High-Conflict Politics – Be Prepared!

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and Don Saposnek

The federal government shutdown of 2013 confused many people. Yet, it is as predictable as the next school or shopping mall mass shooting. We are living in an age of emotional contagion; that is, emotions that are driven significantly by the histrionic news of bad behavior looping back to create more of the same bad behavior, as a self-fulfilling prophecy. We don’t know when the next extreme congressional behavior will occur – or the next mass shooting – but they will occur until the “perfect storm” driving this bad behavior in America changes sufficiently.

In our book, Splitting America: How Politicians, Super Pacs and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce, published just before the national election in 2012, we wrote that the recent dysfunctional political dynamics in the United States mirrored “high-conflict” divorces – which we have observed as family mediators (we are also a psychologist and a lawyer) for over the past 30 years. Because of this parallel, we predicted that the election in 2012 would have little impact on our national “high-conflict” politics. The personalities and the political conditions are what drive this dysfunction – not the issues. Despite the fact that the news media are saying that the recent outcome of the shutdown will discourage new efforts for confrontation politics, we believe that it won’t. Why?

The Perfect Storm

Several trends have converged which appear to play a big role in driving today’s political dysfunction:

  1. Voice and Face News: With the pending demise of print media, we get more of our news through “voice and face” delivery. Research on brain functioning indicates that written language tends to be processed in the left hemisphere of the brain, where rational problem-solving mostly occurs. Tone of voice and facial and bodily expressions tend to be processed in the right hemisphere, the seat of emotions and emotional reactions. When a newscaster or on-the-scene reporter emotionally describes devastation, we absorb it in the right hemisphere of our brain, that is, more emotionally than rationally. When we see a politician on TV saying that something is “the worst policy ever,” we tend to react emotionally rather than logically.

  2. Repetition: This has a powerful effect on our emotions. And, today’s radio and TV news (as well as that on the Internet) have the electronic advantage of repetition of highly emotional and histrionic messages in ways that daily and weekly print media just can’t achieve. For example, reports from Bosnia and Rwanda, after the bloody conflicts of the 1990’s, indicated that “hate talk radio” played a significant role in the five years leading up to each out-pouring of violence, as each side got more and more outraged at the news reports of the “other side’s” bad behavior.

  3. “Cocooning” of Opinions: As we explained in Splitting America, rules restraining politics have changed over the past three decades. In the early 1980s, news broadcasters were expected to air both sides of an issue. Now, a station can promote one side to its heart’s delight. With the battles over market-share among mainstream, cable and Internet news media, there is less of a national voice of reason, such as Walter Cronkite used to provide. In addition, with modern mobility, people are choosing to live in areas with more like-minded people. Finally, the 2010 gerrymandering for congressional voting districts, among others, has created more separate Republican districts and Democratic districts. The result is that people tend to talk with and listen to people with similar opinions – what some news researchers call “cocooning of the news” – and the people of like mind come to believe that these are everyone’s opinions. Remember when Karl Rove was shocked that Mitt Romney lost the election in 2012? He was listening to those who believed in a growing groundswell for Romney—a belief that statistics just did not support. And, following the end of the government shutdown of 2013, many who supported the strategy to stop “Obamacare” were truly surprised that it changed nothing about Obamacare.

  4. Big Money: One of the new factors in politics is the unrestrained money pouring into elections. The Citizens United opinion of the U. S. Supreme Court in 2010 unleashed approximately one billion dollars to influence the election of 2012 primarily using negative advertising (by both sides). The U. S. Chamber of Commerce sided strongly with Republican candidates and helped nourish the business-friendly positions of the Tea Party movement (financial deregulation, anti-Obamacare, etc.) – which, in turn, drove the government shutdown.

    While it might appear that Big Business turned against conservatives in ending the federal shutdown, they will not swing over to the Democratic Party and its positions any time soon. It was merely a rejection of a strategy, not a rejection of the funding of pro-business, anti-regulation policies and candidates. This is reminiscent of left-wing politics in the 1960s and 1970s, when extremists supported extreme measures such as bombings, riots and destruction of property. Many liberals rejected those tactics, while they said that they agreed with the goals of ending the war in Vietnam and giving more civil rights to minorities. Back then, “liberal” was a word said with contempt by left-wing radicals, just as today’s right-wing conservatives have distain for mainstream and moderate Republicans (some call them RINOs – Republicans In Name Only). Big Business’ support for conservative Republican goals will continue.

  5. High-conflict Politicians: In Splitting America, we referred to surveys that indicated we are experiencing an increase in personality disorders in society – a trend that appears to be continuing unabated. There are many possible causes for this (see also It’s All Your Fault! by Bill Eddy), Perhaps half of the people with personality disorders engage regularly in “high-conflict” behavior; a preoccupation with blaming others, lots of all-or-nothing thinking, extreme behavior and unmanaged emotions. When they repeat these behaviors a lot, we think of them as “high conflict people” (HCPs). HCPs appear to be increasing in every occupation and can appear charming and competent at first – until you get to know them well, or until there is a crisis.

We are now seeing this increase in personality disorders in political scandals, with charming and smart politicians inspiring us to vote for them. Then, with a full head of political endorsement, their high-conflict personalities come out and get them into trouble in a very predictable way. They will take extreme positions and believe that others agree with them and believe that their ideas are better than everyone else’s. This is how countries throughout history have gotten into wars that served no rational purpose. Of course, narcissistic personalities thrive in politics. The question is when does it become a disorder? Basically, it is when the politicians cannot self-reflect and do not change their behavior, despite serious negative feedback. Witness the politicians who have been disgraced and yet keep coming back to run for office—and are surprised when they lose! By the way, this is unrelated to any particular political party – this personality dynamic exists and is growing in both political parties.

Given these trends, the current political dysfunction will continue until we citizens reverse them. Since it is obvious that high-conflict politicians cannot restrain their own preoccupation with blaming others and engaging in extreme behavior, we believe that it is up to us as citizens to elect politicians who are not “high conflict” and can manage a country. We are talking about true leaders.

Therefore, in an effort to help you predict future politician behavior before the next election, we are reprinting here our “High Conflict Politician Scorecard”, to help you start thinking about candidates for the next election – before they get too far into the election process. We encourage you to share this card – and your opinions with others. We need to elect more politicians who can listen, compromise (when appropriate), stand up for reasonable points of view and have the whole nation at heart. Of course, we especially need more of those who are skilled at mediating and collaborating to solve problems.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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