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Sunday, December 3, 2017

“Draining the Swamp” Doesn’t Matter as Long as Groupthink Persists

Congress is almost universally despised. Will a fresh crop of shiny new Congresspeople solve the problem? Probably not.

Despite the ideological and social divides currently plaguing our culture, one common theme seems to hold across all the differences; Americans do not like Congress. Even the relatively apolitical seem to be roused against them, with many speaking out against recent bills and congressional initiatives, and phrases like, “Drain the swamp!” abounding on social media.

Shouldn’t more people lead to better decisions? At least when it comes to government, the answer would seem to be: no. The assumption seems to be that if we could only get the “right” people in office, things would improve. However, it would not seem that the problem is the people in the system, but an inherent flaw in the system itself.

Social psychology is not a discipline which tends to address issues of political organization. However, many current political issues, including the recent wave of hatred for Congress, can be analyzed in the light of social psychological principles, such as the classic theory of groupthink.

What is Groupthink?

First studied by Yale psychologist Irving Janis in the 1960s, groupthink refers to the tendency of groups to make bad or even disastrous decisions. Groupthink was first studied by social psychologists after the Bay of Pigs when the question was: how could President Kennedy, with a cabinet of experts, have made a decision so flawed he himself would later call it “stupid?” Shouldn’t more people lead to better decisions? At least when it comes to government, the answer would seem to be: no.

In his 1972 book Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign Policy Decisions and Fiascos, Dr. Janis identifies three risks for groupthink’s occurrence, which are still taught in psychology classrooms today: desire for cohesiveness, structural faults, and the power of the situation. Looking at how Congress operates today, it is not hard to see how it is inherently at risk of groupthink and to understand the slew of bad/unpopular decisions which seem to have become commonplace.

The Three Risks for Groupthink Occurrence:


Congressmen like Justin Amash or Senators like Bernie Sanders are often touted as “rabble-rousers.”

The first risk for groupthink is an overwhelming desire for cohesiveness. Groups run the risk of groupthink when they value unity over making the best/ethical decision. Very often, when groups value unity too highly, they fall prey to the phenomenon of deindividuation, the foregoing of individual beliefs and principles in favor of those of the group. It no longer matters what the individual believes or wants in such circumstances, it’s a matter of yielding to group influence. Symptoms of this desire for cohesion can include the derogation of dissenters, trying to limit the questioning of group decisions, and the existence of mindguards, individuals who ensure that dissent is kept to a minimum.

It’s not hard to find examples of these phenomena in the current political atmosphere. Congressmen like Justin Amash or Senators like Bernie Sanders are often touted as “rabble-rousers” who don’t tow the party line. The idea is often expressed that principles should take a backseat to party unity and party accomplishment, which so often takes the form of voting the “right way.” There are also tests for party “purity,” such as the Democrats’ recent “pro-choice” test, the idea that a “real” Democrat cannot be pro-life.

Structural Faults

When Congressmen like Rand Paul have filibustered in opposition to their party’s agenda, leaders like John McCain attack them, implying they need to fall in line. The second risk for groupthink is structural faults, specifically insulation and closed leadership. By being insulated from outside voices or dissenting opinions, all while being subjected to leadership which discourages dissent and dictates “how it is,” a group is likely to doom itself to making a poor decision.

Congress seems to be inherently insulated when it comes to its decision-making. In theory, Congresspeople represent their constituency’s interests at the federal level. However, most Congress-people are not particularly in touch with their constituency. Such insulation is not Congress’s fault, but rather a fault in design; Washington is geographically isolated from most of the United States. Getting in touch with one’s Congressperson can be nigh on impossible, especially if one is far from Washington. The best-case scenario tends to be leaving messages with congressional aides, but chances for actual direct contact are low. The only exception seems to be on the campaign trail, the goal of which is not governance, but re-election.

For Senators, such insulation can be doubly strong. With the passage of the 17th Amendment, Senators became essentially unaccountable to any form of local governance for a majority of their term of office. In theory, the direct election of Senators gives locals a chance to vote them out, but it can be hard to remember Senators’ specific legislative actions when election season rolls around afterward, which can take several years.

The second structural fault which increases the risk of groupthink is that of closed leadership: leaders who say “this is how it is.” Such leaders often play the role of mindguards: quashing dissent and trying to ensure that Congresspeople behave according to the party line rather than their own beliefs. Again, it’s not hard to find instances of this in recent politics. When Senators like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul have filibustered in opposition to their own party’s agenda, Republican leaders like John McCain came out to attack them as, essentially, traitors, the implication being that they need to fall in line, their own principles be damned.

The Power of the Situation

Time pressures pose a similar risk for groupthink. The third and final risk for groupthink is the power of the situation. Very often, our behavior is as much a function of our circumstances as our own individuality. Two situational features increase the likelihood of groupthink: perceived threats and time pressure.

The idea of responding strongly and quickly to a threat is powerful, even evolutionarily advantageous. However, quick and strong responses are not often, if ever, the best decisions. Both parties often frame their agendas in opposition to an enemy, often the opposite party. It’s a matter of “defeating” the other party via unanimous support, with no room for individual principles or beliefs. This is how 1,000+ page-long legislation gets voted on immediately, with no chance for discussion; action is required, else “they” are going to win!

Time pressures pose a similar risk for groupthink. The idea of having to get something – anything! – done before “they” can enact their sinister agenda seems to define modern political rhetoric. We have to pass healthcare/tax plans/net neutrality immediately! Meanwhile, little chance for elaboration or discussion of these bills’ merits is given, and shockingly, the results are rarely beneficial.

Reducing Groupthink’s Influence 

Until this occurs, the “swamp” is going to remain, no matter who inhabits what office.

Many strategies exist for combating groupthink. However, two commonalities have emerged across most strategies: the importance of dissent and providing time to examine alternatives. In the current political climate, it is highly doubtful that either of these strategies is feasible at the federal level. Congress, as it currently functions, rife with partisan strife and both socially and geographically insulated, does not seem able to resist groupthink. So what might be the solution?

Even at America’s birth, our Founders stressed the danger of a centralized government gaining too much power and ceasing to truly represent their constituents. Whatever solution is found, it is of the utmost importance that they are kept in touch with those they represent and that partisan politics do not encourage legislation for the sake of unity, but rather for the sake of principle. Until this occurs, the “swamp” is going to remain, no matter who inhabits what office.

  • Aaron Pomerantz is a social psychologist and doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma, where he studies culture, the legal system, and the psychology of religion.