Defensive Splitting and Partisan Politics

Wednesday, July 26, 2017
Pasadena, California



Defensive Splitting and Partisan Politics

In response to John McCain’s speech to the US Senate yesterday, I write regarding the defense mechanism known as splitting. It is a term-of-art in psychoanalytic circles.  

I covered the topic in  detail a few months ago, particularly its presence in persons with borderline personality disorder.

You can see that blog here:


Splitting, considered a primitive psychological defense, consists of parsing the world into two categories — good and bad. Neurological evidence substantiates that infants normally utilize splitting to reduce their anxiety about the world. They separate their experiences into categories of good and bad. Being fed, comforted, soothed of course falls into the good pile; being hungry, agitated, or in any kind of pain falls into the bad pile.

Imagine the sensory overload of a newborn infant. Between the external stimuli — sounds, lights, sensations — and the internal world — anxiety, surprise, shock — splitting essentially reduces the infinite to the binary. It is a primitive, basic organizing system. The self, other, and the world are either good or bad.

Individuals who fail to mature continue to utilize splitting as a defense mechanism.

Plato got to the idea centuries before me, but individual psyches can be compared to governments. We humans are all in relationship with ourselves. We constantly converse ourselves. In a sense, we govern ourselves — sometimes well, sometimes poorly.

In like manner, governments oversee the behavior of their citizens. They can function in a mature way in which they integrate information; they can function in an immature way in which they utilize splitting.

Senator John McCain spoke to this yesterday, describing his colleagues as:

more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any other time I remember. Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately. 

McCain continued:

Both sides have let this happen. Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians. I suspect they’ll find we all conspired in our decline – either by deliberate actions or neglect.

He proceeded to acknowledge his contribution to the stalemate, admitting he sometimes “wanted to to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.” (Interestingly, McCain showed great maturity in his talk, demonstrating integration and ownership of his own part in the divisiveness.)

Here, the psychoanalytic concept of splitting and the stalemate in congressional governance meet. The democrats and republicans stay with their own tribes during recent legislative debates. The media describe the country as “more divided” than ever.


Mostly because of the primitive defense of splitting. Remember, it simplifies. I am right; you are wrong. I need not consider nuance; I need not empathize with your viewpoint. Problem solved. Anxiety reduced.

The current healthcare debate offers a painful example of splitting. Conservative republicans seem hell-bent on allowing healthcare in the US to return to a fully free-market system. Ironically, even they have split into subgroups — some seeking regulated markets rather than totally free ones. They failed to pass any significant legislation because even the most conservative of them realize their constituents will be angered if 20 to 30 million Americans suddenly lose their health insurance.

In this example, notice the multiple levels of splits. Conservative senators split off from ultra-conservative senators. Republicans have entirely split from democrats. And it seems that many legislators, living in their secure governmental cocoons, have become split off from the realities of everyday Americans.

How to fix it?

Mostly through careful, considerate, cautious, deliberate empathy. Like McCain said, more effort has been put into “winning” than cooperating. Cooperation involves understanding your “opponents” point of view.

Like what occurs in normal psychological development, these legislators would benefit from appreciating shades of gray. It is complex to wade into those murky waters. It can be frightening. It might be lonely.

However, gray is the color of reality.

While composing this blog post, I find myself wondering about my own propensity to split, specifically when it comes to Trump. Yesterday he announced he considers himself the most “presidential” US leader since Abraham Lincoln.

I found the statement unbelievable, outrageous.

Between the questions of his involvement with Russian oligarchs, his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and the impotence of the US department of state under his direction, Trump proves a difficult man to whom to show empathy.

Most days, I feel considerable anger towards him. Some days he says or does something downright frightening.

In the interest of demonstrating how integration is the opposite of splitting, I wonder how to empathize with Trump.

Many indicators suggest he is a deeply, emotionally insecure person. He brings attention to himself at every opportunity. He lacks insight into how it looks to others that he imprints his name on structures across the globe.

Trump seems to have little love in his life — save immediate family members with whom he has a biological link. It looks like his wife, Melania, can’t stand him. He vacillates from idealization to devaluation, dramatically indicated by his recent attitude towards the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. He seems to need loyalty more than competency.

Does Trump have any real friends?

Finally, even though he seems not to notice it, Trump is regularly outwitted by foreign leaders. President Xi Jinping of China educated him about the complexities of North Korea. Despite various US intelligence agencies agreeing that Russia interfered with the last presidential election, Trump has failed to hold Vladimir Putin of Russia accountable.

I have little hope of Trump changing. He lacks, as Obama and Hillary said, the temperament of a President. Yet splitting against him won’t help.

Perhaps, bolstered by McCain’s speech, we could strive to understand the “other side” better, see how we’ve projected some of our own badness into them, and thereby bolster our capacity for empathy and integration.

It seems to be the only way forward.

(If you like this blog, please tell your friends, family, and pets to subscribe by opening up alankarbelnig.com, clicking on any blog, scrolling to the bottom, and sign up. Like any selfless writer, I always seek more readers. Thanks so much! – Alan)







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