As with many of the other therapists I know, the memory of Election Day 2016 is still vivid. It’s the evening and some friends and I are huddled around the TV, ready to celebrate what we know will be a win for Hillary. The mood is buoyant. The sustained ugliness of the campaign will soon be over. Virtue will triumph, and the champagne will, at least symbolically, begin to flow! And then Donald Trump wins. The ground seems to buckle beneath us. I feel like I can’t get enough air. Unbelievable.
It’s a year later, and the sense of “unbelievable” lingers, darkened by a sense of mounting helplessness and danger, which stems from seeing what we once thought of as fundamental norms of governance being violated day after day. But beyond any visceral attitude toward Trump, there’s another source of distress that I think is shared by most people in our country, regardless of their political persuasion. And that’s the sense that we’re no longer a reasonably united country in the way we once were (or at least believed ourselves to be). Instead, we’ve split into openly belligerent camps, each convinced that it knows what’s good for our country and each side dismissive at best, contemptuous at worst, toward those who see things differently. Each camp believes that the other is deeply immoral, promulgates lies, and is frankly stupid. It’s painful to live in such a hate-charged environment, whether you lean Red, Blue, or anywhere else on the political spectrum.
In this issue of the Networker, we take a stab at understanding this larger social phenomenon, a perilous downward spiral of faultfinding that we might call the National Blame Game. We explore how our country—which so proudly calls itself the United States of America—has come to a place of such profound and enraged disunion. And in a spirit of humility, we explore whether therapists can do anything to mitigate the damage.
We begin with a first-person piece by therapist William Doherty on his summer bus trip across a sizable swath of the country to try to get Blue and Red voters to talk with each other—or rather, to listen to each other. In the process, Doherty was forced to confront the limits of his own tolerance for difference—a turning point that allowed the fragile project to stay on course. In “High Lonesome,” psychology researcher Brené Brown takes on a little-discussed topic—the connection between our current hyper-partisanship and the growing epidemic of loneliness in a country in which people have increasingly sorted themselves into like-minded political and social groups. Finally, in a prophetic article written for the Networker 10 years ago, Michael Ventura describes the need for therapists to broaden their psychological perspective if they’re to grasp how the power of group identity is transforming our very idea of America.
Here at the Networker, we by no means think we have solutions to the bitter polarization that marks our country today. What we’re hoping to do is open up a conversation among therapists about the nature of our national rupture and the multiple, interacting factors that may be causing it. If we better understand the roots of the rift, we may have at least a fighting chance to devise strategies to try to soften the divisions, whether they show up in our families, our towns, or our therapy offices. On a good day, we might even promote some mutual understanding. We’re still likely to remain deeply upset by the cracks in our social contract, and how could we not be? But as Leonard Cohen famously wrote, “There is a crack in everything. . . . That’s how the light gets in."