“Numerous studies have shown that people feel losses more deeply than gains of the same value” (Twersky and Kahneman). Some studies have shown that losses are twice as psychologically powerful as gains. American history and our current political situation help reveal a great deal about the American/human psyche.
To prove my point, let’s first examine the American Revolution. Most people believe we fought against the British to overthrow their dictatorial government. While that is true, the reality is that Americans fought to save what they believed they were losing. The British had left the American colonists to their own devices for almost 150 years while they fought a series of European wars.
The American colonists internalized the values of Europe and especially Britain. They formed governments that respected the rule of law (the belief that no one was above the law) and consent of the governed where a ruler only ruled by the agreement of the ruled. They also created representative democracy where the people, through voting, delegated their decision-making to elected representatives.
In 1763, the British won their world war against the French in what is known in America as the French and Indian War. To pay off their debts, they imposed stamp taxes on legal documents and newspapers, then sugar (molasses) and then tea.
Americans rebelled, complaining that the British government had no right to tax them without their consent.
In the process of this movement to rebellion, Americans saw themselves as Englishmen with the rights of representative democracy, trial by jury and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. King George III had stolen the rights that the English had struggled for since the Magna Carta of 1215, which had limited the power of King John.
In one sense, the American Revolution wasn’t a revolution at all; it was a conservative reaction to try to regain what the Americans felt they had lost because of British tyranny.
The American Civil War of 1861-65 was also a war fought on both sides to preserve what Americans feared they would lose. The North fought to preserve the Union from the Confederates who threatened to destroy the nation over the issue of slavery.
From the Confederate perspective, the South was fighting to preserve its way of life and what they called their “peculiar institution,” which they feared the North was trying to rip away from them. This war killed more Americans – 650,000 – than all the wars combined since that time, including World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam.
Today, we see many commentators expressing the fear that President Donald Trump is threatening our republic and its values. Numerous pundits have criticized all the norms that have been debased by our unpredictable president. Those who favor the president’s policies believe that he is really working to “Make America great again” – reflecting a fear that the United States is in decline.
This aversion to loss created a backlash observed in the Republican-dominated Congress’ failure to repeal and replace Obamacare. The attempts to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature domestic accomplishment have stirred up Democrats and even moderate Republicans who fear the loss of medical coverage for millions.
It is also likely to thwart Republican attempts at tax reform by those who fear the loss of their privileges and tax breaks.
It can also be seen in the recent resounding Republican defeats in elections in New Jersey and Virginia.
Many people who never considered running for elective office have run political campaigns out of fear and concern for our democracy. Fear of the loss of our rights and privileges have shaken many out of political apathy.
We are creatures wired to avoid losing more than we are concerned about gaining something new. Kahneman and Twersky were right. Look around you, whether you are a Trump loyalist or a Trump hater. All of us are striving to avoid losing what we believe we have gained. This fear of loss on both sides of the spectrum has helped to create the polarized political divide we see in America today.