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.)