The Psychological Principles Contributing to a Government Shutdown

As I write this, the government has been shutdown for four days which represents a clear failure of politicians to come together and put our nation first.  Much has been written about the shutdown, but CivilPolitics' niche in the world of political writing is to highlight how psychological principles are at work during both civil and uncivil interactions.  

Among the psychological principles at work are:

A breakdown in relationships amongst individuals from conflicted parties.  We are all human beings first and act on our feelings as much as our reason.  While Congressman Stutzman's quote that Republicans are "not going to be disrespected" are being criticized, the reality is that mutual respect and collegial feelings amongst negotiating parties are indeed important in reaching agreement.  So when Harry Reid calls Boehner a coward, it really does reduce the likelihood of an agreement, as even if it doesn't affect Boehner explicitly, it certainly changes the nature of relationships amongst them and makes it harder to reach mutual understanding.  This effect is not limited to the parties involved as research on the extended contact effect illustrates how negativity amongst members of two groups can affect relationships between all members of conflicted groups.  In contrast, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich had a personal relationship where they talked nightly during the previous shutdown.

The outsized influence of those with extreme moral conviction.  Research on "the dark side of moral conviction" shows how those with ostensibly good intentions can become blind to the negative consequences of their actions, in service of their goals.  The more extreme one's moral convictions are, the greater the effect, and many Republicans represent districts that have one-sided moral convictions and therefore have no reason to try to come to a middle ground.  Only 17 Republicans come from districts that Obama won (compared to 79 during Clinton's presidency), and partisan redistricting makes it increasingly unlikely that moderates will provide a check on those with more extreme moral convictions.

A lack of focus on shared goals (e.g. keeping the government functioning) instead of on conflicting goals (e.g. Obamacare).  Realistic conflict theory and examining moments in history where partisans come together, shows us that compromise and cooperation is often a result of shared goals.  Indeed, moderates are leading the charge toward compromise.  Below is a humorous video where Republican moderate Scott Riggell (who comes from one of the few districts that is not so partisan) explicitly notes that even as he opposes the "Unaffordable Care Act", he recognizes that there is a higher goal at stake.

I'm not sure how we can transcend the current crisis, but hopefully reading the current political news from this perspective can inform an understanding of future debates and help us collectively create situations that no longer lead us to these types of self-inflicted crises.

– Ravi Iyer


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