The Fair Society

Human nature and the pursuit of a more just political system

A Dangerous Division

Extreme partisanship is a slippery slope. Is there a path forward?

The famous “Robbers’ Cave” experiments conducted by the pioneering social psychologist Muzafer Sherif with middle-class summer campers in the 1950s are textbook examples of what seems to be our innate propensity to form “in-groups” that readily bond with one another while becoming antagonistic toward members of “out-groups.” We are, it seems, about equally prone to cooperate or to fight with one another.

We can see this “we-they” tendency — sometimes referred to as the “amity-enmity complex” — at work in team sports like college football rivalries, in the sometimes deep religious divisions between, say, Sunni and Shiite Muslims or Catholics and Protestants, and, most important, in the long, blood-stained history of warfare between human societies, from the Neolithic to the twenty first century.

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Especially troubling is the fact that this polarizing propensity in humankind can all too easily run amok and produce mutually self-destructive outcomes. A legendary symbol of this syndrome is the notorious (murderous) feud between Hatfields and McCoys in Appalachia in the late nineteenth century.  Perhaps the most dramatic recent example was the deadly soccer riot in Egypt a few months ago. However, the most costly and destructive examples of irrational human conflict can be found in senseless wars, like the American Civil War and World War One, where wealth was squandered, millions died, and compromises between the combatants became impossible.

It seems that our tendency toward xenophobia can become highly toxic when it is linked to substantive political conflicts – a territorial dispute, control over valuable resources, or a power struggle. The great military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, in the preface to his famous treatise, On War, characterized warfare as a continuation of politics “by other means.” Others have noted that this aphorism also seems to work well in reverse: Politics is a continuation of warfare by other means. As one of our founding fathers, James Madison, truly observed, “The seeds of [political] faction are sewn in the nature of man.”

Our tendency to political partisanship can become especially self-destructive when a society has a wide economic gap between the rich and the poor. As Plato warned over two thousand years ago in The Republic, extremes of wealth and poverty can divide a society into two warring camps. Unfortunately, the so-called Gini Index number (the well-known measure of economic inequalities) for this country is now the worst in the industrialized world, and we are well into the danger zone for deepening social conflict. The national credit downgrade that resulted from the debt ceiling fight in Congress last year is just one example of the potential damage that this partisanship can do, and the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements may be just a foretaste of more widespread and damaging social turmoil to come.

What can be done to avoid this slippery slope? First, we need to remind ourselves that we are all stakeholders in this country. We have many interests in common, and none of us wants to live in a hostile and angry environment, or deliberately cause harm to others (with a few outrageous exceptions, it seems). Although there are serious and legitimate divisions among us over some highly contentious issues, the only way to avoid lasting damage to our nation is for all sides to use the fairness principle as a guide in trying to find a resolution. This means acknowledging the legitimacy of our different interests, listening respectfully to all points of view, and trying our best to accommodate and strike a balance between these conflicting concerns. Above all, it means reining in our innate partisan impulses.

In a civilized society, compromise is a moral priority, not a cop out. This is the only constructive path forward. 

Peter Corning, Ph.D., is director of the Institute for Complex Systems. He taught for many years at Stanford University, and is the author of several books on biology and society.

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