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Why We’re So Politically Divided and How We Can Fix It

I'm just sayin'

The recent gun control debate is one clear example of how divided we are as a population, but we see these examples all the time, on immigration, the environment, taxes, abortion, welfare … well, you’ve seen it. You know.

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Why are we so split on these issues? Why are the people who think different things than you do so profoundly wrong and so stubborn and perverse in sticking with their wrongness? Will your side ever win?

While I’m pretty sure there’s no one thing that will explain all political differences, I think there is one single, crucial issue that defines the political divide in America. It’s the issue of who needs to be involved to get things done. Here’s what I mean:


Conservative politics is based on the idea that you have to do things yourself. “Yourself” here means you, the people who are closely connected with you, and if you’re a Christian, God. After all, if God is on your side, then he’s part of the group you can trust absolutely, but you also need to do the things the way you think God would want them done. Regardless, whoever is in your group is who you need to look out for; it’s not safe to trust outside groups.

This makes it clear what to believe on a number of issues:

More taxes to support more government services, or lower taxes and fewer services? Obviously you can’t trust the government to do things for you, because you have to do things yourself. Therefore, the more money you hang onto and the less the government gets to use, the better.

Protect the environment, or allow more access to natural resources? Well, if people are going to rely on themselves, they can’t be restricted from accessing the resources they need to do that. Further, protecting the environment usually means more taxes, which we’ve already established are not what’s needed.

More gun control or more gun freedom? Well, you can’t rely on other people to protect you locally, so the more you and yours have access to guns, the safer you’re going to feel.

And so on. It gets tricky when looking at some larger issues, like military spending, because then “yourself” becomes “your country,” so of course more military power, because you can’t trust the other countries.


Liberal politics is based on the idea that we have to do things together. If we all are only looking out for ourselves, the thinking goes, then we’ll always be at odds with each other, and things will be chaotic and unsafe. If we work together, on the other hand, we’ll be able to do more, and almost everyone will be much better off.

This also makes it clear what to believe on a number of issues:

More taxes to support more government services, or lower taxes and fewer services? If we’re going to do things together, then we need constructs like governments to get the work done, so more taxes are acceptable within limits if that means the government is doing more for people. If we’re paying more for taxes, for instance, but everyone gets much better health care, then everyone’s better off.

Protect the environment, or allow more access to natural resources? Even though some people may benefit from accessing more natural resources, we all lose out when the environment is degraded, so clearly we need to protect it for the common good.

More gun control or more gun freedom? People with guns are more dangerous to everyone than people without guns, so fewer guns is the way to go.

I know that’s all oversimplified, but I believe the point still stands. Conservatives feel safer when it’s left up to individuals to control things. Liberals feel safer when people are working together for the common good.

The Tug of War

This puts most political questions on a continuum, from “we all do it together” on one side to “we each take care of it ourselves” on the other. Few of us adopt an absolute extreme, since leaving everything to everyone else (not working for our own income, not making our own decisions about how we live, etc.) doesn’t work any better than trying to do everything (raising your own grain, inventing your own Internet, etc.) ourselves.

So the more you accept one idea, the more the other idea is going to seem not only unappealing, but even insidious. If you don’t feel safe without a gun of your own, attempts to control who can have guns are going to feel like somebody is trying to rip away one of the few protections you have, an act that’s threatening at the same time it makes it harder to defend yourself from threats. If you feel like the climate is degrading massively and we all need to adopt some agreements about how to act differently in order to turn things around, then any freeing up of resources that can damage the climate further seems irresponsible and malign.

Will Things Change?

The line between these two opposing ideas will move, so that the country as a whole can become more liberal or more conservative. Additionally, some events can make people feel even less safe, causing them to stand even more firmly on their point of view (do for yourself or do it together), resulting in entrenching, incivility, and deadlock. Fear is what causes entrenchment, and some political figures, especially on larger political stages, try to use this by stoking the fires of fear in their base, which causes their base to become more rigid and intense.

But because we will always have to strike a balance between the two, the line won’t disappear. The two things that can change are where the line is–what the average political stances in the nation are–and how afraid or confident people feel about things.

So How Do We Fix It?

If by “fix it” you mean “advance my side’s agenda,” then improvement comes from reaching out, from sharing information and ideas and education, helping people to see the benefits in what you’re proposing and to understand it better. For instance, the Civil Rights Movement and the #metoo movement both advanced causes by making them more visible and sharing their vision and understanding of the world. The people who took part in these movements challenged assumptions and shared ideas in a way that other people could understand and, in many cases, get behind.

Or you can advance great political figures who understand how to present and structure your priorities so that more people are interested in and attracted to them.

But if you mean “fix it” in terms of narrowing the gap, creating more civility and bipartisanship and effective governance, then the solution is for people to feel heard, understood, and supported. That’s it: creating trust is the magic ingredient. If someone is talking about how we need to arm teachers so that schools won’t be sitting ducks, and if you don’t agree with that, then trying to tell them how wrong they are and how sick that idea is will reinforce their sense that you don’t honor or support individual agency. They’ll feel attacked (because you’ll be attacking them), and they’ll most likely dig in.

Similarly, if someone is saying that we need to impose a new tax on fossil fuels, and if you don’t agree with that, then telling them how they’re stealing your money to bloat government even more, because they’re a control freak who wants everything their way, it will not encourage them to switch to your point of view.

If on the other hand, in either situation, you ask them more about how they envision the idea working, how they would work out some of the difficulties (without characterizing the difficulties as reasons why they are wrong), and why that’s important to them, you’ll understand them better, and they’ll know you understand them better, and that you respect them at least enough to take their opinions seriously. In no part of that do you try to promote your point of view or negate theirs: all you’re doing is establishing trust, and you can’t simultaneously establish trust and try to conquer. Then, it’s at least more likely that the other person will be willing and interested to hear what you have to say, and even to think about what you’ve said. It’s not guaranteed by any means, but it’s much more likely. Now we have civility and understanding, and no one has had to give up their beliefs. We’re in a better situation to sort things out.

I’d like to underscore a crucial part of this: if you want to use this approach, you have to open yourself up first. You probably will need to sit through hearing some things you disagree with massively and don’t want to hear, delivered in a style you don’t like by a person you may not trust. That’s hard, but it’s also the only reason people don’t do this a lot more. To the extent that you can suck it up and just listen to the other person as a human being, conveying respect and attention, you can accomplish something few people these days accomplish: bridging the conservative-liberal gap.


If You’re Feeling Despair

Handling negative emotions

If your faith in our country and our people is shaken, if you see this terrible reversal as a catastrophe about which you can do nothing, please remember: now you are needed in a way you would never have been needed if nothing had gone wrong. We need your good efforts, your willingness to work to uphold what is right and what is compassionate. We need your good sense, to point the way when many compasses will be spinning and useless. We need your patience, to wait until this has passed so that we can pick up the pieces and move on, but we also need your stubbornness, your unwillingness to be plowed under by ignorance and hate, your best ideas and strongest convictions, your anxieties made into understanding, your hopelessness made into acceptance.

Thank you for being willing to hold fast onto the things you can protect and to make those small gains that may be possible. I know you may want to crawl under a rock for four years and come back out when this is over. I would love to join you there. But we can’t, because now we have work to do, and it is time to get started.


PS – If you’re having a really bad day and could use some ideas on how to turn it around, here are some suggestions gleaned from psychological research: How to Stop Having a Bad Day.

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10,000 Hours of Practice? Would That ‘Twere So Simple

The human mind

I’ve written here before about Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book Outliers, published in 2008. This year another book on talent, improvement, and mastery was published, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Anders Ericsson, importantly, is one of the pioneers and top experts in this area of psychology, and it was partly on Ericsson’s work that Gladwell make his conclusions.

Anders Ericsson

Anders Ericsson

Unfortunately, Ericsson says, Gladwell made some leaps that are misleading and, in some cases, inaccurate. The general principal that it takes a great deal of practice to become a world-class talent at something remains, and Ericsson reiterates that there aren’t exceptions, people who become masters without practice at things that require a lot of work for other people to learn. Phrases like “natural talent” contain an embedded error.

However, there are several important points where Ericsson disagrees with Gladwell’s conclusions–and since those conclusions were based on Ericsson’s work, these merit some attention! Here are some of the key points from Ericsson’s response:

  • 10,000 hours is an arbitrary number. The amount of time mastery takes will depend on who’s doing the practice, what kinds of practice they’re doing, who you compare them to, what thing they’re trying to master, what you consider “mastery,” and other factors.
  • There’s nothing in that research that implies that anyone can become a master at any chosen activity after putting in 10,000 hours–the research just shows that people who do achieve mastery put in a great deal of practice. However, there is compelling support for the idea that practically anyone can become excellent at practically anything: see “Do you have enough talent to become great at it?
  • The type of practice is crucial: it’s deliberate practice, and it has to be for the specific skill in question
  • There’s no limit to how good we can get with further practice, however. There’s not a point where we “achieve mastery” and can consider ourselves “done.”

You can read Ericsson’s more detailed response here, on The article is adapted from that new book I mentioned, Peak.

No Comments Now Pointing Back Where It Should

About the site

A few years ago, when I stopped using the name “The Willpower Engine” for this site, I let my domain expire. That turned out to be a mistake: it develops that there were still a number of people using links to that domain, and some ill-intentioned person scooped up the domain as soon as it was available and set it up with a site that looked like it could be the right one, but full of terrible advice cribbed from anywhere they could find it, fueling sketchy advertisements.

As soon as I realized this, I did what I could to get the domain back, but I was unsuccessful until today, when finally points back to where it should. I apologize to anyone who may have found themselves on the scam site in the mean time.

The lesson, for me, is that retiring a domain, in some cases, is something that should only be done with great care and after the Internet has had a good long time to get used to the new location.

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Read free on Daily SF: Failed Interview with the International Convocation of the Damned

Luc's writing projects

Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed

My new flash story, “Failed Interview with the International Convocation of the Damned” is up at Daily Science Fiction, a lauded, free online science fiction and fantasy magazine that offers a new story every day.

“Failed Interview” gives a rare glimpse into the recruitment process for would-be vampires. Read it at .

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The Six Approaches to Time Travel Stories


My son, Ethan, posted a neat graphic by Harrison Densmore explaining three approaches to time travel in stories. It’s pretty good, actually. Check it out:

time travel theories

I think this is a great start, but it’s incomplete. There are at least six approaches to past time travel stories. Note that future time travel isn’t such a big deal: we do it all the time, and even know how to speed it up (travel at relativistic speeds).

Here’s the list I know.

  1. Time travel is impossible. The reason I mention this as one of the options is that a story can be about people attempting time travel, thinking something is time travel that actually isn’t, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be the real one.
  2. The self-healing timeline. In this one, you travel back in time and change something, but the universe changes something else to cancel your change out. I’m not a fan of this one, because 1) why does the universe care?, and 2) two changes that cancel out one particular effect are not the same as not changing anything in the first place. For instance, what about the people whose lives would have been affected by the orphan?
  3. The timeline that’s smarter than you. This is the one Densmore calls “The Fixed Timeline.” In this one, any changes you make were what happened all along; you just didn’t realize it. Maybe you shot and killed your grandfather, and it turns out that wasn’t your grandfather at all, that’s just what grandma told your dad when he was growing up. I’m not crazy about this approach either, because it requires existence of some kind of intelligent Fate and imposes arbitrary limits on human intelligence. Humans may be intellectually limited, but we’re not stupid. Except sometimes, but that’s another discussion.
  4. Dynamic timeline. Densmore covers this one nicely. I think nature abhors a paradox, but you can still get fun stories out of this.
  5. Multiverse. This is the easiest one to work with, although I’d point out that some multiverse stories don’t restrict universe-hopping–so you might spawn a new version of the universe and experience it as long as you stay there, but be able to come back to your original timeline because your machine or magical ability or what have you is just that good.
  6. The elastic timeline. In this timeline, you can go back in time and do whatever you want, and the world will change accordingly (e.g., no baby Hitler), but when you return to your original time, nothing will have changed. In this approach, the universe is assumed to have some kind of resilience, or time travel to occur in some kind of pocket universe that vanishes when you leave it. I have an unfinished story that uses this approach in which a young man regularly travels back in time to kick the living crap out of horrible dictators from the past–just appears in Francisco Franco’s bedroom, for instance, and goes to town on him with steel-toed boots. As you can imagine, he comes to find this approach to happiness flawed.

Bam: 172 Hellaciously Short Stories (of things that could never happen), which you can get on Amazon in paperback or eBook format.

So … what did I miss?


Things You Will Probably Not Say on Your Deathbed

I'm just sayin'

Abe Lincoln on his deathbed

  • Man, I wish I’d spent more time watching TV
  • I now regret not eating more of those doughnuts people kept bringing in at work
  • All that time I wasted with my family and friends! Why didn’t I work constantly and become wealthy but unable to enjoy any of my income?
  • Those solar panels were pointless. Now that I really think about it, I don’t care whether climate change disasters would have been a lot worse over the last few decades if people like me hadn’t done something about it.
  • Good thing I took all those Facebook quizzes!
  • At least I got to argue with everyone who ever annoyed me.
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Top 12 Reasons Bernie Sanders Can’t Possibly Be Elected President or Even Win the Democratic Primary Because for the Love of Pete, Didn’t We Already Agree It Was Going to Be Hillary?

I'm just sayin'

I hope folks will forgive me for making a post related to the presidential race. I’m not usually inclined to post about political matters, but lately I’ve been agog at how desperate the press seems to be to try to prove that Bernie Sanders can’t possibly win anything. I don’t say Bernie will win the presidential election, or even the primary, but for some reason he’s not yet being treated as a credible candidate, and that’s ridiculous. And speaking of ridiculous: here are the top 12 reasons he can’t possibly be elected.




  1. Voters don’t think enough other voters will vote for him, so he won’t win, even if voters prefer him. That makes sense, right?
  1. He’s just a left-wing Donald Trump (you know, because he speaks his mind and has messy hair), and Donald Trump isn’t going to win. Ergo, Bernie won’t win either, QED.
  1. Bernie doesn’t have much Latino support, and with only 15 months left before the election, there’s no time for that to change.
  1. Hillary already has the nomination locked in by winning over all the big corporate and private contributors–you know, the people whom Bernie is specifically trying to get out of government. All Bernie has is hundreds of thousands of average Americans. Since when do they count?
  1. He’s not going to appeal to black Americans, because black Americans would never vote for the only candidate who even has a racial justice platform. So he marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King, so what? Everybody’s done that!
  1. The press all says Hillary is going to win, and they’re the ones who matter. The only people Bernie has behind him are voters, and everyone knows they don’t make a difference in presidential races.
  1. Everybody seems to like and respect him, even people who disagree with him. What kind of reputation is that for a president?
  1. Sure he gets massive turnout at his events, but that doesn’t mean people are actually going to vote for him! I mean, come on: apples and oranges.
  1. The idea of putting a heavier financial burden on people who can actually afford it to help out people who can’t make ends meet is repugnant, mean-spirited, and un-American.
  1. Who said it was OK for him to run, did you think about that? Nobody, that’s who.
  1. He’s too radical to appeal to a broad constituency. All the progressive Democrats who like him are too radical, too. Also the centrist Democrats. And I guess the independents. And the … Republicans …
  1. He’s too honest: people don’t trust that in a politician.
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Fiction Critique Hand Signals


For live critiquing:

Fiction Critique Hand Signals

Images: don’t know; didn’t ask
Nonsensical captions: me

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New story free on Daily Science Fiction: When a Bunch of People, Including Raymond, Got Superpowers

Luc's writing projects

My very short story about choosing superpowers wisely, When a Bunch of People, Including Raymond, Got Superpowers, is up today at Daily Science Fiction. Comments there or here are always welcome.