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Group Polarization and Competition in Political Behavior 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, 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 two factors: Group behavior with an emphasis polarization, and competition. However, one should keep in mind that these two factors are interrelated. Grouppolarization tends to exacerbate inter-group competition by driving ayto groups who initially disagree farther apart inter respective views. In turn, a competitive situation in which outside 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. Grouppolarization refers to the tendency of groups to gravitate to the extreme of whatever opinion the group shares (Baron 038; 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 polarization and authority can lead to a bizarre form of one-upsmanship in which each group member seeks train 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 outdo party system, it is almost impossible to find a common ground between them. In addition, the competitive nature ofthe 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 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 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.
Beyondcosting a lot of money, it had no discernible effect except as a power struggle between two political heavyweights. According to David Kinds (1976, cited in Baron 038; 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 inches case) government policy is created and implemented, not with regard its effectiveness as government policy, but only with regard to its value as a tool for accumulating and maintaining power. Another of Kipniss negative effects of power is the tendency to use info 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 forgot 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 Wilsonsrecently abandoned campaign for President.
Although he consistently ruled out running for President during his second gubernatorial campaign, immediately after has 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 itchy duty that was contradictory, or was it Wilsons 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 awhile (and Im 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 Wilsonsdecision. Ironically, Wilsons lust for potential power may cause him 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 couldnt have runner 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 (There, 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 Wilsonshowed 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 india political pronouncements. The polarization towards an extreme is what caused him to make such radical changes in his beliefs. It is, of course, difficult tell to what extent political intransigence is a conscious strategy, or an unconscious motivation toward power, but then result is the same political leadership that is not conducive (oregon 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, office, 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 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 hasten rancorous at best, blamed his own (Gingrichs) 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 (True 038; 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 reason close the U. S.
government. On the other hand, inthe shabby treatment occurred, was it a wise thing for the President todo 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 thats why they ran for office in the first place), butter couldnt overcome their hostility long enough to run it at all. Ifthe 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 ofthe 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? Whats more, this entire useless episode will be reenacted in mid-December. One canon 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, arent 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, arent they simply reflecting the extremism prevalent in our country today?
If politicians compromise, we call them weak, and if they done call them extremist. If we are unhappy with our government, perhaps it is because we expect the people who run it todo 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 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 how they will govern rather than how they run. It may be tempting to dismiss all this as merely the way politics is 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 didnt want to be remembered aside 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 mans status. In Oklahoma City, a federal building was bombed in 1994, killing hundreds of men, women, and children. The alleged perpetrators were agro 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 our political system.
If we are not aware of the dangers of extremism and competition, we may, in the end, be destroyed bytes. References Baron, B. M. , 038; 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: web S. (1995, August 29). [internet] Wilsons announcement more an ad: California governor kicks off drive for GOP presidential nomination. San Jose Mercury News Online.
Address: web B. , 038; Thomas, E. (1995, November 27). Missing the moment. Newsweek, pp. 26 - 29.
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