We didn't lose our minds...
they were stolen

How we were trained to hate

It is not hyperbole to state that the outcome of the 2022 and 2024 elections will determine if American Democracy will survive or not.

For decades, the Republican Party and Conservative media, along with billionaire-funded think tanks and political organizations have been steadily chipping away at our Democracy. It was a gradual and stealthy attack that was too slow for many of us to notice. Then things ramped up quickly in the 2016 election when Donald Trump showed up and pulled back the curtain to expose the Republicans for what they really were all along. Once exposed, the Republicans simply went for it and, in broad daylight, we watched the rapid decline of Democracy.

It’s hard to believe that it would happen in America, but things got to the point where President Trump, several elected Republicans, and their operatives attempted to overturn the 2020 election – with violence if necessary. The coup failed, but it was only the beginning as many more Republicans are now openly and brazenly obstructing investigations into that coup attempt. If that isn’t bad enough, the coup is still a work in progress as the Right continues to restrict our ability to vote, selectively purge voters and nonconforming election officials, and rig election laws. Meanwhile, they continue to politicize and perpetuate the pandemic, block legislation that will help Americans, astroturf attacks on free society (CRT, book bans, teacher bounties, etc.), ignore climate change, and grotesquely fight gun safety.

With all this going on, the Democrats, instead of riding a wave of patriotic support, are left scratching their heads trying to understand why the Republicans continue to poll so well and why so many Americans seem eager to abandon our Democracy. The Democrats have remained blissfully unaware of the creeping and long-lasting effects of years of Conservative policies, rhetoric, and social engineering. They were also unaware that, through their own actions and words, they were unwitting partners all along.

So, What the Hell Happened?

thinking

The divide between Republicans and Democrats has gotten so bad that we honestly should not be calling it a “political” divide. We have moved on from a battle of ideas and policies to a true battle over our Democracy itself. The political Right is exhibiting a near cult-like behavior where their many thought leaders are orchestrating a rhythm of hatred and discord that their followers are seemingly addicted to. It is literally impossible to keep up with the toxic messaging that is spewing out of a wide range of conservative voices — ranging from subtle to shocking but always nonstop and always from multiple sources. They are feeding Americans a steady stream of new conspiracies to believe, new people to hate, and new 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’s a big difference between a divided nation and a nation that is actively and maliciously being divided, and we are the latter.

Fear-mongering does much more damage to us than we realize. It is critical that we understand the psychological tendencies related to fear, self-esteem, etc. that we all share and how they have been used to exploit many of us to the point of creating this national cult. The Democratic party does not seem to understand that fear, anger, and confusion are now buried deep in the subconscious of many of us and that a few speeches from behind a lectern will not help – in fact, they could easily make things worse.

Our Malleable Minds

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.

Flavors of Fear

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 quickly put us into “fight or flight” mode when we sense danger. Threats will instantly trigger responses in the brain that will bypass reason for the sake of efficiency. Fear changes the way we process information and react to that information well before we realize we do – all to keep us safe from direct threats. 

While fear protects us from immediate danger, anxiety, and angst have the ability to destroy us. Anxiety is caused by persistent threats and angst is caused by your perception of an unraveling world. (For brevity, this article will use anxiety as a term that combines anxiety and angst.) Like fear, anxiety can reduce our ability to reason and increase our sensitivity to threats – but with anxiety, our imagination can come into play and that can make things worse and drag them out. Anxiety can make us retreat to the familiar (family, friends, tradition, rituals, people like us, etc.) for safety, but when we retreat, it is not only from the threat (perceived or actual) but also from anything or anyone different from us. Anxiety reduces our ability to rationalize and we are more likely to “see” exaggerated evil or threat in those that are different than us and, just as dangerous, we are more likely to accept the negatives or even the evils of those who are similar to us. It’s important to remember that much of this goes on in our subconscious, but the resulting actions are very much out in the open.

Terror Management Theory

As human beings, we are the only creature that is uniquely cursed with the understanding that our existence here is temporary and out of our control – we understand that we are mortal. 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. These gave us a sense of greater meaning for our existence, a connection to something that transcends us, or even a sense of immortality. Our social constructs are the sedative that helps us subconsciously manage the terror of understanding our mortality.

The deeply important comfort these constructs provide makes us highly protective of them and creates two responses in us. The first is that when we are reminded of our mortality (or exposed to mortal threats) we tend to fall back on our social constructs and look negatively at differing constructs or the people that embrace differing constructs. The second is that threats (real or perceived) to our 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. This can trigger a “mortality defense” in our subconscious that will drive us to do whatever it takes to protect ourselves from these “threats”. This helps to 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 influence 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.

Self-esteem

There is more to self-esteem than driving around in a big truck or a Lexus. It’s also about our place in society – 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 (creating anxiety) 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 ourselves to believe that 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 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. 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 boost 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.

Low self-esteem works hand-in-hand with fear. When our self-esteem is in poor shape we are more susceptible to being pulled into a spiral of growing anxiety and despair, all leading to a further damaged self-esteem.

Group Identity

When fear or damaged self-esteem makes us withdraw, we are greatly relieved to find others like us.  We don’t need to interact with them – just knowing they exist gives us a much-needed sense of belonging and safety as we feel that those who are most like us can be the ones who will help us restore our world.

Belonging to a group will keep us safe and boost our self-esteem, making us very protective of our membership. Not only do we identify with the group, but the group can become our identity and we are willing to reshape ourselves to be more like the people in our group. We will even gladly trade in our morality for that of the group in exchange for our survival.

An easy way to boost our self-esteem is to exaggerate the worthiness and purity of our group while denigrating other groups. Moving away from a group is difficult, because not only would you be heading back into the unknown, but you would also be betraying those who give your life meaning.

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. This is exacerbated by the internet and social media which create a 24/7/365 virtual back porch where actual interactions with our new-found group bring us validation and amplification of the fears and the threats that brought us together while increasing our disdain for outsiders.

We are cultural creatures, but as we increase our connectivity to people like us we also decrease our connectivity to others and we lose our sense of a balanced and mutually empathetic society. As we can see every day in the news, this can easily spiral out of control (tribalism and cultism).

Cognitive bias

Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts that we all use to simplify or quickly process information. As is often the case with shortcuts, the results aren’t typically ideal and our biases can make us easily misinterpret the world around us. There are many types of cognitive biases – we’ll look at two.

Confirmation bias is our tendency to interpret events or information in a way that supports or strengthens our existing beliefs. It also causes us to actively seek out confirming information and ignore contradictory information – skipping over newspaper articles based on their headline is a typical example. It is another way we protect our self-esteem by continually validating our beliefs and values.   

In-group bias causes us to prefer those people in our group while disregarding others – the “out-group”. Tightly coupled with the above discussion on Group Identity, in-group bias greatly influences our interpretation of information.  If information comes from a source that we believe is against our group then we will tend to ignore it or maybe even consider it to be an attack. 

In both cases, we will “dig in our heels” or “double down” on our position, sometimes regardless of the cost or danger to ourselves, to protect our ego, self-esteem, or group. The more emotionally attached we are to a belief the stronger we will react against conflicting information, ideas, or people.

Physiology

Experiments have provided 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 and anxiety processor in our brain), conversely, those who identify as liberals showed more activity in their anterior cingulate cortex which is believed to be related to accepting change.

This aligns with other studies that show that Conservatives’ sensitivity to fear causes them to more readily retreat to the familiar and comfortable and are therefore more likely to lean on religion, nostalgia, tradition, heritage, and well-defined hierarchical and authoritative structure for both family and society.  Related research has shown that Conservatives’ morality tends to come from top-down and is rooted in purity, while Liberals’ morality tends to be more “horizontal” and rooted in fairness.

The impact of prolonged anxiety can actually start to rewire and even restructure our brain as an “activated” amygdala will continually impact neurotransmitters, neurochemical and hormonal levels, nerve circuits, etc. Over time, anxiety can reduce the physical size and capabilities in areas of the brain related to reason, emotional responses, and memory while increasing the physical size and sensitivity of the amygdala, making us even more defensive and more susceptible to fear and anxiety.

The Psychological Perfect Storm

Psychology and DemocracyAll 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. This resulted in a decimated working class, a massive shift of wealth, and a corrupted pro-corporate government that made us disengage out of frustration. Others, through relentless conservative fear-mongering, have been convinced that we either have been or soon will be, left behind. Then of course there’s the awareness that we ‘re in a rigged system and we’re working harder for less money and that many of us are one pink slip or one diagnosis away from financial ruin.

People like certainty, control, and a sense of belonging, but any of the above can make us feel that we’re losing everything –  our livelihood, our place in society, and our comforting social constructs.  This has a devastating impact on us as we are overwhelmed by diminished self-esteem and increased anxiety about our future. In turn, we become more vulnerable to the daily barrage of divisive rhetoric and more willing to be herded into those ready-made safe havens (such as The Tea Party, MAGA, QAnon, rallies, etc.), which ultimately make us even more easily manipulated and controlled.

Conservative media has been orchestrating a long-running attack on our sanity, initially, only to provide cover for pro-corporate policies, but it has evolved over the years to be more about control – and they are no longer subtle about it. Their rhetoric has moved far beyond “welfare queens” and “takers vs. job makers” as they keep us in a constant state of anxiety with a steady supply of manufactured threats to saturate our minds, making us dizzy with fear and hate and making us unable to process our world. An abbreviated list includes:

  • The Left’s attack on Christmas
  • Pushing the narrative of coastal elite vs. the fly-over states
  • Emails and Benghazi 
  • A Kenyan/Muslim president
  • Democrats taking our guns away
  • Reframing the pandemic response as a socialist/communist plot
  • The stolen election
  • Critical Race Theory
  • The Left’s softness on pedophilia
  • Grooming children
  • Replacement theory
  • Reframing bigotry as freedom of speech
  • Reframing the protection of minorities as wokeness
  • Biden’s burger ban (seriously)

These are repeated over and over again in a non-stop barrage that prevents our minds from coming up for air. In fact, we keep going back for more to get a confirmation bias “fix” from Fox News or from elected officials at the highest levels who tell us that our fears are warranted and that they understand and support us. It’s worth repeating that social media also plays a big role here with algorithms that filter out any countering information while simultaneously allowing us to find online interactions where we commiserate only with those who “suffer” as we do. This increases our isolation and reduces that important connectivity to other groups and ideas in society.

When our world is crumbling and our self-esteem is in desperate need of repair we eagerly embrace and even obey the charismatic voices that promise to alleviate our suffering. Authoritative leaders have always divided and exploited vulnerable populations and Donald Trump is no exception. 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. Trump drastically increased our divide by feeding and exploiting the top-down, purity-based morality of Conservatives while simultaneously attacking the fairness-based morality of Liberals.

This psychological perfect storm of anxiety, poor self-esteem, group identity, and a charismatic leader can be used to control us to 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, protect our group, and even strike out at the “threats”.  his feeling of power makes up for all the years that we were wrongly cast aside – and we will not let go of this power.

All of this has allowed the Right to create a brotherhood of perpetual victimhood and their membership drive is relentless. They tell us every day that we are victims and that there is nothing we can do about it other than use the unwritten rule that victims are allowed to strike back.

– – – –

Those of us who identify as conservative are a bit more vulnerable to all of this because of a tighter relationship with heritage and tradition, greater resistance to change, and a stronger desire for a structured hierarchy of authority. None of these are wrong or bad, but they are ruthlessly being used against many of us.

Untangling our Synapses

divisive rhetoric

Thoughtful and helpful legislation, the occasional speech, and catchy slogans during campaign season will do little to unwind this mess. If we expect to calm folks down and bring them back to the table then we first need to understand what has pushed them to the brink in the first place. Only then will we have political discussions that once again include reason and a rational view of the world. 

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 can 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. District-level elections are often won or lost by a handful of votes so more thoughtful messaging could make a difference.

Even now, with Democracy staring down a cliff, Democrats still fail to see that they sometimes needlessly push voters away, and therefore contribute to Democracy’s slide toward the abyss. To be clear, it is the Conservatives and Republicans that have gone down a shockingly dangerous path, keeping their base in a state of war, but the Republicans aren’t going to change (other than getting worse), so the Democrats must change.

Let’s wrap this up with some hints for Democrats on how to improve their messaging, reduce their triggering of the Republicans, and minimize the number of talking points they so generously provide to Conservative media. These few bullet points will not solve this problem, they are presented only as real-world tie-ins to the above conversation.

  • Avoid lecturing and lecturing tone of voice — nobody likes to be told what to do or want
  • Avoid explaining policy with a “spreadsheet approach” — use emotion and find folks’ heartstrings – emotion owns reason.
  • Quickly, robustly, and continuously reverse course on “defunding the police” — the police provide safety, thus reducing fear and anxiety. It also reduces those highly damaging fear-mongering talking points from the Right
  • As good as it may make you feel, leave the statues alone. Things were better before these important symbols were not being ripped down – pick your battles and win the war
  • 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. NRA members are proud Americans and we should turn to them for help – make them part of the solution
  • 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.
  • Aggressively exploit any and all mechanisms that can break through the walls of disinformation that conservative media has created (billboards can be strategically placed and are not impacted by social media filtering algorithms – just be sure they are effective and not triggers)
  • Go after Republicans while avoiding triggers — focus on how they are hurting families and lack respect for their own base and that their policies and inaction consistently go against what the majority of Americans want and only benefit corporate America.
  • 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…
  • Get the Democrats (and their constructive voices) back out in rural America and keep them there — and do it now…
  • 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, they will not be heard on conservative media (unless they are triggers), and they 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