Healing a hyperpartisan world

Winning an election is one thing, getting things done in the face of a determined and powerful opposition is something else entirely. Following last week’s US, Jonathan Haidt chimed in with the pundits bemoaning a divided nation, saying the country has gone beyond partisanship into hyperpartisanship. This state is one in which “our leaders can’t even occasionally place national interest before party interest.”

Haidt, the author of The Righteous Mind, suggests that “common threats rather than common ground” can bring people together to take action. Unfortunately, it seems that those who exist on the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum can’t seem to agree on what those threats are. To remedy that, Haidt suggests that we not focus on the individual threats, but: look up into the sky and see a whole fleet of asteroids heading for us, we lose our tunnel vision and experience a healthy form of panic.

If the results of behavioural studies on the subject of climate and risk are applicable, then Haidt is wrong on this. Confronted by “a fleet of threats” humans are more likely to panic, shut down, and deny the reality they face.

Take away the fleet of asteroids theory, and I think Haidt would agree with Salon.com writer Andre O’Hehir. The left, or the “secular-multicultural-communitarian-internationalist-environmentalist faction” as he calls it, needs to find a way to empathize with the fears of their political opposites because, “ an angry, declining minority that believes itself oppressed can be an unstable and dangerous phenomenon.”

Within the political system and within the media, that might be easier said than done - both thrive on opposition. Hurricane Sandy proved that disaster forces people to rise above ideology, but we can’t rely on disaster to force a healthier form of dialogue. What we can do is find the lessons those moment of inter-partisan collaboration, and find a way to practice those lessons whenever possible.

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