At it’s core, politics is about cooperation, disparate people and groups coming together to try and advance agenda of mutual interest. For this reason cooperation in often touted as the highest virtue in politics, and discord the greatest failing. Failures in the political process are almost inevitably cast as a failure to cooperate – the gridlock in the US legislature is considered as being due cooperation between the two major parties, and I’m sure you heard and read any number of people complaining that politicians just need to cut out all the partisan squabbling and focus on the good of the country. Similarly, you can see this logic at work in intra-party discussions. I have encountered liberals on the Internet lament the relative lack of cohesion of the Democrats, as distinct from the Republicans who seem to be better able to advance their ideological agenda with more focus and purpose. Conversely, failures in the political system are generally cast as either due to a lack of coherent vision for the future, or corruption. Note that both of these are failures of excessive individualism – the political principals are too concerned about their own good to worry about the greater good.
I don’t dispute the general idea that a political process can end up failing due to a lack of cooperation. In economics, these are normally called Collective Action Problems. But this is not the only reason political processes fail. In fact some times the problem is too much cooperation, not too little. Every mode of thinking has at least one failure mode – a way in which it can go wrong. I may be an ardent individualist, but I still acknowledge that a desire for individual autonomy has its own failure modes, one of them is a naive contrarianism, some people find an idea attractive simply because it contradicts what most people believe, which is why there is a correlation between libertarianism and conspiracy theories (though of course there are still many libertarians who are not conspiracy theorists).
Similarly, a desire for cooperation has its own failure mode. Conor Friedersdorf recently noted an unusually clear example of this failure mode . While I can well believe that Rush Limbaugh’s transparently partisan reasoning lies behind the way many people think about politics, it’s almost perversely impressive the way Limbaugh is so conscious of his tribalism. You see, Limbaugh doesn’t care whether an accusation is true or not, he only cares whether it helps or hurts his side. How much more loyal can a person be? This is the cooperativeness and cohesion of the Republican party (at least as it stands today) taken to its fullest, pathological, extreme.
The problem with Limbaugh’s though process here is that while standing by your allies no matter what sounds like a good idea, the sort of trait that stories assign to heroes and not villains, it comes at a heavy cost. If total loyalty to your group is the highest virtue, and any argument against your group is to be rejected per se, then you have obligated yourself to reject any constructive criticism you receive. If you do not allow yourself to think the thought “maybe we’re wrong” then you cannot recognize when you or your allies have actually made a mistake. And a group that adopts this norm has left themselves unable to correct after making a mistake. This results in a death-spiral whereby anyone who expresses reservations about the party, not just over core values but priorities or tactics as well, gets dismissed or driven out as a “RINO”. This leaves the remaining core even more dedicated and wary or defectors. The result could very well be a tiny core of die-hards whose ideological purity is matched only by their unthinking fanaticism.
So just bear in mind that when you lament the lack of cooperation in American politics, that there are some parts of the system that could do with less cooperation.