Polarization In The Political System

.. itical realities that gave him power in the first place. In his attempt to gain power, Wilson managed to change his ezce 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.

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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 ezces, 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. — References Baron, 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 with government closed. The New York Times, pp.16 Kohn, A.

(1986). No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Boston, Houghton Mifflin.

No Author. (1995, March 24).[internet] What Wilson has said about entering race. San Jose Mercury News Online. Address:http://www.sjmercury.com/wilson/wil324s.ht m Thurm, S.

(1995, August 29). [internet] Wilson’s ‘announcement’ more of an ad: California governor kicks off drive for GOP presidential nomination. San Jose Mercury News Online.

Address:http://www.sjmercury.com/wilson/wil829.htm Turgue, B.

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