Negative tribalism is what drove the 2020 election, and it has broken America. Not only do we cling to our tribes more than ever, we also demonize those on the other side like never before. Republicans are claiming that their opponents want to destroy the country with crime, drugs and socialism. The more extreme among them see Democrats as liars, moochers, pedophiles and sub-humans who hate America. On the other side, the Democrats claim that their opponents want to poison the environment, coddle the rich and rip away health care from sick people in the middle of a pandemic. They label Republicans as entitled, gullible, racist, hate-filled bullies who don’t care about anything but themselves.
This kind of vitriol does no good for anyone, yet it filled up the internet, television advertising, and email inboxes during the election. And even though the election is over, the vitriol shows no sign of abating.
The real issues don’t even seem to matter in elections anymore. Infrastructure? Our roads, bridges and basic systems are falling apart. Health care? Twelve years of fighting about it, and we may end up right back where we started — or worse — next year. The deficit? Bigger than ever, and no one has a clue what to do about it. Foreign policy? The world now takes pity on the United States while the Chinese are extending their economic powers in places this country used to dominate. That, plus now Americans can’t even figure out the nature of reality and are having arguments about math and science, claiming nothing but our own sources can be trusted.
Why have so many people resorted to tribalism to the point that some are willing to disown their family, friends and neighbors? I can answer that in one word — anxiety. Anxiety is the world’s No. 1 mental illness, and stress is the No. 1 cause of most of our mental and physical ailments.
People are worried about keeping their jobs in the age of artificial intelligence and the gig economy. They’re worried about racial strife and whether other races want to hurt them. They’re afraid for their children in an age of less opportunity, more inequality and skyrocketing tuition rates. They’re scared of getting sick and dying. They’re anxious about big things they barely understand like climate change, pandemics, terrorism, the economy, and drug abuse, any one of which could devastate their lives. Their anxious minds see a zero-sum world that boils down to: For me to survive others must suffer. There’s an enormous weight of anxiety out there, and then there’s an unscrupulous group of people attempting to capitalize on it.
Joining a tribe provides insulation from all that anxiety because membership provides like-minded people to confirm all our opinions. The problems are still out there, we just don’t see them, or see sanitized versions of them. Our embrace of tribal politics cuts off all constructive discussion, shuts down important questions, and makes compromise almost impossible. Politicians are afraid to offend their base and feel like loyalty to party — the tribe — is what’s required of them.
The best antidote is facing big, existential anxieties is to honestly talk about our concerns, fears and worries. It’s asking the tough questions like: What’s the worst that could happen and what would I do then? It’s realizing that most of the things we worry about aren’t nearly as bad as we imagine. And it’s relying on others, not just those in our tribes, to provide feedback and support so that we can see the realities behind our fears.
Our brains construct elaborate models about the world to help make sense of it, and then it builds elaborate walls to shut the world out, except for the tiny bits of information that confirm what we already believe. But no matter how smart we are, those models are always flawed, and by shutting out new ideas, we fail to learn how to make them better.
I am hoping and praying that this election made things better but have no illusions that America’s problems will be behind us in 2021. Tribal gridlock remains, and Americans need to decide if sticking with the tribe is more important than accomplishing something real that can address anxieties about the future.
Turn off the cable news, cut back on social media and start talking to people outside of the personal bubble again. Look to see the world for the complex, amazing, wonderful and frustrating gift that it is.
Dan Connors is a certified public accountant and freelance writer in St. Louis County. He is currently writing on the coronavirus and mental health in his blog at authordanconnors.com.
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