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The Psychology of Conflict

Thursday, February 21, 2008
In a conversation before Super Tuesday, I told a friend that I'd rather Clinton blow Obama out on February 5th than have Obama win at a contested convention after a long and bitter primary campaign. I prefer Obama, but the longer this thing goes on, the starker the lines between the two candidates' supporters will become. I've been pained to watch liberals for whom I have great affection relentlessly attack not just the other candidate, but the supporters of the other candidate. There are only two discernible policy distinctions between Clinton and Obama - the Iraq War and health care mandates - but somehow anyone supporting Clinton has become a racist pseudo-Republican corporate shill, and anyone supporting Obama is a misogynistic elitist naive cultist. Please.

It's not surprising, I suppose. It's natural that the longer a battle goes on, the more entrenched the two sides become. World War I started over a minor regional concern, but by the time it was done the Central and Allied powers were determined to grind each other into the dust.

I'm all in favor of enthusiasm, but remember - both of these candidates are Democrats. I think it's essential to treat those who are fundamentally on the same side of the great political questions of the day with a degree of charity. Let's not assume that our intra-party rivals are conniving, unprincipled monsters. Clinton probably meant to be insensitive racially no more than Obama meant to sound sexist. People make mistakes, and any statement can be misconstrued into something it wasn't.

Finally, it's important to note that those of us deeply invested in this primary election aren't really representative of the Democratic electorate, as we have been shown time and again. There is no deep-seated animosity between Obama and Clinton's voters (unlike the internet). They each enjoy very high approval ratings, and the defeated candidates' voters will quickly rally behind the nominee. Let's keep this all in a bit of perspective, shall we?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:48 AM
  • Let me preface my comments by saying that I am fairly cynical when it comes to politics. I think there are two reasons why the Clinton and Obama camps engage in these tactics.

    First, politicians want, above all, to win and they will employ whatever tactics they think will gain them an advantage, even if it's at the cost of the "greater good." I think each individual's desire to win overrides his/her desire for their side to win.

    Second, politicians employ these tactics because they work. People form opinions based on what they read about supposedly inflammatory comments made by one candidate or another. The media hypes up these comments because it helps them sell their news. The hype and blanket coverage reinforces those impressions in people's minds. People's attentiveness to such news encourages politicians to use these tactics more often, and encourages the media to provide even more coverage of such comments. And the cycle continues.

    I don't think this scenario is limited to Clinton and Obama. In fact, I think it is a rare politician who manages not to sink to this kind of politics when he/she is in a tough fight.

    By Blogger Mad Hatter, at 9:14 PM  
  • I disagree with both assessments her. Unlike Mad Hatter, I am a quintessential idealist, but I also have a practical side. Arbitrista is wrong that the supposedly entrenched differences between Obama's supporters and Clinton's supporters don't matter. Mad Hatter is wrong to think this process is inevitable, although there are structural factors that for this process onto candidates.

    I have said to my colleagues that this is a different kind of election than previous elections. Arbitrasta said a little while ago that politics should be about policy, and the personal like-ability of the candidates should be secondary, or even irrelevant. The problem here is that for too long we have treated politics like a business, and government as a corporation. In such a model, a candidate's experience and policies matter most, their personality matters little or not at all. Obama's showing that this model - government as corporation - is very limited. Politics proceeds in three phases: First, the personal connection between the voter and the candidate - what we call charisma or like-ability. Second, the personal connections between the candidate's supporters - what we call community. Finally, the product is good legislation, once the supporters are mobilized and the candidate wins the most votes. You should not cut out the first two elements and focus solely on policy differences, yet that is precisely what politics has been about for the past 40 years. Politics should be an expression of the community, with government policy constituting a partnership between the government and the community.

    When politicians go negative, it only works if voters allow it to work. Voters allow it to work if there is no natural connection between the voters and the candidate. Both Clinton and Obama are surrounded by cults to some degree: both have followers who love them not for their policy details or credentials, but because of who they are. The reason the campaign turned nasty with identity-based charges, is because the campaigns reflected the very real tensions between races and genders that have existed for the past several decades. It was quite common 50 years ago, when the Civil Rights movement first started, for African-Americans to place women in a subordinate position. Even during the Vietnam War protests, African-American men were accepted as equal participants in the protests, while the white women were allowed to serve coffee. I know because I am the product of a black man and white woman. The women were forced to work twice as hard just to get recognition.

    Thus, what we are witnessing is essentially an airing out of arguments that have been suspended since 1968. Clinton and Obama represent the best of their respective movements, and they represent the arguments made by the most radical supporters of each movement: who has been the biggest victim in American history, blacks or women? Who should get equality first, blacks or women? There is, of course, no way to answer these questions, but they are at the root of the tensions between Obama and Clinton supporters. If Obama or Clinton were facing Edwards, this wouldn't be happening.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 1:11 AM  
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