Election Day is nearly upon us, and the 2024 primaries will follow close behind. This will be another long slog of electioneering, two baffling years of those idiots on the other side getting everything wrong.
You know the ones. It’s like they don’t live in the same reality, don’t have a clue about the real problems facing this country. The way they vote isn’t just mistaken. It’s frustrating, mystifying, stunning—a little frightening, honestly. And there are millions of these people making an unimaginable choice.
There’s a name for that utter bewilderment many of us feel toward political discussion. It’s called mind-blindness, the inability to recognize that other people have different experiences, wants, values, and knowledge and that this leads them to make decisions different from our own. The capacity to imagine those differences and intuit the choices they inform is called theory of mind.
It’s a faculty we typically develop throughout childhood—young kids don’t have it, a fact of which I’m reminded daily during my twins’ Why? phase. We employ it constantly to interpret why others behave as they do, infer how they’re feeling, and anticipate their next move.
It’s possible to love people, to be “devoted to one another,” and to honor one another above ourselves (Rom. 12:10) without a working theory of mind. But it’s difficult, particularly in politics. It’s hard to love our political opponents and to will their good—not just abstractly but concretely, in our prayers and conversations and as we vote and peruse the news—when we’re dumbfounded by all they do.
Strengthening our theory of mind to comprehend others’ motives, fears, and loves is a way of building patience and “bearing with one another” to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2–3). We can bolster our political theory of mind around specific policies by learning what the other side thinks, along with their reasoning and emotions. And mulling over differences in values, culture, and history can make our political rivals more intelligible to us. There are resources that can help.
Studying social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s six moral foundations is a good place to start. Haidt’s theory says our political views are informed by the varying weight we place on six moral values: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty. That variance makes mutual comprehension across the political spectrum a challenge. Yet in The Righteous Mind, Haidt describes his own theory of mind growing stronger when, as a young liberal atheist, he came to see how religious conservatives’ values shaped their lives.
Beyond Haidt, economist Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics argues that Americans describe the same political problems with three distinct frames of opposing forces: oppressor-oppressed, civilization-barbarism, and liberty-coercion. Kling urges “readers to adopt slow political thinking,” which entails talking over issues in terms of all three contrasts.
This way, you “can become more cautious about your own beliefs and less inclined to dismiss people with whom you disagree as malevolent,” King writes. “You can avoid contributing to polarization and unproductive debates where people simply talk past one another.”
For a quicker read, psychiatrist Scott Alexander blogs at Slate Star Codex about red, blue, and gray tribes and the cultural nature of our country’s factions. America’s collectives are not merely ideological or ethical, he says. Class, education, and consumption habits—where we shop, what we drive, what shows we watch—are isolating distinctives too.
For history buffs, I recommend David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, which traces the enduring regional cultures created by four groups of immigrants from the British Isles in the 17th and 18th centuries. Those deep, half-forgotten influences map strikingly well onto modern electoral outcomes, affecting us even if our own ancestors aren’t British.
And whatever account of our differences is most helpful—a dive into values, language, culture, or history—obtaining understanding so we may keep the law of love (Rom. 13:10) can help us through the two baffling years to come.
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