American political polarization amounts to fear of being left out

I'm starting to wonder if entertainment television, talk radio, and sports have all had a negative influence on political discourse in this country. I watch a lot of political discussion on TV and a fair amount of sports, and in a disturbing way these two contexts seem to be morphing into each other.

It now feels as if someone is keeping score in the political arena. And unfortunately, in my own mind, when I hear of a gaffe or embarrassment for the party I don't prefer, I think, "Oh good, a point for my side."

When "my side" is called for a foul, I think that the officiating might be biased.

So many recent events highlight the polarized context we are now operating in. Whether it is reaction to the Michael Moore film or to an interview with a candidate, there seem to be so few people willing or able to see anything positive in an opposing side or any negative in their own. Perhaps it requires a level of effort and analysis that doesn't fit with the sports metaphor.

I wonder if there was a time in political discourse when people listened to each other and occasionally said, "Hmm, that's a good point, how can we incorporate that into the solution?"

"Solution?" Now there's a novel concept.

But it may also be one that doesn't make for entertaining television talk shows.

One morning I read the regular oped columnists known for their political perspectives. I was in agreement with the one on "my side" and opposed to the other.

Then I had this wild idea: What if, on April Fool's day, the paper switched bylines on columnists who are well known for their political perspective? Would content we normally oppose all of a sudden make some sense if it appeared to have been written by a commentator we usually agree with? Would the tendency to accept input from "our own team" trump our normal belief structure?

The columnists seem to be participating in this sports metaphor and their contributions are often "scoring a point" in style. Or perhaps readers have come to be more entertained by a contentious, bombastic style. So that is what "sells."

I wish we could find a moral or even a common-sense compass that hasn't been distorted by the sports metaphor for politics. In the sports context, saying "I see your point" would be like stepping aside for the other team to score a goal or handing them the ball at their 10-yard line.

I believe that Americans are looking for the truth, for common sense, and for solutions. But there is something seductive about the bond that comes from cheering for the same team. Sadly, it requires that there be an opposing team.

Trying to understand what in our human nature as well as our environment has brought us to this point, I recalled conflict resolution interventions I'd conducted in various organizations. At one large high school the situation was classic. Faculty factions had come together based on what other faculty factions they disliked. They shared almost nothing except their opposition to the "other team." The need to belong was so powerful that members of one "team" disregarded significant issues among themselves and simply focused on the common enemy, the other team.

Once when I was interviewed after a violent incident at a school, I was asked what was the greatest fear of children. The journalist was thinking in terms of weapons.

But, after listening for years to the concerns of youngsters, I answered without hesitation, "Being left out."

Looking at what is taking place in the polarized nature of politics these days, I think that maybe we never outgrow that fear. Perhaps this polarization is less about ideology than about belonging. By backing "our team" we share a bond with others - we are not left out.

Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

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