Political Divides Leave Us Wondering Why

We are perplexed about why we are so divided

Our political divisions are perplexing, leaving us to ask, “Why?” Quick answers come to mind that point to ideologies, policies, loyalties and more. Still, it seems there is an underlying motivator that pulls us apart and gives us the resolve to stand our ground. Division erupts on the world stage, in our domestic politics, and with our families and friends – at home.


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I recently came across an interview of Sheldon Solomon, a professor of psychology at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. The interview was conducted by Deborah Alecson and published in the April edition of The SUN, a favorite magazine of mine. The interview provides a theory that may be worth our consideration.

Death anxiety forms our cultural meaning

Solomon begins by referencing Ernest Becker, author of the 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Denial of Death.” Our divisions begin from our individual core perspectives about our own death. Becker tells us that:

We buffer our anxiety about death by cultivating self-esteem, which isn’t simply feeling good about yourself. It’s the sense that the world has meaning — a meaning that is defined by our culture. When we act in ways that reinforce our cultural views, whether liberal or conservative, religious or secular, we increase our self-esteem and decrease our anxiety about death.

Solomon explains:

Becker says what humans do, quite ingeniously, to manage that existential terror is to embrace “cultural worldviews” — a set of values and beliefs that we share with other people. These reduce our anxiety by providing a sense that the world has meaning and that, by embodying these values, we can play a valuable role in the world. Becker calls this belief that you’re a person of value in a world of meaning “self-esteem.”

We get our values from our culture.

Our beliefs divide us

Solomon further explains why people can’t get along with others who don’t share their beliefs:

Becker’s view is that accepting someone else’s beliefs undermines my confidence in my own. Therefore … when we run into people with different beliefs, we will try to convince them to adopt ours, and if that doesn’t work, we will denigrate them or even kill them.

Solomon points to an interesting finding from his studies:

When we remind Americans that they’re going to die, conservatives become more suspicious of people, and liberals become more open-minded and tolerant. … they work to bolster confidence in their existing worldviews.

Existential threats tend to make people double down on core beliefs.

How can we narrow the divide?

What can we do with this insight? Solomon advises:

I think we need to redefine who we are as human beings. Right now we’re in an atmosphere of increasing polarization and fragmentation. If humans are to stay alive, we need to become more connected and interdependent. We have to start believing we are in this together, because we are naturally very helpful — even heroic and altruistic — toward members of our own group. If at all possible, we must see ourselves as members of one giant family. That may sound corny, but I know from experiments that if we say to people, “We are more alike than we are different,” and then remind them they’re going to die, they aren’t as quick to hate somebody who’s different.

He further explains we need to be humble. Quoting one of his colleague’s students (Pelin Kesebir), we are told:

A humble person is first and foremost capable of tolerating an honest look at the self and nondefensively accepting weaknesses alongside strengths. This does not represent a sense of inferiority or self- denigration, but rather a lack of self-aggrandizing biases. The propensity for seeing the self in true perspective is typically accompanied by an awareness of the self’s smallness in the grand scheme of things.

Solomon adds an optimistic view:

I think humility is going to play a big role in [our] psychology moving forward, as will gratitude. … Philosophers and theologians have long emphasized the value of gratitude, and this is now buttressed by research.

I find it to be one of the most uplifting directions of our research. Be humble. Be grateful. It’s good for you. It’s good for the world.

Certainly, this is not easy to accept. Yet, the perspective gives us a wider view of our world, who we are and our place in it. The humility and gratitude Solomon calls for can teach us to more clearly see the meaning in our lives and those of others. It’s a shift in values that admits, even welcomes, perspectives that allow others to have fuller lives lived side-by-side with us.

Political divisions surround the voting process

Such a view can help dissolve the fears and defensiveness that currently surround our voting process. For example, we must protect the integrity of voting, certainly; but we also must enable voters’ access to the ballot box. Voter suppression should be as abhorrent to our democracy as is voting fraud.

Equal Voice Voting (EVV), a simple voting approach, stops the presidential election disenfranchisement but can only be realized if:

We are willing to acknowledge the voting sentiments of others.

It can be done but the shift, the real work, begins with us – not external politics. We can come to realize that:

All Votes Matter!

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By Jerry Spriggs and the Equal Voice Voting Team