This is part two of a two-part series. Part one may be found here.
When we deny the good intentions of our fellow citizens whose political inclinations don’t match our own, we view them as enemies. This is the result of cognitive dissonance, the natural tendency to reduce or change a belief or cognition to achieve harmony between two conflicting ideas. Part one touched on the effects of cognitive dissonance in politics, but here we’ll explore them at length.
I don’t want to make my girlfriend jealous, but I’m having a love affair with essayist, poet, and playwright Joseph Addison. He was the writer and publisher of a popular daily British paper in 1711 called The Spectator. Issue 125 offered a perceptive article entitled The Rage of Party in which Addison articulates the dangers of the “Spirit of Party” and its effect on a citizenry. This “Spirit” here referred is the same vitriol discussed in part one. According to Addison:
There cannot a greater judgement befall a country than such a dreadful spirit of division as rends a government into two distinct people, and makes them greater strangers and more averse to one another than if they were actually two different nations. The effects of such a division are pernicious to the last degree... This influence is very fatal both to men’s morals and their understandings; It sinks the virtue of a nation, and not only so, but destroys even common sense.
Let’s take this point by point.
Recall that part five of the steps for a strengthening of belief after disconfirmation requires social support. It reads: It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence we have specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, we would expect the belief to be maintained and the believers to attempt to proselyte or to persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.
When we commit ourselves to an idea or political philosophy, it isn’t fun when someone comes along who doesn’t agree with that philosophy. It’s distressing to hold two cognitions that are at odds. When confronted with some conflicting evidence, you must then go through the whole process of reevaluating your political position, weighing the merits for and against your beliefs on a case-by-case basis.
Or you can surround yourself with people that tell you that guy you don’t agree with is a dope.
This is a classic method of reducing dissonance. As Addison writes in another section of The Rage of Party, “A man of merit in a different principle is like an object seen in two different mediums, that appears crooked or broken, however straight and entire it may be in itself.” This isn’t to say that that we should all be political philosophers pent up in a dusty study, agonizing over every challenge to our political beliefs that comes our way. Nor is this an endorsement of relativism, saying that there’s no real “truth.” It’s an acknowledgement that as people ally themselves with other like-minded people, their method of reducing dissonance tends toward rationalization and finding strength in the agreement of others than entertaining a change in their belief.
Indeed, we distance ourselves from those who hold different political philosophies and surround ourselves with those who agree and reinforce our own beliefs in almost equal proportion. The more familiar your party becomes, the more foreign do the others. And just as our political beliefs are subsumed into our self identity, the political party and the party member similarly become one in the same. What reflects poorly on the party reflects poorly on your personal values and ethics. As we group ourselves into parties, we don’t just have to answer for our own actions, but we become responsible for the follies of other party members. All for one, one for all.
How many times have Democrats or Republicans felt compelled to defend some fool who made a gaffe or was involved in a scandal and make fools of themselves as a result? In this state, agreeing with someone isn’t enough; we must endorse their actions no matter how much our values may be compromised in the name of party strength and the promise of political power. It must be reiterated that we want this political power to implement positive change. Again, the intentions are there, but the result is not just an endorsement of questionable actions but the hypocrisy that they represent. The strangeness of the “other,” and the division of which Addison writes leads to his point on understanding and common sense.
If it looks like corruption, and it walks like corruption...
The spirit of party blinds us to the faulty actions perpetrated by those who bear our party’s banner. It’s the gateway drug of political corruption. The destruction of understandings and common sense create a cognitive dissonance ecosystem ripe for the breeding of pathogens that weaken the political system. The body politic continues to live, but sanctioned corruption and hypocrisy multiply until the system is unsustainable and the host dies. We begin to consistently overlook the series of small moral or ethical violations by our representatives and leaders in order to maintain a façade of unified party strength and legitimacy.
This destruction of common sense is truly the most dangerous effect that the spirit of party creates in a citizenry. Addison understood that the ultimate danger of party spirit is not what it does, but what it prevents people from doing; keeping their wits about them and remaining suspicious of any person or party that seeks power. To modern audiences this quest for political power seems natural. Our media is obsessed with which party will “win” the House or Senate, the understanding being that whichever has the majority vote in Congress has the power to further its political agenda. However, to the political minds of the 18th century, power was a studied and well-understood inherent danger that was to be checked at every turn. They understood that humans treat power like money. How much do we need? More.
History shows that almost anyone vested with political power is sure that he can achieve his political ends if only he were granted enough power to do so. Even if those political ends are pure of heart and selflessly beneficent, the leader would immediately attain absolute power if it would rescue oppressed nations, quell violent revolutions, and keep every man, woman, and child within his borders safe. As any beauty queen contestant can tell you, world peace is the ultimate goal of any civilized society.
The trouble is that the world doesn’t work that way. Indeed, it never has. Absolute power to achieve political ends is the lie that echoes through the mind of every aspiring leader throughout history. It’s human nature to glorify the utopian. Headlines are littered with the stories of people who knew their lives would be perfect if only they could win the lottery, to have them become wretched and miserable when they actually do. We’re a species of Jay Gatsby’s, absolutely certain that our belief in the green light will deliver us from the pains and inconveniences we’ve carried our whole lives.
This discrepancy between reality and the promise of the unattainable leads to what I call “passive corruption.” Passive corruption is the state of degradation a system endures when tiny changes create a precedent for larger failures to occur. The sacrifice of civil liberties for the promise of security, an overpowered executive for the sake of efficacy, and the increase in careerist tendencies among elected officials come to mind. Just as adding a room to a house can create a crack through which water will leak, causing rot in the timbers and endangering the entire structure, passive corruption can be the result of good intentions. It is markedly different from “active corruption,” the intentional abuse of power to secure some position or financial gain.
Active corruption exists in every political system and no government, no matter how clean, is exempt. Forbes magazine ranks Denmark as the least corrupt country, but any search on Google quickly reveals a myriad of instances of active political corruption. One will readily accept, however, that though the governments of Denmark and Haiti both have elements of corruption, they are mitigated in the former to an extent where effective governance is not impeded. Not so much for the latter. Yet however more nefarious and contemptible active corruption may be, the encroachment of passive corruption is far more injurious to a nation’s health in the long run.
Taking the corporal analogy further (probably too far, let’s be honest), active corruption is the omnipresent set of colds, viruses, and ailments every nation experiences. They temporarily weaken the system, but are fought and routed out. Passive corruption is the tumor that metastasizes through the body of an unsuspecting government, weakening the entire system until the cocktail of ailments in the form of active corruption develop in greater number, with greater ease, and without a healthy system to fight back and protect against its eventual demise. This passive corruption is more dangerous both because its development is slow and silent and because when its existence is known, the preventative mechanisms inherent in the system have already been undermined and diminished such that no healing may occur.
The best laid schemes of mice and [Congress]men
In the realm of governance, the well-meaning sentiment of a politician or party’s intentions do not necessarily determine whether the actions they take to realize those sentiments are good for the health of the nation. The truth is that the health of a government is sometimes distinctly separate from the intentions of its officials. People can do things for well-meaning reasons and end up with detrimental results. When we get caught up in who is “right” and who is “wrong,” who is our political ally and enemy, we lose sight of the actual effect our political policies have in the real world. We get so wrapped up in the good vs evil narrative that alienates us from our fellow citizens that we instantly dismiss their opinions and motives. The common sense that illuminates the plain truths of our political predicament with the light of reality is exchanged for hands over our eyes and fingers in our ears. Until we see things as they are and regard our fellow countrymen as fellow countrymen, we risk missing the slow encroach of those bipartisan dangers which undermine a nation, regardless of party.