It was while watching the Congressional speeches in the health care debate on C-Span for much of 2009 that I came to what I believe is an important new understanding of the problem of group conflict -- both of its nature and the basis on which a solution for it might be found, including the possibility of eventual fruitful cooperation.
Like many others, I was struck from the outset of the health care debate by the radical difference in the way Democrats and Republicans saw the pending bill. Every Republican denounced it in the most extreme terms, calling it a "monstrosity," a government "takeover" of health care that would put "bureaucrats" between patients and their doctors and "bankrupt" the country. Democrats countered with a view that was diametrically opposite. They claimed the bill would do great things: ensure "healthcare for all"; prevent insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and terminating existing coverage at will; ultimately reduce insurance premiums by creating more competition among insurers; and, in twenty years, actually reduce the federal debt by more than a trillion dollars.
I was astounded at the polarity of views. After all, both sides agreed that the health care system needed fixing and seemed to be pursuing the same overall goal: a more competitive health care insurance system that ended provider abuses, lowered premiums, and made affordable coverage available to more Americans. I fully expected different approaches to these reforms, based on competing ideological, partisan, and even purely political interests. Undoubtedly, there would be vigorous arguments on key issues: the most cost-effective ways to create competition among the insurance companies; how best to expand coverage to the presently uninsured; what it would take to make sure the government's involvement would not increase the national debt; how to make health care delivery more cost-efficient; the pros and cons of malpractice tort reform; and so on. These, I thought, would be reasonable subjects of debate.
What I didn't expect was the rote parroting by each side of the rightness -- even righteousness -- of its own policy positions and moralistic condemnations of the other side. The same partisanship was reflected in votes throughout the legislative process. These were either strictly along party lines or nearly so, with any exceptions apparently due to fixed ideological concerns or worry about voter reaction back home.
I puzzled over this outcome. The fact that each side defended its approach cogently and with seemingly great conviction surely suggested there was something of value in its positions. How was it possible, then, that not a single Democrat or Republican could be persuaded by force of argument alone to support the other side on at least some votes? I had to wonder: Have ideology, or the self-interest reflected in dedication to party, to financial supporters and to re-election, become so dominant in our political system that they override objective reasoning or the courage to follow its lead?
Certainly, the evidence in the health-care debate seemed to suggest so. It looks as if our two political parties have yielded to a kind of "group-think" that makes very difficult, or even irrelevant, both objective reasoning about issues and reasoned dialog with the other side.
In thinking about why this is so, I've come to believe that at least a significant part of the answer can be found in the dynamics inherent in a peculiarly American institution: the "value-based" organization, or collectivity of individuals that pushes a particular set of views and aims. Such groups include not only the political parties, but, for example, the nation-state as a whole, with its driving ideology of American "exceptionalism." Other examples include political, social, faith-based, and single-issue popular movements; labor unions; think tanks; Internet blog sites; interest groups; talk-radio hosts and audiences; hosts and viewers of viewpoint-based cable television shows; the Catholic Church and its followers; and Protestant mega-church congregations that encompass vast numbers of people connected by television.
In today's American culture, we seem to have a greater tendency than ever before to look for answers to important social, political and moral questions not in personal struggles for understanding, but in the comfort of group unanimity that, I will argue, is at the same time non-rational at its core and a source of divisiveness with other groups. Starting with the assumption that this trend is deleterious, I will try in the following paragraphs to define its psychological dynamics, its consequences, and what I believe to be the key to its remedy. First, however, to clarify essential points, I offer the following synopsis of what I have in mind.
Meaningful and Meaningless Attachments to Value-Based Groups
In general, individuals attach themselves to groups in order to satisfy a profound human need: namely, a sense of social identity that derives from an accepted role or place in society. (Possible exceptions to this pattern include creative artists, inventors, and entrepreneurs, whose sense of social identity may be defined by the works they produce.) Without such a sense, humans fall easily into psychological or social pathology -- become loose cannons like Oswald or James Earl Ray, for instance, or emotional anarchists like rapists, murderers and child molesters. Among the groups in which a social identity is commonly sought are "value-based" collectivities of the kind I've mentioned, along with workforces, professional staffs, sports teams, and creative performance groups such as those in music, the theater, and film. The point I wish to emphasize in this essay, however, is that the nature of an individual's participation in such groups can be either meaningful or meaningless for both the individual and the group.
Such a contrast is readily apparent in attachments to value-based groups. Individuals who are sure of their own values, views and aims, and can defend them rationally, can both consolidate their sense of social identity in such groups, and contribute meaningfully to them. Millions of Americans who now visit the innumerable blog sites on the Internet, for example, obtain information from them that sharpens or modifies their own understanding. At the same time, they themselves can provide feedback that refines or modifies the values, views and aims propagated by the blog sponsors, helping them broaden their perspective.
There are, however, also meaningless attachments to value-based groups. These may be made, for example, by individuals who are seeking ready-made answers for a life that is proving unsatisfying at work, or for anxieties or fears raised in the home or community by the emergence of new ethical views or expectations in a changing society. Because such individuals lack a moral grounding of their own, their association with the value-based group is unlikely either to promote their own sense of social identity or to help the group as a whole broaden its perspective. Consider, for example, the "Ditto Heads" in the collective radio audience of Rush Limbaugh. Here, the audience moniker itself suggests the group's limitations as an intellectual or moral force. The audience simply seconds the opinions spouted by Rush, thereby precluding any personal growth on the part of either the host or his listeners, and barring any chance that the views propagated by the group will have influence beyond its own constituency.
In the face of such futility, it is nevertheless important to understand why the ready-made answers offered by value-based groups have such a strong pull. We have to recognize, first, that there are in fact no absolute prescriptions for how we can best live our life, or for how society might be best arranged. Individuals must struggle to find what are at best tentative answers to such questions by determining where it is between endless pairs of opposite practical, moral and ethical possibilities that the lessons of their own experience and understanding lead them. Examples of such opposites come easily to mind: hope/fear; duty/pleasure; vengeance/forgiveness; build for the future/live for today; do your duty/follow your bliss; individualism/communitarianism; social welfare/libertarianism; popular culture/serious culture; right-to-work/right-to-organize; profit motive/social responsibility; security/freedom; altruism/self-interest; theism/atheism; social spending/consumer spending; core curriculum/self-guided study; traditional values/right to choose; negotiation/violence; and, in my own view, most importantly, group-think vs. creative problem-solving. As this list suggests, human beings are subject to a continual push/pull of value formation, and, for this reason, many find it a great relief to simply appropriate answers to moral or other big questions from value-based groups that come down definitively on one side or the other.
Such complacency is not without consequences, however. In addition to the limits it places on personal and group maturation, it has led in America to a pernicious "group-think" in which views are hardened to an increasingly defiant intransigence. Just think of our endemic polarization of political and social views and aims; or the efforts of our value-based groups to discredit opposing groups by any means, fair or foul; or our social disharmony and rancor; or our quick resort to arms to settle international disputes. It seems clear that such a trend can only be reversed by the validation of that very "push-pull" of creative value formation that individuals typically seek to escape.
Given the history of futility evidenced by value-based groups in seeking to reach accommodation with opposing groups through partisan debate, I've concluded that a reliance on individual creativity is the necessary starting point not only for personal fulfillment, but for both local and global human cooperation, friendship, progress, and peace. That conviction is rooted in the following beliefs: We live in a physical and moral world of inherent opposites, never to be reliably or fully resolved by the push and pull of reason alone. As a counterforce, however, each person is born with a unique set of talents and powers of insight that transcend the dilemma of the opposites by accessing directly a genuine aspect of reality. These inborn capacities are projections of the same creative power that made and sustains the universe. When tapped, they express themselves as do the rhythms in the heart of a poet, producing a construct of reality expressed in a particular material context that introduces an objective value into society and the world.