Polarization in the Political System 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 ezces 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 pol …