I saw a couple amazing plays this week, both Hamilton and Les Miserables.
They have a common theme: we must stand for something, and that standing for something sometimes means we must get up off our seats and act.
(Note: much of the content of this post is a summary of the Ezra Klein interview with Lilliana Mason.)
The Great Reordering
In 1950, the American Political Science Association released a 99 page report entitled “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System.” It demonstrated that the biggest problem in American politics was that the parties weren’t differentiated enough. The report urged political parties to become much more tightly organized, nationally oriented and disciplined [see footnote].
The parties had started to differentiate by 1964 when the Civil Rights movement kicked off, but even so neither party would naturally focus on civil rights. So there was nowhere for Civil Rights movement to go. Consequently it was big and very messy.
However, during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the parties realigned largely around racial issues, with the Democratic party emerging as the champion of social equity, and the Republican as the champion conserving (white) Christian values. From an identity perspective, this period is were known as “The Great Reording.” Over the last fifty years, the parties have become increasingly distinct, and we have now essentially sorted ourselves into two completely disjoint groups.
And that’s much, much worse.
Group identity is fascinating. Early studies in the 50’s revealed that randomly assigning people to a group and giving that goup an evocative name (e.g. “overestimators”) was enough to change the behavior of the people in the group – randomly assigned! – to align their behavior with the name. Further and more disturbing, with even so little at stake – again, randomly assigned to a named group – the members of the group quickly begin to prioritize winning over their group’s self-interest. In another study, groups were set up to compete with one another, and were given control over the stakes. They could choose between a competition where the winner would receive $3 and the loser $2, or a competition where both teams received $5 regardless of who won. A significant majority chose the former, guaranteeing themselves at least $2 less than they could have received, win or lose.
“Snakes & Rattlers” – in another similar study, a group of young boys was offered a free summer camp. The group had been selected to assure each member was as similar as possible, controlling for every variable the scientists could think of: age, race, finanical situation, disposition, academic performance, social status, and on and on. After a time, they were introduced to another group of boys at another camp, and they began a competition between the camps. Nothing was at stake, really; the victor would receive a cheap trophy. Both camps had been created out of the same group, assigned entirely at random; there was essentially no difference between them but a coin flip. Yet the competition escalated wildly; by the end, one group was convinced the other was vandalizing their camp (they had forgotten they left trash out) and putting ice in their pond (it seemed colder), and soon enough the groups were literally throwing rocks in anger at one another.
Part of understanding what is going is what psychologists call “motivated reasoning.” We think of ourselves as rational beings, making consistent, controlled decisions from clear and well reasoned rationales, but for most of us our consciousness acts more like a press secretary than a controller. We construct justifications for “in-group” positions, even if they are clearly against the groups putative mission, or indeed inherently inconsistent. Worse still, hearing positions you don’t like serves to entrench your opposition: you spend time constructing counterarguments, rather than listen to an idea that threatens your group. (This article is a much more careful treatment of Motivated Reasoning, if you’re interested in more details.)
It gets even more pungent. We all have sympathy when we see innocents suffer, right? But it turns out, our definition of “innocent” is tied into our definition of what group they’re in. If they’re part of your in-group, you’ll feel sad. But if they’re in the out-group, our brains respond by activitating areas of positive emotion. Especially if the out-group is one you’re competing with, one you think is dangerous, one you dislike. Nazis? Sure, it’s a bunch of little kids, but look at those Nazi armbands! Blow those racist fuckers up. Woot!
Multiple Groups, Multiple Identities
All of us have a lot of identities in the background, tying us to multiple groups. I am an engineer, an author, a science fiction fanatic; I prefer Star Wars to Star Trek, but not dogmatically; however, I will fight to the death the need for the oxford comma. I’m non-religious but was raised in a christian background, heterosexual, white, male, and on and on. Each identity contributes to our “self-esteem real estate” – and the more identities that are involved in a contest, the more emotional impact a win or loss has. Some parts of our identity we hold more closely than others; I am much more defensive if someone suggests that I’m being biased (or doesn’t use the oxford comma) than if someone suggests I’m talking like a buddhist (or suggests Kirk is cooler than Han Solo). However, for all of us, threat brings an identity to the foreground. For anybody I know who would read this, the bits about oxford comma and Star Wrek will trigger a bit of heat – and we immediately begin to sort ourselves into smaller and smaller sub-groups, and at the end it will come down to the four of us standing together, fiercely defending the Science Fiction readers, Daisy Riddler and Chris Pine. [Note: see? the oxford comma matters. We win… And more importantly, YOU lose!]
A (perhaps?) less tongue-in-cheek example is “Irish Catholic.” Things that affect the Irish have some impact, things that affect Catholics have some, but things that affect both Ireland and Catholocism? Cataclysmically important.
As we sort together by multiple identities, we increasingly come to consider those who don’t share our viewpoints as “other” – and grow increasingly intolerant of them.
And here’s the kicker: because of the “Great Reordering,” when it comes to politics, every identity we have is on the line every time. Everything I am is at stake… every time.
So Much Winning
So where are we? We see that it’s easy to define a group; we recognize that our identity is tied to those groups; and we feel good when our group “wins,” even if it literally harms us and our group. That’s a pretty toxic reality.
In general, suggesting that someone is a loser is a bad message. Telling someone that they are inferior, that they are losing out, makes them withdraw. It makes them smaller.
Unless you can tell them why. Unless you can tell them who is beating them. And you can show them how to overcome them.
In that context, Donald Trump’s insistence on how much winning he is doing is not crude or silly, it’s a direct limbic appeal to members of the group he represents. Yes, you’re losing – but it is “their” fault. You just need to get up, fight with me, and I can show you how to win again! …that makes people GEAR UP. Let’s pull together and blow those Nazi fuckers up!
Now, think about who “they” are. For one party, “they” are very clear and well defined, and typically visibly differentiated. For the other, it’s not as well defined; for one thing, the party itself is much less homogeneous. In a nutshell, that may be the fundamental difference between the parties. For one of them, it is a no-compromise war of existence against a well defined enemy. For the other, it is a plea to work together to make everybody happier and better and also super goodness will happen!
Which party do you think has an inherent messaging advantage?
And remember, we feel good when our group “wins,” even if it literally harms us and our group. Now that we are well and truly sorted, the government inevitably focuses on wins for the group they represent, rather than working for the most benefit for the country as a whole. In a two party government, this means that both sides fight fiercely against the other, and nothing can be done. This entrenches the status quo. Inevitably, it is vulnerable people who need government the most; whether a community left behind by economic change or a group suffering prejudice, the it is the vulnerable who suffer.
So make no mistake. The current partisan divide is entirely about social justice; the difference is how justice is defined. Perhaps we are working for a true and moral society, in which those who don’t live by the right moral code reap the hellish reward they deserve. Or, perhaps, we are working for an inclusive society that leaves no one behind.
So the partisan divide is about the purpose and role of government. Because remember, if the government serves to help the enemy… then we need to tear it down.
That’s the world we live in.
Those are the stakes.
To be honest, I don’t have an answer. I don’t know how to conclude this essay.
In the long run, there is really only one antidote. We must define ourselves in a way that unifies the country. Our differences within the country must not be more important than the country itself. We must work to expand our worldview, to be inclusive of those we disagree with.
If you are a patriot, you must believe in the principles on which the country was founded. “I hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” “No taxation without representation.” The founders were unambiguous that we should not have a unitary executive; that the three co-equal branches of government should act to hold one another in check. That the President is not a king, and must answer to Congress and the Supreme Court.
Somehow, we must convince the people who who treat us with scorn and contempt, to love our country more than they hate us. And that’s true whether they hate us because they think we’re redneck hicks, or if they hate us because they think we’re arrogant, latte-drinkin’ snobs.
However, that is not a sufficient antidote. Acting to build bridges cannot be unilateral; the problem with pacifism is that it cannot survive truly committed violence.
One of the parties is at war. One party has decided that if Democracy might lead to a government that benefits the them that they hate, then Democracy itself is outdated. In the impeachment hearings this week, we heard the argument that the President using foreign power to interfere with an election is permissible, because he believes he is best suited to protect the country, and therefore anything he does is in the national interest.
Anything the President does to hold power is by definition in the national interest.
They made that argument on the Senate floor.
The President can do whatever he wants to hold power, if he believes he is best suited to protect the country.
That has already included asking Russia to hack his opposition’s servers, benefiting from the information. It has already included a foreign enemy misleading the FBI into announcing a (bogus) investigation into his opponent’s correspondence. More recently, it has included extorting a foreign ally and demanding they announce (not conduct, just announce) a corruption inquiry into a likely next opponent. It has included active voter disenfranchisement.
And don’t forget, the Russians have already shown that they can hack our (very vulnerable) electronic voting machines.
It is not exaggeration to suggest that everything is at stake.
The partisan divide is threatening everything this country was founded on.
If you love the country, you must be prepared to rise up.