Herd mentality even can cloud the clearest heads

Here is a familiar tale to anyone who either lived through their teen years or has children who have done so or are in the process thereof: On a warm summer night in the wee hours, boredom has struck a group of boys dispersed across a neighborhood in close proximity to a golf course. One of said boys hatches a plot to liven things up, involving meeting on said golf course and dispatches his plan across the 3G network conveniently provided by his parents.

Also convenient is the fact that a potential participant in this adventure is already at the house in question for a sleepover. The boys meet and get up to no good with respect to use of golf carts and spying on the cleaning crew inside the clubhouse of said golf course, return home, sleep in, eat bacon and later get caught when the mother of the host/mastermind of this event snoops through the text messages arranging the rendezvous, kicking off an interfamily, intergenerational discussion about respecting rules, making good decisions, potential ramifications and all that jazz.

Of course, every one of these, um, hypothetical participants knew better, but the dynamics at play eclipsed that knowledge. Setting aside for a moment the defense – universally deployed by the boys in question (and shared by most of the dads involved) – that there really was no harm in the escapade, the most disheartening rationale was that, for the sleepover guest, at least, it was too difficult to say no and not participate. Where is the moral fortitude? The sense of self? The undying commitment to doing the right thing and being an individual that lives his commitment to long-held values? Left on the driving range, apparently.

Or in lawmakers’ home districts across the state and country. Once these elected officials join their brethren for a larger caucus, the values and beliefs they know and love are too often diluted by the political will of the herd. And as that will becomes increasingly extreme, the greatest common factor among the group’s individual members sinks lower.

The prime current example is the right wing of the Republican party’s undying commitment to kill Obamacare, regardless of what it does to any notion of effective governance, let alone the party itself. Government shutdown? Sure! National default? No problem! Because, it would seem, that groupthink consensus has developed wherein taking a stand against gummint health care is more important. But I would wager that, with some notable exceptions, most of the individuals involved would back away from that position in a one-on-one setting – if not eschew it completely. Even John Boehner’s skin is crawling these days.

These are reasonable individuals who have managed to get themselves elected to higher office, after all. They at least understand the concept of reason, dialogue, and negotiated debate in the policy process. But ideology is trumping those finer points in too many cases, and the outcome – if there is any at all – erodes government’s effectiveness, to say nothing of our interest in civic engagement.

This is true at the state level, by the way. We had a visit from the House Republican leadership this week, a group that, to a person, expressed concerns that crossed party lines: keeping the public safe, investing in education, and helping ensure that Coloradans are employed – meaningfully and to their full potential. In the math on that agenda, there is a very high common denominator for Republicans and Democrats alike. But witness the division and entrenchment of the 2013 legislative session that left a bitter taste in mouths on both sides of the aisle, and the rate at which that value can diminish becomes evident. As much as Republicans flexed their ideological muscle on gun control legislation, which led to two Democrats’ recalls, Democrats – in the majority – were as brazen in pushing through their agenda, knowing that they were virtually unstoppable. That does not cultivate good feelings, and everyone, on his or her own at least, knows better.

The Brookings Institute, a nonpartisan think tank on which I have a huge crush, is tuned into this disturbing trend and is endeavoring to reverse it through its brand new Center for Effective Public Management – a project that aims to “reinvigorate the U.S. government – along with public and private sector leadership – to be more effective and capable. Working alongside a wide array of domestic policy experts and actors, the CEPM will explore current problems in the American political system and ways to improve the democratic process.”

This is going to take awhile, and an essential component to its success, I think, is to create a culture where the herd does not swallow its individuals, weakening the whole at great cost to each and all.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at meg@durangoherald.com.

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