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