In just a couple of days, it is quite possible that the impasse which has gripped Washington’s divided government may have another casualty — that is, the United States may default on its debts.
Yes, I know there are default skeptics. I personally know and respect some of them. And much as I’d like to spend pages upon pages calmly and respectfully refuting their arguments, that particular point is incidental to the question I want to ask here, and a larger point which needs to be made. That is, that no matter how severe the crisis surrounding a default may or may not be, the question needs to be asked — how did we get to the point where our government is willing to risk a crisis, however large, over intractable ideological disagreements?
Many people, on both sides of the spectrum, have blamed this phenomenon of crisis courting on ideological extremism. According to this framing, if there were only more Republicans willing to raise taxes, or Democrats willing to delay Obamacare, or more members of either party willing to do (insert pie-in-the-sky party brand-destroying thing here), we could have functional government again. Bitter Republicans mourn the days of Bill Clinton’s deal-making, while bitter Democrats mourn Ronald Reagan’s “75 percent friend” approach to Tip O’Neil. In other words, according to this thought process, if people just stopped having principles altogether, we’d be fine.
Maybe they’re right, but I don’t think so. Because much as it’s fashionable to pretend that believing in nothing produces more functional government, the fact is that all politicians need some sort of polestar by which to decide whether to support or not support a policy. Principles give people a metric by which to determine whether a particular legislative deal is a good one, for instance, and to measure tradeoffs. Democrats might not like what Republicans want, but at least they know what they have to give them to get anywhere, and vice versa. In other words, extremism/ideological certainty should be a clarifying force that makes deals easier, not one that impedes it.
Yet, neither side is getting anywhere, which raises the question of why. I’m going to suggest a hypothesis that sounds like click bait, but hopefully won’t read like it once I’ve defended it. I think the reason neither party can get anything past the other isn’t that they’re too extreme — it’s that they’re too moral.
By that, I don’t mean that both parties are doing the right thing. That would be impossible, since they’re behaving in a diametrically opposed fashion over equally opposed principles. What I mean is that both parties are too convinced that they are doing the right thing, and equally, that to do anything the other party wants would be to do the wrong thing. In other words, they’re not thinking of deals in terms of tradeoffs or mutual benefit, but in terms of ironclad moral rules.
This kind of thinking is death to any sort of collaborative decision-making. But don’t take my word for it. Take the word of University of Michigan moral psychologist Timothy Ryan, who has demonstrated that overly moralistic outlooks on politics lead to a refusal to compromise, no matter how “extreme” those outlooks ar,e in his fascinating paper “No Compromise: Political Consequences of Moralized Attitudes.”
For the purposes of this article, I want to focus on one particularly interesting experiment which Ryan did on his subjects, which sums up the problem in Washington perfectly. Subjects were asked if they would be willing to receive a certain small amount of money (between $0 and $5), provided that a politically opposed group (The Tea Party Patriots or the “Progressive Change Campaign Committee”) received half as much as they did.
Yet despite the favorable proportions and relatively small amounts of money involved, at least a plurality of both parties refused to take any money at all if it meant political opponents got anything. Interestingly, contrary to the prevailing media narrative about Republicans being the more extreme of the two parties, this effect was actually stronger among Democrats, of whom 65 percent refused to take any money, while a mere plurality (44 percent) of Republicans refused.
Nevertheless, the resulting effect was the same. When the issues involved were viewed as moral ones, the idea of compromise evaporates, because morality is viewed as an issue of following rules, and rules are not susceptible to tradeoffs. To quote the study:
Against the backdrop of moral psychology, however, the phenomenon makes more sense, as moralized attitudes orient behavior toward adhering to rules, rather than maximizing gains.
Or to put it a bit less clinically, let’s quote the philosopher Ayn Rand:
When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute, when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it’s picked up by scoundrels—and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.
And indeed, this is precisely the mindset that is currently plaguing negotiations in Washington, where many members of both parties appear willing to forgo any progress toward policy positions they support, if it means the other party benefits, however slightly, because any benefit to the other party is an implicit concession to evil and thus a violation of moral law.
This problem has been more widely publicized among Republicans, but it’s also observable among Democrats. Consider the huffy reaction of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., when asked by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Crossfire why he wouldn’t vote to extend benefits to veterans during the shutdown. Whitehouse’s complaint about the seeming compromise measure was that it let Republicans keep any federal agencies closed. Certainly, the “we don’t negotiate” approach that Democrats take, and which Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., rightly characterized as a political misstep, is emblematic of the same problem. Indeed, the very language used by Democrats — that Republicans are “terrorists,” for instance — is all the confirmation needed.
So what’s the solution? Ryan provides one clue when he describes the problem as being a conflict between consequentialist thinking and deontology. He explains this way:
A consequentialist appeal justifies a policy in terms of its expected effects. A deontological appeal, in contrast, suggests that some actions are required or prohibited by their very nature. For instance, a consequentialist way to frame one side of the collective bargaining issue would be, ‘Collective bargaining agreements cause states to face budgetary problems,’ while a deontological framing on the same side would be, ‘Everybody has a right to work.’ The former frame is, in principle, falsifiable, such as if it were shown that collective bargaining agreements do not cause budgetary problems. The latter is not.
He also adds that consequentialist thinking “activates higher cognition, more executive function, more complex planning, and brain areas that are diminished or absent in humans’ evolutionary ancestors. In contrast, deontological reasoning is quicker, more emotional, more primal.”
The problem, in short, is that too many people are going by what they feel, and not enough are actually thinking things through. Democrats and Republicans both need to drop their emotional hackles and begin thinking of what outcome will mutually benefit them, rather than how best they can hurt each other, no matter the damage to them, or to the country.