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Essay/Term paper: Group polarization and competition in political behavior

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Humanities

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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


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


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



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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