In the summer of 2004, an epic battle was waged between two of the most powerful partisans in American politics. The combatants were not George W. Bush and John Kerry, but Hillary Clinton along with John McCain. The location was not a debate hall in Ohio or Florida, but a hotel bar in faraway Estonia. The stakes were not a prominent bill or leadership of the free world, but bragging rights over who could down more shots of vodka in one sitting.
Clinton and McCain found themselves together on a congressional tour of Estonia because of their positions on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. After a long day of statesmanship with the leaders of our vital Baltic ally (picture Estonia on a map, google it, and find out you’re wrong), the pair retreated to their hotel to embark on one of the greatest Senatorial shenanigans since President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced his colleagues to “Jumbo” (maybe don’t google this one). Nobody knows how the challenge started, or remembers anyway, but the two traded shots like ironclad warships on the banks of the Mississippi. John McCain, toughened from six years in the Hanoi Hilton, was bewildered by the drinking prowess of Senator Clinton, toughened by decades-long marriage to Bill Clinton. Eventually, the duo ended their contest before “things got out of hand” and called it a tie.
As any frat bro knows, alcohol is the best social lubricant around. McCain later called Clinton “one of the guys” and remarked, “She’s a girl from Illinois who likes to throw ’em down with the rest of us.” Clinton too remembers the contest fondly, as she said in an adorable campaign video: “We have our political differences, but we sat there drinking vodka until we both, I think, agreed to withdraw in honorable fashion, having reached the limits that either of us should have had.”
How were these two politicians, who were bitter enemies when faced with partisan issues, able to bond so strongly that they still affectionately reference the contest thirteen years later? The miraculous powers of vodka aside, Social Identification Theory (SIT) can explain how longtime foes could come together so quickly. SIT, developed by psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the ‘70s, posits that people naturally define themselves by their perceived in-group. A person’s self-esteem is invariably linked to the status of their group, so individuals are motivated to work towards increasing their group’s prestige or join a more esteemed group if possible.
However, social identities are donned fluidly and subjectively. What group someone identifies with can change depending on context, circumstance, company, and a whole host of other variables. People hold a number of group identities, and the dominant one at any one time is dependent on which is most salient.
Is the solution to the extreme levels of partisanship in Congress a booze cruise to the Baltics? I think it’s worth trying. But Social Identification Theory can provide some more sober solutions.
Part of the uptick in partisanship in Washington can be explained by a simple adjustment to Congress’s schedule. In the 1990s, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich changed the House’s calendar to increase the number of work weeks in exchange for only working three days a week. Congressmen and women typically fly into D.C. Tuesday morning, work for two days, and then fly back to their home district Thursday night. This schedule has decreased the amount of bipartisan work being done in Congress. As NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains, “They don’t move their families to the District. They don’t meet each other’s spouses or children. There’s no more relationship there. And trying to run Congress without human relationships is like trying to run a car without motor oil. Should we be surprised when the whole thing freezes up and descends into paralysis and polarization?”
If Congress were to change to a more standard work schedule, for example stretching business for three weeks and then having a week off, they may be more likely to see each other in contexts in which their partisan social identities are secondary. Decades ago when Congress people largely resided in D.C., they attended the same charity events, went to the same school plays, and ran in many of the same social circles. The circumstances in which they interacted with members of the other party were not exclusively on the House and Senate Floor. They were able to see each other’s human side, not just their partisan horns. Although bipartisanship has been given a lot of lip service over the years, very little has been done to achieve it. Changing when lawmakers do business may just change how they do business.