The Federal shutdown may be the most striking evidence to support claims that America’s political system is broken, but it is far from the only example. Writing in Governance, acclaimed political scientists Norman Ornstein and Jared Diamond explore if tribalism is at the heart of the problem, or if the U.S. is facing a far greater political crisis.
“The state of our overall political process as the most dysfunctional I have seen in over 44 years of watching Washington and American politics up close,” writes Norman Ornstein, from the American Enterprise Institute. “If we are not in the most dysfunctional period in our history, we are certainly in the top five.”
American political history has recorded many inept and ineffectual congresses, from the scandals of the 1970′s to the divided house of the 1860′s, so what makes the 112th and 113th congresses any different? Ornstein argues that the rise in political extremism, manifested in open tribalism, is to blame.
From acts seeking to tighten the rules over gun ownership, to commissions established to tackle America’s debt problem, the list of legislation that has been sunk by tribalism continues to grow into President Obama’s second term.
“Political dysfunction has serious consequences for the health, well-being, and future prospects for the country that go well beyond gridlock or political gamesmanship,” concluded Ornstein. “American history suggests that these problems are cyclical, that eventually we will come out of it and restore a modicum of problem-solving rationality. But ‘eventually’ does not mean anytime soon.”
In contrast, Jared Diamond, writing from the University of California, proposes that the United States is facing four existential threats to its democratic system.
“Our form of government is a big part of the explanation why the United States has become the richest and most powerful country in the world,” said Diamond. “Hence, an undermining of democratic processes in the United States means throwing away one of our biggest advantages.”
Diamond argues that political compromise has been deteriorating in recent decades, that restrictions on voting are reversing the positive historical trend of political enfranchisement, that the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, and that public spending by the government In areas such as education is declining.
“Large segments of the American populace deride government investment as ‘socialism,’ but it is not socialism. On the contrary, it is one of the longest established functions of government,” said Diamond.
In 1961, with memories of Holocaust atrocities and the prosecution of Nazi officials at Nuremburg still fresh, psychologist Stanley Milgram undertook a series of now infamous experiments on obedience and reprehensible behavior.
About two-thirds of Milgram’s nearly 800 study subjects, pressed by an authoritative experimenter, were willing to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks to an unseen stranger despite cries of agony and pleas to stop.
“Milgram claimed to have found sort of a dark side to human nature that people were not quite as attuned to,” says Matthew Hollander, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “His study participants were much more likely to obey than he expected, and that was an understandably uncomfortable result.”
But Milgram divided his subjects into just two categories: obedient or disobedient. After examining the experiences of more than 100 of Milgram’s participants, Hollander sees a great deal more nuance in their performances — and maybe a way to prevent real-world occurrences of authority overriding ethical judgment.
“The majority did cave, and follow the experimenter’s orders,” says Hollander, whose findings were published online today by the British Journal of Social Psychology. “But a good number of people resisted, and I’ve found particular ways they did that, including ways of resisting that they share with the people who ultimately complied.”
Hollander’s unprecedentedly deep conversational analysis of audio recordings of the experiments yielded six practices employed against the repeated insistence of Milgram’s authority figure.
Some are less insistent. Hollander found study subjects resorting to silence and hesitation, groaning and sighing to display the effort it took to comply, and (typically uncomfortable) laughter.
They also found more explicit ways to express their discomfort and disagreement. Subjects stalled by talking to the recipient of the shocks and by addressing their concerns to the experimenter. Most assertively, they resorted to what Hollander calls the “stop try.”
“Before examining these recordings, I was imagining some really aggressive ways of stopping the experiment — trying to open the door where the ‘learner’ is locked in, yelling at the experimenter, trying to leave,” Hollander says. “What I found was there are many ways to try to stop the experiment, but they’re less aggressive.”
Most often, stop tries involved some variation on, “I can’t do this anymore,” or “I won’t do this anymore,” and were employed by 98 percent of the disobedient Milgram subjects studied by Hollander. That’s compared to fewer than 20 percent of the obedient subjects.
Interestingly, all six of the resistive actions were put to use by obedient and disobedient participants.
“There are differences between those two groups in how and how often they use those six practices,” says Hollander, whose work is supported by the National Science Foundation. “It appears that the disobedient participants resist earlier, and resist in a more diverse way. They make use of more of the six practices than the obedient participants.”
Therein lies a possible application of Hollander’s new take on Milgram’s results.
“What this shows is that even those who were ultimately compliant or obedient had practices for resisting the invocation of the experimenter’s authority,” says Douglas Maynard, a UW-Madison sociology professor who leads the Garfinkel Laboratory for Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis. “It wasn’t like they automatically caved in. They really worked to counter what was coming at them. It wasn’t a blind kind of obedience.”
If people could be trained to tap practices for resistance like those outlined in Hollander’s analysis, they may be better equipped to stand up to an illegal, unethical or inappropriate order from a superior. And not just in extreme situations, according to Maynard.
“It doesn’t have to be the Nazis or torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or in the CIA interrogations described in the recent U.S. Senate report,” he says. “Think of the pilot and copilot in a plane experiencing an emergency or a school principal telling a teacher to discipline a student, and the difference it could make if the subordinate could be respectfully, effectively resistive and even disobedient when ethically necessary or for purposes of social justice.”
Recognizing and giving thanks for the positive aspects of life can result in improved mental, and ultimately physical, health in patients with asymptomatic heart failure, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.
“We found that more gratitude in these patients was associated with better mood, better sleep, less fatigue and lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health,” said lead author Paul J. Mills, PhD, professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego. The study was published in the journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice.
Gratitude is part of a wider outlook on life that involves noticing and appreciating the positive aspects of life. It can be attributed to an external source (e.g., a pet), another person or a non-human (e.g., God). It is also commonly an aspect of spirituality, said Mills. Because previous research has shown that people who considered themselves more spiritual had greater overall well-being, including physical health, Mills and his colleagues examined the role of both spirituality and gratitude on potential health markers in patients.
The study involved 186 men and women who had been diagnosed with asymptomatic (Stage B) heart failure for at least three months. Stage B consists of patients who have developed structural heart disease (e.g., have had a heart attack that damaged the heart) but do not show symptoms of heart failure (e.g., shortness of breath or fatigue). This stage is an important therapeutic window for halting disease progression and improving quality of life since Stage B patients are at high risk of progressing to symptomatic (Stage C) heart failure, where risk of death is five times higher, according to Mills.
Using standard psychological tests, the researchers obtained scores for gratitude and spiritual well-being. They then compared those scores with the patients’ scores for depressive symptom severity, sleep quality, fatigue, self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to deal with a situation) and inflammatory markers. They found higher gratitude scores were associated with better mood, higher quality sleep, more self-efficacy and less inflammation. Inflammation can often worsen heart failure.
What surprised the researchers about the findings, though, was that gratitude fully or partially accounted for the beneficial effects of spiritual well-being.
“We found that spiritual well-being was associated with better mood and sleep, but it was the gratitude aspect of spirituality that accounted for those effects, not spirituality per se,” said Mills.
To further test their findings, the researchers asked some of the patients to write down three things for which they were thankful most days of the week for eight weeks. Both groups continued to receive regular clinical care during that time.
“We found that those patients who kept gratitude journals for those eight weeks showed reductions in circulating levels of several important inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate variability while they wrote. Improved heart rate variability is considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk,” said Mills.
“It seems that a more grateful heart is indeed a more healthy heart, and that gratitude journaling is an easy way to support cardiac health.”
As the nation’s headlines turn more and more to issues of tolerance — race, religion, free speech, same sex marriage — research by San Diego State University Psychology Professor Jean M. Twenge shows that Americans are actually more tolerant than ever before.
In a paper released this month by the journal Social Forces, Twenge, along with Nathan T. Carter and Keith Campbell from the University of Georgia, found that Americans are now more likely to believe that people with different views and lifestyles can and should have the same rights as others, such as giving a speech or teaching at a college.
“When old social rules disappear, people have more freedom to live their lives as they want to, and Americans are increasingly tolerant of those choices,” said Twenge, who is also the author of “Generation Me.”
“This goes beyond well-known trends such as the increasing support for gay marriage. People are increasingly saying that it’s OK for those who are different to fully participate in the community and influence everyone else.”
Tolerance for different views
The researchers used data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative survey of adult Americans conducted from 1972 to 2012. The survey includes a series of questions related to tolerance of people with controversial views or lifestyles including homosexuals, atheists, militarists, communists and racists.
Only tolerance for racists has decreased over time, showing people today are less tolerant of the intolerant.
So why have recent incidents of racism on college campuses garnered so much attention? “A few decades ago, racism would barely have been noticed — it might have even been rewarded,” Twenge said. “Now it’s noticed, and the consequences can be swift. It shows how much things have changed.”
Tolerance by generations
The study showed that the biggest generational shift in tolerance was between the Silent generation and the Baby Boomers who followed them. Generation X and Millennials continued the trend toward tolerance.
“American culture has become more individualistic, which has some negative consequences such as overconfidence and social disconnection. This study shows the upside of treating people as individuals: More tolerance for those who are different,” Twenge said.
Previous research has shown that Millennials (called “Generation Me” by Twenge), are less empathic and more dismissive than previous generations, so it may be surprising to some that they are also more tolerant than past generations.
“Tolerance and empathy are not the same thing,” Twenge said. “Millennials believe that everyone can live their lives as they want to — thus, they are tolerant — but that doesn’t always extend to taking someone else’s perspective or feeling empathy.”
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