Why the Washington Feud Never Ends

Posted on 2011 October 23


“We judge others by their actions. We judge ourselves by our intentions.”

In politics, we tend to see our opponents as dishonest and venal, ourselves as virtuous and beleaguered. The never-ending joke is that our opponents sincerely believe it’s the other way around.

And how dare they!

Each side has its victories; the losing side resolves to redouble its efforts next time. I mean, it’s kinda dumb, the way it goes on and on to no end. Yet people keep fighting. We’ve been at it about drugs and fat cats and overseas wars and gay marriage and abortion and civil rights and health care for decades — whew! —  yet none of these problems ever gets solved. You may say, “Yes, but if we just keep fighting, our side will finally achieve total victory!” But the other side will respond, “Over my dead body!” It’s the preferences of our fellow citizens we’re trying to outlaw, as if they were invaders from elsewhere. As if they were outlaws who disrespect the obviously proper rules of our big American tribe. This is crazy.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Something’s amiss here.

Let’s start at the beginning. For tens of thousands of years, humans lived as tribal villagers, and each village cleaved to a common language, religion, and culture. You knew, and shared a world view with, nearly everyone in your neck of the woods. Outsiders were dangerous: they might attack, they might bring diseases or parasites, they might overturn your way of life. People evolved to function well in these settings — protecting their own, resisting strangers.

Now we’ve crammed ourselves into high-tech cities that link up into gigantic nations, and though we may speak the same language as our fellow citizens, we often don’t share the same religion or culture or attitudes. Those people down the street, with their weird accents and music and food and attitudes: they’re doing things wrong! And they should be stopped! There oughtta be a law!

After all, we can watch many of these fellow Americans in our homes on TV. They speak English; they often wear standard-issue suits and dresses; they drive cars like ours. They must belong to our tribe! But they’re doing things differently; therefore, they’re disobeying the rules of the tribe. But those folks we observe in the media are often thousands of miles away, and it’s likely they don’t share our religious or cultural views. In fact, they’re not in our tribe at all. They probably don’t give a whit about our views. How on Earth can they get away with being so different? What makes them believe such stupid nonsense? How can they be our fellow citizens?!?

Of course, the whole point of this nation was to be a land where anyone could show up and pursue his or her happiness, as long as he or she didn’t cause direct harm to others. But the Framers lived in an agrarian world where people had fewer reasons to come into contact, and conflict, with one another. Today’s hyper-urban reality is vastly more crowded, and the very success of the American experiment has placed thousands of immigrant groups, and their cultures, into direct conflict with each other. It’s a wonder we’re not at each other’s throats on a daily basis.

Our villages have been crammed together and then fractured, so we find our friendships and work life spread out over vast areas filled with strangers. In days of yore, everyone we encountered were friends and family; today in the big city, everyone we meet is simply in our way. No wonder we grouch first and ask questions later.

We’re simply not prepared genetically for the modern world we’ve invented. It’s like the dog who grows up on the farm, barking now and then at the occasional passerby, who gets moved to a house in the city, where he barks constantly at everyone.

But we try: we join groups of all sorts, bond to them, and defend them against all criticism, projecting our suspicion of strangers onto all who don’t belong in our group. And these tribes take many forms. There are Yankee fans and Dodger fans and Cardinals fans; there are Baptists and Lutherans and Catholics and Mormons; there are Blacks and Whites; there are liberals and conservatives. Our attempts to bond with these vast groups is somewhat pathetic, as we’re strangers to nearly all of the members. They’re poor excuses for close-knit tribes. Yet still we try.

In the old days, enemy groups dwelled at some remove. But today our political enemies often live right next door! And we have to smile and be polite to them, when we really wish we could throttle them. How dare they prefer the Red Sox! … How dare they sympathize with [ _______ fill in the blank: the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, etc.]!

Liberals and conservatives. Those are the chief political groupings in our nation, as in many Western-style countries. Liberals generally consist of workers, artists, and minorities, who resent the wealth and power and suppressive tendencies of the wealthy. (“I work hard and don’t make their kind of money! They must have cheated. They should give it back!”) Conservatives generally consist of landowners and businessmen and farmers and the military and the well off, people who like the system the way it is and wish the rabble would stop having random sex and smoking pot. (“Those weirdos are destroying our cherished way of life! They should be arrested.”) Liberals and conservatives are fundamentally opposed to each other’s outlooks and wants. Each group thinks the other is causing all the harm.

Back in the day, these two groups generally kept to themselves, despite the potential for conflict. But our increasingly crowded world presses them together, so they march off to Washington and try to commandeer the government to benefit their group at the expense of the other. And they feel justified: after all, each side — like our village ancestors — thinks its beliefs are univeral truths and the other side is bad and wrong. So none of them give the opposition any credit for their wants and needs.

And so the feud continues. When one side gets an edge on an issue, the other side burns with resentment and fights back, causing the cycle to renew. It never ends.

Bearing in mind our genetic proclivities toward mutual suspicion, can we find any sort of solution better than this ever-tightening, increasingly polarized political conflict? Yes. But we’ll have to make use of that big mass of adaptability that evolved for just these sorts of situations: the brain.

The brain starts out with excellent default settings — for village life. But it’s also designed to allow for adaptation, in case a storm destroys the village or the marauders carry off your spouse and children or a disease kills the village elders. The challenge today, however, is to adapt to an ever-changing high-tech urban environment, a world that drives us crazy with its constant upheaval mixed with culture clash. Can we meet the challenge?

Here are some ideas for using our brains to adapt in ways that don’t lead either to endless political battles or outright civil war:

1. Treat them like humans. Those folks you hate? They kiss their children goodnight and donate to charities and tell jokes and help old ladies across the street just like you. And they think they’re right to want what they want. Just like you. Everyone you hate is a human being who’s simply trying to be happy, and whose choices are different — not worse — than yours, though some of those goals just happend to be in conflict with yours. Conflicts with friends can be resolved; why not with enemies? Consider their anger toward you, or their attempts to appropriate your rights or property, as the actions of someone who believes they’re entitled to the resources over which you disagree. (Just like you.) Be prepared to talk with them in a calm and respectful manner. Yes, this is hard to do, especially when they’re belittling you or putting their fingers in their ears and going, “La-la-la-la-la!” But remember: they’re just as human and fallible and foolish as you are. And if you’re pleasant to them, they may start to like you despite your differences. And then maybe together you can . . .

2. Swap instead of fight. Find smart ways of trading, rather than battling, for the things you want. A lot of insurmountable problems get solved when someone invents a solution that allows everyone, instead of just a few, to get the things they want. Trouble with outsiders driving too fast through your neighborhood? Install speed bumps or traffic circles. Noisy cult set up shop in a house nearby? Arrange for the city to offer them cheap rent at a public meeting room instead. Or something. Use your noggin instead of your anger. It may not be easy, but inventing solutions for everyone is a damn sight better than endless battles that go nowhere.

3. Live and let live. The cheapest thing you can do, when others’ lives offend you, is to avoid them. Are they marrying gays? Let ’em; they can’t force you to hang out with them. Are they smoking weed? You don’t have to join them; let them live with their own consequences. Are they living generally immoral lives? Let ’em! It’s God’s business, not yours. Angry about foreign wars? Talk with your tax accountant about legal ways to pay fewer taxes as a protest. Pissed off at some union-busting corporation? Don’t buy their products! Mad at the high price of gas? Plan your trips, carpool, use bikes and busses and walking, buy a more economical car. Don’t want to sit on a jury? Just show up and speak clearly about your opinions; one of the attorneys will rush to have you excused.

How about delineating areas where each group can do it its own thing? The American states were set up with this idea in mind; maybe we can revive the power of states to make more those decisions, and then we can migrate to regions that offer political features we prefer. Meanwhile, if you hate how your neighborhood has been changing, then start looking for new, better places to live. All that variety among Americans can now be a good thing for you, allowing you to find people and places that might suit you much better than your current location. There are always things you can do to reduce your exposure to people and rules you don’t like.

The challenge for our age is to use our big brains to transcend our old tribal habits and find ways of living harmoniously with all the different types of people who inhabit this same country of ours. The big takeaway here is that those bastards on the other side can’t really hurt us. The very fact that our country is not one unitary village also gives us the freedom to live at some distance from other people’s rules.

Bear in mind that the more we try to use the federal government as a means of enforcing conformity upon our enemies, the more that government can be used in the same way against our own interests. Maybe it just ain’t worth the effort.

“One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” (Jane Austin) There will never be a perfect solution to any of these conflicts; we may never truly comprehend our neighbors. But understanding and adaptation and ingenuity are big improvements over fighting endlessly with people who are really just like you. Except, of course, for their odd viewpoints.

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UPDATE: Researchers find that “Empathy Doesn’t Extend Across the Political Aisle”