By Mark Gerzon
Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.
Have you noticed that politics is a wonderful way to get high — at least for a while? It’s a different kind of cocktail. It’s the civic equivalent of getting drunk.
But it’s not alcohol we’re drinking. It’s partisanship.
My work for the last twenty years has been about getting the Left and Right to listen to each other and work together. But believe me, I still feel the desire to get high. Whether I am attending a political event in person or engaging via the media, I feel the rush just like everyone else. But frankly, after months of partisan binging, a hangover is setting in.
Either in person or on screen, I’ve witnessed political events featuring every major candidate. It’s always the same basic cocktail. At one Bernie Sanders event this year, there were thousands of fans, standing in the blazing sun cheering at almost every sentence he uttered, I suddenly felt like I was chugging tequila. Even when my neocortex reminded me that the policies this “democratic socialist” was advocating would not come to pass, and that the Right would block every move he made, I still felt like I was getting stoned.
Do I really think every Wall Street transaction will be taxed to make university education available free of charge for an entire generation? No way. Do I think the House of Representatives will pass legislation that expands Medicare so that every American citizen has free health care? Not a chance.
But the crowd was so incredibly elated that I could feel the mood and energy shift. Sanders’ fans were getting turned on. The partisan cocktail that keeps the wheel of American politics turning was kicking in.
Whether at rallies for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I see a similar collective shift. Across the spectrum, I notice this same understandable yearning for a quick political high.
What moves our limbic systems so strongly? Being in a sea of righteous believers stimulates the emotional centers of the brain. There is nothing quite like standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of fellow humans being thrilled by the same stimulus. I have witnessed a similar rush at a rousing rock concert or even a deeply moving Catholic Mass.
Just listen to the crowd when Trump claims that a “third Obama administration” under Hillary Clinton would destroy America. Just listen to Sanders’ fans cheer when he rails against the 1% and boasts that he has no superPAC. And just watch the decibels rise when Clinton says that her policies will unite immigrant families while the Republicans’ policies would “tear them apart.”
Our brains, it seems, are wired to being “right.” When we listen to a candidate speak with whom we agree, surrounded by others of like mind, we are among the righteous. We are one of the chosen people. We are on the side of the angels — part of the army of light that will save the country.
After months of drinking this cheap political wine, like I said, I feel a civic hangover. In a country addicted to this elixir of partisanship, how do we ever reach across the aisle and get things done? If we want to reunite America enough so that we can solve some of the tough problems that we face, what “transpartisan” mixture can we offer voters that even can compete with getting drunk on the “hyperpartisan” cocktail?
I don’t’ need to cite the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to prove that getting sober won’t be easy. It starts with admitting that we have a problem, and that we need help. And how many of us, in the collective stupor of an election year binge, are willing to do that? How do we make working through our differences as electric and exciting as exploiting our differences? How do we get as turned on by cross-partisan problem-solving as by super-partisan mud-slinging?
We simply can’t afford to go on getting drunk on being “right.” It’s time to get sober — before it’s too late.
This is Mark Gerzon with “Beyond Red and Blue.” For more information, please go to markgerzon.com.
Mark Gerzon, President of Mediators Foundation, is the author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide. For a quarter of a century, Mark has been a mediator, leadership consultant and activist across the great divides that decrease productivity and innovation and increase separation, mistrust and violence. From Capitol Hill to foreign capitols to communities and enterprises in crisis, he has been one of the architects of a new, boundary-crossing, problem-solving kind of leadership.