See You on Sesame Street: Healing America from the Bottom Up

The way to heal America is from the bottom up. With news feeling increasingly polarized and relations between opposing political parties grown cold, out-group hostility, also known as affective polarization, is on the rise [1]. Less often we hear about the day-to-day lives of American communities that, despite the noise, still understand how to avoid these tribalistic tendencies. There is something to learn from these communities: focus less on amorphous ideas and problems, and rather on our ability to work through concrete solutions and decrease affective polarization.

Think of the oft-told story of the German and American soldiers playing soccer across the trenches on Christmas day. This is much more than a nice story, as it stands as a prime example of psychic numbing [2]. Psychic numbing can loosely be described as an insensitivity to the magnitude of consequences. As we think or hear about a greater number of people experiencing tragedy, we do not process this increasing number with an  increase in care or compassion, but rather the situation has less emotional impact the more people involved. Think of how we feel emotionally connected for weeks to the group of Thai school boys stuck in a cave, but barely register a civil war or story of mass ethnic cleansing in a neighboring country. The stories become abstract and our brains have difficulty connecting with them [3].

This phenomenon happens in national politics all too often. One commentator notes that “political tribalism occurs at the abstract level and is unsustainable from human to human” [4].  Over many years, James and Deborah Fallows visited hundreds of small towns across America, with the goal of understanding politics at the most basic level. What they found in these small towns, however, was quite an interesting paradox. In Dodge City, Kansas for example, they found people who voted for Donald Trump, yet, protected their city chief financial officer, Ernesto, who was there on a DACA waiver. How can this be? As the Fallows learned, social ties at the community level induce people to reject racism and cooperate with one another more easily. [5]. 

This sense of community is absent at the national level. A pervasive group-think mentality eliminates social ties, causing national politics to be abstract. Rather than forming communities based on “mutual affection,” the two-party system has become tribal[istic] . . . [a] connection based on mutual hatred. Community is based on common humanity; tribalism on common foe” [6]. Political differences are not just ideological disagreements anymore, but threats to our very identity. The danger of tribalism is that, like extreme jingoism, it decouples positive feelings of love and loyalty —the philosophical underpinnings that love should be based on. One ex-CIA agent defined nationalism as this tribalistic love, a love without reason, without being coupled to the philosophical love of the ideal [7]. But this “love” of party and ideology leads to disdain of those who believe differently. 

So what can we do? Emphasizing strong community ties is the answer to decreasing the harmful effects of polarization. Tribes are an extension of self—we seek like-minded people to fill our ranks and rally our troops. But communities cut through that. They put you in close contact with people whose only community might be their street address. Our church pews and community centers allow us “to rub elbows with people with whom [we] might not otherwise have occasion to interact, whether they be people of different races, ethnicities, genders, or political persuasions” [8]. We can’t solve the nebulous debt crisis at the community level, but we can decide if a budget surplus goes to the local school or the fire department. We can’t escalate trade tensions with China at the community level, but we can “strengthen both interpersonal connections within our neighborhoods and the institutions that help bring people together” [9] Dr. Paul Slovac’s advice for using these community methods to decrease affective polarization is this: “Focus on the issues we are disagreeing about… that we look not at what other people [and the media] are saying about it, but to try to understand the issue and understand how the different sides feel about it and respect others’ views. That’s all we can do” [10]. Truly, it is what we must do.

[1] https://www.brown.edu/Research/Shapiro/pdfs/cross-polar.pdf

[2-5] https://www.aei.org/multimedia/episode-7-think-small/

[6] https://publicsquaremag.org/editorials/wont-you-be-my-neighbor-creating-communities-not-tribes/

[7] https://www.aei.org/multimedia/season-2-episode-5-do-you-love-your-country/

[8-9] https://publicsquaremag.org/editorials/wont-you-be-my-neighbor-creating-communities-not-tribes/

[10] https://www.aei.org/multimedia/episode-7-think-small/

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Hailey Hannigan

HAILEY HANNIGAN is a senior from popular tourist destination, Salt Lake City, Utah. Recently Hailey returned from an internship in Scotland with a head full of ideas and a suitcase full of British crisps. As much as she loves her country, her passion lies in European politics and she’s still debating whether to follow her 4th grade dream of becoming an expatriate. She hopes to pursue a masters in Public Policy abroad (or something fun like that).

Hailey Hannigan

HAILEY HANNIGAN is a senior from popular tourist destination, Salt Lake City, Utah. Recently Hailey returned from an internship in Scotland with a head full of ideas and a suitcase full of British crisps. As much as she loves her country, her passion lies in European politics and she’s still debating whether to follow her 4th grade dream of becoming an expatriate. She hopes to pursue a masters in Public Policy abroad (or something fun like that).

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