When we think about addiction, we usually conjure images of cigarettes, alcohol, or other mind/mood-altering substances. We may think of pornography, gaming, and gambling. What does not typically come to mind is ideology. Ideological addiction, however, is quite real and constitutes one of the greatest threats to American society.
Like other addictions, ideological addictions can take the form of an inability to cease engaging in obsessive thoughts, even though such thoughts may be harming the person who has them (or that person’s loved ones).
Right now, ideological addiction is one of the greatest—yet largely unrecognized–addictions plaguing our society. It is made even more dangerous because unlike other addictions, which are widely accepted as harmful, ideological addiction is being constantly fueled by irresponsible members of the political class, the press, and many on social media.
Significant evidence supports the conclusion that substance addiction is a mental disorder that stems from a form of self-medication. People with this disorder are often attempting to overcome emotional or psychological issues through substance use.
Both substance use disorders and ideological addictions can be exacerbated by a person’s desire to fill a void in his life, a desire to overcome beliefs that his life is hampered, insignificant, or meaningless, as well as that he is powerless to bring about any positive change.
During times of loss, grief, and trauma, we can all be confronted with deep existential questions, such as: “Who am I?”‘; “What is my life about?”; and “What am I meant to do?” We can find ourselves feeling insecure, unsure of ourselves, and questioning where we belong and our life’s purpose. This process informs identity construction when working properly but, in other cases, can promote the dissolution of one’s sense of self.
In a diverse nation such as the United States, where said diversity is constantly evolving, the fragmentation of identity can be in constant flux. Challenges to identity can expose vulnerability, insecurity, and fragility. Fragmentation can result from a loss of status or economic position, suffering a hardship, or marginalization. These conditions can impact people of all religions, genders, ages, and races.
When an individual’s self-worth is damaged because of personal failures or because his self-importance is negatively impacted by the economic, social, or political order, he can attempt to regain social power through a variety of productive means. However, if these fail, a sense of hopelessness can ensue. Then, ideological extremism can become a solution.
For isolated individuals who feel invisible, it is common for a leader to come along and speak to them, validate them, and empower them. Extremist recruiters know all too well how to exploit the vulnerabilities of these individuals. Social media and online gaming are common places for recruitment.
Like other addictions, ideological addiction does not discriminate by political persuasion, age, race, gender, or anything else. Just about everyone can be susceptible to its lure. On the Right and Left, identity politics, politically-correct authoritarians, and a loss of self-esteem have a more significant effect than conspiracy theories or fake news.
We have found that correcting facts or providing legitimate sources have little impact on the mindsets of individuals drawn into extremist ideologies. In our work with radicalized Muslims, members of the alt-right, etc., presenting this type of information to them usually produces the opposite result and causes them to entrench themselves further in their views.
Regardless of how ridiculous an ideology is, one may never succeed in breaking people away from it. Given that attempting to counter their reality with facts or evidence can be counterproductive, the more successful approach is to seek understanding and listen to these individuals rather than alienate them. Dig into why they believe in the ideology they do: What have they seen in their life that made them adopt this worldview? Crucially, approach them with respect.
Bridging our national divisions will require political reform, a greater focus on civics in education, and a program to address radicalization. However, most importantly, each of us plays a critical role in potentially healing the divisions in the United States.
We must prioritize a sense of purpose, meaning, and belonging. While we believe the path toward healing radicalism is through an understanding of addictive ideology as was discussed above, the cure for our divisions at large continues to revolve around the ideals of citizenship.
Emily Bashah and Paul E. Johnson are the co-authors of Addictive Ideologies: Finding Meaning in Agency When Politics Fail You. She is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Scottsdale, Arizona. Paul Johnson is the host of The Optimistic American podcast, whose goal is to create space in the news media for a positive and hopeful view of the United States. He served as Mayor of Phoenix, Arizona from 1990 to 1994.