It makes you wonder whether it’s worth talking

July 4, 2012 | By | 5 Replies More

In this New Yorker article, Ezra Klein discusses the psychology of groups (including the work of Jonathan Haidt), then points out a problem with political parties trying to think and talk:

According to the political-science literature, one of the key roles that political parties play is helping us navigate these decisions. In theory, we join parties because they share our values and our goals—values and goals that may have been passed on to us by the most important groups in our lives, such as our families and our communities—and so we trust that their policy judgments will match the ones we would come up with if we had unlimited time to study the issues. But parties, though based on a set of principles, aren’t disinterested teachers in search of truth. They’re organized groups looking to increase their power. Or, as the psychologists would put it, their reasoning may be motivated by something other than accuracy. And you can see the results among voters who pay the closest attention to the issues.

Here’s another cognitive hurdle for members of political parties:

In a 2006 paper, “It Feels Like We’re Thinking,” the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels looked at a National Election Study, a poll supported by the National Science Foundation, from 1996. One of the questions asked whether “the size of the yearly budget deficit increased, decreased, or stayed about the same during Clinton’s time as President.” The correct answer is that it decreased, dramatically. Achen and Bartels categorize the respondents according to how politically informed they were. Among the least-informed respondents, Democrats and Republicans picked the wrong answer in roughly equal numbers. But among better-informed voters the story was different. Republicans who were in the fiftieth percentile gave the right answer more often than those in the ninety-fifth percentile. Bartels found a similar effect in a previous survey, in which well-informed Democrats were asked whether inflation had gone down during Ronald Reagan’s Presidency. It had, but many of those Democrats said that it hadn’t. The more information people had, it seemed, the better they were at arranging it to fit what they wanted to believe. As Bartels told me, “If I’m a Republican and an enthusiastic supporter of lower tax rates, it is uncomfortable to recognize that President Obama has reduced most Americans’ taxes—and I can find plenty of conservative information sources that deny or ignore the fact that he has.” Recently, Bartels noticed a similar polarization in attitudes toward the health-care law and the Supreme Court.

And then there is the problem that opinions without any meaningful basis (that the mandate is unconstitutional) gain legitimacy through the media/internet echo chamber:

“Once Republican politicians say this is unconstitutional, it gets repeated endlessly in the partisan media that’s friendly to the Republican Party”—Fox News, conservative talk radio, and the like—“and, because this is now the Republican Party’s position, the mainstream media needs to repeatedly explain the claims to their readers. That further moves the arguments from off the wall to on the wall, because, if you’re reading articles in the Times describing the case against the mandate, you assume this is a live controversy.” Of course, Balkin says, “if the courts didn’t buy this, it wouldn’t get anywhere.”

These are the sorts of things that pass as political thinking these days. It makes you want to ask people to leave their party affiliation at the door while discussion important issues. But how do you do that, when that affiliation has reached the level of the sacred, meaning that it is not negotiable?


Category: Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Adam Herman says:

    That’s why whenever there’s an election and the result isn’t what I think it should be, my first thought isn’t, “Okay, how did the other guys cheat?”, but “Why was I wrong?” We have to recognize that as well informed as we might be compared to the average voter, we might be missing the forest for the trees, or holding onto “facts” which really aren’t.

    Ironically, a good example is the study. Did the budget go up under Clinton? That depends on what measurement they are using. If that wasn’t made clear in the questioning, then everyone was right. The budget went down in terms of spending as a % of GDP, but up in absolute terms, and even up when adjusting for inflation. During the Reagan years, was the inflation rate down? yes. Was inflation itself down? No, prices increased about 4% per year during the Reagan years.

    One of the big failings I find among political junkies is that we start thinking certain things we know are absolute truth and question not only the judgement, but the integrity, of people who don’t agree that our fact is accurate. Did the stimulus create jobs? CBO says it did. So stimulus supporters act as if the CBO is wisdom handed down from God, not to be questioned by right-thinking people. But CBO didn’t observe jobs created empirically, they just re-ran the same model they used before the stimulus. Maybe the model was accurate, maybe it wasn’t. The truth is unknown, but the smart people think they know it.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    More importantly,
    Clinton ended his presidency with a budget surplus, and under Reagan we experienced a tripling of the national debt.

    PR companies no doubt have compiled volumes of internal research concerning how to manipulate psychological triggers to sell anything, be it a soft drink, a cell phone, a political candidate or even an ideology. They know how to manipulate the public. And their manipulation skills are for sale.

  3. Tim Hogan says:

    Erich, your distaste for political parties borders upon the absurd. I see that you view political parties with extreme skepticism because they are “sacred.” Please stop conflating your distaste for what you believe to be imaginary beings with political parties.

    Parties in America are what we are stuck with and find ourselves allied with pragmatically until we can make them over into what we see would be better (but, see the GOP in the last 30 years) or use to find like minded persons to align with for support of non-partisan structural changes to diminish the long term impact of partisan policies upon the public good. Political parties in America are tools.

    The single strongest identifier for party affiliation is the family. Your ambivalence and antipathy to both parties will create an atmosphere of equivalency between the major parties in America which may confuse your children and doom them to a life of Republicanism; it may also cost you in other relationships.

    Adam, the Stimulus Bill worked:

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tim: The current highly monied two-party system is incapable of having any meaningful conversation, even when the nation is desperate for specific changes that the majority of the country favors. That means that I’m wondering whether it’s worth talking anymore. I don’t see that either party is truly anti-war, or anti-government spying or anti-government secrecy or pro-public option, or interested in regulating Wall Street. On many (but not all) issues, I find America’s two predominant political parties abhorrent. This is not to say that I find across the board moral equivalence. In fact I’ve never claimed this. Rather, you just made this up. On election day, I will, I guarantee, have a strong preference, just like I did in November, 2008.

  4. I’ll vote Green, just like I did in 2008 AND 2004.

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