10/02/2013 06:55 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Partisan Paradox

In 1954, 22 11-year-old boys went to summer camp in the woodlands of Robbers Cave State Park. Not knowing they were subjects of an experiment, they were randomly divided into two groups. As each group engaged in their camp activities, they developed distinct rules, leadership, and identities -- one group called themselves the Eagles, and the others the Rattlers. Before any direct group-to-group interaction, the boys already perceived the out-group as rivals. "Us" versus "them" rhetoric quickly developed as each group began their own struggle for dominance. Once the groups engaged in activities with winners and losers, name-calling quickly escalated to food fights, cabin raiding, and weapon production. The two groups refused to associate with each other.

Name-calling and fistfights are not reserved for 11-year-old boys. During a congressional debate in 1798, a series of heated arguments between Roger Griswold (a Democratic-Republican) and Mathew Lyon (a Federalist) escalated to name-calling, spitting, and brawling on the floor with canes and fire-tongs. Despite the incessant claims by the media that partisanship is now worse than ever, it has crippled our political system from the beginning. Even our nation's first leader, George Washington, warned us of the dangers of partisanship in his farewell speech: "It's only natural for unbridled partisanship, unrestrained by allegiance to a greater cause, to lead to chaos." Time after time, partisan arguments in Congress have led to chaos rather than compromise. Unlike our politicians, the summer camp boys were able to reconcile to solve a superordinate problem. When the Eagles and Rattlers found out there was a broken faucet, they ended their petty fights and worked together for public interest. If a group of pre-pubescent boys can look past their group identities, why has partisanship in American politics made cooperation so difficult?

Democrats and Republicans disagree on almost every major issue from the environment, education, to the economy. Even though we all want clean air, good schools, and a booming economy, we disagree on how to get there. Gridlocks in Washington have brought the fundamental decision-making function of government to a standstill. It seems that "allegiance to a greater cause" has been lost in the sea of partisan politics. Political groups continue to pursue their own interests at the detriment of national interests.

The 2011 debt-ceiling crisis exposed the magnitude of this issue -- leaders from both parties criticized colleagues who suggested compromise, and a solution was barely scrapped together at the last minute. Public approval of Congress fell dramatically, as the constant stalemates over fiscal policy crumbled consumer confidence. Not only does partisanship cripple our economy, but also it handicaps progressive reforms in our country. Every other advanced industrial nation offers essentially universal access to medical care at much lower costs than our country, yet the U.S. is barely able to carry out modest reform. Extremists demonized the health care proposal, calling it a complete government takeover, and even made outrageous Hitler-Obama comparisons. The outcome of gun control debates has devolved in a similar path. With mass shootings in the news more and more often, failure to take political action towards gun control would be absurd. Our president proposed a reasonable plan to expand background checks for gun purchasers, with almost unanimous support from the public; but the Newton school and Denver theater shootings were not enough to assuage the hyper-partisanship. The rigid ideology of far right political leaders in combination with an unbalanced senate and chronic filibusters blocked any chance of passing even the most reasonable legislation.

Although it is easy, we cannot just blame politicians for our broken political system. Like the elected officials we castigate, voters often blindly follow their party even when they disagree with the party line on policy. From the people we marry to the news we watch, our actions reinforce partisan stereotypes. Most Democrats prefer to watch MSNBC and Republicans tend to watch Fox News because we like to reaffirms our beliefs. When we allow ourselves to question our fundamental views, nothing is certain anymore. Without a strict ideological guide, navigating the world takes perseverance to attempt to understand the intricacies of our world.

Like those 11-year-old boys at summer camp many decades ago, we need to set aside our created identities in order to fix an imminent problem. Even though partisanship is the cause of our broken politics, it is a feature of our system that is here to stay. The debating, name-calling, and party following are part of our democratic system, and of our human nature. If we want our leaders to leave their comfy ideological corners to explore the possibilities, perhaps we should lead by example.

Even though the world is much harder to navigate without a map, with patience and determination, we can fight inclinations and live with an open mind.