In a more endearing example, O'Conner contends that bipartisan house parties helped overcome gridlock while she was in the Arizona state legislature, "We used to have pot-luck dinners at my house and I'd fix 'em chalupas and we'd get some beer," she said the at the 2011 Aspen Ideas Festival, "it would be a good chance to get acquainted and make friends. And, believe me, I could get enough votes on most of the legislation that we had to pass."
Weekend BBQ's and after-hour drinks used to bring elected officials together as colleagues, where they could observe each other as well-intentioned individuals with reasonably different beliefs. "Meeting on a friendly basis, which is apparently less prevalent now than it used to be, is very important," says Aronson, "because then you get to know the person as a person, and not just as an empty suit."
Norms of Cooperation
Time spent at home campaigning in constituent districts on the weekends has been especially hard on Aronson's third condition for conflict-resolution: a norm of cooperation, the unspoken expectation that compromise is the right thing to do.
A recent poll of Americans' beliefs on compromise found that a whopping 66 percent of Republicans said they would "rather have a congressperson who sticks to his or her principles, no matter what" than one who "compromises to get things done." Ironically enough, Democratic beliefs were a mirror-image of conservatives, with 68 percent supporting compromise.
This schism played out when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor boldly declared that the Republican comprise on the budget debate was "the fact that we're even discussing voting for a debt-ceiling increase," explaining, "What I don't think the White House understands is how difficult it is for fiscal conservatives to say they're going to vote to pay for a debt ceiling increase."
Indeed, compromise may violate what many conservative constituents believe politicians are elected to do. For congressmen in negotiation, overt cooperativeness may feel like a betrayal of the demands of angry constituents, still fresh in their minds from the weekend's campaigning.
Aronson says that in his own experiments, a "gang" mentality that viewed cooperation as a sign of weaknesses was one of the greatest obstacles he encountered while trying to desegregate students.
Psychologically speaking, then, Congress experiences a perfect storm of antipathy-creating conditions -- an antipathy born on the zero-sum political battleground, fueled by social isolation, and legitimized by conservative constituencies that see compromise as a violation of the elected mandate.
While Brooks and others may be shocked at the lack of cooperation, perhaps all that should really be surprising is that it took so long to get this way.
Image credit: Valentine Richmond History Center