On Tuesday, November 14, 1995, in what has been perceived as the years biggestnon-event, the federal government shut down all “non-essential”services due to what was, for all intents and purposes, a game of national”chicken” between the House Speaker and the President. And, at anestimated cost of 200 million dollars a day, this dubious battle of dueling egosdid not come cheap (Bradsher, 1995, p. 16). Why do politicians find it almostcongenitally impossible to cooperate? What is it about politics and power thatseem to always put them at odds with good government? Indeed, is an effective,well run government even possible given the current adversarial relationshipbetween our two main political parties? It would seem that the exercise of powerfor its own sake, and a competitive situation in which one side must alwaysoppose the other on any issue, is incompatible with the cooperation andcompromise necessary for the government to function. As the United Statesbecomes more extreme in its beliefs in general, group polarization andcompetition, which requires a mutual exclusivity of goal attainment, will leadto more “showdown” situations in which the goal of good governmentgives way to political posturing and power-mongering. In this paper I willanalyze recent political behavior in terms of two factors: Group behavior withan emphasis on polarization, and competition.
However, one should keep in mindthat these two factors are interrelated. Group polarization tends to exacerbateinter-group competition by driving any two groups who initially disagree fartherapart in their respective views. In turn, a competitive situation in which oneside must lose in order for the other to win (and political situations arenearly always competitive), will codify the differences between groups – leadingto further extremism by those seeking power within the group – and thus, tofurther group polarization. In the above example, the two main combatants, BillClinton and Newt Gingrich, were virtually forced to take uncompromising,disparate views because of the very nature of authority within their respectivepolitical groups.
Group polarization refers to the tendency of groups togravitate to the extreme of whatever opinion the group shares (Baron &Graziano, 1991, p. 498-499). Therefore, if the extreme is seen as a desirablecharacteristic, individuals who exhibit extreme beliefs will gain authoritythrough referent power. In other words, they will have characteristics thatother group members admire and seek to emulate (p. 434).
Unfortunately, thiscircle of polarization and authority can lead to a bizarre form of “oneupsmanship” in which each group member seeks to gain power and approval bybeing more extreme than the others. The end result is extremism in the pursuitof authority without any regard to the practicality or”reasonableness” of the beliefs in question. Since the direction ofpolarization is currently in opposite directions in our two party system, it isalmost impossible to find a common ground between them. In addition, thecompetitive nature of the two party system many times eliminates even thepossibility of compromise since failure usually leads to a devastating loss ofpower. If both victory and extremism are necessary to retain power within thegroup, and if, as Alfie Kohn (1986) stated in his book No Contest: The CaseAgainst Competition, competition is “mutually exclusive goalattainment” (one side must lose in order for the other to win), thencompromise and cooperation are impossible (p. 136).
This is especially so if theopponents are dedicated to retaining power “at all costs. ” That poweris an end in itself is made clear by the recent shutdown of the government. Itserved no logical purpose. Beyond costing a lot of money, it had no discernibleeffect except as a power struggle between two political heavyweights.
Accordingto David Kipnis (1976, cited in Baron & Graziano, 1991), one of the negativeeffects of power is, in fact, the tendency to regard it as its own end, and toignore the possibility of disastrous results from the reckless use of power (p. 433). Therefore, it would seem that (at least in this case) government policy iscreated and implemented, not with regard to its effectiveness as governmentpolicy, but only with regard to its value as a tool for accumulating andmaintaining power. Another of Kipnis’s negative effects of power is the tendencyto use it for selfish purposes (p. 433). In politics this can be seen as thepredilection towards making statements for short term political gain that areeither nonsensical or contradictory to past positions held by the candidatesthemselves.
While this may not be the use of actual power, it is an attempt togain political office (and therefore power) without regard for the real worth orimplications of a policy for “good” government. A prime example ofthis behavior can be seen in the widely divergent political stances taken byGovernor Pete Wilson of California. At this point I should qualify my ownpolitical position. While I do tend to lean towards the Democratic side of thepolitical spectrum (this is undoubtedly what brought Pete Wilson to my attentionin the first place), I examine Governor Wilson because he is such a primeexample of both polarization and pandering in the competitive pursuit of power.
Accordingly, I will try to hold my political biases in check. In any case,selfish, power seeking behavior is reflected in Wilson’s recently abandonedcampaign for President. Although he consistently ruled out running for Presidentduring his second gubernatorial campaign, immediately after he was re-elected heannounced that he was forming a committee to explore the possibility. And, infact, he did make an abortive run for the Republican nomination. In both cases(presidential and gubernatorial elections), he justified his seeminglycontradictory positions in terms of his “duty to the people”(No Author1995).
This begs the question; was it the duty that was contradictory, or was itWilson’s political aspirations. In either case it seems clear that his decisionwas hardly based on principles of good government. Even if Wilson thought he hada greater duty to the nation as a whole (and I’m being charitable here), hemight have considered that before he ran for governor a second time. It wouldappear much more likely that the greater power inherent in the presidency wasthe determining force behind Wilson’s decision.
Ironically, Wilson’s lust forpotential power may cause him to lose the power he actually has. Since hisdecision to run for President was resoundingly unpopular with Californians, andsince he may be perceived as unable to compete in national politics due to hiswithdrawal from the presidential race, his political power may be fatallyimpaired. This behavior shows not only a disregard for “good”government, but also a strange inability to defer gratification. There is noreason that Pete Wilson couldn’t have run for President after his second term asGovernor had expired.
His selfish pursuit of power for its own sake was soabsolute that it inhibited him from seeing the very political realities thatgave him power in the first place. In his attempt to gain power, Wilson managedto change his stance on virtually every issue he had ever encountered. Fromimmigration to affirmative action – from tax cuts to abortion rights, he hasswung 180 degrees (Thurm, 1995). The point here is not his inconsistency, butrather the fact that it is improbable that considerations of effectivegovernment would allow these kinds of swings.
And, while people may dismiss thisbehavior as merely the political “game playing” that all candidatesengage in, it is the pervasiveness of this behavior – to the exclusion of anygovernmental considerations – that make it distressing as well as intriguing. Polarization is also apparent in this example. Since Pete Wilson showed noinherent loyalty toward a particular ideology, it is entirely likely that hadthe Republican party been drifting towards a centrist position rather than anextreme right-wing position, Wilson would have accordingly been more moderate inhis political pronouncements. The polarization towards an extreme is what causedhim to make such radical changes in his beliefs. It is, of course, difficult totell to what extent political intransigence is a conscious strategy, or anunconscious motivation toward power, but the end result is the same – politicalleadership that is not conducive (or even relevant) to good government.
The roleof competition in our political system is an inherently contradictory one. Weaccept the fact that politicians must compete ruthlessly to gain office usingwhatever tactics are necessary to win. We then, somehow, expect them tocompletely change their behavior once they are elected. At that point we expectcooperation, compromise, and a statesmanlike attitude. Alfie Kohn (1986) pointsout that this expectation is entirely unrealistic (p. 135).
He also states that,”Depriving adversaries of personalities, of faces, of their subjectivity,is a strategy we automatically adopt in order to win” (p. 139). In otherwords, the very nature of competition requires that we treat people as hostileobjects rather than as human beings. It is, therefore, unlikely, once anelection is over and the process of government is supposed to begin, thatpoliticians will be able to “forgive and forget” in order to carry onwith the business at hand. Once again, in the recent government shutdown we cansee this same sort of difficulty.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose competitivepolitical relationship with Bill Clinton has been rancorous at best, blamed hisown (Gingrich’s) handling of the budget negotiations that resulted in theshutdown, on his poor treatment during an airplane flight that he and thePresident were on (Turque & Thomas, 1995, p. 28). One can look at this issuefrom both sides. On the one hand, shabby treatment on an airplane flight ishardly a reason to close the U. S.
government. On the other hand, if the shabbytreatment occurred, was it a wise thing for the President to do in light of thedelicate negotiations that were going on at the time? In both cases, it seemsthat all concerned were, in effect, blinded by their competitive hostility. Theyboth presumably desired to run the government well (we assume that’s why theyran for office in the first place), but they couldn’t overcome their hostilitylong enough to run it at all. If the Speaker is to be believed (although he hassince tried to retract his statements), the entire episode resulted not from alegitimate disagreement about how to govern well, but from the competitivedesire to dominate government. Indeed, when one examines the eventual compromisethat was reached, there seems to be no significant difference in the positionsof the two parties. If this is so, why was it necessary to waste millions ofdollars shutting down the government and then starting it up again a few dayslater? What’s more, this entire useless episode will be reenacted inmid-December.
One can only hope that Clinton and Gingrich avoid travelingtogether until an agreement is reached. Although people incessantly complainabout government and about the ineffectiveness of politicians, they rarelyexamine the causes of these problems. While there is a lot of attention paid tocampaign finance reform, lobbying reform, PAC reform, and the peddling ofinfluence, we never seem to realize that, most of the time, politicians aremerely giving us what they think we want. If they are weak and dominated bypolls, aren’t they really trying to find out “the will of the people”in order to comply with it? If they are extremist and uncompromising in theirpolitical stances, aren’t they simply reflecting the extremism prevalent in ourcountry today? If politicians compromise, we call them weak, and if they don’twe call them extremist. If we are unhappy with our government, perhaps it isbecause we expect the people who run it to do the impossible. They must reflectthe will of a large, disparate electorate, and yet be 100 percent consistent intheir ideology.
However, if we look at political behavior in terms of our ownpolarized, partisan attitudes, and if we can find a way to either reduce thecompetitive nature of campaigns, or reconcile pre-election hostility withpost-election statesmanship, then we may find a way to elect politicians on thebasis of how they will govern rather than how they run. It may be tempting todismiss all this as merely “the way politics is” or say that”competition is human nature”, or perhaps think that these behaviorsare essentially harmless. But consider these two examples. It has beenspeculated that President Lyndon B. Johnson was unwilling to get out of theVietnam war because he didn’t want to be remembered as the first AmericanPresident to lose a war.
If this is true, it means that thousands of people,both American and Vietnamese, died in order to protect one man’s status. InOklahoma City, a federal building was bombed in 1994, killing hundreds of men,women, and children. The alleged perpetrators were a group of extreme, rightwing, “constitutionalists” who were apparently trying to turnfrustration with the federal government into open revolution. I do not thinkthese examples are aberrations or flukes, but are, instead, indicative ofstructural defects in our political system. If we are not aware of the dangersof extremism and competition, we may, in the end, be destroyed by them. BibliographyBaron, B.
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Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. Bradsher, K. (1995, November 18). Country may belosing money with government closed.
The New YorkTimes, pp. 16 Kohn, A. (1986). No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Boston,Houghton Mifflin. No Author.
(1995, March 24). What Wilson has said about entering race. San JoseMercury News Online. Address:http://www. sjmercury.
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sjmercury. com/wilson/wil829. htm Turgue,B. , ; Thomas, E. (1995, November 27).
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