'A house divided against itself cannot stand'
The phrase in the headline originally was from Jesus in the Gospel of Mark 3:25 and further used by President Abraham Lincoln in one of his most famous speeches.
Tribalism and polarization in our country have reached a level that threatens our government's ability to function effectively. We are beginning to see this trickle down to the local level.
This division is having negative effects at all levels, from family holiday dinners to the U.S. Congress. It has created a lose-lose situation for all parties involved. Our Founding Fathers some 243 years ago created a remarkably successful government. When Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, he was asked, "What have you given us Mr. Franklin?" He replied, "A republic, Madam, if you can keep it."
It was not just our Constitution and the government it created that has made the United States of America such a great nation, but also our values. Simply having a democratic republic is not a guarantee of everlasting success. Many democracies around the world have failed for a variety of reasons. We need to heed the warning of Benjamin Franklin and restore the values that have made America the "shining city upon a hill."
How did we get here? In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information that confirms one's preconceptions. Confirmation bias is not new. What is new is our ability to feed our confirmation bias via cable news channels, social media and internet sources. It is now possible for people to create and live in completely different realities as a result of the information sources they use.
Studies have indicated that anger exacerbates political bias. Negative campaigning has been a staple of American politics for a long time. The advent of Super Political Action Committees (PACs) has greatly increased the amount of negative campaigning, with many of the Super PACs spending 100% of their funding on negative advertising.
Tribalism has always been a part of human history and stems from competition between different human groups with different ways and different faces. In our distant past, tribalism provided the group cohesion to fight together and provided a distinct survival advantage. At a tribal level, people are more emotional and less logical. We regress to tribalism when afraid.
Politicians have tapped into fear and tribalism for a long time. Examples are Nazism, the Ku Klux Klan and religious wars. Many studies have documented the effectiveness of fearmongering and how it affects people's political attitudes, and it has now become a mainstay political strategy. The evidence indicates we are seeing loyalty to the tribe become more important than altruistic values and truth. Fear often is based on being uninformed. When people get to know people who are of another group, the fear often diminishes. These factors are some of the major reasons we have become so divided.
What can we do about it? We can restore civility and dignity to our society. We need to retrain ourselves in how to work together. We have been unknowingly led down this path for so long we don't even recognize what has happened to us.
We must recognize the value of all people, not just those with whom we currently agree. If we do, our governments will work better and the legitimate needs of all parties will be better served.
We all have certain interest. Our interest might be affordable health care or paying less taxes. Those things you care about; that are important to you, those are your interest. We should identify our core interest and understand and recognize the interest of others.
There is a negotiation technique known as interest-based bargaining. The more traditional negotiation is positional bargaining. In the latter approach, a position is taken and then arguments and data are selected to convince the other side to adopt your position. In interest-based bargaining, the interest of both parties are identified and then both parties work together to develop win-win agreements that can best satisfy both parties interest. When we do this, we often find there is more we agree on than what we disagree on, and we may identify important common interests that provide opportunities for success.
We must value and recognize the importance of truth. There are a lot of reasons why this is important. Decisions and strategies that are based on untruthful information often are failures. A good example is the Afghanistan war. Recent news reports have documented that senior U.S officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign. While making optimistic claims in public and to Congress; classified documents recently obtained by the Washington Post reveal that throughout the war they knew the war was unwinnable. The cost $1.5 trillion and 2,400 American lives lost.
Truth is critical for establishing trust, and for people from different positions to work together productively, they need to be able to trust each other. And, finally, it is simply amoral to knowingly not be truthful.
If we are willing to respect the value and dignity of each of us, to seek the truth, and be honest about our interest and concerns; we can change the negative, tribal, polarized path we have been on for far too long.
This is true, because the American people, at their heart, are good.
Greg Pettit lives in Warren.
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