. Most importantly, in the case of an apocalyptic event she would be just fine eating nachos for the rest of her life. You can reach her at [email protected]