The Iowa Source October 2018
"We're right, you're wrong!"
by Julia Mandarino Ph.D.
Our political polarization, as marriage therapist Bill Doherty  has pointed out, is like a couple in crisis. From my own work with couples, I know that a hallmark of distressed couples is a breakdown in communication, with each partner spinning a one-sided story and blaming the other for their problems. If I listened to only one partner, I’d form a distorted picture of the relationship. Yet this distorted picture is what each partner tells their friends, who usually support their story without hearing the other side. If the couple separates, their circle of friends also separates into what’s called a “community divorce.”
Similarly, Americans have divided into opposing political groups, each blaming the other, and neither listening to the other. The resulting “social divorce” pits political groups against each other, with members associating exclusively with their own group. Yale law professor Amy Chua labels this mutual blaming and isolation as tribal: “. . . America is in the grip of political tribalism. We lament and condemn this phenomenon even as we voraciously engage in it.“ 
Psychologists have studied tribalism, a.k.a. “inter-group relations,” extensively. Forming groups, or tribes, is a natural human instinct. But distrust between tribes is also instinctive. Our tribe protects us; theirs threatens us. In this “us-versus-them” dynamic, each tribe maintains, “We’re right, they’re wrong. We do good, they do harm.” Further, tribal unity is strengthened by scorning the other group, along with anyone who speaks favorably of them. Without positive contact, stereotyping and prejudice are inevitable. 
History has shown how tribes can then spiral into bigotry, discrimination, and persecution.
Signs of political tribalism in today’s society are inescapable. Partisan media present one-sided stories, portraying their political opponents in a negative light. Meanwhile, social media enable us to isolate ourselves by blocking opposing viewpoints and anyone who holds them. People freely denounce and make jokes about members of the other tribe. Moreover, instead of acting to unify differences, some of our leaders have exacerbated tribal allegiances. We are segregating ourselves—not on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity, but by political affiliation.
One ramification of tribal politics is that party loyalty supersedes issues. Recent studies by Lilliana Mason  show that people override evidence and even their own preferences on issues to support their party’s position. Our side must win. More importantly, according to research, the other side must lose. When each tribe is out to beat the other, productive political discourse—working together toward compromise and consensus—is a casualty. It’s like two angry spouses who are more invested in defeating each other than in resolving their differences. Under such contention, they are unlikely to communicate well or achieve any meaningful resolution.
Likewise, the rancor between our political tribes hampers our ability, let alone our willingness, to handle national issues. That’s why, in my opinion, political tribalism is our number one problem. Like the angry couple, we can’t seriously address our issues while each tribe is striving to defeat the other.
In couples therapy, I would guide them to listen to and understand one other. As mutual understanding dawns, connection and good will start returning. This good will is the basis for facing their issues. In the same way, the Red/Blue Workshops developed by Bill Doherty (offered through the Better Angels organization  free of charge) have helped opposing political groups engage in open, productive conversations. Doherty realized that the same tools used with couples can be adapted to the nation at large. His objective is not to debate or change anyone’s views, but to listen, learn, and find common ground.
Even while we disagree, we can move beyond our current tribal politics to regain basic good will and respect for one another. Abraham Lincoln’s address to our nation is as relevant today as in 1861, when we were on the brink of tribal warfare—civil war: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” 
Email Joe and Julie at BetterAngelsIowa@gmail.com. For more information, see Better-Angels.org.
 William Doherty, PhD, is a professor and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project and the Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota.
 Amy Chua “The Destructive Dynamics of Political Tribalism” New York Times Op-Ed, February 20, 2018.
 For a comprehensive review, see Lilliana Mason, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. University of Chicago Press. 2018.
 Nelson Mandela (In His Own Words, 2003, NY, NY: Little Brown) wrote:
When we dehumanise and demonise our opponents, we abandon the possibility of peacefully resolving our differences, and seek to justify violence against them.
 Lilliana Mason. “Ideologues Without Issues: The Polarizing Consequences of Ideological Identities.” Public Opinion Quarterly 82 (S1): 280-301. 2018.
 Abraham Lincoln, March 1861. The full quotation is “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The idea of recognizing something that’s shared with the other – even in moments of fierce conflict – is beautifully reflected in Abraham Lincoln’s use of the term “better angels” in his First Inaugural Address in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War. William Seward, who would serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of State, had suggested that Lincoln close his speech by calling upon the “the guardian angel of the nation.” Lincoln changed it to “the better angels of our nature.” In Seward’s version, what was needed would come from outside us. In Lincoln’s version, it would come from within us, something “better” in the “nature” of both Northerners and Southerners. [Reproduced here from the Better-Angels.org website.]