On Being Unrealistic

August 14, 2013

In response to the fact that I am a psychotherapist who has occasionally written social/political commentary, someone e-mailed this comment:


I don't appreciate you mixing politics with psychology.


I just stared at that one for a while thinking, “Now there is a statement that characterizes in a nutshell how we, as a nation, have gotten ourselves into this mess.”


What is politics if not psychology? Certainly the mastermind strategists for the Republican and the Democratic parties are thinking “psychology.” They use the hell out of psychology to get their messages engrained in our minds. They have learned that repetition works. They know that if a statement is repeated again and again and again, people have a tendency to file that statement under “truth,” even without giving it much, if any, independent thought. The psychology of fear has become the politician’s best friend.


Politicians work hard to get us to respond in the ways they want us to respond, and they have learned that there is no greater tool in this regard than fear. Scare somebody enough and they fall back into basic survival-mode, instinctually doing what they think it will take to stay alive. Neurologically, effective scare tactics can quite literally trigger a fight or flight response. Think about it: what happens to you if you become convinced that there is someone trying to break into your house right now? The brain is doing the same thing when you become convinced that if a particular person is elected to office, everything you hold dear will be taken away. And that is precisely what political campaigns have become: claims that the evil opponent will mean the destruction of the very fabric of our democracy. Seriously. So much of honest, respectful differences of opinion.


Scare people enough and we are in danger of abandoning our higher moral and spiritual values for a sort of “kill or be killed” mentality that is completely based in fear. See? Politics and psychology are inseparable.


With this system in place, unfortunately, it seems that far too often we vote for the candidate who scares us the least.


What gets lost in the psychology of fear-base politics is the very essence of the work that we as a nation --- and our politicians in particular --- should be doing: namely, problem solving.


Problem solving is all about getting on the same side of any given problem and working together --- working with and through our differences --- to create solutions, or at least to make progress toward solutions. To be effective problems solvers we have to do what it takes to get out of adversarial relationships and learn to work as partners, with an emphasis on discovering win-win solutions. Not being in adversarial relationships does not mean we cannot have differences of opinions, and the goal of win-win solutions doesn’t mean that everyone always gets their way. Being on the same side of the problem does mean that the search for answers involves mutual respect and a mutual desire to satisfy as many people as possible --- as opposed to simply fighting to win or fighting to prove we are “right.”


If this all seems a bit far-fetched, you are not alone. I think what I have described in the preceding paragraphs is pretty funny when read in the context of today’s political climate. Mutual respect? A common desire for win-win solutions? Politicians who are more interested in solving problems than in being right and keeping their jobs?


“That’s ridiculous,” you say. “ It would be great if such a political system were possible, but what you describe is completely unrealistic.”


And I say, “I know. Not very realistic.”


But I also know that reaching beyond what seems realistic in practical terms is how important things get done. The founding of this very nation against all odds didn’t come about because enough people thought that it seemed reasonable to do so. The United States of America came into existence because a tremendous need for change arose and some courageous, “unrealistic” thinkers stepped up to bring about that change. And I know (review your history, boys and girls) that among these men, our founding fathers, there were radical differences of opinion; they were not of one unified mind as so many people these days seem to think. They were, however, in the end, highly effective problem solvers.


And I know that if we don’t work together to break free from the dysfunctional cycle that now has so many of us playing politics from polar opposite positions, we aren’t going to effect any lasting change anyway. No matter who we choose to be our next President.


And I know that politics and psychology are inseparable and that it is going to take a hell of a lot of good mental health to get this country on a path that we can all be proud of.


If some politician wants a sound bite to promote this kind of unrealistic thinking, how about this one:


"Does political sanity have to be an oxymoron?"



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