Election Conflict Got You Down? A Few Thoughts on Why We Do This Every Four Years
Have you had a conversation this election cycle with a person you think is sensible and then you learn who they’re voting for?
“How can any person actually vote for X?” we mutter and our respect for that other person may actually slip a notch. Replace X with the name of your least favored candidate.
It wasn’t always this way.
I remember as a boy how my parents would keep secret who they were going to vote for president, even from each other. Imagine that! They would playfully suggest that their votes would likely cancel each other out yet again. “Why do we even bother?” they’d joke. And then they’d put on their coats and go out and cast their ballot.
As a psychologist, all of this raises two questions for me. How did it get this bad? And when many of us don’t care that much for either candidate, why should we even bother?
The first question is complicated of course. Our two political instincts as a nation seem about equally divided. And we increasingly go to news sources or read Facebook posts that confirm what we were already thinking. Psychologists call this confirmation bias.
But a social psychologist named Jonathan Haidt thinks our political leanings run deeper than that. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt argues that progressives and conservatives are driven by two different sets of values. According to his research, progressives tend to be most moved by arguments of fairness and compassion towards others while conservatives tend to resonate to arguments of love of country and respect for authority. To that latter list, I might also add taking personal responsibility. It’s not that either group totally ignores any of these values just that different ones seem to carry greater weight.
While we may disagree on which values should take precedence in making the decisions our country faces, can we at least take a moment and agree that all five values are worthy of consideration?
Haidt tends to think that by adulthood our values are rather hard wired inside of us. He suggests we rationalize arguments to support what are for us core emotional ways of viewing the world. Another psychologist, Joshua Greene, argues in Moral Tribes that individual moral reasoning is more of a factor than Haidt thinks. But both agree the gulf between the two “tribes” is growing wider.
Few of us enjoy such conflicts and there is an understandable temptation to withdraw from the fray and simply not vote at all. Obviously the stakes are high this year, but I think there are also other important reasons to vote.
Unless you are in the military, there are relatively few times we as Americans take action that explicitly recognizes our responsibilities as citizens of this country. Filing our income taxes, however unpleasant that may be, is another. The scarcity of such moments of communal national action may be some of the reason we all too often forget our commitment to and solidarity with each other. Disasters draw us together, but that is something happening to us. Watching fireworks on the Fourth of July is largely for fun. Voting is our moment of taking charge of what will follow in our collective community.
When you go to vote this November, which I sincerely hope you do regardless of your political affiliation, look around at whom else is voting. Some are neighbors, others are strangers, but they all share with you a belief that some rights we ignore at our peril and some responsibilities we happily choose to embrace. They care what happens and so do you.
Enjoy that thought. Wear the sticker “I Voted” with pride, celebrating the fact that no one else knows how you voted, but only that you did. My parents would approve.
Mark Carlson-Ghost, PhD
Associate Professor at the Minnesota School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University