We didn't lose our minds...
they were stolen
How we were divided… and how to fix it…
There’s a big difference between a divided nation and a nation that is being divided
Politics in America is butt-ugly at this point and it is getting uglier by the minute. It is literally impossible to keep up with the toxic messaging that is spewing out of conservative voices — ranging from subtle to shocking but always nonstop and always from multiple sources. They are feeding Americans a steady stream of crazy conspiracies to believe, new people to hate, and concocted ideas to fear — all of which, they are quick to point out, can only be remedied by the Republicans. They provide the “threat” and the “haven” — both of which are illusions.
These folks understand that fear is one of our strongest and most primitive emotions and therefore one of our weakest points, and they play it, and us, perfectly to get what they want out of us. There is much more to this than creating the fear of someone or something – fear-mongering does much more damage to us than we realize. It is very important to understand the psychological tendencies related to fear, self-esteem, etc. that we all share and how they have been used to exploit us.
What follows is a cursory overview of some of the psychology behind our behaviors, all supported by years of research and studies. One thing to keep in mind is that the behaviors outlined below are not necessarily associated with lower intelligence — people with higher intelligence simply come up with more sophisticated logic and reasoning to justify their emotional responses which are driven by their subconscious.
Fear is one of our most primitive emotions and its job continues to be to keep us safe. Readers may be familiar with the idea that fear will quickly put us into “fight or flight” mode when we sense danger. Threats will instantly trigger responses in the brain that will bypass reason, analysis, and logic in the name of efficiency. We react to fear well before we realize we do.
While we rely on fear to protect us from immediate threats, the fear (or anxiety) of persistent threats, whether real or imagined, can cause us physical and emotional harm, and because much of it is processed in our subconscious, we have no clue how it impacts our behavior. Protracted or aggregated fear makes us retreat to the familiar (family, friends, tradition, rituals, etc.), but when we retreat, it is not only from the perceived threat but also from anything or anyone different from us. Under these conditions, we are almost looking for a fight as we interpret non-threatening things as threats and exaggerate mild threats. Likewise, our ability to rationalize is reduced and we are more likely to “see” additional evil or threat in those that are different than us and, just as dangerous, it allows us to ignore or accept the negatives or even the evils of those who are similar to us. It’s important to remind readers that much of this goes on in our subconscious, but the resulting actions are very much out in the open.
Terror Management Theory
Our subconscious also helps us handle a completely different type of fear. While most of us are well aware that the fear emotion keeps us safe from threats, we probably aren’t aware of the elephant in the room… and our heads. Without exploring this too deeply (references are at the bottom), we are all cursed with the understanding that our existence here is temporary and out of our control. The only reason humanity has been able to deal with this burden is that our subconscious drove us to create or embrace social constructs such as religion, tradition, heritage, ritual, family, patriotism, creating societal worth through wealth and consumption, etc. to give us a sense of greater meaning for our existence, a connection to something that transcends us, or even a sense of immortality.
The deeply important comfort these constructs provide (by subconsciously repressing our mortality awareness) makes us highly protective of them and creates two responses in us. The first is that when we are reminded of our mortality (or feel threatened) we tend to fall back on these constructs and look negatively at other constructs, ideas, and people that are different. The second is that threats (real or perceived) to these constructs, especially those such as religion and heritage, are interpreted by our subconscious as threats to our existence or threats to the meaning of our existence. In fact, the mere existence of an opposing construct (such as a different religion) invalidates our construct and therefore invalidates the meaning of our existence). Any of these conditions can trigger a “mortality defense” in our subconscious that will drive us to do whatever it takes to protect ourselves from these threats, actual or otherwise. This may explain why wars and genocide are often related to religion, race, tribalism, etc. We are willing to die to protect the constructs that give us “immortality”.
This is not theory, it is well-understood and has been proven by social psychologists through hundreds of experiments performed around the world. This area of psychology is known as Terror Management Theory and is very important to this discussion as it points out that seemingly benign fear-mongering can actually deeply affect listeners. In experiments during the Bush/Kerry presidential race, psychologists were able to control voters’ preferences with simple death reminders. Other experiments have confirmed that artificial death reminders or even threats to our social constructs can push us to dangerous and deadly behaviors.
There is more to self-esteem than driving around in a big truck or a Lexus (explicit self-esteem). It’s also about our place in society (implicit self-esteem) – are we fitting in, do we belong, are we contributing, or are we successful to the degree that our society expects?
America has been suffering through decades of wealth-driven ideologies and policies that have shrunk the middle class, moved more and more of us into poverty, and have all but removed any hope for getting ahead. All of this slowly erodes our self-esteem (and creates angst) as we feel ourselves being left behind by the rest of our country. We want that existence back – we want our country back – we want to fit in.
Humans need strong self-esteem more than we realize and one way that our subconscious helps with that is to look down on others. This provides at least some, albeit false, sense of dignity or superiority by allowing us to believe we are better than at least some people. Unfortunately, our subconscious will also tell us exactly who we should look down upon, and again, it will be those who are different from us. Importantly, and like protracted fear, it doesn’t matter if they have caused our suffering or not – they are different and that is all our subconscious cares about. Having low self-esteem can also make us vulnerable to the influence of others as we subconsciously look for those who can help us out of our mess and thus restore our pride and place in society.
Low self-esteem works hand-in-hand with fear. When our self-esteem is in poor shape we are more susceptible to the damage caused to us by fear. If we are told that some specific people or ideas have caused our suffering, then all the better. This is especially true when those who provide us with these scapegoats are charismatic or in positions of authority (news anchors, pundits, politicians, presidents, and even preachers). Looking down on “others” is a general-purpose tool that our subconscious uses to repair our self-esteem, but that self-esteem is turbo-charged when authority figures tell us who or what we should specifically fear and blame for our (supposed) failures… and what we should do about them. Also, there has been plenty of research that shows the fear created by climate change is causing people with low self-esteem to act even more negatively toward nature (denial of climate change, increased consumerism, disregard for endangered species, etc.).
As fear or damaged self-esteem makes us withdraw, we are greatly relieved when we learn (or are told) that others are suffering along with us. Even without physically interacting with them – just knowing they exist – gives us a much-needed sense of belonging. This is further exacerbated by the internet and social media which creates a 24/7/365 virtual back porch where our new-found group interactions bring us validation, amplification, and even expansion of the fears and the threats that brought us together. Being a member of a group, even if vaguely labeled as “not those others”, provides a sense of safety as those who are most like you are the ones who will help you restore your world.
Not only do we identify with the group, but the group can become our identity as we continually strive to reshape ourselves to be more like the people in our group – no matter how radical the group becomes. The safety we find in our group is more important to us than truth and we will readily ignore facts or embrace conspiracy theories if that helps to prove our commitment to the group. The denial of climate change shows that we can discard facts that aren’t even an attack on us or our group – it is the source of the “fact” (in this case the left telling us how to live) that is all-important. The refusal to wear a mask or receive a Covid-19 vaccine reveals the power of our subconscious, as all too many of us are willing to sacrifice ourselves and even our children to remain in the group (though some have sought out the vaccines privately and in confidence).
Being part of a group does wonderful things for our self-esteem and the lure is often strong enough to pull us away from our core social anchors (tradition, religion, and even family). It is not uncommon to hear stories about families being ripped apart because of the highly manipulative noise coming out of Fox News and other conservative media outlets. Conversely, moving away from a group is difficult, because not only would you be heading off into the unknown, you would also be betraying that which gives your life meaning.
When our self-esteem is in desperate need of repair we eagerly embrace and even obey the charismatic voices who promise to alleviate our internal subconscious suffering. If candidate Trump had one message, it was “there are many forces that are working against you and only I can save you”. We are empowered when public leaders at the highest levels openly, even if disingenuously, have our back. We believe that such leaders will return what has been taken from us (those critical social constructs that give our lives meaning). This is where our fears and self-esteem can be used to control us on dangerous levels. With our newfound power combined with the belief that our very lives are at stake, we are ready to make sacrifices for our protectors, “circle the wagons” for our group, and even strike out at the “threats”. This feeling of power makes up for all the years that we were wrongly cast aside – and we will not let go of this power.
Studies and experiments have shown differences between liberals and conservatives when it comes to sensitivity to threat, group membership, negative bias, etc. There is ample evidence that even brain structure comes into play as those people that identify as conservatives tend to have a larger and more responsive amygdala (the fear processor in our brain) and at the same time, those who identify as liberals showed more activity in their anterior cingulate cortex which is believed to be related to accepting change.
It is also understood that Conservatives’ sensitivity to fear causes them to retreat to the familiar and are therefore more likely to lean on religion, nostalgia, tradition, heritage, and well-defined hierarchical and authoritative structure for both family and society. Liberals, on the other hand, typically have less structure and let their children explore a bit more and learn for themselves.
All of the above is just part of being human. None of it is necessarily bad, and if we were left purely to our own devices then humanity would probably get along fairly well, but unfortunately, people have always been under the influence of leaders one way or another. We are all vulnerable to this, and it’s pretty easy to see how our subconscious processes and the abundance of ill-intentioned voices can easily align against us. Unfortunately, because most of this impacts our subconscious, we are unable to recognize it, even in our resulting conscious and very public behavior.
Through no fault of our own, many of us have been left behind by decades of wealth-inspired policies such as trickledown economics, runaway (and one-way) capitalism, the free-market ideology, etc. all of which resulted in a decimated working class, a massive shift of wealth, and a corrupted pro-corporate government. Others, through relentless conservative fear-mongering, have been convinced that we either have been or soon will be left behind. Any of these cases can make us feel that we’re losing everything – not only our livelihood, but also our place in society, our country, and our future. This has a devastating impact on us as we are overwhelmed by diminished self-esteem and increased angst about our future. This makes us more vulnerable to the daily barrage of fear-mongering and we allow ourselves to be herded into those ready-made safe-havens (such as The Tea Party, MAGA, Qanon, etc.), which ultimately makes us even more easily manipulated and controlled.
The “psychological intersection” of fear, poor self-esteem, group association, and newfound power can be used to make us fight back against this non-existent attack on our country and do things that we normally wouldn’t do on our own — such as marching on a campus or attacking the Capitol.
Those of us who identify as conservative are a bit more vulnerable to this rhetoric than others because of a stronger relationship with heritage and tradition, greater resistance to change, a stronger desire for hierarchy and authority, and more active fear processing. None of these are wrong or bad, but they are being ruthlessly used against us.
Words are powerful and they have more impact on people than most of us realize; because of this, it is important to choose those words wisely — especially these days. We don’t necessarily have to coddle everyone all the time, but being aware of what messages will fan the flames will guide us in tempering what we say. If done correctly, not only will we reduce the digging in of heels, but we will give listeners more constructive things to think about and work towards. There are discussions to avoid or reframe and there are discussions to carefully highlight. Elections are won and lost by a handful of votes and more thoughtful messaging could make a difference.
Let’s wrap this up with some hints for Democrats on how to improve the messaging of their accomplishments and how to reduce their triggering of the Right and the number of talking points they provide to Conservative media…
- Avoid lecturing and lecturing tone of voice — nobody likes to be told what to do or want
- Quickly, robustly, and continuously reverse course on “defunding the police” — the police provide safety, thus reducing fear and opportunities for those highly damaging fear-mongering talking points
- As good as it may make you feel, leave the statues alone. Things were better before these symbols were not being ripped down – pick your battles…
- Don’t take down the NRA, just take down those that committed the crimes at the top. The NRA has millions of responsible and long-standing members and the majority of them want some sort of gun control
- Avoid triggers — focus on the actual and immediate needs of the audience, not on greater ideas such as transformative or sweeping changes. Remember that an inclusive America is interpreted by many on the Right as an America that excludes them.
- Avoid explaining policy with a spreadsheet — use emotion and find folks’ heartstrings
- Get the Democrats and their constructive voices back out in rural America and keep them there — and do it now
- Find and develop new mechanisms to push through the barriers of information that conservative media has created (billboards can be strategically placed and are not impacted by social media filtering algorithms)
- Go after Republicans while avoiding triggers — focus on how they are hurting families and America — point out their lies and their lack of respect for their own base
- At this point, nobody is going to change their mind on immigration, abortion, etc. These are important topics, but tread lightly as these topics will make some voters forget about every positive thing the Democrats do or talk about…
- Do all the above continuously — do not wait for election season A few sound bites here or there will not undo the non-stop messaging from conservative media, will not be heard on conservative media (unless it is a trigger), and will soon be drowned out from multiple conservative sources.
These are just a few of many resources available to learn more about our psychology and our politics
- A very good starting place
- By using our fear of death, psychologists can predictably control who we will vote for
- A significant number of interviews with thought leaders provided by the Hub of New Ideas (Especially Episode 2 on Bigotry and Episode 12 on Self-Esteem)
- How fear increases climate denial
- A deep dive into our Fears and how it controls us
- A random sampling of the many articles on the web
- Eric Hoffer quotations
- One of many examples of cultivating fear
- This has all happened before
- And it is happening again…