How Political Psychology Explains Washington's Debt-Limit Deadlock

Busing experiments taught us about the conditions needed to overcome conflict. Too bad none of them exist in Congress.


Since the busing experiments of the 1970s, where white and black students were driven to the same schools in the hope of ending social segregation, psychologists have known that certain conditions allow opposing groups to co-exist in a state of permanent rivalry, separated by a firewall of distrust, stereotypes, and stubbornness. But there are also conditions that help groups overcome deep-seated conflicts. Unfortunately, says distinguished psychology Professor Elliot Aronson, whose research on desegregation discovered them, "almost none of the preconditions exist in Congress" today.

Yet, those conditions -- interdependence, friendly social interactions, and a strong ethos of cooperation -- exist not only in other democracies around the world, but in America's own history, offering hope that the hyper-partisanship of the debt ceiling stand-off might not need to be an ongoing feature of American democracy.


Aronson found that without interdependence, the incentive is always to steamroll through the opposition on the path to a prize that can only be held by one lucky group. In the zero sum world of politics, where there are a finite number of elected offices, the failure of one party is necessarily a win for the competitor.

A keen awareness of the dog-eat-dog fight between Republicans and Democrats led Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to propose a resolution whereby Republicans would let Obama raise the debt ceiling while publicly voting against the decision. McConnell's justification was an unabashed political calculation:

My first choice was to do something important for the country. But my second obligation is to my party and my conference to prevent them from being sucked into a horrible position politically that would allow the president, probably, to get reelected because we didn't handle this difficult situation correctly.

However, not all democracies are two-party zero-sum battle grounds. In the multi-party government of Switzerland, for instance, groups must form constantly changing coalitions of the four ruling parties to achieve a majority; a rival party on one issue might be a key partner to securing a majority on another. The spirit of cooperation underlies the entire conversation, as politicians know that burning bridges will haunt them in the future.

"There's a more collegial atmosphere there," says former American Political Science Association President, Arend Lijphart, whose forthcoming book looks at the difference between America and what he calls "consensus democracies," like Switzerland.

America's unusually strong two-party democracy is mathematically cemented by its peculiar winner-take-all voting system, where a single elected official represents an entire district by securing at least 51 percent of the vote. Proportional voting, in contrast, evenly slices the representative pie; so, if a district has 10 available seats, 2 seats will be filled by the party with 20 percent of the vote. Winner-take-all systems also crowd out third parties, who can't come close to securing a majority in any one district.

Partly because of an uncooperative two-party system, "the US," Lijphart says, "is on the extreme end of partisanship."

Friendly Social Interaction

While two-party politics is as old as the Capitol Dome, Washington veterans are aghast at the recent intractability of the conflicts between the aisles. Conservative columnist David Brooks, for one, railed against the GOP's new legion of uncompromising politicians who "believe that politics is a cataclysmic struggle."

Both Bill Clinton and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor have blamed the atmosphere on the lack of what Aronson considers the second precondition for cooperation: frequent social gatherings with multiple members of the opposite group.

Before the steady rise of five-day weekend campaign fundraising in the 80's and 90's, which dramatically reduced the number of congressional voting days and committee meetings, Clinton has reminisced, members could spend more time with each other in D.C. "They got to rest, they got to see their friends, they got to meet with members of the Senate and both parties and talk through issues," he said. The result was a more thoughtful, more cooperative environment.

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