Let's Stop Getting Drunk on Partisanship

As the various victory parties in Iowa illustrate, being at political rallies today is a wonderful way to get high. Clustering around large numbers of people who think just like we do, and who unanimously support the same political candidate, is like drinking a partisan cocktail. It's the civic equivalent of getting drunk.

But it's not alcohol we're drinking. It's us-vs-them ideology.

Although my work for the last 20 years has been bridging the gap between Left and Right, I recognize the incredible power of this quick turn-on. Whether I am attending a political event in person or engaging via the media, I feel the high just like everyone else. But frankly, the buzz is wearing off.

Not long ago, for example, I decided to attend a political event featuring Senator Bernie Sanders. As thousands stood in the blazing sun cheering at almost every sentence Senator Bernie Sanders 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.

Across the spectrum, I notice this same understandable yearning for a quick political high. Whether at rallies for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I see a similar collective shift.

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 being 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. To be in deep communion in a crowd of comrades is up lifting.

As I observed crowds' reactions across the political spectrum, the alcohol content seems to be highest when the candidate sharpens the edge of his or her rhetoric. When it cuts razor-like along the good-evil, right-wrong axis, the crowd erupts.

When Trump claims that a "third Obama administration" under Hillary Clinton would destroy America while a Trump Administration would "make America great again," his followers roar with approval. Conversely, when Clinton says that her policies will unite immigrant families while the Republicans' policies would "tear them apart," her fans shout their support.

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 getting high and decades of watching the same cycle repeat, however, 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?

Without citing the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, it's fair to say 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?

As this election year unfolds, let's ask ourselves: 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? How do we shift from getting drunk to getting sober?

When the fate a single alcoholic is at stake, the outcome matters primarily to the addict himself and his loved ones. But when the political culture of a superpower is at stake, the outcome matters to all of us. We simply can't afford to go on getting drunk on being "right." Our national health and well-being depends on it.

Mark Gerzon, President of Mediators Foundation, is the author of The Reunited States of America, How We Can Bridge The Partisan Divide.

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