As Lilliana Mason reports in her shocking, disturbing Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became our Identity (2018), many scientific studies prove that human beings are afflicted with a deep-seated instinct to polarize into highly competitive, mean-spirited tribes. Emotions rooted in the body associated with politics and sports are remarkably similar. Those powerful feelings, often unconscious, can distort reality and undermine ethical behavior. Winning becomes primary, consequences secondary.
In order to win, polarized tribes will sacrifice their own self-interest as well as the needs of others. Tribal members enjoy seeing opponents suffer even if they themselves don’t benefit. Their unconscious bias results in destructive discrimination and produces a self-reinforcing downward spiral. Rather than reach agreement on how to relieve suffering, they prefer to fight win-or-lose symbolic, ideological battles over abstractions like “the government,” “capitalism,” or “the wall.” Meanwhile four percent of the world’s children die by the age of five and the planet is burning up.
Mason argues that both Republicans and Democrats are examples.
Clearly, for Donald Trump, winning is everything, regardless of consequences. He will do anything to claim victory, even if the claim is false. He’s the ultimate polarizer. His motivations are transparent.
But Democrats are prone to the same weaknesses, as reflected in how they have handled the the government shutdown and the Kavanagh hearings. They also can be too dedicated to winning the next election, without enough regard for consequences.
Concerning the shutdown that’s inflicting serious harm, the Democratic response to Trump’s demand for “a wall” has been “no wall,” resulting in a zero-sum battle that leaves little room for compromise. As summed up by Vox.com:
Democrats are refusing to give Trump the political win…. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “no wall” — not now, not ever — she meant it…. It’s a symbol of Trump’s political ascension…. Pelosi says Democrats will never vote for “the wall.”... [She said] a wall is an immorality…. As long as Trump’s “wall” — the campaign rallying cry — is the centerpiece of the White House’s border security demand, don’t expect Democrats to engage. [Many Democrats] have said they would never vote for another mile of fencing.
Over the past two years, [for Trump] the wall has become “see-through” and perhaps less contiguous.... To Trump, it’s all a wall…. For Democrats, that’s the problem.
Democrats are vehemently opposed to a border wall not necessarily because they oppose physical barriers along the border, but because backing it would be seen as the equivalent of backing one of Trump’s racist campaign promises.
A more rational position for the Democrats to have taken would have been:
We’ve voted for scattered steel fences before. We might vote for more in the future. But we will not negotiate the issue during a government shutdown. And we oppose 230 miles of more steel fences.
But if enough Democrats oppose funding for even one more mile of fencing, they may have the power to block any compromise on this issue, as the Freedom Caucus has held sway in the Republican Party.
The mainstream media profit by aggravating this conflict with superficial reports that focus on “the wall” vs. “no wall.” To my knowledge, neither the Times, the Post, the network news, nor the Newshour have reported on this issue with the depth and detail it requires.
Now, in his Jan. 19 televised address, Trump said, “To physically secure our border, the plan includes $5.7 billion for a strategic deployment of physical barriers, or a wall. This is not a 2,000 mile concrete structure from sea to sea. These are steel barriers in high priority locations.” With this move, he may have given the Democrats an offer it will be hard from them to accept without contradicting their no-wall absolutism.
Commenting on this shift, Robert Kuttner said, “He has already back-pedaled on his demand for a literal concrete wall. In the endgame, he can term a mix of electronic surveillance and some actual barriers a ‘wall,’ and declare victory.” But will the Democrats backpedal too?
The Kavanagh hearings are another example of Democrats prioritizing electoral victories and disregarding human costs. Shortly after the hearings, in “Why Didn’t the Democrats Stop the Nomination?” I wrote:
If the Democrats had hammered away at the many lies told by Kavanaugh under oath, they may have stopped the nomination…. But they didn’t. So the network news, including PBS, hardly touched on [that issue] during the days leading up to the vote. Why didn’t the Democrats concentrate on the lies? One possibility is that the focus on sexual assault...will bring more women to the polls. ...If that scenario is accurate and it helps the Democrats next month to win an overwhelming majority in the House … were those tactics justified?
Also suspicious was Senator Dianne Feinstein’s holding on to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s letter charging Kavanagh with sexual assault, rather than giving it to the FBI before their confidential background check closed. Some Democrats have acknowledged that decision gave Republicans fodder to accuse the Democrats of playing dirty tricks by using the issue as an “ace in the hole.”
Moreover, the Democrats did not pass on to Dr. Ford the Republicans’ offer to go to California to interview her privately. When the committee asked her if that offer had been communicated to her, she replied, “I just appreciate that you did offer that. I wasn’t clear on what the offer was. If you were going to come out to see me, I would have happily hosted you and ... been happy to speak with you out there.”
As it turned out, the hearings proved to be a public spectacle and, according to post-election analysis, they did help the Democrats win suburban districts and take back the House. Was the suffering and danger inflicted on Dr. Ford worth gaining that edge?
If one or both of the major political parties splinter, that development could open the door to more bipartisan compromise. Militant factions could still push to get more support for their minority positions. But bipartisan majorities could better enact supermajority opinions. That’s how democracy is supposed to work. Otherwise, irrational battles are likely to continue and may worsen.
The Republicans, the Democrats, and the media are products of the System. The upward mobility escalator -- and efforts to be “a star” and dominate “inferiors” -- nurture bias, discrimination, and scapegoating. Rather than admitting points of agreement and compromising, winning is more important.
In the meantime, our best hope may be for a popular movement that helps people transcend the System’s conditioning. As is the case with racial implicit bias, a strong commitment to self-awareness and conscious self-control can help reverse divisiveness.
As Mason puts it, “the power of winning is very strong,” but we can learn to “enjoy our own social-group identities without wishing harm upon others.” By enhancing self-esteem, positive self-images, and peer support, we can liberate our higher angels.