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The Fault Lines of the Contemporary Political Divide – Part 2

Part one available here: , the first part of the Fault Lines article

Part three available here: , the third part of the Fault Lines article

In the first part of the article we dealt with judgments and labels often incorporated by the opposing sides of the current ideological divide. Three labels got special treatment, labels of laziness, stupidity, and otherness. One label which deserves as much attention as the three labels mentioned above is the label ‘crazy’. Calling each other crazy is becoming quite common. Holding certain beliefs, acting strangely, doing incomprehensible things, often invokes this label. To qualify someone as crazy often means in the ordinary sense (or meaning) of this word, that a person is perceived as being ‘sick in his or her head’. The crazy person is not normal and has a lot of ‘issues’. He or she is inflicted with a multitude of pathological traits. What this label often hides, is the inability of the person who judges the other person as being crazy, to understand the behavior or conduct of the person judged. The puzzlement is often expressed by statements, such as ‘How can anyone do such thing!?’, ‘How can you believe such nonsense!?’, ‘Why would he say something crazy like that!?’ The question mark and the exclamation mark behind each of these statements are deliberately contraposed. They express the outrage, exasperation and disbelief and at the same the puzzlement.  Consequentially, it shows the inability to make sense of or meaningfully interpret other person’s actions and utterances.  

The label ‘crazy’ leads us on the psychological-therapeutic path. Therefore, the second part of the article offers a distinct look at the contemporary ideological divide from the perspective of a therapist. It might be an uneasy, yet hopefully fruitful effort to connect ideological trends which mostly operate on the higher social-political plane with a detailed psychological and therapeutic approach related to individuals who possess specific set(s) of traits and characteristics. To frame this effort properly, it is necessary to introduce some important insights and concepts which belong to the standard vocabulary of psychological-therapeutic practice and theory. These terms need to be explicated with the aim to direct our attention toward the importance of internal and external conflicts the current ideological divide brings to the surface.

After the framework is set, we will introduce some challenges and some proposals, which if not immediately, then at least in the close future will can offer some hope that the public discourse between warring ideological camps can improve and the collaborative approach leading to a better mutual understanding and coexistence can be boosted. 

Our growing ideological divide and how it can be bridged: a psychotherapist’s perspective

Although there are no simple explanations or easy solutions for the worsening political polarization that had beset our nation, it is clear that the psychological dimension is integral to it and essential to understand. Emotions emanating from politics have increasingly grown intense and volatile, with conflicts erupting at family dinners, within relationships, between long-time friends, hardening our legislative impasse, and increasingly, taking a violent turn. Analyzing and working with intense and problematic emotions can be called the “bread and butter” of the psychotherapist’s trade, and despite the complexity of this historical development, certain themes can be discerned and insights offered from a therapist’s vantage point. 

As we explored in Part I, one of the byproducts of the increased prevalence of ideologies is a quickness to judge one’s ideological opponents in harsh and negative terms. Attributions of stupidity, laziness, mendacity and evil and “anti-attitudes” make political compromise and dialogue almost impossible. The roots of this ideological gridlock and extremism can be found in the psychological functions that political belief and ideology play in the human individual and relational psyche. People and patients differ in their political interest, awareness and involvement, ranging from the apathetic to the fanatical. Common sense would suggest that the less people there are at either extreme, the healthier the body politic. The ancient Athenians coined the word “idiot” for those who took no interest in the polis, whereas Voltaire aptly warned of “spirit of fanaticism” as the bane of humankind, with fanaticism being “ what delirium is to fever, or rage to anger.”[1] The poet Yeats also famously captured the psychology of extremism, when he poetically lamented that “the center does not hold” and “the best lack all conviction, while the “worst are filled with a passionate intensity.”[2]

There is a rich legacy of psychological research and insight regarding people and politics, which highlights how political belief expresses emotional needs and explores how political ideology is often the projection of psychological needs and conflicts. The academic field known as “political psychology” originated in the 1930’s with Harold Lasswell’s Psychopathology and Politics (1930), which noted that political expression reflects psychological themes projected outwards (and that “dogma is a defensive reaction against doubt in the mind of the theorist, but doubt of which he is unaware.”)

What causes a person to embrace dogma and a strident ideology over having a firm perspective but being open to dialogue and pluralistically accepting that there can be more than one point of view that can co-exist in respectful contestation? To illuminate this question we need to understand the nature of ideology and the psychological sources and functions of political worldviews. 

As we noted on Part I, an ideology can be defined as a belief-system, a set of interconnected assumptions and propositions that purport to explain the world and guide us within it.  Karl Jaspers in his Psychology of Worldviews observed in 1919 that ideologies or worldviews are inevitable mental constructs in which we make sense of the world, from our perspective and reflecting our experience.  Every worldview is limited and simplifies the complexity of reality, giving us a sense of security and meaning, but also serves as a scaffolding or shell to which we cling or behind which we hide, to obtain the illusion of certainty.  

In assessing our current ideological divide, it is helpful to be reminded that everyone (even the researcher and scholar of ideologies and every mediator and therapist) has an ideology. Our worldviews (cultural, social and political) allow us to navigate our way in a complex world, and reflect the myriad of biological, environmental, experiential and cultural influences that have shaped us to be who we are. It is no accident that the current political ideological divide involves a geography of Blue states and Red states, with liberal attitudes rooted in urban, educated, coastal areas and conservative views in rural, less educated, central and southern “Middle America”. Increasingly, those of the same ideology or worldview coagulate together, with little opportunity for contact or communication between the divide. 

The work of Jonathan Haidt is illuminating in explaining the prevalence of differences in political viewpoints. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Religion and Politics (2012) he poses the question: why did people differ so drastically in their political (and religious) beliefs? As a social psychologist, he points to the fact that everyone has a core set of values (he calls them “moral taste buds” and following David Hume, argues that they are intuitive not “rational”) that determines how they see the world in terms of right and wrong. Haidt says that there are essentially 5 poles or core values (and their opposites) that are involved in determine the contemporary ideological divide:

·       Care/Harm – This is the value of compassion and decreasing the suffering of others.

·       Fairness/Cheating – This is the value of justice as due reward for merit and “following the rules”. 

·       Loyalty/Betrayal – This is the value of doing one’s duty and being faithful to ties that bind.

·       Authority/Subversion – This is the value of respect for tradition and leaders.

·       Sanctity/Disgust – This is a sense of instinctual reverence (especially religious) and visceral repulsion for certain behaviors. 

Haidt emphasizes the reality of cultural diversity and its attendant diversity in moral sensibilities. Western, educated, urban, progressive and liberal people, he argues, center their moral universe as equality and not doing harm, and can’t understand how others could disagree or have different sensibilities. We could call this worldview humanitarianism; as it prioritizes equality and compassion for others. Conservatives, he argues, have this “taste bud” but also strongly believe in more traditional values: fairness as not allowing people to freeload, to be “takers” or cheat the system, loyalty to one’s country and respect for authority, patriotism, dislike of those seen as disloyal or subversive, and an anchoring in a sense that there are certain things that are sacred. Sanctity means respect for the flag, religious symbols, and what is considered the God-given order of nature which in their view excludes homosexuality. Disgust is a salient affect for the conservative when they consider same sex marriage or gay sexuality; it’s a visceral repulsion, not a rational point of view.

Notice that the morality of liberal progressives tends to be a consideration of rational and utilitarian interests, stopping “oppression” and suffering, and ending the unfairness of discrimination. As long as no one is harmed by a behavior, it is OK. Conservatives on the other hand, believe that certain things are just “wrong”, valorize the “fairness” of a system that rewards effort and enterprise, and despise welfare as inimical to individualism. Conservatives also reject diversity in culture and lifestyles, as leading to dissoluteness, decadence, immorality and chaos. 

Haidt began as a New York liberal Democrat progressive, but believes that those of us who are “WIERD” (come from Western, industrialized, educated, rich and democratic societies) need to be more open-minded and in a sense (ironically), tolerant of this moral diversity. Liberals and progressive would benefit from realizing that being arrogant or self-righteous and assuming that your way of looking at things is the only way, is not a pragmatic strategy.  It is better to understand where other people and people with differing political ideologies are coming from, than to dismiss them as ignorant and evil, or “deplorable”. [3]

Developing Haidt’s perspective further, we can see that extremism in ideology involves a fixation or fanaticism in which one moral value (variants amongst the panoply that Haidt identifies) becomes hypertrophied or inflated into an absolute. For example, the Communist takes the value of equality (fairness as equality) to such an extreme as to subordinate everything to its achievement, with liberty and freedom downplayed or completely abandoned. [4] The libertarian, on the other end of the ideological spectrum, absolutizes individual freedom at the expense of social values and compassion (e.g. Ayn Rand). Extremist and fanatic ideologies are antithetical to a democratic process, in which critical thinking and reason tempers ideology (which always threatens to get out of hand to become dogmatic and intolerant) and in which pluralism, toleration of differing points of view, and pragmatism allows for the political sorting out and resolution of differing interests and ideas. [5] A bird must have a left wing, and a right wing, but cannot fly without having both. A therapist’s perspective on our current ideological divide can also incorporate the insights of family systems theory and systems and complexity theory in general.[6]

Rather than seeing the varied and conflicting cultural positions within the ideological spectrum as distinct and separate, we can recognize their interconnectedness and how they express the larger system in different but interlinked ways. Left and right define themselves reactively in terms of each other as opposites, but mirroring one another and exacerbating differences at the expense of their common identity and belongingness to the same larger community. The therapist’s  task is then to encourage separation-individuation from the oppressiveness of systems and to facilitate breaking out of negative habits of conflict and to forge new patterns of cooperation. [7]

The psychological factors and patterns which have encouraged the rise of extremism and the decline of the political center can also to be illuminated using the insights of cognitive behavioral psychotherapy.  As psychotherapists who follow the approach of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck have taught us, people are prone to “cognitive distortions” that are negative and irrational (or a better term, unhelpful for living together with others) e.g. when things get rough and aren’t going well, the conclusion is that it is a catastrophe and nothing can be done, or, the idea that there is a perfect solution to our problems, and lacking it, it is a disaster and we can’t move forward.[8]

Cognitive distortions that appear in political expressions also include “All or Nothing Thinking”,  “Overgeneralization”,  “Jumping to Conclusions”, “ Mind Reading”, “Labeling and Mislabeling” and “Personalization”.  In cognitive behavioral therapy, these “automatic thoughts” generally are turned against the self – e.g. for labeling, if the patient stumbles or makes an error, they tell themselves “I’m a loser”. Cognitive distortion implemented in political thinking, on the other hand, involves projection outwards toward others (“e.g., “That politician is a crook!” or: vote against my opponent and thereby, ”Drain the swamp!”) Another example of political cognitive distortion is, on the “populist” right – “The system is rigged!” Or on the far left, “The rich call all the shots” and, ”The system is rigged!” 

Beck’s more complex model of the “cognitive triad” by which depression is rooted in mutually reinforcing negative beliefs about the self, about the world, and about the future could also be applied to political beliefs or worldviews. Just as automatic thoughts, in more contemporary cognitive behavioral theory are related to something deeper, “core schemas” that generate them, we could consider ideologies as analogous to “core schemas”. [9] Extremist ideologies freely engage in distorted thinking and paranoia, as the complexities of social issues and problems are crammed into the rigid categories of dogma, generating despondency or rage, paralysis or dysfunctional behavior.

Analysis of “core schemas” brings us to a convergence of more recent cognitive behavioral thinking with the psychodynamic/psychoanalytical therapeutic perspective. A psychoanalytical understanding of ideology can begin to discern the hidden, deeper sources of why a person clings to or has embraced an extremist ideology. The cognitive distortions of someone in the grip of an ideology can then be seen as having emotive roots, related to trauma or developmental arrest or developmental deficits. Psycho-dynamically, we can see rigid and extreme ideologies as a way of resolving intractable inner conflicts, or the expression of “unconscious organizing principles” which operate automatically, and which can be changed when brought to the light of consciousness and critically examined.[10]

In understanding right wing extremism, the work of the Frankfurt school of “critical theory” remains valuable. Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941) is still worth reading for its explanation of the rise of National Socialism in Germany as a flight from the responsibility by individuals with an authoritarian personality structure in modern industrial society to make their own choices, and instead embrace authoritarian demagoguery. Theodore Adorno et al in The Authoritarian Personality also applied a psychoanalytic perspective in identifying the personality traits of those with a propensity for fascism, which can be summed up as: 

·       Blind allegiance to conventional beliefs about right and wrong

·       Respect for submission to acknowledged authority

·       Belief in aggression toward those who do not subscribe to conventional thinking, or who are different

·       A negative view of people in general – i.e. the belief that people would all lie, cheat or steal if given the opportunity

·       A need for strong leadership which displays uncompromising power

·       A belief in simple answers and polemics – i.e. ‘The media controls us all’ or ‘The source of all our problems is the loss of morals these days.’

·       Resistance to creative, dangerous ideas. A black and white worldview.

·       A tendency to project one’s own feelings of inadequacy, rage and fear onto a scapegoated group

·       A preoccupation with violence and sex”[11] 

Following in this tradition, more recent research in political psychology points strongly to specific psychological factors that determine whether someone adopts a conservative, rightist ideology, or it’s opposite. Conservatism, it is argued, reflects a resistance to change and justification for inequality rooted in aversion to uncertainty and high sensitivity to threat.[12] 

Summing up this research literature, which include measurement of neuro-physical responses, Marc Hetherton and Jonathan Weiler in Prius or Pickup: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide (2018) persuasively describes the two contending camps as “the fixed” vs. “the fluid”, with the former (conservative or rightist) valorizing stability, order, certainty and authority and the later (liberal or leftist) relishing change, flexibility, diversity and openness to new experiences and different cultures. Disgust and fear are primary affects for the right, while a benign sense that people are good and toleration or celebration of differences characterizes the left. 

Understanding these differences, and how political world views are rooted in subjective emotive, and psychological experience and contexts, offers a way forward in bridging our current deep and often bitter divide. Armed with psychological insight and self-awareness, partisans on both sides have an ethical duty to curtail extremism and avoid absolutist positions, to allow a dialogue and a democratic process to take place.


[1] Voltaire, “Fanaticism” in Philosophical Dictionary,

[2] “The Second Coming”, 1919,

[3] This points to what can be considered is a weakness in Haidt’s approach; a relativism which abstains from assessing values; e.g. giving Sanctity/Disgust the same weight as Care/Harm. As the moral psychologist Laurence Kohlberg has noted, in his conception of “stages of moral development” – there is benefit in being able to choose among competing values and address complex moral issues not by relying on rigid rules so much as ethical reasoning and critical thinking.                                                                                                                                                                                              See, Lawrence Kohlberg (1981), Essays on Moral Development, Vol. I: The Philosophy of Moral Development. See Martha Nussbaum (2013). Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, for a persuasive argument that a morality based on the impulse of disgust flies in the face of reason and humanitarianism.

[4] David Horowitz, a promoter of ultra-rightist ideology today, for example, was a “red diaper baby” whose parents submerged everything into their fanatic devotion to Communism, so that he as he was growing up in New York in the 1950’s, was told that he was not allowed to root for the Yankees over the Dodgers, because the former were the “capitalist” team. See his autobiography, Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, (Simon & Shuster, New York, 1997

[5] On the necessity of pluralism for democracy, see Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 2 vols., London, (1978).

[6]  Irene Goldenberg & Herbert Goldenberg, Family Therapy: An Overview (2000)  On complexity theory and its uses in psychoanalytic therapy, see William Coburn, Psychoanalytic Complexity: Clinical Attitudes for Therapeutic Change, (2014). 

[7] Using a systems approach, the theorist Murray Bowen emphasized the importance of achieving “differentiation” from (vs. fusion with) others within a family unit.  See Bowen, Murray (1974), “Toward the Differentiation of Self in One’s Family of origin”, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (2004).

[8] Albert Ellis, Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behaviors: New Directions for Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, (2001), Beck, Judith S. Cognitive behavior therapy : basics and beyond, 1995) , Albert Ellis, Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behaviors: New Directions for Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, (Prometheus Books, New York, 2001); Aaron Beck, Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders, (International Universities Press, Madison, CT, 1975.

[9] See, Jeffrey Young et al, Schema Therapy: a Practitioners’ Guide (2002). 

[10] Robert Stolorow, Psychoanalytic Treatment: An Intersubjective Approach, (1987)

One way to understand extremist political ideology is that it allows a person to avoid resolving their psychological issues and allows them to project them onto the political realm. A person with a weak or vulnerable sense of self can bolster their weak self-organization by embracing, for example, an ideology that boosts their self-esteem, unfortunately most often at the expense of a despised other group. Racists who might otherwise feel worthless, can with their racist belief system, at least feel superior and proud of their “whiteness”, anti-Semites can project onto “the Jews” their own unsavory impulses to cheat or get ahead.                                                                                                                                            (See also, Jean Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew for a brilliant philosophic-psychological analysis of this)


For the  psychoanalytic understanding of anti-Semitism, see especially David James Fisher, Towards a Psychoanalytic Understanding of Fascism and Anti-Semitism: Perceptions From the 1940′, (2009). 

[12]  JT Jost, “Political conservatism as motivated cognition”

This is the first installment–look for the next installment next week!


Kenneth Rasmussen

Kenneth Rasmussen, PsyD, PhD, PSY23810, is an historian and  psychoanalytical psychotherapist.  He has taught history at Santa Monica College, UCLA and the University of Southern California and has a private psychotherapy practice in Santa Monica. He has a Certificate in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy from the Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles,… MORE >


Milan Slama

Milan Slama is a practicing mediator and arbitrator in the Los Angeles area. He is a co-founder and the Board member of VBMC (Valley Bar Mediation Center). Currently he is a contractor for Los Angeles County and he also mediates for Chilren's Court.He has been associated with the LA Superior… MORE >

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