Polarization Essay, Research Paper

On Tuesday, November 14, 1995, in what has been perceived as the years biggest non 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 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 two factors: Group behavior with an emphasis on polarization, and competition. However, one should keep in mind that these two factors are interrelated. Group polarization tends to exacerbate inter-group competition by driving any two groups who initially disagree farther apart in their respective views. In turn, a competitive situation in which one side must lose in order for the other to win (and political situations are nearly always competitive), will codify the differences between groups – leading to further extremism by those seeking power within the group – and thus, to further group polarization.

In the above example, the two main combatants, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, were virtually forced to take uncompromising, disparate views because of the very nature of authority within their respective political groups. Group polarization refers to the tendency of groups to gravitate to the extreme of whatever opinion the group shares (Baron & Graziano, 1991, p.498-99). Therefore, if the extreme is seen as a desirable characteristic, individuals who exhibit extreme beliefs will gain authority through referent power. In other words, they will have characteristics that other group members admire and seek to emulate (p. 434). Unfortunately, this circle of polarization and authority can lead to a bizarre form of “one-upsmanship” in which each group member seeks to gain power and approval by being more extreme than the others. The end result is extremism in the pursuit of authority without any regard to the practicality or “reasonableness” of the beliefs in question. Since the direction of polarization is currently in opposite directions in our two party system, it is almost impossible to find a common ground between them. In addition, the competitive nature of the two party system many times eliminates even the possibility of compromise since failure usually leads to a devastating loss of power.

If both victory and extremism are necessary to retain power within the group, and if, as Alfie Kohn (1986) stated in his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition, competition is “mutually exclusive goal attainment” (one side must lose in order for the other to win), then compromise and cooperation are impossible (p. 136). This is especially so if the opponents are dedicated to retaining power “at all costs.” That power is an end in itself is made clear by the recent shutdown of the government. It served no logical purpose. Beyond costing a lot of money, it had no discernible effect except 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, the tendency to regard it as its own end, and to ignore 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 is created and implemented, not with regard to its effectiveness as government policy, but only with regard to its value as a tool for accumulating and maintaining power.

Another of Kipnis’s negative effects of power is the tendency to use it for selfish purposes (p.433). In politics this can be seen as the predilection towards making statements for short term political gain that are either nonsensical or contradictory to past positions held by the candidates themselves. While this may not be the use of actual power, it is an attempt to gain political office (and therefore power) without regard for the real worth or implications of a policy for “good” government.

A prime example of this behavior can be seen in the widely divergent political stances taken by Governor Pete Wilson of California. At this point I should qualify my own political position. While I do tend to lean towards the Democratic side of the political spectrum (this is undoubtedly what brought Pete Wilson to my attention in the first place), I examine Governor Wilson because he is such a prime example 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 abandoned campaign for President. Although he consistently ruled out running for President during his second gubernatorial campaign, immediately after he was re-elected he announced that he was forming a committee to explore the possibility. And, in fact, he did make an abortive run for the Republican nomination. In both cases (presidential and gubernatorial elections), he justified his seemingly contradictory positions in terms of his

“duty to the people”(No Author 1995). This begs the question; was it the duty that was contradictory, or was it Wilson’s political aspirations. In either case it seems clear that his decision was hardly based on principles of good government. Even if Wilson thought he had a greater duty to the nation as a whole (and I’m being charitable here), he might have considered that before he ran for governor a second time. It would appear much more likely that the greater power inherent in the presidency was the determining force behind Wilson’s decision. Ironically, Wilson’s lust for potential power may cause him to lose the power he actually has. Since his decision to run for President was resoundingly unpopular with Californians, and since he may be perceived as unable to compete in national politics due to his withdrawal from the presidential race, his political power may be fatally impaired. This behavior shows not only a disregard for “good” government, but also a strange inability to defer gratification. There is no reason that Pete Wilson couldn’t

have run for President after his second term as Governor had expired. His selfish pursuit of power for its own sake was so absolute that it inhibited him from seeing the very political realities that gave him power in the first place.

In his attempt to gain power, Wilson managed to change his stance on virtually every issue he had ever encountered. From immigration to affirmative action – from tax cuts to abortion rights, he has swung 180 degrees (Thurm, 1995). The point here is not his inconsistency, but rather the fact that it is improbable that considerations of effective government would allow these kinds of swings. And, while people may dismiss this behavior as merely the political “game playing” that all candidates engage in, it is the pervasiveness of this behavior – to the exclusion of any governmental considerations – that make it distressing as well as intriguing.

Polarization is also apparent in this example. Since Pete Wilson showed no inherent loyalty toward a particular ideology, it is entirely likely that had the Republican party been drifting towards a centrist position rather than an extreme right-wing position, Wilson would have accordingly been more moderate in his political pronouncements. The polarization towards an extreme is what caused him to make such radical changes in his beliefs. It is, of course, difficult to tell to what extent political intransigence is a conscious strategy, or an unconscious motivation toward power, but the end result is the same – political leadership that is not conducive (or even relevant) to good government.

The role of competition in our political system is an inherently contradictory one. We accept the fact that politicians must compete ruthlessly to gain office using whatever tactics 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 out 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 other words, the very nature of competition requires that we treat people as hostile objects rather than as human beings. It is, therefore, unlikely, once an election is over and the process of government is supposed to begin, that politicians will be able to “forgive and forget” in order to carry on with the business at hand.

Once again, in the recent government shutdown we can see this same sort of difficulty. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose competitive political relationship with Bill Clinton has been rancorous at best, blamed his own (Gingrich’s) handling of the budget negotiations that resulted in the shutdown, on his poor treatment during an airplane flight that he and the President were on (Turque & Thomas, 1995, p. 28). One can look at this issue from both sides. On the one hand, shabby treatment on an airplane flight is hardly a reason to close the U.S. government. On the other hand, if the shabby treatment occurred, was it a wise thing for the President to do in light of the delicate negotiations that were going 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 assume that’s why they ran for office in the first place), but they couldn’t overcome their hostility long enough to run it at all. If the Speaker is to be believed (although he has since tried to retract his statements), the entire episode resulted not from a legitimate disagreement about how to govern well, but from the competitive desire to dominate government. Indeed, when one examines the eventual compromise that was reached, there seems to be no significant difference in the positions of the two parties. If this is so, why was it necessary to waste millions of dollars shutting down the government and then starting it up again a few days later? What’s more, this entire useless episode will be reenacted in mid-December. One can only hope that Clinton and Gingrich avoid traveling together until an agreement is reached. Although people incessantly complain about government and about the ineffectiveness of politicians, they rarely examine the causes of these problems. While there is a lot of attention paid to campaign finance reform, lobbying reform, PAC reform, and the peddling of influence, we never seem to realize that, most of the time, politicians are merely giving us what they think we want. If they are weak and dominated by polls, 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 their political stances, aren’t they simply reflecting the extremism prevalent in our country today? If politicians compromise, we call them weak, and if they don’t we call them extremist. If we are unhappy with our government, perhaps it is because we expect the people who run it to do the impossible. They must reflect the will of a large, disparate electorate, and yet be 100 percent consistent in their ideology. However, if we look at political behavior in terms of our own polarized, partisan attitudes, and if we can find a way to either reduce the competitive nature of campaigns, or reconcile pre-election hostility with post-election statesmanship, then we may find a way to elect politicians on the basis of 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”, or perhaps think that these behaviors are essentially harmless. But consider these two examples. It has been speculated that President Lyndon B. Johnson was unwilling to get out of the Vietnam war because he didn’t want to be remembered as the first American President 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. In Oklahoma City, a federal building was bombed in 1994, killing hundreds of men, women, and children. The alleged perpetrators were a group of extreme, right wing, “constitutionalists” who were apparently trying to turn frustration with the federal government into open revolution. I do not think these examples are aberrations or flukes, but are, instead, indicative of structural defects in our political system. If we are not aware of the dangers of extremism and competition, we may, in the end, be destroyed by them.


Baron, B.M., & Graziano, W.G. Social Psychology. Fort Worth, TX. Holt, Rinehart, and

Winston, 1991.

Bradsher, K. Country may be losing money with government closed. The New York Times,

1995, November 18. pp.16

Kohn, A. No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

No Author. [internet] What Wilson has said about entering race. San Jose Mercury News Online.

1995, March 24. Address:http://www.sjmercury.com/wilson/wil324s.htm

Thurm, S. [internet] Wilson’s ‘announcement’ more of an ad: California governor kicks off drive

for GOP presidential nomination. San Jose Mercury News Online. 1995, August 29. Address:http://www.sjmercury.com/wilson/wil829.htm

Turgue, B., & Thomas, E. Missing the moment. Newsweek, 1995, November 27. pp.26-29.

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