The Uncivil Reporting of Civil Elections

I voted on Tuesday.  Like many people on this day, one of the highlights was the opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself and cast my vote, in the hopes that whomever is elected, we'll work together to solve problems and make the world a better place. I actually had a mail ballot, but in California, you can turn in your mail ballot and vote in person if you want to. I chose to do so and went to the polling station with my wife. The polling station is cheerful environment and it may be my bias, but I felt that people were genuinely happy to see each other there and share their experience with others.  When I got home, I changed my facebook status to indicate that I had voted and my conservative and liberal friends all 'liked' my status.  It is one day of the year when liberals and conservatives have the same message.  Please vote!  In social psychology terms, voting could be thought of as a superordinate goal that leads to increased cooperation and goodwill between formerly conflicted groups.

The goodwill of the voting booth stood in sharp contrast to the shows I watched to get the results of the election.  Consider the below exchange which led one blogger to comment that "manners are a dying art".

Other things I read or saw on election day included Fox Reporters talking about Democratic senators who kept their jobs as "missed opportunities", MSNBC reporters talking about how they really didn't want to see Republicans "with a kick in their step", and live chat comments like "is there a way to collect democratic tears in a cup, because I want to drink them?"  It's one thing to celebrate our successes, but does that necessarily mean enjoying the negative emotions of others. 

Realistic conflict theory, shows the conflict that inevitably arises when groups compete (also see Robert Wright's book Nonzero) and the resulting negativity towards each other.  But that isn't the end of the story.  In Sherif's Robers Cave study and Wright's book, there are great examples of situations where superordinate goals create goodwill….  the kind of goodwill I experienced at the voting booth.  Those of you who watched Jon Stewart's Rally for Sanity may remember his analogy of the cars trying to enter a tunnel that took turns (see 10.5 minutes into this video).  They each had the individual goal of getting to their destination, but also the shared goal of fairness and keeping traffic moving, that facilitated a relatively orderly process.

So as we enter into a new phase of politics with a divided government, perhaps we can think about how we can frame policy in terms of superordinate goals (e.g. more jobs, a decreased deficit, better healthcare) rather than as a zero-sum game (e.g. the battle for control of government between "socialist" Democrats and "heartless" Republicans).  I generally vote liberal and may not agree on all of Boehner's ideas. But I share his goals of controlling the deficit, reigning in government spending and getting people back to work. And I'm hopeful he shares my goals of helping the working poor afford health care, even if we may disagree about the priorities of those goals.  Perhaps consciously thinking about our superordinate goals is a way to increase civility in politics.

- Ravi Iyer