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 
 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. (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. 

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.

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


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