In a divided America, misery is looking for company

Right now, most Americans are simply fed up. 

The combination of myriad, simultaneous crises (coronavirus pandemic, the stock market free fall, election hacking and freakish weather events), a peevish hyperpartisan Congress that is stalled, and an increasingly politicized and hysterical opinion-based media have created a vicious and anxiety-ridden culture. 

And it doesn’t stop there — internet algorithms on the three biggest social media platforms, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, sort us into tribes and pit us against each other, adding further to our society’s chaos.  

Top it off with the Donald Trump ad hoc style of presidential leadership, which the comedian John Mulaney described as “like there’s a horse loose in a hospital,” and it feels intolerable.

In response, we are turning on each other. 

Most of us are feeling much colder toward, more fearful and contemptuous of those with opposing views, and these sentiments have more than doubled since 1994. We also believe that almost twice as many people on the other side of the political fence hold more extreme views than they actually do. And the more media we consume, the more our perceptions of them become distorted. 

These feelings are increasingly influencing who we date, marry, hire and hang out with. A recent survey even showed that almost 10 percent of both Democrats and Republicans feel that violence would be acceptable if the other side won the 2020 presidential election. 

Of course, this is making us all sick. Today, 69 percent of Americans find the future of the country to be a “significant source of stress,” which leads to an increased likelihood of chronic health problems. 

Between 2018 and 2019, the number of adults who described themselves as more anxious than the previous year rose to 32 percent. Today 40 million Americans (about 1 in 5) report suffering from an anxiety disorder, although the actual numbers are likely much higher. In 2017, over 17 million adults and three million adolescents were diagnosed with major depression in the U.S. This has contributed to the increasing suicide rate, which went up by 33 percent between 1999 and 2017 and fuels our skyrocketing opioid crisis. 

Nevertheless, I see this all as good news. If we are ever going to dislodge ourselves from this toxic quagmire of political contempt, it is important to be miserable. 

Researchers who have studied how to get out of destructive, polarizing and entrenched conflicts have found that two things really matter in motivating enemy tribes to call a ceasefire and look for other ways of resolving their differences: sufficient levels of mutual misery and a possible way out of it. 

This research, based on something called ripeness theory, has found that the best conditions for bridging the gulf between enemies locked in battle is when a mutually hurting stalemate is coupled with a sense of a mutually enticing opportunity. A mutually hurting stalemate happens when the disputants in the conflict — like red and blue Americans — see the situation they are in as hopelessly stuck and unlikely to ever be “won” by either side, and are experiencing enough pain, regret or dread to motivate them to find an alternative way out. However, they must also believe that enough of the disputants on the other side of the divide are feeling the same level of angst and longing for resolution. 

The good news is Americans are plenty miserable. After the 2018 midterm elections, a group called More in Common found that 86 percent of Americans said they felt totally exhausted by political divisions and they’re worried it will lead to violence. And, as ripeness theory would predict, this seems to matter. The same study also found that 89 percent of Americans said they were eager for both parties to come together and find opportunities to compromise. 

This group represents what the study calls the “hidden tribes” in the political middle, which are not the more noisy and extreme groups on either side. This growing “miserable middle majority” provides a solid foundation for change, and it suggests that a significant segment of the population may be open to a correction of some type. 

However, there is also a second necessary condition for breaking out of the trap. All miserable parties to protracted disputes must also begin to sense that there might be a mutually enticing opportunity to exit the conflict. In other words, they need to begin to feel that there may be a way out or a way to get unstuck, change course and move on with their lives without having to give up too much.

The good news here is that most divided societies, even those experiencing direct violence, harbor individuals and groups who are working actively to bridge the tensions and promote understanding and compassion. So, the question for all fed up Americans today is, where are those people in your community? Finding and joining with them in common cause should be your next step. 

Peter T. Coleman is a professor of psychology at Columbia University who studies intractable conflict. His next book is titled, “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization.”

Tags Coronavirus Democrats Donald Trump opposition Pandemics political divide Politics Republicans Social conflict

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