The Two-Party Swindle

The Rob­bers Cave Ex­per­i­ment had as its sub­ject 22 twelve-year-old boys, se­lected from 22 differ­ent schools in Ok­la­homa City, all do­ing well in school, all from sta­ble mid­dle-class Protes­tant fam­i­lies. In short, the boys were as similar to each other as the ex­per­i­menters could ar­range, though none started out know­ing any of the oth­ers. The ex­per­i­ment, con­ducted in the af­ter­math of WWII, was meant to in­ves­ti­gate con­flicts be­tween groups. How would the sci­en­tists spark an in­ter­group con­flict to in­ves­ti­gate? Well, the first step was to di­vide the 22 boys into two groups of 11 cam­pers -

- and that was quite suffi­cient. There was hos­tility al­most from the mo­ment each group be­came aware of the other group’s ex­is­tence. Though they had not needed any name for them­selves be­fore, they named them­selves the Ea­gles and the Rat­tlers. After the re­searchers (dis­guised as camp coun­selors) in­sti­gated con­tests for prizes, ri­valry reached a fever pitch and all traces of good sports­man­ship dis­in­te­grated. The Ea­gles stole the Rat­tlers’ flag and burned it; the Rat­tlers raided the Ea­gles’ cabin and stole the blue jeans of the group leader and painted it or­ange and car­ried it as a flag the next day.

Each group de­vel­oped a stereo­type of it­self and a con­trast­ing stereo­type of the op­pos­ing group (though the boys had been ini­tially se­lected to be as similar as pos­si­ble). The Rat­tlers swore heav­ily and re­garded them­selves as rough-and-tough. The Ea­gles swore off swear­ing, and de­vel­oped an image of them­selves as proper-and-moral.

Con­sider, in this light, the epi­sode of the Blues and the Greens in the days of Rome. Since the time of the an­cient Ro­mans, and con­tin­u­ing into the era of Byzan­tium and the Ro­man Em­pire, the Ro­man pop­u­lace had been di­vided into the war­ring Blue and Green fac­tions. Blues mur­dered Greens and Greens mur­dered Blues, de­spite all at­tempts at polic­ing. They died in sin­gle com­bats, in am­bushes, in group bat­tles, in ri­ots.

From Pro­copius, His­tory of the Wars, I:

In ev­ery city the pop­u­la­tion has been di­vided for a long time past into the Blue and the Green fac­tions [...] And they fight against their op­po­nents know­ing not for what end they im­peril them­selves [...] So there grows up in them against their fel­low men a hos­tility which has no cause, and at no time does it cease or dis­ap­pear, for it gives place nei­ther to the ties of mar­riage nor of re­la­tion­ship nor of friend­ship, and the case is the same even though those who differ with re­spect to these colours be broth­ers or any other kin.

Ed­ward Gib­bon, The De­cline and Fall of the Ro­man Em­pire:

The sup­port of a fac­tion be­came nec­es­sary to ev­ery can­di­date for civil or ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal hon­ors.

Who were the Blues and the Greens?

They were sports fans—the par­ti­sans of the blue and green char­iot-rac­ing teams.

It’s less sur­pris­ing if you think of the Rob­bers Cave ex­per­i­ment. Fa­vorite-Team is us; Ri­val-Team is them. Noth­ing more is ever nec­es­sary to pro­duce fa­natic en­thu­si­asms for Us and great ha­treds of Them. Peo­ple pur­sue their sports alle­giances with all the des­per­ate en­ergy of two hunter-gath­erer bands lined up for bat­tle—cheer­ing as if their very life de­pended on it, be­cause fifty thou­sand years ago, it did.

Evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy
pro­duces strange echoes in time, as adap­ta­tions con­tinue to ex­e­cute long af­ter they cease to max­i­mize fit­ness. Sex with con­doms. Taste buds still chas­ing sugar and fat. Riot­ing bas­ket­ball fans.

And so the fans of Fa­vorite-Foot­ball-Team all praise their fa­vorite play­ers to the stars, and dero­gate the play­ers on the Hated-Ri­val-Team. We are the fans and play­ers on the Fa­vorite-Foot­ball-Team. They are the fans and play­ers from Hated-Ri­val-Team. Those are the two op­pos­ing tribes, right?

And yet the pro­fes­sional foot­ball play­ers from Fa­vorite-Team have a lot more in com­mon with the pro­fes­sional foot­ball play­ers from Ri­val-Team, than ei­ther has in com­mon with the truck driver scream­ing cheers at the top of his lungs. The pro­fes­sional foot­ball play­ers live similar lives, un­dergo similar train­ing reg­i­mens, move from one team to an­other. They’re much more likely to hang out at the ex­pen­sive ho­tel rooms of fel­low foot­ball play­ers, than share a drink with a truck driver in his rented trailer home. Whether Fa­vorite-Team or Ri­val-Team wins, it’s pro­fes­sional foot­ball play­ers, not truck drivers, who get the girls, the spotlights, and above all the money: pro­fes­sional foot­ball play­ers are paid a hell of a lot more than truck drivers.

Why are pro­fes­sional foot­ball play­ers bet­ter paid than truck drivers? Be­cause the truck driver di­vides the world into Fa­vorite-Team and Ri­val-Team. That’s what mo­ti­vates him to buy the tick­ets and wear the T-Shirts. The whole money-mak­ing sys­tem would fall apart if peo­ple started see­ing the world in terms of Pro­fes­sional Foot­ball Play­ers ver­sus Spec­ta­tors.

And I’m not even ob­ject­ing to pro­fes­sional foot­ball. Group iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is pretty much the ser­vice pro­vided by foot­ball play­ers, and since that ser­vice can be pro­vided to many peo­ple si­mul­ta­neously, salaries are nat­u­rally com­pet­i­tive. Fans pay for tick­ets vol­un­tar­ily, and ev­ery­one knows the score.

It would be a very differ­ent mat­ter if your be­loved pro­fes­sional foot­ball play­ers held over you the power of tax­a­tion and war, prison and death.

Then it might not be a good idea to lose your­self in the deli­cious rush of group iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Back in the good ol’ days, when knights were brave and peas­ants starved, there was lit­tle doubt that the gov­ern­ment and the gov­erned were dis­tinct classes. Every­one sim­ply took for granted that this was the Nat­u­ral Order of Things.

This era did not van­ish in an in­stan­ta­neous flash. The Magna Carta did not challenge the ob­vi­ous nat­u­ral dis­tinc­tion be­tween no­bles and peas­ants—but it sug­gested the ex­is­tence of a con­tract, a bar­gain, two sides at the table rather than one:

No Free­man shall be taken or im­pris­oned, or be dis­seised of his Free­hold, or Liber­ties, or free Cus­toms, or be out­lawed, or ex­iled, or any other wise de­stroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor con­demn him, but by lawful judg­ment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man ei­ther Jus­tice or Right.

England did not re­place the House of Lords with the House of Com­mons, when the no­tion of an elected leg­is­la­ture was first be­ing floated. They both ex­ist, side-by-side, to this day.

The Amer­i­can War of In­de­pen­dence did not be­gin as a re­volt against the idea of kings, but rather a re­volt against one king who had over­stepped his au­thor­ity and vi­o­lated the com­pact.

And then some­one sug­gested a re­ally wild idea...

From De­ci­sion in Philadelphia: The Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion of 1787:

[The del­e­gates to the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion] had grown up be­liev­ing in a some­what differ­ent prin­ci­ple of gov­ern­ment, the idea of the so­cial con­tract, which said that gov­ern­ment was a bar­gain be­tween the rulers and the ruled. The peo­ple, in essence, agreed to ac­cept the over­lord­ship of their kings and gov­er­nors; in re­turn, the rulers agreed to re­spect cer­tain rights of the peo­ple.

But as the de­bate pro­gressed, a new con­cept of gov­ern­ment be­gan more and more to be tossed around. It aban­doned the whole idea of the con­tract be­tween rulers and the ruled as the philo­sophic ba­sis for the gov­ern­ment. It said in­stead that the power resided solely in the peo­ple, they could del­e­gate as much as they wanted to, and with­draw it as they saw fit. All mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment, not just leg­is­la­tors, would rep­re­sent the peo­ple. The Con­sti­tu­tion, then, was not a bar­gain be­tween the peo­ple and who­ever ran the new gov­ern­ment, but a del­e­ga­tion of cer­tain pow­ers to the new gov­ern­ment, which the peo­ple could re­vise when­ever they wanted.

That was the the­ory. But did it work in prac­tice?

In some ways, ob­vi­ously it did work. I mean, the Pres­i­dency of the United States doesn’t work like the monar­chies of olden times, when the crown passed from father to son, or when a queen would suc­ceed the king her hus­band.

But that’s not even the im­por­tant ques­tion. For­get that Con­gress­peo­ple on both sides of the “di­vide” are more likely to be lawyers than truck drivers. For­get that in train­ing and in daily life, they have far more in com­mon with each other than they do with a ran­domly se­lected US cit­i­zen from their own party. For­get that they are more likely to hang out at each other’s ex­pen­sive ho­tel rooms than drop by your own house. Is there a poli­ti­cal di­vide—a di­vide of poli­cies and in­ter­ests—be­tween Pro­fes­sional Poli­ti­ci­ans on the one hand, and Vot­ers on the other?

Well, let me put it this way. Sup­pose that you hap­pen to be so­cially liberal, fis­cally con­ser­va­tive. Who would you vote for?

Or sim­plify it fur­ther: Sup­pose that you’re a voter who prefers a smaller, less ex­pen­sive gov­ern­ment—should you vote Repub­li­can or Demo­cratic? Or, lest I be ac­cused of color fa­voritism, sup­pose that your voter prefer­ence is to get US troops out of Iraq. Should you vote Demo­cratic or Repub­li­can?

One needs to be care­ful, at this point, to keep track of the dis­tinc­tion be­tween mar­ket­ing ma­te­ri­als and his­tor­i­cal records. I’m not ask­ing which poli­ti­cal party stands for the idea of smaller gov­ern­ment—which foot­ball team has “Go go smaller gov­ern­ment! Go go go!” as one of its cheers. (Or “Troops out of Iraq! Yay!“) Rather, over the last sev­eral decades, among Repub­li­can poli­ti­ci­ans and Demo­cratic poli­ti­ci­ans, which group of Pro­fes­sional Poli­ti­ci­ans shrunk the gov­ern­ment while it was in power?

And by “shrunk” I mean “shrunk”. If you’re suck­ered into an an­gry, shout­ing fight over whether Your Poli­ti­ci­ans or Their Poli­ti­ci­ans grew the gov­ern­ment slightly less slowly, it means you’re not see­ing the di­vide be­tween Poli­ti­ci­ans and Vot­ers. There isn’t a grand con­spir­acy to ex­pand the gov­ern­ment, but there’s an in­cen­tive for each in­di­vi­d­ual poli­ti­cian to send pork to cam­paign con­trib­u­tors, or bor­row to­day against to­mor­row’s in­come. And that cre­ates a di­vide be­tween the Poli­ti­ci­ans and the Vot­ers, as a class, for rea­sons that have noth­ing to do with col­ors and slo­gans.

Imag­ine two foot­ball teams. The Green team’s pro­fes­sional play­ers shout the bat­tle cry, “Cheaper tick­ets! Cheaper tick­ets!” as they rush into the game. The Blue team’s pro­fes­sional play­ers shout, “Bet­ter seat­ing! Bet­ter seat­ing!” as they move for­ward. The Green Spec­ta­tors like­wise cry “Cheaper tick­ets!” and the Blue Spec­ta­tors of course cheer “Bet­ter seat­ing!”

And yet ev­ery year the price of tick­ets goes up, and the seats get harder and less com­fortable. The Blues win a foot­ball game, and a great ex­plo­sion of “Bet­ter seat­ing! Bet­ter seat­ing!” rises to the heav­ens with great shouts of ex­cite­ment and glory, and then the next year the cush­ions have been re­placed by cold steel. The Greens kick a long-range field goal, and the Green Spec­ta­tors leap up and down and hug each other scream­ing “Cheaper tick­ets! Hooray! Cheaper tick­ets!” and then to­mor­row there’s a $5 cost in­crease.

It’s not that there’s a con­spir­acy. No con­spir­acy is re­quired. Even dishon­esty is not re­quired—it’s so painful to have to lie con­sciously. But some­how, af­ter the Blue Pro­fes­sional Foot­ball Play­ers have won the lat­est game, and they’re just about to in­stall some new cush­ions, it oc­curs to them that they’d rather be at home drink­ing a nice cold beer. So they ex­change a few furtive guilty looks, scurry home, and apol­o­gize to the Blue Spec­ta­tors the next day.

As for the Blue Spec­ta­tors catch­ing on, that’s not very likely. See, one of the cheers of the Green side is “Even if the Blues win, they won’t in­stall new seat cush­ions!” So if a Blue Spec­ta­tor says, “Hey, Blue Play­ers, we cheered real hard and you won the last game! What’s up with the cold steel seats?” all the other Blue Spec­ta­tors will stare aghast and say, “Why are you call­ing a Green cheer?” And the lonely dis­sen­ter says, “No, you don’t un­der­stand, I’m not cheer­ing for the Greens. I’m point­ing out, as a fel­low Spec­ta­tor with an in­ter­est in bet­ter seat­ing, that the Pro­fes­sional Foot­ball Play­ers who are allegedly on the Blue Spec­ta­tors’ side haven’t ac­tu­ally—”

“What do you mean?” cry the Blue Spec­ta­tors. “Listen! You can hear the Play­ers call­ing it now! ‘Bet­ter seat­ing!’ It re­sounds from the rafters—how can you say our Play­ers aren’t true Blue? Do you want the Green Play­ers to win? You—you’re be­tray­ing Our Team by crit­i­ciz­ing Our Play­ers!

This is what I mean by the “two-party swin­dle”. Once a poli­ti­cian gets you to iden­tify with them, they pretty much own you.

There doesn’t have to be a con­scious, col­lab­o­ra­tive effort by Your Poli­ti­ci­ans and Their Poli­ti­ci­ans to keep the Vot­ers scream­ing at each other, so that they don’t no­tice the in­creas­ing gap be­tween the Vot­ers and the Poli­ti­ci­ans. There doesn’t have to be a con­spir­acy. It emerges from the in­ter­ests of the in­di­vi­d­ual poli­ti­ci­ans in get­ting you to iden­tify with them in­stead of judg­ing them.

The prob­lem dates back to olden times. Com­mon­ers iden­ti­fy­ing with kings was one of the great sup­ports of the monar­chy. The com­mon­ers in France and England al­ike might be cold and starv­ing. And the kings of France and England al­ike might be liv­ing in a palace, drink­ing from golden cups. But hey, the King of England is our king, right? His glory is our glory? Long live King Henry the What­ever!

But as soon as you man­aged to take an emo­tional step back, started to think of your king as a con­trac­tor—rather than cheer­ing for him be­cause of the coun­try he sym­bol­ized—you started to no­tice that the king wasn’t a very good em­ployee.

And I dare say the Big Mess is not likely to be cleaned up, un­til the Repub­li­fans and De­mo­fans re­al­ize that in many ways they have more in com­mon with other Vot­ers than with “their” Poli­ti­ci­ans; or, at the very least, stop en­thu­si­as­ti­cally cheer­ing for rich lawyers be­cause they wear cer­tain col­ors, and be­gin judg­ing them as em­ploy­ees severely dere­lict in their du­ties.

Un­til then, the wheel will turn, one sec­tor ris­ing and one sec­tor fal­ling, with a great tu­mult of lamen­ta­tion and cheers—and turn again, with un­in­hibited cries of joy or ap­pre­hen­sion—turn again and again, and not go any­where.

Get­ting emo­tional over poli­tics as though it were a sports game—iden­ti­fy­ing with one color and scream­ing cheers for them, while heap­ing abuse on the other color’s fans—is a very good thing for the Pro­fes­sional Play­ers’ Team; not so much for Team Vot­ers.

(This post is re­lated to the se­quence Poli­tics is the Mind-Killer.)