THE BLOG
04/22/2011 09:34 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2011

The Death of Bipartisanship

At the beginning of the 112th Congress, a Bay Area Congresswoman was invited to a Washington gathering of new Representatives, mostly Republicans. When she mentioned that, in previous eras, the two Parties had often worked together, a freshman Republican barked, "We were sent here to shrink the government, not collaborate with you." President Obama seeks bipartisanship, but most Republicans aren't interested in pursuing the common good.

As Congress plods through its business, Democrats and Republicans are miles apart on issue after issue. On jobs and the economy, Democrats want more government intervention, while Republicans believe the Feds should get out of the way of the "free market." On the Deficit, Democrats advocate taxes on the rich and selective cuts to programs; Republicans abhor taxes and demand massive cuts to entitlements. On health care, Democrats want the Affordable Healthcare plan to become a single-payer system; Republicans want "Obamacare" to be repealed. Democrats take global climate change seriously and advocate a drastic change in energy use and production; Republicans deny the problem and argue America should extract oil and gas wherever we can. It's difficult to find any area of agreement or political middle ground.

As the US faces a series of daunting problems, political dialogue grows increasingly adversarial. President Obama seeks compromise, but Republicans seem ideologically intractable, unable or unwilling to change their stance.

There are four possible explanations for the adamantine Republican posture. The first is political. Republican legislators have been indoctrinated to believe that if they do not toe the conservative party line, radical "Tea Party" activists will campaign against them in the next election. As a consequence, many Republican politicians are afraid to compromise less they lose office.

Cultural differences provide a second explanation for Republican political rigidity. Since the 2000 election, the United States has become more polarized and the differences between Blue and Red areas have increased. Even in a Blue state, such as California, gerrymandering has created Congressional districts that are deeply Red. Across the US, public sentiment differs dramatically in Blue and Red districts. Here are on the Left Coast, one seldom hears serious discussion of whether or not Barack Obama was born in the United States and we do not believe that Muslims, in general, hate America.

In Red areas, voters take the "birther" controversy seriously and fear Muslims. Blue and Red districts have widely different information silos. Blues listen to Rachel Maddow and Reds hang on every word Rush Limbaugh utters. As a consequence of these cultural differences there are two radically different perceptions of "reality." Republicans don't appreciate a Democratic policy position because they never hear it discussed seriously; the conventional "wisdom" in Red districts is dramatically different from that in Blue districts. There is a huge communication failure.

Perhaps Republican dogmatism stems from their negative worldview. UC Professor George Lakoff's classic Moral Politics postulates that Democrats see the world in positive terms -- the "nurturant parent" model -- and value collaboration and empathy. In contrast Republicans adhere to the "strict father" worldview, where life is dangerous and citizens must take a defensive stance and organize hierarchically. It could be that Republicans don't compromise because they view it as a sign of weakness; they regard Democrats as wimps and fools who don't understand how perilous the US situation is.

Differing values provides a final explanation. In recent years Democrats and Republicans have developed conflicting perspectives on core American values. On April 13, President Obama gave a succinct summary of historic American values: "we are all connected," "each one of us deserves some basic measure of security," "We believe, in the words of our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves," [we value] "fairness...shared responsibility and shared sacrifice," and "this sense of responsibility -- to each other and to our country -- this isn't a partisan felling... It's patriotism."

In contrast, many Republicans no longer believe democracy is based upon empathy; they no longer accept the axiom, "we are all connected." As a consequence, Republicans do not share the Founders' vision of the basic American social compact. In their "patriotism" each of us stands alone.

Moreover, these differences between Democratic and Republican values suggest that political polarization has had significant psychological consequences. In his bestseller, Mindsight UCLA psychiatrist Daniel Siegel notes that happy people are empathic and share characteristics "such as gratitude, compassion, open-mindedness, and curiosity." Dr. Siegel contrasts these folks with unhappy non-empathetic people in states of distress "characterized as either rigidity or chaos... stuck in depression or paralyzed by fear." Dogmatic rigidity is an indicator of poor mental health, a state that leads to poor life decisions and ultimately disintegration.

The values that Barack Obama defends are those both of the Founders of the United States and healthy people in general. In contrast, Republicans' values -- "you're on your own," "the market will provide," "compromise is for wimps" -- are profoundly dysfunctional and signal the death of bipartisanship.