Tait: The 4 horsemen of politics

November 7, 2018

It’s 2018, a time when Democrats and Republicans are stuck in a loveless marriage.

Sitting in their seeming separate bedrooms, they each rely on different sources of political news and distrust the other’s outlet. It feels the two are on the brink of divorce.

A report by Pew Research Center (2017) states, “The divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values – on government, race, immigration, national security, environmental protection and other areas – reached record levels during Barack Obama’s presidency. In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger.”

Each side has been talking over the other in unproductive and aggressive ways. The president himself has used aggressive language often such as, “Knock the crap out of them” and “I’d like to punch him in the face.” This division was evident at the protest in Charlottesville where 32-year-old Heather Heyer lost her life. The left-wing anti-fascists engaged in violence in a 2018 rally, throwing eggs, water bottles and shooting fireworks at police officers and journalists. More recently, division has escalated with at least 12 potential pipe bombs sent to high-ranking Democrats.

Where did this marriage go wrong? How has division and violence heightened to this level when the dreaded “other side” is also made up of our family, friends and neighbors? Groundbreaking research on marriage from John Gottman, the love doctor, may give some insight.

His work investigated the four horsemen of the apocalypse, four signs that the end of a marriage is near, akin to the end of days in the New Testament. They are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling; omens frequently used in political rhetoric.


This is attacking someone’s character rather than stating a complaint. Criticism may include statements that begin with, “you always” or “you never” that simply lead to defensiveness. For example, when Eric Trump defended his Dad, calling Elisabeth Warren “Pocahontas” and then received this globalized response from Twitter user Winston Smith:

“How come the entire Trump family struggles with the concept of context? What gene is missing there?”

Collaborative problem-solving is hard to come by when someone is feeling attacked about who they are, rather than something specific they have done. They likely put up their guard to defend themselves, rather than try to understand where the complaint is coming from.


This is mean-spirited communication with the intent to disrespect. It may be sarcasm, ridiculing, name-calling or even eye-rolling. Contempt assumes a position of moral superiority over the other. For example, JK Rowling laughing at Trump’s misspellings, or the name-calling and eye rolls on both sides. These methods drive disconnection and intensifies us vs. them. Author Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute, noting that Gottman’s research indicates contempt to be the biggest predictor of divorce said, “What’s bad for a marriage is bad for politics and bad for a country. The biggest problem that we have in the country today is this culture of treating each other with contempt.”


When one gets defensive, they fish for excuses and play as if they are the innocent victim. Defensiveness communicates that the person doesn’t take the other’s concern seriously and aren’t willing to share blame or responsibility. For example, Donald Trump took no part of the blame or responsibility for the current divisive climate when he tweeted, “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description.”

Hillary Clinton also had a grocery list of reasons as to why her 2016 presidential run failed, through no fault of her own. Shifting blame and pointing fingers distracts from problem-solving. Ideas to solve problems should be kicked around together like a soccer ball. The goal is finding solutions rather than scapegoats.


The fourth horsemen of the apocalypse happens when the listener withdraws and shuts down. When one person stops responding, it often leads to the other escalating their behavior to feel heard. Being overwhelmed by criticism, contempt, and defensiveness, the person may become physiologically flooded and unable to discuss topics rationally.

How can this marriage be mended? According to Gottman, even healthy marriages have perpetual problems, ones grounded in fundamental differences between people whether in personality or lifestyle needs that don’t seem to change. There have always been varieties of opinion in the United States, and there always will be.

Rather than using the four horsemen, Gottman suggests these alternatives: Practice physiological self-soothing, use softened startup, repair and de-escalate, listen to your partner’s underlying feelings and dreams, accept influence and compromise.

Ultimately each side wants to feel heard, safe and have their needs. The United States does not have to be the “Divided States” if each side takes the perspective of the other with compassion. Individuals can reverse the trend of coarse dialogue by remembering “the other” is not an “other” at all, but a friend, family member, neighbor, American or simply another human sharing this human experience.

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