Politics is Bad For Your Health

This is obviously not a political website but it does concern itself with mental well-being.  I’m concerned about the increased number of people consumed with politics.  Hate and fear now have a larger place in their lives than before.  These emotions have profoundly negative impacts on your emotional well being.  While the impacts on your body haven’t been completely delineated by science yet, my experience with treating illness leads me to believe that it’s safe to say it’s not good for you.

Politics is about power, in fact the Oxford Dictionary defines politics as “The activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.”  Dr. Elizabeth Barrett , a distinguishing teacher and clinician, has a theory of power.  She divides power into “Power as Control” and “Power as Freedom.”   The Barrett Theory of Power defines this power as “the capacity to participate knowingly in change as manifest by awareness, choices, freedom to act intentionally, and involvement in creating change.”  She states that “Power as control is . . .  a closed system physical-material perspective where power often involves force or dominance, with or without coercion, in an effort to “control . . .   Power-as-freedom  . . .  allows for “freedom.”  Furthermore, in a universe of open systems, power is not a finite quantity.  Whereas power-as-control often interferes with freedom of the other person or group, power-as- freedom requires that freedom of others be preserved through no attempt to impose one’s will on others.”    Politics and “power as control” aren’t just friendly bedfellows, they are passionate, jealous lovers.

I have had several very disturbing conversations with friends lately from both sides of the political spectrum.  Disturbing because they have prejudged individuals and the other side by making conclusions on both the morality and intentions of the other side.   One friend accused me of not possessing human “sensitivity” just for refusing to judge a certain individual as unredeemably evil.  Another is no longer talking to me for merely suggesting that demonizing half of the American populace might not be healthy.  Having friends from both sides of the political divide – I can assure you that most of the people on both sides of this debate are moral, upstanding people no more or less evil than than other side.  The retreat into name calling, outright hate, and demonization is unhealthy and breeds further ignorance.

A lot of the desperation on both sides is reinforced by those in government by overstating that theirs is the only effective lens through which you should see social change.   While politics is a force of change, it is the not the only force of change nor arguably the most effective. Reliance on that form of change which is dictatorially proscribed by the leaders of that movement and reinforced through various organizations that act as mouthpieces for the party, takes away initiative from the individual and places it in the party at large.  This restricts your moral choice whether you wish to recognize it or not.

Of course, the underlying motivation for most decent people is not “power as control” but basic morality, even though, most have been unwittingly drafted into a “power as control” thinking as a consequence of relying on political movements and government to be the ultimate institutors and legislators of morality in our modern society.    As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks stated so eloquently in his acceptance of the Templeton Prize (worth watching in its entirety here start to 8:00) in a talk entitled Rediscovering Moral Purpose:

“As for the consequences of our choices, these were outsourced to the state. Bad choices lead to bad outcomes: failed relationships, neglected children, depressive illness, wasted lives. But the government would deal with it. Forget about marriage as a sacred bond between husband and wife. Forget about the need of children for a loving and secure human environment. Forget about the need for communities to give us support in times of need. Welfare was outsourced to the state. As for conscience, that once played so large a part in the moral life, that could be outsourced to regulatory bodies. So having reduced moral choice to economics, we transferred the consequences of our choices to politics.

And it seemed to work, at least for a generation or two. But by now problems have arisen that can’t be solved by the market or the state alone. To mention just a few: the structural unemployment that follows the outsourcing of production and services. The further unemployment that will come when artificial intelligence increasingly replaces human judgment and skill. Artificially low interest rates that encourage borrowing and debt and discourage saving and investment. Wildly inflated CEO pay. The lowering of living standards, first of the working class, then of the middle class. The insecurity of employment, even for graduates. The inability of young families to afford a home. The collapse of marriage, leading to intractable problems of child poverty and depression. The collapse of birthrates throughout Europe, leading to unprecedented levels of immigration that are now the only way the West can sustain its population, and the systemic failure to integrate some of these groups. The loss of family, community and identity, that once gave us the strength to survive unstable times. And there are others.

Why have they proved insoluble? First, because they are global, and governments are only national. Second, because they are long-term while the market and liberal democratic politics are short-term. Third, because they depend on changing habits of behavior, which neither the market nor the liberal democratic state are mandated to do. Above all, though, because they can’t be solved by the market and the state alone. You can’t outsource conscience. You can’t delegate moral responsibility away.

When you do, you raise expectations that cannot be met. And when, inevitably, they are not met, society becomes freighted with disappointment, anger, fear, resentment and blame. People start to take refuge in magical thinking, which today takes one of four forms: the far Right, the far Left, religious extremism and aggressive secularism. The far Right seeks a return to a golden past that never was. The far Left seeks a utopian future that will never be. Religious extremists believe you can bring salvation by terror. Aggressive secularists believe that if you get rid of religion there will be peace. These are all fantasies, and pursuing them will endanger the very foundations of freedom. Yet we have seen, even in mainstream British and American politics, forms of ugliness and irrationality I never thought I would see in my lifetime. We have seen on university campuses in Britain and America the abandonment of academic freedom in the name of the right not to be offended by being confronted by views with which I disagree. This is le traison des clercs, the intellectual betrayal, of our time, and it is very dangerous indeed.”

Yet, many will read the above and say that they aren’t outsourcing anything and that they don’t belong to the far right, the far left, religious extremism, or aggressive secularism to which I respond that while you may not wholly identify with either one of these categories, many mainstream beliefs now fall into one of those categories.  What is so disturbing about the conversations I have had with several friends from both sides – it is that these people who are not extremists express opinions that if not overtly a pure expression of “power as control,” have bought into the almost unconscious belief that it is politics and political movements that should stand up for their moral beliefs and therefore those that don’t hold their party affiliation don’t hold their morality either.

We started out as an American populace that would not use politics for these purposes.  Alexis De Tocqueville wrote in 1840  “In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded” (Tocqueville 1840, 599). (interesting article here)  Yet all is not lost, we have a record number of nonprofits, still get tax deductions for charity, and unite together in tragedy. Despite these sources for optimism, the vast majority of Americans rely on the political party they most identify with to be the power behind most change.  And that is indeed a pity, not only because government so frequently fails at its promises, but also because of the human energy that gets channeled into ugliness like hate, fear, and prejudice on both sides.

As for those people who truly wish to be in politics as a career or volunteer in the democratic or republican parties, its best to realize that those politicians that made enduring positive change and were paragons of “power as freedom” were the exceptions, not the rule.  They were to paraphrase a common new age cliche “In the movement but not of the movement.”

One would do well to spend some time looking at how much energy you are apportioning to politics.    My professional mission in life is to try to give power to people by giving them tools and wisdom for health and wellness.   As a physician who has spent years particularly interested in how negative emotions affect disease states, I would suggest the following:

  1.  Spend some time seeing how much of your energy, which is a limited resource, is devoted to politics.   Is it consistent with your missions in life?  If it isn’t, use that energy to come back to yourself, and focus back on something that gives you joy.
  2. Stop spending time demonizing people, even people you think are evil.  It’s harmful for your health.  You don’t fight fire with fire.   You feel like you must call a spade a spade then do it and move on!
  3. Use your passion for a non-profit that needs your help.  Giving activates health!  In the Talmud it says “The door which does not open to the poor will open to the physician.”  I believe that this is a biological fact, not one based on divine judgement.  Giving and helping is good for you and keeps your heart open and your immune system functioning well.
  4. Take a political fast for 7 full days – unfollow (not unfriend!!) people on FB for a week who only post politics and don’t read the newspaper for one week and see how your feel.    Read something inspirational or listen to your favorite jams!

It’s unfortunate that some people have stopped talking to each other based on who voted for who.   That’s what happens, as I have endeavored to show, when we define our morality predominantly by politics.   The overwhelming majority of people you interact with on a daily basis have so much more in common with you than you differ in politics.  When a bumper sticker or a FB post for a rival political party causes one to automatically render that person someone one doesn’t want to have anything to do with then one has hyper-inflated politics in a dangerous and unhealthy way.  Finally, if negativity still rules you, you have work to do on yourself and I will leave you with a one of my favorite quotes from the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory :  “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and how ugly it is, then it is yourself that needs repair.”


For more information on Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
For more information on Dr. Elizabeth Barrett
For more information on the Lubavitcher Rebbe I highly recommend this amazing book.

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