The Atlantic: The Emotional Psychology of a Two-Party System
Defense mechanisms against emotional ambivalence incline us to fully embrace one side and fully reject the other -- which makes compromise nearly impossible.
... Such rhetoric reflects a black-and-white, us-versus-them approach that views each debate over taxation, social policy and the role of government not as a problem in need of a solution but a battle within an ongoing war. During warfare, our aim is of course to vanquish the enemy and emerge victorious; to reach out to your enemy makes you a villainous collaborator, a traitor to your cause. On the right, anyone with the temerity to suggest that Obama and the Democrats have some redeeming qualities is likely to be attacked from within the party. Just ask Chris Christie.
Propaganda during wartime typically dehumanizes the enemy. Our current political rhetoric likewise relies on two-dimensional caricatures to de-legitimize the opposition, encouraging us to hate "them." The process is more blatantly vocal on the political right, with the radio voices of conservatism inciting hatred for cartoon versions of President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, members of the liberal press, etc. Rush Limbaugh has gone so far as to compare Obama to Adolf Hitler, the epitome of unalloyed evil. While less obvious, the left has its own set of two-dimensional villains to hate: greedy and heartless bankers, evil corporations, gun-toting religious freaks.
For both sides, the Other often lacks true dimension. In propaganda, the enemy never has a legitimate point of view that needs to be taken seriously and balanced against our own views. Hating an enemy leaves no room for complex, ambiguous problems without an obvious solution. It eliminates the uncomfortable tension that arises from doubt and uncertainty amidst difficult choices. ...
I'm not convinced that "... process is more blatantly vocal on the political right ..." but other than that I think he is on to something.
... As the neurologist Robert Burton has noted , ambiguity or confusion is so difficult for many of us to bear that we instead retreat from it into a feeling of certainty, believing we know something without any doubts, even when we actually don't and often can't know. Those of us who have trouble with such discomfort often resort to black-and-white thinking instead. Rather than feeling uncertain or ambivalent, struggling with areas of gray, we reduce that complexity to either/or.
We may define one idea or point of view as bad (black) and reject it, aligning ourselves with the good (white) perspective. Feelings of anger and self-righteousness often accompany this process, bolstering our conviction that we are in the right and the other side in the wrong. Hatred for the rejected point of view keeps ambiguity and uncomfortable complexity from re-entering the field.
Black-and-white thinking reflects the psychological process known as splitting. When we feel unable to tolerate the tension aroused by complexity, we "resolve" that complexity by splitting it into two simplified and opposing parts, usually aligning ourselves with one of them and rejecting the other. As a result, we may feel a sort of comfort in believing we know something with absolute certainty; at the same time, we've over-simplified a complex issue.
On the emotional front, splitting comes into play when we feel hostile toward the people we love. Holding onto feelings of love in the presence of anger and even hatred is a difficult thing for most of us to do. Sometimes hatred proves so powerful that it overwhelms and eclipses love, bringing the relationship to an end. More often we repress awareness of our hostile feelings; or we might split them off and direct them elsewhere, away from the people we care about.
In other words, splitting as a psychological defense mechanism resolves emotional ambivalence -- love and hatred toward the same person -- by splitting off one half of those feelings and directing them elsewhere, away from the loved one. ...
And when you consider that a great many of the challenges we confront are polarities to be managed, not problems to be solved, our battles to be won, all sorts of dysfunction emerges from splitting. By analogy, try splitting inhaling from exhaling and see what happens. I think the same is true for many problems we face in social institutions and in society at large.