Historically, political polarization is a reality that goes through stages. In the last 15 years in America, polarization has had one of its most accelerated periods. Fueled by the unpredicted 2016 election results, the unexpected political outcome caused significant trauma to half of the nation. It further exploded in 2020 on the heels of the coronavirus pandemic, the civil-rights protests and the presidential election.
This collective trauma has produced intense polarization. That, in turn, causes a profound demonization of the other; thus, reasoned discourse about important political issues is deemed useless. Debates are stifled and replaced instead by labeling, shutting out and canceling “the other.” At times, dehumanization takes over, leading to harassment and even violence against political opponents.
The situation is so polarized that there is even a belief that one side should win and dominate forever (because it is just and good, and the other is evil), no matter how many rules and traditions will be broken. Physical confrontations and violence are normalized and goaded. The breakdown of civility has reached the halls of Congress in a surprising show of disrespect and disdain for both individuals and their functions.
This is an upending of the core democratic political life of the country.
Positions have hardened to the point where differences with “the other” have gone beyond straining people’s relationships and have made them cut ties with spouses, parents, children, childhood friends and even the history of the nation. Social-media anonymity furthers the total breakdown of civility, and fuels vitriolic hatred to such a degree that people do not have any reference of unity. Conspiracy theories and fake news explode on all sides. The explosion of fake news taints legitimate discourse. There will be a dangerous slide if social-media accounts can be arbitrarily canceled in the name of hate speech, creating a situation where angry people can just decide to cancel people with ideas they don’t like, destroy their lives and the very fabric of a free, democratic country.
How did we get to a situation where half of the country is deemed evil and the other half dangerous, where the media and Congress get poor grades and lose their credibility?
A media that decides to become ideological will be completely mistrusted by one side or blindly believed by the other. As each political side believes that it is politically doomed if the other side wins, the stakes now seem enormous, provoking a paroxysm of polarization and a decision to break all the rules because the ends justify the means.
Common ground seems to have been obliterated, and the belief that two very different countries will emerge, depending on the election outcome, gains ground on all sides.
While the economic system might still survive as the underlying commonality among all Americans, some important forces for change are taking place here as well as in the rest of the Western world. Yet topics surrounding the composition of the Supreme Court, abortion, gun control, gay and transgender rights, the race issue, freedom of religion and freedom of speech are all important hot-button issues that require dialogue and compromise.
We can only successfully address them if we recognize that we are caught in a collective trauma and decide to release it. We know we are caught in it if we feel hatred and disdain for the other side and see them as a despicable, dangerous enemy, and focus only on its extreme voice. We are part of the problem if we see no redeeming qualities and actions in them, efface all elements of unity and stop caring whether we are hurting them, or hurting the nation.
What can reunify us right now? Can the tight results of the election be our way to unity?
The fact that the election results are so tight shows us that neither side holds the moral truth for the whole nation. This may just be the opportunity to reunify the country and return to bipartisanship, balance, the unity that comes from moderation and taking turns through a democratic political process.
We have serious obstacles facing our nation—an Iran intent on becoming nuclear and a hegemon in the Middle East; a China that is stretching its muscles to gain more economic, transactional and military power; a radical Islamism that is not totally curtailed; an ongoing pandemic; a world economy in shambles; a climate change that will tax our resources; and a racial issue that needs a more comprehensive approach.
Not one of them is beyond resolution if we get back to the best qualities of America and become woke to its blind spots. But how can we handle this with a split nation, hating and opposing each other?
Let’s each of us do our part before the final election results to reign in our polarization and come back to a compassionate way to be with each other that we all miss.
Gina Ross, MFCT, is the founder and president of the International Trauma-Healing Institute in the United States (ITI-US) and its Israeli branch (ITI-Israel). A specialist in individual and collective trauma, she authored a series of books “Beyond the Trauma Vortex into the Healing Vortex.” She focuses her work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.