Sunday, May 27, 2012

When Ideology Turns Toxic

© Charles D. Hayes
When I first discovered the academic theory of ideological amplification a few years ago, I was intrigued, and I am still. The subject is not only fascinating, but failure to understand it thoroughly is politically hazardous. Ideological amplification is something we recognize intuitively at an unconscious level, but it's not something most of us are aware of intellectually, unless it has been brought to our attention. We may hear of it, for instance, as a subject of study in academia or when it plays itself out in public theatre for all to see. Those of us who grew up watching TV westerns can recall the frequent gatherings of small-town citizens at their local sheriff's jail, where grumbled opinions and heated remarks escalated to the point of deciding to hang someone.   
Ideological amplification is simply the psychological behavior that occurs when people with similar views get together and subsequently push their views to a further extreme. It happens as an often unconscious way of unifying and solidifying the group. Together they move to excessive positions that none of them individually would likely have reached on their own. For example, liberals will tend to move ideologically further left and conservatives further right when they’re in a group. It’s one thing, however, when a harmonious group of like-minded individuals get together, but quite another when it involves a competition to prove one's ideological commitment is greater than that of the competitors.               
This year's GOP presidential primary offered a center-stage example of ideological amplification, and the result has brought the Republican Party close to alienating a significant number of its moderate supporters. Make no mistake, each of the individuals seeking the nomination for president this year has had his own group of rock-solid supporters. But to a skeptical electorate, the ever-increasing attempts to out-conservative one another have, for the last four men who participated in this year's GOP primary contest, succeeded in making Ron Paul look like a crackpot; Rick Santorum, a religious fanatic; Newt Gingrich, a borderline psychopath; and Mitt Romney an indecisive narcissist who appears willing to do or say anything to become president.
When you factor in Rush Limbaugh, with his trademark misogyny, the Republican Party has entered dangerous demographic territory with regard to gender politics, if current polls are accurate. What the candidates couldn't accomplish with ratcheting up their conservatism to a fever pitch mania, Limbaugh has achieved just by being his usual hate-filled self. After all, upping emotional angst through thinly veiled contempt and outright hatred is what has made him a multimillionaire. 
Between now and November, the most interesting thing to come out of politics is going to be watching the GOP dig their way out of the mess they've made and try to sound like reasonable human beings to those of us who do not share their ideology. That there is a great ideological chasm between our two major political parties today is blatantly obvious, but it is still possible to disagree about politics without viewing one's opposition as the incarnation evil. That is, unless either side amplifies their position past the point of contempt for their opposition.          
Regardless of where we register on the political horizon, moving too far in either direction will land us in the camp that we originally set out to oppose. Moving too far left or right can land one in fascist territory, as left becomes right and right becomes left in extremes. A viable democracy requires a left, right, and center with the input of each and the exclusion of none. The lesson to be learned from ideological amplification is to always be aware of its power and to guard against letting it push us to extremes.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, our second and third presidents respectively, were political rivals, but they corresponded for a half-century in a dialog to further their ideas about what was best for America. In 1813, Adams wrote to Jefferson saying that they should not die before explaining themselves to one another. Both Adams and Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after American Independence. Too bad we can’t ask them about the danger of ratcheting up one's rhetoric to the point of diminishing returns. But their actions leave little doubt about the need for explaining ourselves without shouting or continuously upping the levels of hostility.
Ideological amplification in politics is analogous to conflict-ridden emotion on steroids: the only purpose served is to move each side further and further apart. People who understand this human frailty can overcome it, but it means caring more about solutions to problems than which side is offering them. Genuine democracy requires getting beyond ideology.   

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