Do Democrats and Republicans Need Couples Counseling?

American politics have never been so divisive. Some states are even calling to secede. Can this union be saved?

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The country has reached a state of mutual fear and loathing so pronounced that neither side can bear being in the same room together. With each passing day, our nation functions less like a democracy and more like a crumbling marriage.

Can this marriage be saved? 

According to a recent Pew study, partisanship has intensified to the point where “27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans see the political opposition as a ‘threat to the nation’s well-being.’” The opponent has become the enemy.

Maybe it’s time for our House, divided, to consider couple’s therapy as a way to end partisan politics and start working together for the good of the country.

It can start with family counseling. Thanks to genealogy, it turns out that 44 sitting senators, including Texan tea-partier Ted Cruz, are cousin to President Obama. Assembled, the Senate is like Thanksgiving dinner with weird uncles and creepy relatives who could be flimflam artists out to rip off all your money. Or maybe they’re just misfits that nobody loves? Either way, social convention insists that you invite them inside, seat them at the table, and hope they don’t overstay their welcome.

Because the dynamics are so similar, Jimmy Fallon parodied the “troubled relationship” between Putin and Obama by devising a skit that sent them to couple’s counseling on Dr. Phil. “Are you guys even communicating?” Dr. Phil prods the two men. “I call. He doesn’t pick up!” Barack whines. “You’re smothering me!” Vlad retorts. “He keeps on putting up walls!” Barack accuses him, pouting. Vlad makes a face. Barack begins to cry.

Thanks to the magic of television, it ends with a group hug. But in real life, the U.S. is no longer an “us,” a love story of “We the People” and E Pluribus Unum, but a pending divorce petition where both sides are accusing each other of cheating, dirty tricks, hiding money, and lying. But as any couple’s counselor knows, reconciliation starts by agreeing that both parties want to be together. Given that a poll taken last month showed that Americans want their state to secede at a rate of one out of four, that baseline is looking increasingly less like a reluctant Yes, and more like an adamant Hell No.

Across the country, Reuters concluded, “the sense of aggrievement is comprehensive, bipartisan, somewhat incoherent, but deeply felt.” Telling, the secessionists aren’t united by party, class, religion, race, or gender. It’s not about whether their state is Red or Blue, whether Republicans are masculine (i.e., “sexist Neanderthals”) and Democrats are feminine (“treehugging moonbats”), or even if their core values are “tight” or “loose.” It’s about both refusing to compromise and accusing the other of being the devil.

“My prescription isn’t civility or dialogue, which though admirable are boring and in this case evidently impossible,” wrote Crispin Sartwell, a philosophy professor at Dickinson College, in the Atlantic. “Rather, my approach is ‘philosophical’: to try to confront both sides with the fact that their positions are incoherent.” As far as Sartwell is concerned, liberals and conservatives are equally befuddled by such things as foreign policy, the new global economy, and the details of the ACA. They mostly know that they hate each other.

Just because claims are unfounded doesn’t mean that they aren’t convincing. History is full of discredited beliefs that millions believed for centuries to be true (and a good chunk of them still do). The Earth is flat. Flies spontaneously generate from rotting meat. Miasmas cause disease, etc. In nearly all cases, these ideas aren’t unreasonable based on ordinary conditions of observability. When pressed, most Americans can’t explain why they’re now certain the Earth is round. They can’t prove it, either. They just download photos of our blue ball planet posted on Wikipedia.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to agree that fuzzy logic is part of the human condition and that, just maybe, it’s unreasonable to expect logic from illogical human beings. (For those of you who need the names of Important Thinkers in order to accept this premise, it’s the basis of the Hegelian critique of the Enlightenment and the broad, if depressing, position of the Frankfurt School. Also, Mister Spock.) After all, humans are the only mammals that will go to war over competing theories of what happens to your soul after you’re dead. If that isn’t fuzzy logic, I don’t know what is.

Given that two decades of steadily worsening relations has led up to this point of pending political divorce, the question now hangs out there: can our democracy be saved? This is the question asked by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform, which lays out a practical set of recommendations in hopes of calming partisan rhetoric. One of its key points: promote “an educated citizenry who actively participates in civic life.” Education—as opposed to information—is the crucial feature capable of changing finger-pointing into productive dialogue.

But for a large group of people, utter hatred of the opposite political party boils down to those pesky things called feelings, which have gone ignored for too long thanks to intellectual chauvinism and a failure to honor the glorious absurdity of human nature. Reconciliation starts by establishing trust. As Dr. Phil observes sagely: “You can’t build a bridge with two hammers!”

Group hug, anyone?


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