Divided we fall: The psychology behind America’s eventual decline


Jasneh Sasan

Powerful nations like the United States, India, and China steer towards the use of emotion politics as they repeatedly make decisions that lead to unsolvable challenges.

Politics, despite common assumptions, is nothing but a game. It’s storytelling, involving heroes and villains, creating a perfect utopian society, and maintaining constant drama. This game involves everyone, whether they know that they’re playing or not. Politics is drama, and humans are inherently drawn to such fantasy. 

Stories are how humans make sense of the world. 

“Just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms of nature — a face, a figure, a flower — and in sound, so too it detects patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. They are the signal within the noise,” said Frank Rose, the author of The Art of Immersion

A landmark 1944 study at Massachusetts College concluded that humans use stories to give themselves a rational explanation of what happens around them. 34 students were shown a short film of two triangles and a circle moving around a two-dimensional plane. 

Of the 34 students, only one described the film as what it was, the rest of the group produced various explanations of what happened. Some explained it as the triangles being men fighting over a woman- the circle. Others attributed emotions to the shapes based on the speed and patterns at which they were moving.

This study proved that people inherently jump to a story to explain what’s happening in the world around them.

A step up from just listening to stories is attempting to solve them as well. Humans inherently have varying extents of a savior complex. According to Psychology Today, a savior complex is a “psychological construct that makes a person feel the need to save other people. This person has a strong tendency to seek people who desperately need help and to assist them, often sacrificing their own needs for these people.”

Not all people have the same level of a savior complex. While some people may go out of their way to help others regardless of circumstances, others may stick to ‘saving’ people of their race, community, or family. Nevertheless, most people want to stand for an initiative and protect something, or someone, that is important to them.

Politicians thrive off of people’s emotions. They utilize flawless storytelling to push forth their initiative and then rely on the natural sense of heroism in their populace to support them.

It is ironic how governments, which are responsible for the welfare and protection of millions, can be so emotionally driven. In the U.S., both the Democratic and Republican parties utilize emotional play to gain the support of their audiences. While the right often appeals to emotions like anger and fear, the left uses social activism and the common theme of systematic oppression. 

For example, in relation to the border problem that the U.S. currently faces, there are two obvious sides to the argument. A democrat would be more likely to argue that illegal immigrants are treated inhumanely by the American government, that they are suffering and need support. That argument appeals to those who want equality, acceptance, and opportunity for all. 

A Republican, on the other hand, may say that there are borders for a reason — to keep the Americans in and everyone else out, that illegal immigrants mooch off the government, leech off taxpayer money, and pose a threat to the safety of American citizens. This argument relies on the use of fear for safety and desperation to preserve the rights of U.S. citizens.

Neither side is completely right, but neither is completely wrong. Despite this, people on opposing parties often are unable or unwilling to accept arguments from the other side. 

In the political world, people who believe just one side of the emotional story are blind to the other side. Even when the information is available to most people, they are unwilling to listen to, let alone understand, the other side. 

“We only ‘go blind’ to information that is so troubling, so frightening, or so opposed to what we believe that to absorb it would shatter our view of ourselves and the world. On the other hand, becoming fully conscious of our perceptions—simply feeling what we feel and knowing what we know—is the very definition of awakening. It creates a virtually indestructible foundation for lasting relationships, successful endeavors, and inner peace,” said Martha Beck, a psychological coach, and mentor. 

Humans are drawn to a good story. When someone hears a heart-wrenching story about starving children separated from their parents at a border, they immediately feel empathetic. For them, an easy solution to this problem is to vote for a politician who will help the stranded children at the border. This gives voters a sense of heroism, knowing that they performed the heroic act of saving suffering people, even when they didn’t directly perform a substantial act. Similarly, someone who is told to fear for their lives, protect their families, their neighborhood, and their country gets the same feeling of accomplishment by voting for a politician who promises to keep America safe.

“We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters,” said Paul J. Zak, an author for the Harvard Business Review. 

Zak illustrates the importance of good storytelling in the business world, however, these tactics are often obvious within partisan politics. 

This technique was used by Mao Zedong, the leader of the CCP from 1949 to 1976. One of his greatest failures as a leader was the Four Pests campaign of 1958. This campaign detailed a “shoot-on-sight” policy for any sparrow seen in the Chinese region.

Mao, in agricultural competition with Russia, was desperate to save every grain produced in Chinese farms. He fabricated an inspirational tale about a future China whose people enjoyed an abundance of fresh meals every day. In addition to that, the Chinese media was instructed to broadcast similar messages against sparrows and other pests. 

Because the Chinese populace heard the same narrative repeatedly, they panicked. Their emotions played right into the government’s hands. Unfortunately, this led to an irreversible crisis and a long famine. 

It was proven that a sparrow’s primary nutrition came from eating insects, not grains. When the Chinese banished the Sparrows, it disrupted the food chain and resulted in an overabundance of locusts that plowed through Chinese fields in a matter of weeks. This resulted in a four-year-long famine that killed over 76 million people.

Even today, in the United States, a similar problem exists. 

As of September 2020, over 2 million illegal immigrants have been detained or deported at the Texas-Mexico border in sectors like Del Rio and Rio de Grande rivers. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a confirmed 1.75 million people have immigrated illegally over land routes.

President Joe Biden signed an order on his first day in office to pause all wall construction and to end the national emergency declaration on the southern border. He also diverted President Donald Trump’s military funds towards social programs, leading to a Republican-requested inquiry into whether Biden inappropriately redirected congressionally approved funds. 

More than the halt itself, the message that Biden had given to immigrants was clear: the era of Trump is over.

Founding Father Patrick Henry once said, “United we stand; divided we fall.”

His words have never rung truer. Ironically, the United States stood divided once again, as Democrats celebrated and Republicans panicked at the new changes occurring in the country.

This was a product of political mind-games once again.

As right-wing politicians spew a narrative about the unchancy dangers of illegal immigrants to the economy and safety of American citizens. The left-wing media constantly pushes an emotional, heart-wrenching tale about the inhumane conditions that immigrants are put into during their journey to escape poverty and desolation. 

Politicians rely on citizens’ constant need to be involved in a heroic initiative, whether it be to save a desolate newcomer or to protect the rights of existing citizens. Governments look to tap into an empathetic heart, a nationalistic drive, or simply someone with too much free time on their hands.

Both sides are told that they are the most logical, and the other side is either too radical or too conservative. 

“The problem with the American government is that they aren’t on anyone’s side. The liberals are constantly pushing forth an agenda that is far too unrealistic. The horrible truth about America is that we let in so many people, but we can’t take care of all of them. They’re going to be fighting the system for their entire lives,” said Annie Grant, a teacher who works with displaced students in Belmont. “As for the Republicans, they rule purely by fear and anger. They go on and on about immigrants hurting the economy and robbing the American people. They are angered to a point of hostility against non-Americans.” 

As America continues to become increasingly divided over political issues, it’s become easier for stories to turn into facts, for politicians to turn into heroes, and for the media to turn into the truth. 

“I urge students to think critically about what they hear. There are always three sides to every story: your side, their side, and the truth. Never make assumptions based on just one side.” Grant said. “America’s future depends on your decisions. The choices you make today will determine whether the country you live in is a flourishing nation or a state of ignorance.”