Essay, Research Paper: Competition In Government


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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.498-499). 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 power. 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 power) without regard for the real worth or
implications of a policy for "good" government. A prime example of
this behavior can be seen in the widely divergent political stances taken by
Governor Pete Wilson of California. At this point I should qualify my own
political position. While I do tend to lean towards the Democratic side of the
political spectrum (this is undoubtedly what brought Pete Wilson to my attention
in the first place), I examine Governor Wilson because he is such a prime
example of both polarization and pandering in the competitive pursuit of power.
Accordingly, I will try to hold my political biases in check. In any case,
selfish, power seeking behavior is reflected in Wilson's recently abandoned
campaign for President. Although he consistently ruled out running for President
during his second gubernatorial campaign, immediately after he was re-elected he
announced that he was forming a committee to explore the possibility. And, in
fact, he did make an abortive run for the Republican nomination. In both cases
(presidential and gubernatorial elections), he justified his seemingly
contradictory positions in terms of his "duty to the people"(No Author
1995). This begs the question; was it the duty that was contradictory, or was it
Wilson's political aspirations. In either case it seems clear that his decision
was hardly based on principles of good government. Even if Wilson thought he had
a greater duty to the nation as a whole (and I'm being charitable here), he
might have considered that before he ran for governor a second time. It would
appear much more likely that the greater power inherent in the presidency was
the determining force behind Wilson's decision. Ironically, Wilson's lust for
potential power may cause him to lose the power he actually has. Since his
decision to run for President was resoundingly unpopular with Californians, and
since he may be perceived as unable to compete in national politics due to his
withdrawal from the presidential race, his political power may be fatally
impaired. This behavior shows not only a disregard for "good"
government, but also a strange inability to defer gratification. There is no
reason that Pete Wilson couldn't have run for President after his second term as
Governor had expired. His selfish pursuit of power for its own sake was so
absolute that it inhibited him from seeing the very political realities that
gave him power in the first place. In his attempt to gain power, Wilson managed
to change his stance on virtually every issue he had ever encountered. From
immigration to affirmative action - from tax cuts to abortion rights, he has
swung 180 degrees (Thurm, 1995). The point here is not his inconsistency, but
rather the fact that it is improbable that considerations of effective
government would allow these kinds of swings. And, while people may dismiss this
behavior as merely the political "game playing" that all candidates
engage in, it is the pervasiveness of this behavior - to the exclusion of any
governmental considerations - that make it distressing as well as intriguing.
Polarization is also apparent in this example. Since Pete Wilson showed no
inherent loyalty toward a particular ideology, it is entirely likely that had
the Republican party been drifting towards a centrist position rather than an
extreme right-wing position, Wilson would have accordingly been more moderate in
his political pronouncements. The polarization towards an extreme is what caused
him to make such radical changes in his beliefs. It is, of course, difficult to
tell to what extent political intransigence is a conscious strategy, or an
unconscious motivation toward power, but the end result is the same - political
leadership that is not conducive (or even relevant) to good government. The role
of competition in our political system is an inherently contradictory one. We
accept the fact that politicians must compete ruthlessly to gain office using
whatever tactics are necessary to win. We then, somehow, expect them to
completely change their behavior once they are elected. At that point we expect
cooperation, compromise, and a statesmanlike attitude. Alfie Kohn (1986) points
out that this expectation is entirely unrealistic (p. 135). He also states that,
"Depriving adversaries of personalities, of faces, of their subjectivity,
is a strategy we automatically adopt in order to win" (p.139). In other
words, the very nature of competition requires that we treat people as hostile
objects rather than as human beings. It is, therefore, unlikely, once an
election is over and the process of government is supposed to begin, that
politicians will be able to "forgive and forget" in order to carry on
with the business at hand. Once again, in the recent government shutdown we can
see this same sort of difficulty. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose competitive
political relationship with Bill Clinton has been rancorous at best, blamed his
own (Gingrich's) handling of the budget negotiations that resulted in the
shutdown, on his poor treatment during an airplane flight that he and the
President were on (Turque & Thomas, 1995, p. 28). One can look at this issue
from both sides. On the one hand, shabby treatment on an airplane flight is
hardly a reason to close the U.S. government. On the other hand, if the shabby
treatment occurred, was it a wise thing for the President to do in light of the
delicate negotiations that were going on at the time? In both cases, it seems
that all concerned were, in effect, blinded by their competitive hostility. They
both presumably desired to run the government well (we assume that's why they
ran for office in the first place), but they couldn't overcome their hostility
long enough to run it at all. If the Speaker is to be believed (although he has
since tried to retract his statements), the entire episode resulted not from a
legitimate disagreement about how to govern well, but from the competitive
desire to dominate government. Indeed, when one examines the eventual compromise
that was reached, there seems to be no significant difference in the positions
of the two parties. If this is so, why was it necessary to waste millions of
dollars shutting down the government and then starting it up again a few days
later? What's more, this entire useless episode will be reenacted in
mid-December. One can only hope that Clinton and Gingrich avoid traveling
together until an agreement is reached. Although people incessantly complain
about government and about the ineffectiveness of politicians, they rarely
examine the causes of these problems. While there is a lot of attention paid to
campaign finance reform, lobbying reform, PAC reform, and the peddling of
influence, we never seem to realize that, most of the time, politicians are
merely giving us what they think we want. If they are weak and dominated by
polls, aren't they really trying to find out "the will of the people"
in order to comply with it? If they are extremist and uncompromising in their
political stances, aren't they simply reflecting the extremism prevalent in our
country today? If politicians compromise, we call them weak, and if they don't
we call them extremist. If we are unhappy with our government, perhaps it is
because we expect the people who run it to do the impossible. They must reflect
the will of a large, disparate electorate, and yet be 100 percent consistent in
their ideology. However, if we look at political behavior in terms of our own
polarized, partisan attitudes, and if we can find a way to either reduce the
competitive nature of campaigns, or reconcile pre-election hostility with
post-election statesmanship, then we may find a way to elect politicians on the
basis of how they will govern rather than how they run. It may be tempting to
dismiss all this as merely "the way politics is" or say that
"competition is human nature", or perhaps think that these behaviors
are essentially harmless. But consider these two examples. It has been
speculated that President Lyndon B. Johnson was unwilling to get out of the
Vietnam war because he didn't want to be remembered as the first American
President to lose a war. If this is true, it means that thousands of people,
both American and Vietnamese, died in order to protect one man's status. In
Oklahoma City, a federal building was bombed in 1994, killing hundreds of men,
women, and children. The alleged perpetrators were a group of extreme, right
wing, "constitutionalists" who were apparently trying to turn
frustration with the federal government into open revolution. I do not think
these examples are aberrations or flukes, but are, instead, indicative of
structural defects in our political system. If we are not aware of the dangers
of extremism and competition, we may, in the end, be destroyed by them.
Baron, B.M., & Graziano, W.G. (1991). Social Psychology. Fort Worth, TX.
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. Bradsher, K. (1995, November 18). Country may be
losing money with government closed. The New YorkTimes, pp.16 Kohn, A. (1986).
No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Boston,Houghton Mifflin. No Author.
(1995, March 24). [internet] What Wilson has said about entering race. San Jose
Mercury News Online. Address: Thurm,
S. (1995, August 29). [internet] Wilson's 'announcement' moreof an ad:
California governor kicks off drivefor GOP presidential nomination. San Jose
Mercury News Online. Address: Turgue,
B., & Thomas, E. (1995, November 27). Missing the moment. Newsweek,

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