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Can a Politically Divided America Become More Tolerant?

Update Date: Jun 15, 2017 09:45 PM EDT

In an era of extreme political partisanship, it may be useful to turn to psychology for some perspective.

Right before the 2016 presidental election, NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt gave a TedTalk about why the country is so politically divided at this point in history, and why the rhetoric is so strong compared to previous elections. He drew upon the principles of moral psychology to inform his answers.

One reason Haidt believes people are so politically divided is a very primitive instinct in human nature towards tribalism. Tribalism developed to create large societies and in order to compete with others. Haidt quotes the Bedouin proverb as an example, "Me against my brother; my brother against our cousin; me and my brother and cousins against the stranger." However, in modern society, people display acts of tribal behavior in very organized ways, such as through sports, and of course politics.

What varies is the size of the tribe, which changes and flows depending on social, cultural and socio-political circumstances. Haidt identifies two main political groups, the left and right, and traces their analogous parties throughout history, such as labor vs. capital, working class and Marx. One group, more parochial-minded, is more loyal to their community and nation, while the other group is "anti-parochial", more in support of global governance and eradicating borders and walls between people.

This leads to a very specific and concrete issue which is at the heart of the moral and political divide today in the U.S. and Europe: immigration. Most people would agree, it's a very sensitive issue, as Haidt says:

Diversity is good in a lot of ways. It clearly creates more innovation. The American economy has grown enormously from it. Diversity and immigration do a lot of things. But what the globalists, I think, don't see, what they don't want to see, is that ethnic diversity cuts social capital and trust.

Citing a study on social capital databases, Haidt says that when people feel they are the same, the more they trust each other, and the more they can have a redistributionist welfare state, such as what we see in Scandinavian countries. While it is good in a moral sense for a country to be open to immigrants, realistically (although perhaps not politically correct to say), it's going to cut social capital, which might result in a "racially divided, visibly racially divided, society," according to Haidt. Furthermore, it is not necessarily divided racially, but culturally as well. 

Haidt also draws upon the work of political scientist Karen Stenner, whose work indicates that if you instill a sense in people that society is coming apart and people are becoming more different, they get more "racist, homophobic, they want to kick out the deviants. So it's in part that you get an authoritarian reaction."

The parties are thus divided based on a fundamental belief of human nature. Haidt argues that the left generally believes that human nature is good and bringing all people together is moral. The right, or social conservatives, believe that deep down people can be "sexual, selfish and greedy, and we need regulation, and we need restrictions."

What is the solution, then? Rather than treating each other or the other side with "disgust", an emotion which Haidt studies and which President Trump seems to experience a lot of (e.g. a Tweet about Hillary Clinton: "Crooked Hillary dedication page. Disgusting!"), we can embrace empathy, and ultimately, love. As Haidt says:

The opposite of disgust is actually love. Disgust is closing off borders. Love is about dissolving walls. So personal relationships, I think, are probably the most powerful means we have.

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