In the United States, leaders in the House of Representatives have done an effective job in getting their members to think in group, not person-to-person, terms. Members usually vote as party blocs. Individuals have very little power. That’s why representatives are often subtle and smart as individuals, but crude and partisan as a collective. The social psychology of the House is a clan psychology, not an interpersonal psychology.
The Senate, on the other hand, has historically been home to more person-to-person thinking. This is because the Senate is smaller and because of Senate rules. Until recently, the Senate leaders couldn’t just ram things through on party-line votes. Because a simple majority did not rule, and because one senator had the ability to bring the whole body to a halt, senators had an incentive, every day, to develop alliances and relationships with people in the other party.
But power trumps principle. In nearly every arena of political life, group relationships have replaced person-to-person relationships. The tempo of the Senate is now set by partisan lunches every Tuesday, whereas the body almost never meets for conversation as a whole. The Senate is now in the process of using reconciliation — rule by simple majority — to try to pass health care.
We have a political culture in which the word “reconciliation” has come to mean “bitter division.” With increasing effectiveness, the system bleaches out normal behavior and the normal instincts of human sympathy.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
The decay of sympathy...
Brooks does a concise piece on how the innate sense of fairness and sympathy that we exhibit towards each other in small groups (as in the U.S. Senate as it used to exist) vanishes when groups are in competition with each other (as in the Senate now). The story of human evolution is the story of competition between groups of humans that are held together internally by more generous and empathetic behaviors than the groups exhibit towards each other. Clips: