Political Polarization

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tel: 202–285–8644

Political Polarization: Making as High as 71% of Americans Sicker

What are The Stats on Political Polarization?

In Social Science and Medicine, Northeastern University researchers report:

  • Participants reporting increase in polarization had 52–57% higher odds of developing depressive disorders and anxiety disorders.
  • Participants reporting high (vs. low) levels of perceived state-level mass (general public) polarization had 49% higher odds of depressive disorders.
  • Participants who perceived high levels of state-level elite (party organizers and officials) polarization reported 71% higher odds of depressive disorders and 49% higher odds of sleep disorders.

So, wow, how come hardly anyone is talking about this link?

We are talking about a mental health crisis. For some stats on this from the World Health Organization:

  • Mental health conditions are increasing worldwide.
  • 13% rise in mental health conditions and substance use disorders in last decade (to 2017).
  • Around 20% of the world’s children and adolescents have a mental health condition, with suicide the second leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds.
  • Two of the most common mental health conditions, depression and anxiety, cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year.

And, separately, we are also talking about the rise in political polarization. From NBC News, (for just a few markers, check out the article for more)

  • Before Harry Truman ran for a full term in 1948, two-thirds of Democrats (68%) and even half of Republicans (50%) approved of his job performance.
  • By the time of Richard Nixon in the White House, the gap between his party’s approval of him and the opposition party grew to 47 points.
  • By Barack Obama’s time, it expanded to 72 points.
  • And for Donald Trump, it was 79 points, shrinking only by the slightest of margins to 77 points for Joe Biden.

So, we know that mental health challenges are rising. And we know that political polarization is rising. Maybe you will agree that it is time now to la good look at the link between the two.

How Does Political Polarization-Mental Health Link Work?

Even pre-pandemic, in 2019, 19.86% of adult Americans reported a mental health challenge.

This health.com article gave 4 reasons why things appear to be going from bad to worse. They were:

  1. Social Media
  2. Covid-19
  3. Isolation and Loneliness
  4. Lack of Access to Care

Notice not a word about political polarization. To take it personally for a moment, when a news commentator asked, with a straight face, if “Strawberry” was actually a thing on a booking document, saying that he was not familiar with that option appearing on booking documents for hair color — I laughed.

I am sorry I laughed because this whole thing is not funny. And when I asked myself why I was laughing if it is not funny, I thought maybe it was nervous laughter.

Maybe a lot of us are nervous without even being aware, so instead we polarize. Instead, if ever there was a season of “I am right and good, and you are wrong and bad,” this is it.

You are wrong and bad and, when I am really nervous, you are ridiculously funny, as my psychological defense.

Business people describe the current state of our world as relentlessly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous). Nerve wracking, that is.

The more stressed we are the more we drill down into our differences and huddle together with those who are trying to make sense of the world in the same way that we are ourselves. Singing to the choir as it is otherwise known. Political polarization.

Humans have a drive for sense-making that can make us hostile to alternative points of view that make our own seem to make less sense than we prefer to think. From an earlier post on this topic:

It’s our story. Our central organizing principle. Everybody has one. Everybody needs one to function at all. Just as the brain regulates body temperature, it regulates and simplifies sensory inputs so our brains don’t explode.

Alright, maybe that’s a bit much, but you all know what too much information feels like. It almost hurts, makes you want to take a nap, or a drink, or eat a bag of cookies, or something.

It’s too much. Our little brains can’t work with all that, but we need something to work with so, by nature and by nurture, our brains pick and choose us a manageable view of the world and our place in it.

The best story I know to illustrate the point is The Elephant and The Blind Men. Six blind men are told that there is an elephant in the village. They all go to the elephant to ‘see’ with their hands what an elephant is. Each touches a different part of the elephant. Here’s what they said:

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

“Oh, no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.

“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

And then they argued, each convinced that he was right. Because he was — but only partly. And herein lies the rub that makes us so unwelcoming, if not downright hostile, to that which we cannot ourselves ‘see’. Six different stories, all of them true and only partly true, as many different stories as there are people in the world, one of which is yours.

And just as an actor/actress has a script and role to play, so do we. That is, our story, which gives meaning and coherence to our lives, also directs our action, unless we actively, mindfully, intervene.

Exactly what we need to do. Intervene. Not so much with the other person, as with ourselves.

One of the 4 reasons given above for worsening mental health was “Isolation and Loneliness.” And yet, in an effort to secure ourselves psychologically, we are behaving in ways that are damaging us all socially, emotionally, and physically too.

My client, an elite partisan who suffered significant gastrointestinal issues, was convinced that her encounters with others opposed to her own view of the world were a major cause of her ill-health.

And many people, in general, are now operating in flight, flight, freeze mode — all stress responses that can both make us sick and alienate the very support we need to feel safer in the world.

So, what can we do?

What We Can Do

Actually, there are some things we can do. This is not always the case. But in this case, yes indeed there are some things we can do.

Last week we talked about mastering our mouths — how we can pause before we speak to make sure our thoughts pass the test of true, kind, necessary, and beneficial before any words come out of our mouths.

Another useful exercise is something I call The Judgment Room, on how judgy we humans are so we can begin to get a grip on our judginess for a better, safer world in which to live with each other.

Here is The Judgment Room link: https://acrobat.adobe.com/link/review?uri=urn:aaid:scds:US:9058129f-985d-3b40-9ce3-6f6f3a6985fe

Practice, practice, practice…see what happens, and let us know.





Madelaine Weiss

Licensed Psychotherapist, Board Certified Executive, Career, Life Coach. LICSW, MBA, BCC