There’s an article I consider a must-read in yesterday’s Washington Post by Shankur Vedantam entitled My Team vs. Your Team: The Political Arena Lives Up to Its Name.  The subject is research that suggests that “party identification more than ideology is behind the growing polarization of the electorate.”  I was delighted by the article in that it supported a recent observation of mine that over-identification with party is seriously hurting the country’s ability to solve its most pressing problems.  My recent piece entitled The Amassing of Power by Political Partisans Through Party addresses this point.    

My concern is that party identification is becoming so strong that people are losing their ability to look at issues other than through the prism of party.  Over-identification with party means that people replace a rational decision-making process with default acceptance of the party’s policy positions, whether rational or not.  I likened it in my posting above to allegiances to sports teams and concluded that they were often just as illogical and devoid of meaning. 

My concern with irrational decision-making is that it decreases the chances of reaching a desired outcome.  A useful analogy to explain this is one I first came across reading The Road Less Traveled by Dr. M. Scott Peck.  His thesis was that individuals who navigate from a reality-based understanding of the world in which they live are emotionally healthier than individuals who navigate from an understanding that is skewed or inaccurate.  Put another way, an individual navigating from an accurate road map is more likely to reach his or her destination (a healthy, satisfying life) than an individual navigating from a flawed (non-reality based) road map.  

Applying this to public policy, it is possible to posit that it is likewise important for a country, through its government, to continually and diligently keep its view of the realities underlying the policy issue (the road map) updated if it hopes to navigate to a desired outcome.  Rephrased, if not constantly refined and kept up-to-date, the road map will become stale and inaccurate.  The more stale and inaccurate, the less likely navigation from that roadmap is going to yield a productive result. 

I am concerned that a great proportion of peoples’ opinions on issues of the day are formed as a result of identification with a particular political party.  This applies to party leadership as well as to rank and file membership.  Rather than the individual bearing the responsibility for looking at issues afresh so as to keep his or her worldview accurate, I am afraid that too many rely on party group-think apparently under the presumption that the group-think is the product of a reasonable and principled process.  I’d suggest that most often it isn’t or even if it once was that it probably hasn’t been reassessed meaningfully in years.

I see this most clearly in the area in which I work – energy policy.  What I’ve observed is that the position of the Democratic Party on energy, particularly as it concerns the role of domestic oil and natural gas development, is stale and inaccurate.  I would contend that the party hasn’t seriously rethought the issue in its full context (including the national security and economic implications of oil imports) in decades and its road map is therefore very old and highly inaccurate.  The prevailing group-think hasn’t put 2 and 2 together in years but remains adamant that the sum is other than 4.  I see this as only one example among many and that both parties are equally ensnared in the group-think trap. 

Both parties on a range of issues, sometimes on different issues and sometimes on the same issue, are ensnared in positions that bear little relationship to reality.  Given the irrational inputs, it would therefore seem obvious that the country is not going to get to rational endpoints very often if ever.  It leads me to a conclusion that we have to break this over-identification with party if we are to begin to achieve political solutions to our most pressing problems. 

It is my conclusion that this will not come from within the parties but will require an external influence, ideally a third-party.  My thought is that a centrist “independent” party is going to be necessary to break the country free of this trap.  Perhaps with as few as 15-20 “independent” members elected to the U.S. House of Representatives who could argue for rational policy development, the country could begin to make rationality rather than partisanship the key driver of domestic policy.  

In closing I should note one other interesting aspect of the research addressed by Vendantum.  It was that non-party affiliated “moderates” don’t appear to see as much difference between the parties as do those who identify solidly with one party or the other.  The researchers concluded that this was because “moderates are generally less interested in politics.”  As a moderate who is, if anything, over-consumed with politics, I don’t understand this.  I can’t believe that I am alone in both seeing the great flaws in the 2 parties and in caring passionately about politics.  I believe it is a big part of why I’m writing this blog — to find others who agree with me and care enough to try to change things, to shake up the counterproductive status quo.  Is there anyone else out there?