Group Polarization And Competition In Political Behavior

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