It is time to take a hard look at our national fascination with Donald Trump. I am getting tired of every dinner conversation winding up at the latest Trumpism. And I miss the company of people who instead have been glued to the television for months, the way we once were for the few weeks of the Watergate hearings.
I am not talking about reasoned beliefs that Trump is or is not a very bad president that lead to constructive activity. I am talking about the spectator sport of obsessively cheering his successes or missteps — and even hoping for more dirt.
I remember being distressed hearing that some of Barack Obama’s foes cheered when Chicago lost its bid for the 2016 Olympics after the president had personally lobbied for his hometown. Now it is the other side’s turn to wish a president ill.
It may be worthwhile to take a brief look at some of the insights from the developing field of evolutionary psychology to help understand what is going on here.
One of the strongest instincts forged in the hundreds of thousands of years our species spent in hunter-gatherer bands is in-group loyalty and out-group animosity.
When Western researchers first contacted supposedly “undiscovered” tribesmen in the New Guinea highlands in the 1950s, they found people who considered their neighbors — with whom they often shared language and even marriage ties — less than human.
Given the relatively short history of civilization, our nature is still tribal. And to promote survival, animals, including us, are rewarded by a little hit of the feel-good neurochemical dopamine for engaging in beneficial activities, like loyal service to the herd or the pack. Thus, it is no surprise that researchers have detected a likely dopamine reward when we get information confirming the belief systems of our groups. We may actually be addicted to watching our favorite talk-show host.
Some of the finest accomplishments of our species have resulted from individuals submerging themselves in a group with lofty aspirations. But it turns out that group identification can also be pretty arbitrary.
Social scientists discovered almost 50 years ago that they could create groups by flipping a coin — and still generate favorable treatment of in-group members and adverse treatment of out-group members.
Naturally, we want to assume that when it comes to something as significant as political group identification, our choice of affiliation is the product of rational reflection, concrete economic self-interest, or at least immersion in the views of trusted family members, friends and colleagues. It might be — but neurochemistry crops up again.
As explored in a full-page cartoon on these pages a few weeks ago (“This is your brain on politics,” Oct. 22), several scientists are independently confirming that some of the difference between liberals and conservatives can be accounted for by an inherited neurochemical environment that fosters openness to new experiences (liberals) or a heightened response to threats (conservatives).
The person whose politics you simply can’t stomach might just be more or less anxious about living in a complex society.
It is disconcerting to face the less-than-rational parts of our complex human nature. But knowledge is power, and the knowledge that politics is as much about scorekeeping as civic participation suggests some ways we can make the power of group identification work for us.
A fundamental tool of peacemaking is the ability to see things from the other side’s point of view. After a close play in a football game, the fans of the team on offense always see pass interference where the fans of the other team see good pass defense. We all could adopt the practice of periodically trying to put aside our personal feelings for the individual politicians involved and trying to articulate the best explanation of the policy they are proposing.
At the very least, we would then be more effective members of our own team. I have been involved in many conflict-resolution groups, and all I can say is that there is almost a neurological shift that occurs from putting into words something you disagree with.
Another logical option is to choose our own group rather than letting the pundits and the politicians do it for us. The money and power to be gained from stoking political tribalism makes politics an easily accessible dopamine-rich environment. But just about any group committed to a good cause can provide the same rewards without the manipulation.
Joining a club that meets just once a month provides the same gain in happiness as doubling your income. Improving a school, supporting at-risk children or beautifying a natural place might be a more productive and less exasperating way to satisfy our addiction to tribal solidarity.
Finally we might consider defining our group differently. In a famous social-science experiment in Oklahoma in 1954, conflict between two groups of young boys at a summer camp began getting out of hand. The scientists effectively solved the problem by creating a crisis with the water supply and other challenges that the groups had to work together to solve.
We know how our nation comes together in times of natural disaster or external threat. But we share much more with one another: the same time and place, the yearning for a safe and nurturing society where our children can flourish, the joy of natural beauty around us, the need for an open and rich intellectual environment where all of us diverse people can find and speak our own truth, the hope for a country with opportunities to find purpose and meaning in fulfilling our potential.
Suppose we started considering ourselves as teammates disagreeing about what play will get us to the goal line rather than as implacable foes.
Bruce Peterson is a Hennepin County district judge. He teaches a course on lawyers as peacemakers at the University of Minnesota Law School.