With the country beginning to open up in response to COVID there is a lot of heated dialogue between those who want to open and those who want to delay the opening. These fault lines are breaking down very much along the political lines of Democrats and Republicans. There are many reasons why this is the case and one of the main ones is how people of these two parties approach fear and dealing with threats to the community. My purpose in this article is to help us maintain a civil and meaningful dialogue as we move forward as a nation. We can only succeed by working together and to work together we must understand where the "other" is coming from.
I am a Republican who believes in small government and fiscal frugality. I believe private organizations and private citizens are the best way for us to solve most of our problems. I mention that up front to lay my cards on the table and to better enable you to understand how I see the world and possibly how I approach this article.
First, I want to talk a bit about fear in public discourse. For most political issues we do not have fear involved as a factor in the national dialogue. In certain subjects fear plays, and our response to fear, a major role in the direction of the dialogue. It is completely natural for fear to play a roll in a dialogue when the participants rightly or wrongly believe their safety is effected by the outcome of the dialogue. It adds passion and intensity. Where the real danger comes is when fear begins to transform into panic. This happens when people perceive their safety and that of their loved ones is in danger and they feel that they have no ability to respond to that danger. This feeling of helplessness moves a person from fear to panic. Panic is crippling for dialogue. When people reach a state of panic dialogue stops and so do good solutions. So, when dealing with a subject that causes people to be afraid it is important to understand where people are coming from in order to keep panic out of the discourse.
This understanding of how people tend to solve community problems is the true starting point of this article. Democrats believe that government is able to solve community problems. Democrats believe that local to federal governments cannot only solve community problems, but are often the first choice for solving these problems. So, when a community threat like COVID arises it is natural for Democrats to look to the government to solve this. Additionally, it is also natural for a strong federal government to solve it because it is a national issue. Republicans, on the other hand, naturally tend to see private organizations and citizens as the best way to solve most community issues. They have a distrust of large government. They naturally believe that when a threat like COVID arises that private citizens and private organizations should be at the forefront of solving this problem and that the government should play a supporting role to this private effort. And, it is this competing political view that is at the core of so much political tension in our current COVID discourse.
The "ideal type" Democratic response would be a strong federal government providing direct guidance and coordination to states, businesses and people. The federal and state leadership would use the power it needs to coordinate these activities. On the other hand, the "ideal type" Republican response would be as de-centralized as possible with the federal government providing just as much resources and guidance as needed and growing as little as possible in size and shrinking immediately after the issue has passed.
Seeing these two approaches to solving community problems it is easy to see how disagreement between the two sides will arise. Additionally, when you combine the emotion of fear, it is easy to see how this discourse can quickly become contentious and possibly lead to panic as one side or the other feels it is losing control of its ability to address the threat it fears. So, let me explore on both sides where fear could arise.
On the Democratic side fear has many sources. The first is when they do not see or feel a strong federal or state response. Remember, they embrace government solutions to community problems. Additionally, when that government response is led by someone they do not trust it is easy to see how their fear can become immense. On the Republican side, as their rights and ability to address the problem themselves are taken away and the power of the government grows, they feel a new threat growing. So, not only are they facing the original threat (COVID) they are now facing the additional threat of loss of rights and a dangerous growth in government power. In this case, COVID, it is easy to see how people on both sides can move from rational discourse to passionate shouting as their fear moves to panic as they feel they have no control over their ability to respond to the threat. And, panic then elicits our fight or flight response and discourse turns to verbal fighting and not collective problem solving.
So, where do we go from here with this understanding of how fear and panic are influencing our discourse and ability to problem solve? Step one, see ourselves. Look into yourself and see how this situation is triggering your fear. Once you look at the fear and understand where is it coming from you will often find it immediately starts to tamper down. And, as we talk about the threatening issue keep an eye on the fear monster and watch it as it arises. This alone will make a huge difference in our ability to civilly deal with each other. Secondly, try to understand where the other side is coming from. List out what their fears are in this situation. The overwhelming odds are that they are not evil people, but people who have different fears and concerns. By understanding those concerns and where they come friend it helps reduce the assumption of their malicious intent and leaves us in a place where we can acknowledge and discuss rational disagreement.
Nothing tears apart a society like fear and panic. Understanding where and why this arises helps us control it in ourselves and appreciate where it comes from in others. This understanding is crucial to enabling us to talk with each other and come together to solve the COVID problem or any other.