Gerald Stinson recently shared a research article with me that gave rise to a small epiphany.
The article was titled “Political Grief” and it had been prompted by reactions to the 2016 election of Donald Trump–a reaction that the author accurately noted went well beyond the usual types of depression partisans suffer in the wake of electoral loss, and in fact, was a manifestation of what the author dubbed “political grief.”
I think this is exactly right.
All of us who are of “a certain age” have experienced personal losses and the grief that accompanies those losses. Friends and family members disappoint or die, businesses and/or projects near and dear to us fail, and we respond to those events with grief and despair. As the article notes, however, similar responses occur when our expectations about how the world works prove unfounded. We humans are “attached” to such deeply-rooted assumptions; they are deeply woven into the way we live our lives, interpret our life events, and anticipate outcomes. When we “experience a significant life event that cannot be readily incorporated into these assumptions” we experience “a state of disequilibrium.”
Grief, in response to loss.
The author reviews research into the nature of grief, noting that the loss of our assumptions about the way the world works translates into a loss of safety, logic, clarity, power and control. Grief becomes the process by which we reconcile (or don’t!) the world we now know exists with the world as we once believed it to be.
The entire article is worth reading and considering. Those of us who reacted viscerally to the results of the 2016 Presidential election will recognize ourselves in the author’s description of the “feelings of sadness, disbelief and grief over the death of values, ideals, hopes and dreams” experienced by her colleagues at a conference they were attending at the time of the election. But what we may fail to appreciate is the corresponding reaction to cultural change that has been experienced by those who ended up voting for Donald Trump.
The author of the article traces the evolution of our current, toxic political climate, and considers the various academic theories about the motivations of Trump voters, especially the economic inequality perspective and the cultural backlash thesis, both of which have contributed to the deep resentment of those who feel disrespected and left behind. (The Left Behind is a book I referenced in a previous post; I’m reading it now, and Wuthnow’s description of the rural folks he interviewed is consistent with the article’s thesis.)
People who embrace so-called “traditional values” feel increasingly out of step with the changing culture of contemporary American (and European) society–and they are grieving the loss of their worldview and their place in American society. The accompanying resentment and anger makes them susceptible to nativism and xenophobia–a susceptibility that is particularly (but certainly not exclusively) found among older, less-educated White men.
Terror Management Theory also has application: people who feel threatened tend to find refuge in their cultural world-views, religious symbols and beliefs.
“When we perceive a threat, we retreat to what we know best and to those who are most like us, and who make us feel safe and protected….Identifying with others who share similar values, culture, religion (including outward appearance and skin color) is seen as safe; blame and fear are placed on those who are not us.”
In our current political environment, political affiliation is no longer based upon support for particular policies or parties, it has become an integral part of one’s personal identity. Partisans aren’t just working for specific policies–they are defending deeply-held values and world-views. Both sides of the divide express “moral outrage” over the views of the “others.” As the author notes, the only common ground to be found is in “the shared sense of outrage over the deplorable values and platform of the other side.”
If this analysis is accurate–and I think it is–we’re in for a world of hurt.
The grief felt by both sides in what seems an insurmountable divide is all too real. Those clinging to “traditional values” (and traditional social castes) are grieving the increasing abandonment of those beliefs and the once-familiar lines of social and racial demarcation; those embracing that social evolution are grieving, overwhelmed and discouraged by evidence that so many Americans are ready to fight to keep change and inclusion at bay.
Grief seems appropriate.