American democracy needs a shrink
America is entering into another no-holds-barred election, this time amidst the trifecta of health, economic and social crises. Both Republicans and Democrats increasingly see members of the other party as uninformed, unpatriotic and dangerous, fueling a sense that this election is existential. While the result of the election is uncertain, the acrimony is not. Once Nov. 3 passes, the losing party will, at a minimum, immediately set out to obstruct and demonize the president who is elected; or worse, they will not accept his legitimacy, plunging our democracy to new depths of peril. Not many would argue our democracy is thriving in 2020.
Unlike a struggling marriage, the disparate sides of America have no choice but to coexist. Like a struggling marriage, our democracy needs a psychologist.
A psychologist studies mental, emotional and behavioral issues and diagnoses disorders as a step to solving practical problems at the individual, group and societal level. Yet, in government, there is no doctor in charge of diagnosing democracy’s disorders; no expert asking what prior traumas and biological predispositions are underlying our conflicts; no department that is promoting policies to improve the health of the nation on measures that most of us can agree on, such as cohesiveness, the pursuit of happiness, and affinity for democracy. One major 2019 poll shows American happiness decreasing steadily since the early 1990s. Another poll run jointly by Democratic and Republican firms found that 87 percent of Americans said compromise and common ground should be a goal for leaders. Which government office is responsible for pursuing these goals?
Certainly, many of the most urgent problems facing our country are not psychological — the coronavirus pandemic, racial and economic inequality, double-digit unemployment. But underpinning our inability to address these ills are disorders that medical professionals, not parties and political leaders, are better equipped to address. Many Americans know to trust Dr. Anthony Fauci more than President Trump when it comes to the pandemic. Would it not serve us to have a social psychologist promoting a healthier democracy?
We should establish an Office of the Psychologist General to promote the mental health of Americans and America. Indeed, some psychologists have called for this position, but viewed its role narrowly as a way to more effectively address the country’s mental health crisis at the individual level with worsening depression and addiction.
But the country’s health crisis goes beyond the individual, to our collective views of our country. Polls consistently show our public opinion worsening toward each other, toward our democracy, and toward our country as a whole. Meanwhile, together we fear terrorism, adjust to shifting norms on LGBTQ issues, and experience racism.
Here are few examples of how a Psychologist General could help.
There is ample evidence that we increasingly dislike those not like us, which psychologists also call “group polarization.” The negative impact of polarization is pervasive, from being more segregated physically, to being less willing to help others in need, to being unable to solve problems even when we agree. With implicit association tests, psychologists have provided additional evidence on how deep and pervasively this aversion runs not just in politics, but also on race.
Through extensive research, psychologists have shown that polarization decreases substantially with intergroup contact, such as at a workplace, and when exposing people to counter-stereotype examples. A Psychologist General could direct additional funding for civic groups that promote dialogue across our political or racial divides, advocate for funding into additional research of polarization at the National Institutes of Health — or at the least, they could be a professional voice to counter those in the room who push wins for political gain over national good.
In another example, democracy is also buckling under the weight of unprecedented levels of information, much of it bad and conspiratorial. Americans now see misleading information as the top threat to our elections, even more so than voter fraud, voter suppression and foreign interference.
In a new study from the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, researchers found that it is possible to preemptively create resistance to misinformation by exposing people to weakened doses of misinformation (by playing a fake news game), boosting immunity to bad information in the similar way a vaccine works. Instead of relying on social media companies and politicians to curate information, a Psychologist General could raise the profile of such findings and advocate for their application in schools with the Department of Education.
Of course any government position can be politicized. However, like the Surgeon General, the Psychologist General would be a doctor bound to strict ethical standards and codes of professional conduct and who serves the mental health of the country, not an individual president.
Many Americans feel the upcoming election is critical to saving our democracy. Any psychologist will tell you that meaningful improvement to mental health will require more time and effort.
Brian Paler is vice president at GQR, a Democratic-affiliated polling, digital and political strategy firm. Follow him on Twitter @BrianPaler.
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