Human beings, the philosophers tell us, are social animals. We emerge into the world ready to connect with mom and dad. We go through life jibbering and jabbering with each other, grouping and regrouping. When you get a crowd of people in a room, the problem is not getting them to talk to each other; the problem is getting them to shut up.
To help us in this social world, God, nature and culture have equipped us with a spirit of sympathy. We instinctively feel a tinge of pain when we observe another in pain (at least most of us do). We instinctively mimic, even to a small extent, the mood, manners, yawns and actions of the people around us.
To help us bond and commit, we have been equipped with a suite of moral sentiments. We have an innate sense of fairness. Children from an early age have a sense that everybody should be treated fairly. We have an innate sense of duty. We admire people who sacrifice for the group. We are naturally embarrassed when we've been caught violating some social code. We blush uncontrollably.
As a result of this sympathy and these sentiments, people are usually pretty decent to one another when they relate person to person.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The odd thing is that when people relate group to group, none of this applies. When a group or a nation thinks about another group or nation, there doesn't seem to be much natural sympathy, natural mimicry or a natural desire for attachment. It's as if an entirely different part of the brain has been activated, using a different mode of thinking.
Group-to-group relations are more often marked by calculation, rivalry and coldness. Members of one group sometimes see members of another group as less than human: Nazi and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi, Sunni and Shiite.
Political leaders have an incentive to get their followers to use the group mode of cognition, not the person-to-person. People who are thinking in the group mode are loyal, disciplined and vicious against foes. People in the person-to-person mode are soft, unpredictable and hard to organize.
There's a scene in Anthony Trollope's political novel, "Phineas Finn," in which young Phineas, about to enter Parliament, tells a party leader that he is going to think for himself and decide issues as he sees best. The leader, Barrington Erle, looks at him with utter disgust. To Erle, anybody who thinks that way is "unstable as water and dishonest as the wind."
In the United States, leaders in the House of Representatives have done an effective job in getting their members to think in group, not person-to-person, terms. Members usually vote as party blocs. Individuals have very little power. That's why representatives are often subtle and smart as individuals, but crude and partisan as a collective. The social psychology of the House is a clan psychology, not an interpersonal psychology.
The Senate, on the other hand, has historically been home to more person-to-person thinking. This is because the Senate is smaller and because of Senate rules. Until recently, Senate leaders couldn't just ram things through on party-line votes.
Because a simple majority did not rule, and because one senator had the ability to bring the whole body to a halt, senators had an incentive, every day, to develop alliances and relationships with people in the other party.
For decades, individual senators have resisted their leaders' attempts to run the Senate like the House and destroy these relationships and these humane customs. A few years ago, when Republican leaders tried to pass judicial nominations on party-line votes, rank-and-file members like Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton spoke out forcefully against rule by simple majority.
But power trumps principle. In nearly every arena of political life, group relationships have replaced person-to-person relationships. The tempo of the Senate is now set by partisan lunches every Tuesday, whereas the body almost never meets for conversation as a whole. The Senate is now in the process of using reconciliation — rule by simple majority — to try to pass health care.
Reconciliation has been used with increasing frequency. That was bad enough. But at least for the Bush tax cuts or the prescription drug bill, there was significant bipartisan support. Now we have pure reconciliation mixed with pure partisanship.
Once partisan reconciliation is used for this bill, it will be used for everything, now and forever. The Senate will be the House.
The remnants of person-to-person relationships, with their sympathy and sentiment, will be snuffed out. We will live amid the relationships of group versus group, party versus party, inhumanity versus inhumanity.
We have a political culture in which the word "reconciliation" has come to mean "bitter division." With increasing effectiveness, the system bleaches out normal behavior and the normal instincts of human sympathy.
THE NEW YORK TIMES