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Peter A. Ubel Headshot

Megan Fox's Belly Button: The Key to Understanding Politics?

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Okay, as fine as is her midriff, most of you probably don't list Megan Fox's belly button as her first, um, attribute worth pondering. But bear with me--her belly button IS key to understanding why the Massachusetts senate seat just went to a Republican, and why Democratic efforts to reform our healthcare system are now all but history.

In the old days, you see, if a piece of legislation garnered 59 votes in the Senate, it was rightly perceived as the product of a national consensus. Landslide kind of stuff. The will of the people.

However, in the old days, the two major parties were much more diverse. The Democratic Party included Southern conservatives, while the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, included Yankees who, today, would at most be centrist Democrats.

Then ... along came Megan Fox's belly button?

No, be patient gentle readers. Fox will enter our story soon. But first came another person, someone whose belly button was, to my knowledge, not a focus of anyone's lascivious mind. Along came Lyndon Johnson, a Southern conservative at heart, but a power-seeker to the core. And to consolidate his power, Johnson had to find a way to convince Southern conservative Democrats to support civil rights legislation. In doing so--in cajoling conservative Democrats to vote against their long term opposition to such legislation--Johnson effectively began the slow re-sorting of the two parties. Ronald Reagan accelerated this re-sorting. And eventually the Republican party pulled Southern conservatives away from the Democrats, while the Democratic party became, itself, more uniformly liberal.

And that is almost when Megan Fox's well-toned abs began to grab the attention of my peri-adolescent son. But she's still not ready to enter the story.

First, one more thing happened that I want to tell you about. Barack Obama became President of the United States, and the Republican Party--now almost uniformly conservative--pulled together in opposition to any and all Democratic legislation, cheered on the sidelines by conservative websites and cable news organizations. The result is that we now have a politics of us versus them, of Republican/Conservatives versus Democrats/Liberals.

In the old days, if you pulled together all the conservatives in Congress to craft a piece of legislation, you would have to grab a mix of Republicans and Democrats. The same would have gone for liberal legislation--you would need a mixture of Midwestern Democrats and Northeastern Republicans.

But now, with the parties so unified ideologically, politics is like belly buttons--innies are good, and outies are bad. For all of Megan Fox's beauty, if she had a serious outie, her agent would be working overtime to hide this part of her body from photographers. We relate to people the way we judge belly buttons. It really matters to us whether we consider the other person to be an innie or an outie--what social scientists call "in groups" and "out groups."

If you place orange dots on half the kids in a fourth grade classroom, and green dots on the other half, pretty soon the orange kids will start excluding the green ones from their play groups. In no time, in fact, friends will be torn apart by this artificial in group/out group manipulation. You literally will have fights on your hands, simply because the green kids will perceive the orange kids as some kind of competing group.

The American public is not famous for its knowledge of politics. That's why when most people judge upcoming legislation, it matters less to them what the legislation proposes as who proposes it. If George Bush had proposed health care reform that resembles the current Democratic plan, it would have been perceived as some kind of ultra-conservative legislation by Democrats. "There he goes, helping out greedy insurance companies again." But instead, the same legislation proposed by the Democrats is viewed, by Republicans, as Socialism. Innie and outie--so much of politics depends on this single perception.

In the old days, a liberal Democrat might propose a piece of social legislation to one of his conservative Democratic colleagues, and the conservative would at least consider the merits of such legislation as a favor to someone who is in his own political party. Even if this conservative ultimately decided not to support the legislation, he would be unlikely to filibuster (as long as it didn't have anything to do with Civil Rights) because he wouldn't want to stand in the way of his own colleague's legislation.

Today, legislation stalls not just because it lacks 60 votes in the Senate but, more importantly, because those votes rarely cross party lines. It is easy to filibuster someone who belongs to an out group--who has the wrong colored dot on his head.

The unification of our two parties into tighter ideologic entities is thwarting our ability as a nation to tackle the challenges we face. We need to cut the umbilical cord that tethers ideology to partisan politics.