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