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Why is America Becoming More Politically Divided?

I watched a 20/20 special the other night on politics in America. The show explored the “growing political divide” in our country. Here’s some of the information found in this program.

* Since the early 70’s Americans have become increasing polarized in their political views. Communities that once were pretty evenly split politically are now much more homogenous in their political views, whether they be liberal or conservative. For example, the show investigated several towns that were basically split 30 years ago but that have been increasingly lopsided in each of the last seven presidential elections. In the 60’s and early 70’s a good percentage of counties in the United States were “close” in terms of who they voted for. By contrast, in the last election there was only a handful of counties that were close. Some people now actually chose where they’re going to live based on how the area votes.

* As the divide has widened, the rhetoric has become uglier. Each side has tended toward extremism, and each side has a greater tendency to “demonize” their opponents. There has been less and less constructive, honest dialogue between the two sides. Americans increasingly seem to be losing the capacity to empathize with people who hold to views that differ from their own. Consequently, the politics of America is increasingly become a politics of hatred.

* “Polarizing entrepreneurs” are exploiting this divide to serve their ideological agendas. These are charismatic individuals who know how to “push the right buttons” to get people’s “political blood boiling” so people sacrifice for their cause. Though the 20/20 special didn’t investigate this point, I would add that fear is often used by these “entrepreneurs” to further their causes.

* Studies have shown that when groups composed of people from differing perspectives discuss issues, groups are generally able to develop a consensus. When groups composed of like-mind individuals dialogue, they tend to develop a consensus around more extreme positions. This sheds light on what is happening in America. People of differing perspectives are not dialoguing with one another. National consensus is no longer striven for. Rather, people in the polarized parties are only talking to like-mind people, which tends to move the parties to more extreme positions.

* The national divide not surprisingly translates into governement. In the early 70’s (I don’t remember the exact date of this study), Democrates and Republicans voted along party lines 64% of the time. In 2005, they did so 89% of the time. Senators report that when they strive for consensus with other Senators “across the floor,” their “base of support” expresses hostility. This is a further reflection of how parties tend to demonize the opposition.

* The 20/20 special showed how in the last several years “polarizing entrepreneurs” on the conservative side of the political spectrum have discovered a veritable gold mine of support in conservative Christian churches. Utilizing the internet to its full advantage, various people are rallying this base of support for their causes (e.g. the Terri Schiavo case).

I read something several weeks ago that sheds further light on the growing political divide in America. It was a neurological study of people who have strong political convictions, both on the left and the right. Measuring their brain activity, the scientists presented information that disagreed with each subject’s convictions. They discovered that this information  uniformly activated the subject’s amygdala, the part of the brain that controls the “fight or flight” response, while the subject’s neo-cortex, which controls reasoning, was almost completely inactive. They then presented information that agreed with the subjects convictions. They discovered that this information uniformly activated the “pleasure centers” of the brain, with the neo-cortx again registering very little activity.

What the study shows is that we seem to be neurologically wired to be narrow minded! We have great difficulty thinking objectively – rationally – about matters that concern us. When we confront facts that disagree with what we already believe, we experience anger and our reasoning center tends to shut down. And when we confront facts that agree with what we already believe, we experience pleasure and our reasoning center again tends to shut down.

How does this relate to the 20/20 special? It suggests that we Americans as a whole are increasingly less rational and more emotional about political issues. It suggests that, at least on political matters, we are increasingly becoming a nation of animals who are controlled by external stimuli, rather than a nation of people who think deeply about issues. It suggests that we are allowing ourselves to be controlled by “polarizing entrepreneurs” who (whether consciously or not) know how to activate our amygdala and pleasure centers while shutting down our reasoning skills. We are, in short, being increasingly controlled. We are becoming puppets who feel passionately, but think little.

And, of course, there are spiritual powers behind this ugly affair. They are exploiting our wiring to create a nation that is divided.

What should kingdom people learn from all this? Knowing that our kingdom is not of this world, we ought to be among those rare individuals who have a capacity to remain aware of our neurological conditioning and refuse to give either our amygdala or our pleasure centers ultimate authority over our life. Since we know that the ultimate hope of the world lies in Jesus Christ and not in some political party, we ought to be able to remain “one step removed” from all the hate rhetoric and cultivate a capacity to genuinely empathize with those who disagree with our political opinions. And knowing that our battle is “not against flesh and blood” but against principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12) we must refuse to become puppets of any who would try to get us to demonize others and refuse to buy into the hate rhetoric. We know that ultimately, people are not the enemy but are themselves victims of the enemy.

Our calling is not to have all the “right” answers to the world’s political problems. Our call is to love and serve all people, regardless of what their political stances might be. “Live in love, as Christ loved you and gave his life for you” (Eph. 5:1-2).

Why is America Becoming More Politically Divided?
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