The conventional wisdom is that American politics is becoming increasingly polarized, with partisans on the right and left ever more entrenched in their views and with little discourse occurring outside the proverbial “echo chambers”. There is also a popular understanding – again, both right and left – that our elected representatives are out of touch with the real, day-to-day issues confronting their constituents. From the perspective of a well-functioning democracy – and by extension, a well-functioning society – these trends are concerning.
Much of the anger, frustration and aggression comes down to the perception that our well-being is endangered and that we are helpless to do anything about it. These concerns are legitimate: people need jobs in order to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and their families; people want to have access to quality, affordable health care; people are concerned about very real threats to their personal safety, regardless of whether that threat takes the form of war or global warming. And we feel disconnected from those who are in positions of power.
More fundamentally, however, people are simply afraid and need their fears to be heard and understood. Anger, hatred, aversion, and aggression are natural responses to threatening or stressful situations: our “Fight-or-Flight” response serves us well in short-term, life-and-death circumstances. However, human beings have also evolved an innate capacity for cooperation and compassion, not just competition and combativeness. We are wired to relate to each other, to recognize each other’s joy and suffering, and to maximize our interpersonal relationships for our mutual benefit.
I suggest that our politics has become dysfunctional because Fight-or-Flight is in overdrive. We close ranks against a perceived threat and shut down our natural emotional connections with others. It becomes a downward spiral, as our increasing emotional isolation leads us to feel ever more under threat.
If the root of our political dysfunction is unacknowledged fear, then the obvious response is to be willing and able to bring such fears to light. The consequence of sharing is to strengthen our natural emotional connections with others. Better interpersonal relationships lead to a greater sense of well-being and also lead to more effective cooperative problem-solving.
So, what if we spent less time shouting and more time actually listening to one another? What if people took the time to understand and acknowledge each other’s hopes and fears? It sounds like a good idea, but how do we get there from here?
Some neuroscientists are fond of saying, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, how we react to stressful circumstances depends on how we’ve trained our brains to respond to similar circumstances in the past. In a word: practice. If we reinforce the Fight-or-Flight habit, we’re more likely to fight or flee in the future. If we reinforce our emotional connections with others, we’re more likely to respond with empathy and compassion. The good news is that we can train our brains to respond in more effective ways, to build better – or more skillful – habits.
For example, the Buddhist tradition offers a particularly systematic and effective methodology for cultivating positive emotional mind-states, specifically lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These four qualities – known traditionally as the Four Immeasurables – can be developed through meditation. (Interestingly, according to the tradition the lovingkindness practice was first taught as an antidote to fear.)
Through practice one cultivates a gentle acceptance of one’s own joy and suffering, neither denying nor being overwhelmed by the reality of one’s emotions. Gradually one is able to extend these four qualities of openheartedness to others: good friends and loved ones, passersby, even those with whom we have difficulties or disagreements. In essence, the practice strengthens the neural pathways that allow us to forge emotional connections with others.
This has tremendous implications for our political discourse, of course. We can see the practical value of openheartedness through the process of reconciliation: between groups of Israelis and Palestinians; between groups of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland; between black and white South Africans. There are numerous cases on record where politically polarized communities are brought together simply by bearing witness to each other’s joy and suffering. In the process they come to recognize their shared humanity and to acknowledge each other’s common concerns.
People just want to be happy, well, and safe in a world that seems “nasty, brutish, and short.” Therein we find the paradox that defines the human condition, and the only appropriate response is compassion.