The Senate Goes Nuclear

If you were to ask Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer who was responsible for enacting the “nuclear option” to get rid of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations, he would blame Republicans for refusing to hold a hearing for Obama’s court nominee Merrick Garland.

But if you were to ask that same question to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he’d blame Democrats for getting rid of the filibuster for lower court nominees in 2013.

But if you asked Schumer about the 2013 rule change, he’d tell you that the Democrats wouldn’t have needed to do it if Republicans hadn’t been so obstructionist during the Obama Administration.

But if you went back and asked McConnell, he’d tell you that Republicans wouldn’t have been so obstructionist if Democrats hadn’t been so difficult to work with during the Bush years.

But if you asked Schumer again, he’d tell you that the Republicans started it when they gave the Democrats a wet willie on the drive up to Lake Tahoe. But Mitch McConnell would probably respond that the Democrats started it when they kicked the back of the Republicans’ seat while they were trying to nap. Then Mom would yell, “I don’t care who started it, but if it doesn’t end I am turning this Senate around and we are going back home!”

Alright, those last two happened to my sister and me when we were kids, but you get the point. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are happy that the Senate eliminated the filibuster for nominations to the highest court in the land, and it appears that they only thing they can agree on is how much the other party is to blame. In recent weeks, both parties have gone back and forth reaching farther and farther into history to show that the other side started it. The timeline is stretching so far back that soon we’re going to be debating whether or not the chicken violated Robert’s Rules of Parliamentary Procedure or if the egg impugned a fellow ovum on the Senate Floor.

The Senate was once an institution that prided itself on camaraderie and bipartisanship (at least compared to the human cesspool that is the House). So how did such a suboptimal outcome occur? The answer is that the Senate is falling into the same trap that ensnared Israelis and Palestinians, Hatfields and McCoys, and fans of the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees; the Senate is in the midst of a “bias spiral.”

Proposed by Princeton psychologists Kathleen Kennedy and Emily Pronin, the bias-perception conflict spiral is the process through which many seemingly unsolvable disputes start. Through a series of experiments, the duo uncovered three aspects of human nature that cause humans to fall prey to bias spirals. The first aspect is that people think that they are rational, and therefore believe that those who disagree with them must be biased. Secondly,  people who perceive those who disagree with them as biased tend to support conflict escalating approaches more than conflict de-escalating approaches. Finally, people who react with conflict escalating approaches are more likely to be viewed as biased by the other side. It is astonishingly easy for a simple disagreement to descend into a bias spiral, so it’s no mystery how something as important as ownership of holy sites in Jerusalem or first place in the AL East can cause both sides to view each other as irrational. But once one side thinks that the other is biased, then they think that the other side doesn’t have the capacity to reach a compromise. The only option left would be conflict escalation, which of course makes the other group respond with conflict escalation, and repeat ad nauseum.

This process is nothing more than partisan bickering in Congress. Democrats and Republicans constantly accuse the other of being in the pocket of special interest donors and lobbyists. Politicians will rant and rave about how their side is in tune with the facts and the American people, while the other party acts irrationally like wild animals. Of course, one cannot negotiate with a wild animal, so conflict escalation is the only answer.

However discouraging bias spirals can be, the theory does offer opportunities for intervention. I am about to say something that may be political suicide in today’s partisan climate, but here it goes: two reasonable people can disagree on an issue for entirely rational reasons. Perhaps if we asked our Congressional representatives to walk in the shoes of a member of the opposite party, they would see that there is more than bias leading to their conflicting views.

Before berating all your political enemies with the anger of a thousand suns, it is important to recognize that no one party has a monopoly on rationality. Even if you disagree, conflict escalation is rarely the answer. In the words of Horace Mann, “Do not think of knocking out another person’s brains because he differs in opinion from you. It would be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from yourself ten years ago.”