From health care insurance reform to Tea Party protests, Republicans and Democrats are embroiled in passionate conflict. Many residents hold deeply to their convictions and vote in a partisan manner. Politicians do the same, exacerbating conflict in a way that makes cooperation seem impossible.
Mayor Mike (name withheld) said he doesn’t see much polarization in city government; that it’s easier for people to talk things out and work together. County Commissioner Dan (name withheld) said the same is true at the county level. He believes partisan rancor becomes prevalent in state government and beyond.
“At the state and federal levels, power is more of a factor. Our power is limited — the Ohio Revised Code says what we can do and if it’s not on the list, we can’t do it. That’s the end of the discussion. Local government doesn’t write the laws or re-write them. Where we are guided by the law, state and federal politicians make the law and that’s the difference,” he said.
Partisanship is largely created when voters and elected officials attach their identity to their party and its ideology. For politicians, there are also many years of emotional and financial investment involved. One area expert says psychology can explain why politicians square off into polarized groups and argue like children while television cameras roll.
Pat (name withheld) is an assistant professor of psychology at the ... University. He says the dynamics involved in partisanship can be found, not only with politicians but also with many voters and religious people. He said the more committed and convicted, the more rigid people are and the more difficult it is for them to rationalize information they haven’t adopted as part of their self-concept.
“The level of involvement runs on a continuum from passive to active. Once a person begins to invest time and energy into something, they take ownership of the endeavor and it’s not just money; it’s an emotional investment. Their self-concept becomes attached to it and it becomes self-defining,” he said. “For politicians, this unfolds publicly. There’s also a group dynamic involved and the more the individual and the group speaks publicly on a topic, their position gains momentum and their commitment grows. They become more involved as they state their case and they become more polarized because it all unfolds in a group context.
“People can be great rationalizers on their own but when you put people together and they’re rationalizing to the same conclusions, they compound their rationalization and pool them together. This is like rationalization on steroids. Then, they become even more confident in their position. Confidence on steroids is called conviction. It’s difficult to reason with them because people are most open to outside rationale when there is less commitment.”
Another reason many devout partisans are often difficult to reason with is because of neurological activity. A 2006 study at Emory University used a functional neuroimaging (fMRI) machine to scan the brain activity of committed Democrats and Republicans. Partisans were shown statements made by their respective presidential candidate, Bush or Kerry. Then, they were presented facts which refuted what the participants’ own candidate had claimed. Subjects were also shown the other party’s candidate’s statements with the corresponding facts proving the statements false.
The study found no increased activity in the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning. Instead, a network of circuits associated with emotion became heightened. The university issued a press release that included this information and noted that once partisans had come to completely biased conclusions, they found ways to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted. Circuits that mediate negative emotions like sadness and disgust turned off and circuits involved in reward were stimulated in a way similar to what drug addicts receive when they get their ‘fix.’
A similar study at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2009 used an fMRI to study religious and secular participants. Similar findings were reported regarding subjects’ inability to rationalize when responding emotionally to stimuli they had defined themselves by and poured their self-concept into.
The professor said even when a partisan finds merit in contradicting facts or arguments, there is also a sense of history involved, which also prevents objective consideration.
“Ideas and values are handed down and people are invested in them. Even if they recognize the value of another idea or position, even if they recognize on some level that it’s more sensible, they’ve never adopted it,” he said. “They think ‘these are my viewpoints. They may not be perfect but they’re mine. They were my parents’ beliefs, they’re our tradition, they’re mine and I am standing by them. They help me navigate the world, give me meaning and they’re all I’ve ever known’.”
Fear often becomes a motivating factor for partisans who label and villianize persons, groups and ideas viewed as contradictory to their own. Therefore, those who think differently may be seen as a personal threat. This negatively reinforces fear and anger, making polarization more difficult to overcome.
“One’s self-concept is central to one’s life; you can’t break up with yourself. You can’t give the self a 2-week notice or move to a different self because you’re bored with yours,” he added. “The self is something we will never get away from. In the aftermath of 9/11, as the world seems increasingly unstable, we get scared and hold more firmly to the conservative ideals we’ve always known. The recession and the job market make conservative values especially attractive when we’re feeling threatened because it’s what we grew up with.”