Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Politics breaks problem solving -- or at least severely cripples it.

Let's say that Sam is a guy who cares deeply about issues. He doesn't care about parties or elections or Red vs Blue. He just thinks that women should have the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Or be believes abortion is murder. It doesn't matter. There point is that there are issues on which he has profoundly-felt stances.

His stances might be based on years of study, knee-jerk reactions or biases introduced during his childhood. The point is that, right or wring, Sam strongly (and honestly) believes what he believes.

He lives in the USA, so in order to push his convictions into action, he has to take a side. He has to start voting for Democrats or Republicans. If he's like most people, he will discover that one of the two parties tends to represent his views more than the other. So, after some time, he will find himself identifying as a Republican or a Democrat -- as a member of SOME group.

At that point of identifying, he will be A MEMBER OF A FAMILY. And that changes everything, because family members act in some very specific ways, both in support of other family members and in defense against others. (Ask the Capulets and the Montagues!) Family members act in ways that don't necessarily have anything to do with issues. They act in support of the family. The family's survival is it's own end.

This is something we rarely discuss when it comes to politics. Instead, we posit ourselves as rational beings, only concerned with issues. We don't do this when it comes to biological families. It's not odd to hear a parent say, "My son may have committed that crime, but he's my son! I'm standing by him." But it IS odd to hear someone say, "My party is wrong about this issue, but it's my party and I'm staying by it." Yet that's how people often behave. That's how people behave in families, biological or not. We evolved to behave that way.

Jane never cared about issues as much as Sam. She just grew up as Republican -- or as a Democrat. That's what everyone around her was. Being a member of her party makes her feel "at home." It makes her feel like she's a part of something bigger than herself. When she goes to a strange city, she knows she has something in common with the strangers there, as long as they're members of her party. (A Liberal can tell a Sarah Palin joke to a room full of total strangers, and as long as those strangers are fellow Liberals, he'll get a good reception.)

Mike's parents are Democrats (or Republicans) and, in a rebellion against them, he embraced the other party with a passion.

Those two parties exist and, as with religious denominations, they recruit.

As I've discovered, in America, if you opt out of politics, people chastise you. You're SUPPOSED to be part of the process. If you aren't, you're not doing you're duty. You're being selfish. And while it's possible to be political without affiliating yourself with a party, that's a hard road -- especially if you want to get things done. And the parties are there, waiting, with open arms. And your friends are in them... It's hard not to join. (And it's seen as a GOOD thing to join.)

One way or another, Sam, Jane and Mike get sucked into a team, a side, a family. And our whole political system is infused language from the military and from sports: wining, losing, defeating... If they let the other team win, their team loses.

Ensuring a win for your team means working to make it win. You're not going to be good at that if you half-heartedly embrace your team -- if you dwell on its problems or on ways you disagree with it. Imagine two boxers pitted against each other in the ring, one who says and thinks "I'm the greatest!" and another who thinks, "Well, I have some strong points, it's true, but my legs are a little wobbly and I didn't get enough sleep last night." Who are you going to bet your money on?

Teams weed out players like that. As an experiment, try getting together with your Democrat or Republican friends and talking about everything that's wrong with your party. See how long you keep those friends. I've tried it. It doesn't go well. (If you're really brave, try talking to your friends about the humanity of the people in the opposite party. That won't go well, either.)

Team membership also means depersonalizing the other team. This happens in war and it happens in sports. It's necessary. It's really hard to win if you're constantly thinking about the other side as fully-realized people -- people who fall in love, are scared to die and who adopt labradoodles. And your team will help you dehumanize the other team. A huge part of being a team-member involves ritualized mockery of the other team (Sara Palin jokes) and references to the other team as being evil.

Now, I'm not claiming that Sam, Jane and Mike are sheep. Even while they're ensconced in their families, they still care deeply about issues (at least Sam does). If they are lucky, their beliefs fall 100% in line with those of their party. But that rarely happens.

If a Republican can manage to think 100% rationally for five minutes -- or if a Democrat can -- he will have to admit that sometimes, once in a while, the other party must be right about something. But it's hard to be a Democrat and say, "My party is wrong about this issue." It's hard to be a Republican and say, "The other party is right about this issue." It's hard to even keep an open mind that the answer might be YES if your party says it's NO.

But that's what we need in order to really solve problems efficiently: open minds, untainted by biases such as party loyalty. Loyalty to a party has no impact on what is ACTUALLY the case with the environment or how many people will live or die if we outlaw handguns. If the Republicans are right about hand guns, then the Democrats are wrong, no matter how loyal they are.

If Sam is deeply loyal to his party and yet suspects it might be wrong about something, he finds himself in a painful state of mind. If you've ever had a beloved parent or sibling who has behaved badly, you know something about how painful this can be. It's Cognitive Dissonance -- a state that's so painful to most of us that we do anything to rid ourselves of it.

The common ways to fight Cognitive Dissonance are by lying, excusing, justifying and ignoring. If being a thinking person and a loyal team member leads to Cognitive Dissonance for many people, we should expect many people to lie, excuse, justify and ignore.

Take a close look at what happens when a politician is caught in the middle of a scandal. People on his team will excuse it. People on the other side will shout to the hills about how evil and corrupt the politician is, even while they'd be making excuses if it was a member of their team. Both sides rightly accuse the other side of being hypocrites, which, ironically, is hypocritical, because the accusers are hypocrites, too.

Team spirit is stronger in the US now than it's ever been in my lifetime -- I'm guessing it's nearing Civil War levels, which should be frightening to all of us. We even have team colors, now. There was a time, not too long ago, when -- even though there were two parties -- when we didn't talk about red states and blue states. To what extent is that rhetoric merely descriptive? To what extent does it reinforce a divide, widening it and making it deeper?

In a way, though, Civil War would be a relief. I often feel like saying to Democrats -- and Republicans -- "If you REALLY feel that the other side is evil -- Hitler evil -- then why are you sitting around? Shouldn't you be forming a militia?"

The people around me are clutching tighter and tighter to their teammates and getting angrier and angrier at the other side. What next?

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