Almost a century ago, 1917 to be exact, Sigmund Freud pilfered the term narcissism of small differences from British anthropologist Ernest Crawley. The term describes adjacent communities engaged in constant feuds, bickering and ridiculing each other.
The Democratic and Republican parties have dispensed with the psychology and turned the concept into a reliable moneymaker. And not just the parties either — both have factions devoted to internal squabbles that are little more than thinly disguised money grabs.
Fox News and MSNBC serve as the electronic cheerleaders, but according to the Economist, their impact is more feared than real. “Perhaps 10-15% of the voting age population watches more than 10 minutes of cable news per day, a share that rises modestly before exciting collections. For most individual news shows (including hybrids like Jon Stewart’s satirical ‘Daily Show’), two million viewers count as a wild success. That is the equivalent of 0.8% of voting age Americans.”
According to psychologists, we have an easier time seeing the flaws in the other guy’s argument than in our own. When under pressure, we tend to resort to party tribalism. This can actually help to solve problems and facilitate decisions but only if there is a desire to do so. Since a problem solved is a fund raising opportunity lost, the necessary will goes missing.
We are also getting better at squabbling. There was a time when the parties could only focus on one battle at a time. They didn’t have the bandwidth to fight about anything else. Thanks to a concept known among policy wonks as conflict extension, virtually all issues can be fought over simultaneously. Who leads the charge? The activists with their hands out.
Views change according to party loyalty rather than specifics. The filibuster is terrible when my team is in power but sacred when we are out. Republicans are okay with NSA snooping when George Bush is in office, but Democrats are indignant. Now Democrats favor it and Republicans are appalled. Yet neither the filibuster nor the snooping has changed.
Likely none of the people who bring these phenomena to us live on a daily basis has read The Butter Battle Book, a Dr. Seuss classic in which the Yooks and the Zooks fight about whether their bread should be held butter side up or butter side down.
Unlike most children’s stories, The Butter Battle Book ends in stalemate — exactly the desired objective of proponents of the narcissism of small differences.