Pol1 Essay, Research Paper
Group Polarization and Competition in Political Behavior On Tuesday, November 14, 1995, in what has been perceived as the yearsbiggest non-event, the federal government shut down all “non-essential” services due to what was, forall intents and purposes, a game of national “chicken” between the House Speaker and the President. And, at an estimated cost of 200 million dollars a day, this dubious battle of dueling egos did not come cheap (Bradsher, 1995, p.16). Why do politicians find it almost congenitally impossible to cooperate? What is it about politics and power that seem to always put them at odds with good government? Indeed, is an effective, well run government even possible given the current adversarial relationship between our two main political parties? It would seem that the exercise of power for its own sake, and a competitive situation in which one side must always oppose the other on any issue, is incompatible with the cooperation and compromise necessary for the government to function. As the United States becomes more extreme in its beliefs in general, group polarization and competition, which requires a mutual exclusivity of goal attainment, will lead to more “showdown” situations in which the goal of good government gives way to political posturing and power-mongering. In this paper I will analyze recent political behavior in terms of twofactors: Group behavior with an emphasison polarization, and competition. However, one should keep in mind thatthese two factors are interrelated. Grouppolarization tends to exacerbate inter-group competition by driving anytwo groups who initially disagree farther apart intheir respective views. In turn, a competitive situation in which oneside must lose in order for the other to win (andpolitical situations are nearly always competitive), will codify thedifferences between groups – leading to furtherextremism by those seeking power within the group – and thus, to furthergroup polarization. In the above example, the two main combatants, Bill Clinton and NewtGingrich, were virtually forced to takeuncompromising, disparate views because of the very nature of authoritywithin their respective political groups. Grouppolarization refers to the tendency of groups to gravitate to theextreme of whatever opinion the group shares (Baron &Graziano, 1991, p.498-99). Therefore, if the extreme is seen as adesirable characteristic, individuals who exhibitextreme beliefs will gain authority through referent power. In otherwords, they will have characteristics that other groupmembers admire and seek to emulate (p. 434). Unfortunately, this circleof polarization and authority can lead to abizarre form of “one-upsmanship” in which each group member seeks togain power and approval by being moreextreme than the others. The end result is extremism in the pursuit ofauthority without any regard to the practicality or”reasonableness” of the beliefs in question. Since the direction ofpolarization is currently in opposite directions in ourtwo party system, it is almost impossible to find a common groundbetween them. In addition, the competitive nature ofthe two party system many times eliminates even the possibility ofcompromise since failure usually leads to adevastating loss of power. If both victory and extremism are necessary to retain power within thegroup, and if, as Alfie Kohn (1986) statedin his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition, competition is”mutually exclusive goal attainment” (one sidemust lose in order for the other to win), then compromise andcooperation are impossible (p. 136). This is especially soif the opponents are dedicated to retaining power “at all costs.” Thatpower is an end in itself is made clear by the recentshutdown of the government. It served no logical purpose. Beyondcosting a lot of money, it had no discernible effectexcept as a power struggle between two political heavyweights.According to David Kipnis (1976, cited in Baron &Graziano, 1991), one of the negative effects of power is, in fact, thetendency to regard it as its own end, and to ignorethe possibility of disastrous results from the reckless use of power(p. 433). Therefore, it would seem that (at least inthis case) government policy is created and implemented, not with regardto its effectiveness as government policy, butonly with regard to its value as a tool for accumulating and maintainingpower. Another of Kipnis’s negative effects of power is the tendency to use itfor selfish purposes (p.433). In politicsthis can be seen as the predilection towards making statements for shortterm political gain that are either nonsensical orcontradictory to past positions held by the candidates themselves.While this may not be the use of actual power, it is anattempt to gain political office (and therefore power) without regardfor the real worth or implications of a policy for”good” government. A prime example of this behavior can be seen in the widely divergentpolitical stances taken by Governor PeteWilson of California. At this point I should qualify my own politicalposition. While I do tend to lean towards theDemocratic side of the political spectrum (this is undoubtedly whatbrought Pete Wilson to my attention in the firstplace), I examine Governor Wilson because he is such a prime example ofboth polarization and pandering in thecompetitive pursuit of power. Accordingly, I will try to hold mypolitical biases in check. In any case, selfish, power seeking behavior is reflected in Wilson’srecently abandoned campaign for President.Although he consistently ruled out running for President during hissecond gubernatorial campaign, immediately after hewas re-elected he announced that he was forming a committee to explorethe possibility. And, in fact, he did make anabortive run for the Republican nomination. In both cases (presidentialand gubernatorial elections), he justified hisseemingly contradictory positions in terms of his “duty to thepeople”(No Author 1995). This begs the question; was itthe duty that was contradictory, or was it Wilson’s politicalaspirations. In either case it seems clear that his decisionwas hardly based on principles of good government. Even if Wilsonthought he had a greater duty to the nation as awhole (and I’m being charitable here), he might have considered thatbefore he ran for governor a second time. It wouldappear much more likely that the greater power inherent in thepresidency was the determining force behind Wilson’sdecision. Ironically, Wilson’s lust for potential power may cause himto lose the power he actually has. Since hisdecision to run for President was resoundingly unpopular withCalifornians, and since he may be perceived as unable tocompete in national politics due to his withdrawal from the presidentialrace, his political power may be fatallyimpaired. This behavior shows not only a disregard for “good”government, but also a strange inability to defergratification. There is no reason that Pete Wilson couldn’t have runfor President after his second term as Governor had
expired. His selfish pursuit of power for its own sake was so absolutethat it inhibited him from seeing the very politicalrealities that gave him power in the first place. In his attempt to gain power, Wilson managed to change his stance onvirtually every issue he had everencountered. From immigration to affirmative action – from tax cuts toabortion rights, he has swung 180 degrees(Thurm, 1995). The point here is not his inconsistency, but rather thefact that it is improbable that considerations ofeffective government would allow these kinds of swings. And, whilepeople may dismiss this behavior as merely thepolitical “game playing” that all candidates engage in, it is thepervasiveness of this behavior – to the exclusion of anygovernmental considerations – that make it distressing as well asintriguing. Polarization is also apparent in this example. Since Pete Wilsonshowed no inherent loyalty toward a particularideology, it is entirely likely that had the Republican party beendrifting towards a centrist position rather than an extremeright-wing position, Wilson would have accordingly been more moderate inhis political pronouncements. Thepolarization towards an extreme is what caused him to make such radicalchanges in his beliefs. It is, of course, difficultto tell to what extent political intransigence is a conscious strategy,or an unconscious motivation toward power, but theend result is the same – political leadership that is not conducive (oreven relevant) to good government. The role of competition in our political system is an inherentlycontradictory one. We accept the fact thatpoliticians must compete ruthlessly to gain office using whatevertactics are necessary to win. We then, somehow,expect them to completely change their behavior once they are elected.At that point we expect cooperation,compromise, and a statesmanlike attitude. Alfie Kohn (1986) points outthat this expectation is entirely unrealistic (p. 135). He also states that, “Depriving adversaries of personalities, offaces , of their subjectivity, is a strategy weautomatically adopt in order to win” (p.139). In other words, the verynature of competition requires that we treat peopleas hostile objects rather than as human beings. It is, therefore,unlikely, once an election is over and the process ofgovernment is supposed to begin, that politicians will be able to”forgive and forget” in order to carry on with thebusiness at hand. Once again, in the recent government shutdown we can see this samesort of difficulty. House Speaker NewtGingrich, whose competitive political relationship with Bill Clinton hasbeen rancorous at best, blamed his own(Gingrich’s) handling of the budget negotiations that resulted in theshutdown, on his poor treatment during an airplaneflight that he and the President were on (Turque & Thomas, 1995, p. 28). One can look at this issue from both sides. Onthe one hand, shabby treatment on an airplane flight is hardly a reasonto close the U.S. government. On the other hand, ifthe shabby treatment occurred, was it a wise thing for the President todo in light of the delicate negotiations that weregoing on at the time? In both cases, it seems that all concerned were,in effect, blinded by their competitive hostility.They both presumably desired to run the government well (we assumethat’s why they ran for office in the first place), butthey couldn’t overcome their hostility long enough to run it at all. Ifthe Speaker is to be believed (although he has sincetried to retract his statements), the entire episode resulted not from alegitimate disagreement about how to govern well,but from the competitive desire to dominate government. Indeed, whenone examines the eventual compromise that wasreached, there seems to be no significant difference in the positions ofthe two parties. If this is so, why was it necessaryto waste millions of dollars shutting down the government and thenstarting it up again a few days later? What’s more,this entire useless episode will be reenacted in mid-December. One canonly hope that Clinton and Gingrich avoidtraveling together until an agreement is reached. Although people incessantly complain about government and about theineffectiveness of politicians, they rarelyexamine the causes of these problems. While there is a lot of attentionpaid to campaign finance reform, lobbying reform,PAC reform, and the peddling of influence, we never seem to realizethat, most of the time, politicians are merely givingus what they think we want. If they are weak and dominated by polls,aren’t they really trying to find out “the will of thepeople” in order to comply with it? If they are extremist anduncompromising in their political stances, aren’t they simplyreflecting the extremism prevalent in our country today? If politicianscompromise, we call them weak, and if they don’twe call them extremist. If we are unhappy with our government, perhapsit is because we expect the people who run it todo the impossible. They must reflect the will of a large, disparateelectorate, and yet be 100 percent consistent in theirideology. However, if we look at political behavior in terms of our ownpolarized, partisan attitudes, and if we can finda way to either reduce the competitive nature of campaigns, or reconcilepre-election hostility with post-electionstatesmanship, then we may find a way to elect politicians on the basisof how they will govern rather than how they run. It may be tempting to dismiss all this as merely “the way politics is”or say that “competition is human nature”, orperhaps think that these behaviors are essentially harmless. Butconsider these two examples. It has been speculated thatPresident Lyndon B. Johnson was unwilling to get out of the Vietnam warbecause he didn’t want to be remembered asthe first American President to lose a war. If this is true, it meansthat thousands of people, both American andVietnamese, died in order to protect one man’s status. In OklahomaCity, a federal building was bombed in 1994, killinghundreds of men, women, and children. The alleged perpetrators were agroup of extreme, right wing,”constitutionalists” who were apparently trying to turn frustration withthe federal government into open revolution. I do not think these examples are aberrations or flukes, but are,instead, indicative of structural defects in ourpolitical system. If we are not aware of the dangers of extremism andcompetition, we may, in the end, be destroyed bythem. ReferencesBaron, B.M., & Graziano, W.G. (1991). Social Psychology. Fort Worth,TX. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. Bradsher, K. (1995, November 18). Country may be losing money withgovernment closed. The New YorkTimes, pp.16Kohn, A. (1986). No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Boston,Houghton Mifflin. No Author. (1995, March 24). [internet] What Wilson has said aboutentering race. San Jose Mercury News Online. Address:http://www.sjmercury.com/wilson/wil324s.htmThurm, S. (1995, August 29). [internet] Wilson’s ‘announcement’ moreof an ad: California governor kicks off drivefor GOP presidential nomination. San Jose Mercury News Online. Address:http://www.sjmercury.com/wilson/wil829.htmTurgue, B., & Thomas, E. (1995, November 27). Missing the moment.Newsweek, pp.26-29.