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The Psychology of Partisan Politics

The Psychology of Partisan Politics

Partisan politics are alive and well in America today. From negative ad campaigns to political soundbites examples of partisan politics abound. Julia Azari wrote of the great political divide in her January 19, 2018 article, "We're now one year into the Trump era, and politics seems more nasty, divided and polarized than ever."

Social media has become a hot bed of partisan mudslinging from both sides of the political aisle. In fact a Pew Research Center article published February 23, 2017 stated, "Partisan criticism generates most engagement in social media." They went on to say, "Critical posts get more likes, comments, and shares, than other posts." One political meme circling social media asks the question, "What if Hillary Clinton had five children with three husbands, and had openly cheated on the first two? Would constatives overlook it like they do Trump?" Another picturing Hillary Clinton reads, "I don't understand, I thought we had killed everyone who had dirt on us." Yet another displays a picture of a young Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton standing together smiling. It reads, "Straight out of options."

Social welfare, Involvement of the U.S. in global affairs, gun control, and LGBTQ rights are just some of the countless items that divide Americans. Have you ever stopped to wonder how the country got so polarized? Would it surprise you to learn that there are psychological causes for much of the partisan politics in America today?

One of the many psychological causes of partisan politics is politicians and political pundits who tend toward narcissism. According to a March 15, 2018 MSN Lifestyle article, "Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), in general, refers to traits central to that of a sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, an exaggerated sense of self-worth, an unrealistically high self-esteem and an expectation that others will comply with and validate their self-worth." This combined with elected officials in high places is a recipe for division.

On August 11, 2017 Phycology Today defined whole object relations and object constancy in an effort to explain (NPD). Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D. wrote, "Whole Object Relations: This is the capacity to see oneself and others in a stable and integrated way that acknowledges both the person's good and bad qualities. Object Constancy: This is the ability to maintain a positive emotional connection to someone that you like while you are angry, hurt, frustrated, or disappointed by his or her behavior." Dr. Greenberg went on to say that without "whole object relations" and "object constancy" people with (NPD) can only see themselves and other people in one of two ways: either they are special and unique, or they are defective or worthless.

Without the ability to see those with differing views in an integrated way politicians and pundits fall into a thinking error called, "dichotomous thinking." This is a kind of black or white, or all or nothing thinking. Dichotomous thinkers believe that you are good or evil, the best or the worst, amazing or awful. This leads to statements like, "My opponent wants seniors to die," and, "My opponent is for dirty water and polluted air."

Another psychological cause of partisan politics is, "Awfulizing." According to the Phycology Dictionary, "Awfulizing refers to an irrational and dramatic thought pattern, characterized by the tendency to overestimate the potential seriousness or negative consequences of events, situations, or perceived threats. AWFULIZING: "A person who engages in awfulizing, likely predicts the most catastrophic outcome in every circumstance."

One modern example of this can be found in the conservative response to the Obama presidential election. According to an October 13, 2017 article in the Chicago Tribune, "13 percent (41 million people), thought "Obama is the antichrist." In September of 2016 rumors abounded on social media that Obama would not step down from office if Trump were elected president. This was fueled in large part by a satirical article published by The Burrard Street Journal.

At the close of 2017 we saw another example awfulizing when some liberals played Chicken Little screaming, "The sky is falling," over the issue of net neutrality. It was believed that the FCC's vote would mean higher prices for consumers to access the websites they visit the most and worse Americans would not get important text messages from loved ones potentially putting children in danger. The vote was made and the news story died all the while Americans are still getting text messages from their children.

Obama turned out not to be the antichrist who set up his one world order and net neutrality didn't cripple the economy or put children at risk, and the world somehow marches on. When people think of the worst possible outcome and then convince themselves that it is not only possible but likely to occur, they speak out strongly against it widening the political divide.

Politicians and pundits who lean toward narcissism, dichotomous thinking, and awfulizing are only a few examples of the phycology of partisan politics. Other examples include:

  1. Focusing on the negative. This occurs when your thoughts reflect only the bad in a situation and ignore any of the good. By focusing only on the negative in a politician or political party one will seldom see any good. Seeking to find the positive brings balance and optimism to a world we view far too often as negative.
  2. Fortune Telling. Similar to awfulizing, fortune telling occurs when you predict the worst possible outcome to a situation. This can be seen in the example, "He is going to run this country into the ground."
  3. Mindreading. Mindreading is another thinking error that leads to polarization of political parties. Mindreading occurs when someone believes they know someone else's thoughts and motives without any proof.
  4. Personalizing. This occurs when one takes someone's contrary views as a personal attack. This leads to isolation, division, or counter attacks.
  5. Labeling. Perhaps one of the greatest weapons in the arsenal of politics is the label. By labeling something it is easier to pigeon hole or typecast them into something that is easier to hate.

Having examined some of the psychology of partisan politics let us not leave this as an interesting intellectual exercise. Rather, may we examine our own thoughts to see what thinking errors we may be making and how we ourselves may be contributing to the political divide.

Brian Fontaine served for nine years as pastor of Washington Church in Valparaiso Indiana. He also had the opportunity to volunteer at Frontline Foundations, a faith based recovery program in Chesterton Indiana. Brian hosted "Battle Ground," a 30 minute live radio show twice a month as well as, "A Minute in the Word," a daily two minute prerecorded inspirational radio spot on The Calvary Radio Network in Valparaiso Indiana. Brian has been blogging since 2015 at He currently serves at Westville Correctional Facility in Westville Indiana as an Addiction Recovery Specialist.


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