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Stepping Away from the Partisan Divide

Over the weekend I read this lengthy and fascinating article about human characteristics we all share that have made us vulnerable to the increasingly virulent partisan divide we are experiencing today.

What follows is a lengthy exploration of this article and what I believe to be important about it. In case you need to cut to the chase and move on with your day, here are my main takeaways:

To have any hope of engaging in productive and deescalating dialogue on the critical issues of our time:

  • discuss issues, discuss values, discuss policy, discuss facts, embrace complexity and don’t argue when others characterize your politics
  • make a sincere effort to inquire about and understand the reasons people have for their views, share the reasons for your views, and resist the temptation to immediately debate the rightness or wrongness of those views
  • assemble a carefully curated set of information sources that you have verified for factualness and understand the biases of; include sources from far left to far right and in between; make an extra effort to read or view the sources that challenge your views on major issues… here is my list1

Read on if you would like to know more about what underpins my basic take aways.

Last week I read an article about Fred Hiatt and the Washington Post in which the following paragraph jumped out at me:

Sarah Longwell recently told a story about meeting me (Benjamin Wittes, the author of the article) and having no ability to identify my politics. This is an ethos I learned from Fred: discuss issues, discuss values, discuss policy, discuss facts, embrace complexity and don’t argue when others characterize your politics.2

Over the weekend I read Why Is It So Hard To Admit When You’re Wrong? by Ronald Bailey in The Bulwark. It confirmed my instinct about the importance of the above quote.

Bailey makes the following point about people and partisan politics:

Today, if you are a member of one of the two major American political parties, you are statistically likely to dislike and distrust members of the other party. While your affection for your own party has not grown in recent years, your distaste for the other party has intensified. You distrust news sources preferred by the other side. Its supporters seem increasingly alien to you: different not just in partisan affiliation but in social, cultural, economic, and even racial characteristics. You may even consider them subhuman in some respects.

You’re also likely to be wrong about the characteristics of members of the other party, about what they actually believe, and even about their views of you. But you are trapped in a partisan prison by the psychological effects of confirmation bias. Being confronted with factual information that contradicts your previously held views does not change them, and it may even reinforce them. Vilification of the other party perversely leads partisans to behave in precisely the norm-violating and game-rigging ways they fear their opponents will. It’s a classic vicious cycle, and it’s accelerating.3

And then there is this paragraph:

The consequences of this big chill are apparent in several other studies, notably the work of the Louisiana State University political scientist Nathan Kalmoe and the University of Maryland political scientist Lilliana Mason. One of their more striking results is that 60 percent to 70 percent of both parties in a 2017–18 survey said they thought the other party was a “serious threat to the United States and its people”; 40 percent of respondents in both parties thought the other party was “downright evil.” In another poll, 15 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats agreed with the brutal sentiment that the country would be better off if large numbers of opposing partisans in the public today “just died.” And 18 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans said that violence would be justified if the opposing party won the 2020 presidential election.4

It dismayed me to find that I am rolling with the statistical majorities of both parties. I currently believe that the Republican Party, at least the part of it that seems to be in control at the moment, is evil. My wife will tell you that I have more than once expressed the sentiment that perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing that “Trumpers” are refusing to vaccinate and wear masks, my presumption being that more of them will die. I draw the line at violence if the opposing party wins, but i might get there if i believe they stole the election in 2024, as MSNBC and other news sources warn daily that they are trying to position themselves to do. By the way, is anyone else surprised that Democrats were 5% more likely to resort to violence than Republicans if the other party won in 2020?

This brings me to another point brought home by this article. Our perceptions of what the other side is feeling and thinking relative to our perceptions of ourselves and what each side is actually thinking is significantly misaligned:

In a 2015 YouGov survey, respondents reckoned that 32 percent of Democrats are LGBT, 29 percent are atheists or agnostics, and 39 percent belong to unions; the right figures are really 6, 9, and 11 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, they estimated that 38 percent of Republicans earn over $250,000 per year, 39 percent are over age 65, and 42 percent are evangelicals; actually, just 2 percent earn that much, 21 percent are senior citizens, and 34 percent are evangelicals.

Democrats and Republicans also regularly overestimate just how much their opponents loathe them. On a sliding scale from 0 (least evolved) to 100 (most evolved) Republicans rated the humanity of their fellow partisans at around 85 points and that of Democrats at 62 points, a 23-point difference. Conversely, Democrats gave 83 points to their political confreres and only 62 points to Republicans, a 21-point difference. Even more interesting is that the Democrats guessed that the Republicans would award them just 36 points (26 points less than the true number), while Republicans estimated that Democrats would give them a measly 28 points (34 points less than the true number).5

And, less I believe that my party, the Democrats, is the superior one when it comes to tolerance there is this:

One of the more dire consequences of this exaggerated meta-perception—the perception partisans have of the other side’s perception of them—is that it seems to make people more willing to support illiberal and antidemocratic policies, such as curbs on free speech and political participation.

Moore-Berg’s findings were essentially replicated in a 2021 study by the University of California Santa Barbara social scientist Alexander Landry and his colleagues, who further found that “despite the socially progressive and egalitarian outlook traditionally associated with liberalism, the most liberal Democrats actually expressed the greatest dehumanization of Republicans.” Democrats also expressed greater antidemocratic outgroup spite than Republicans.6

Note that these are findings confirmed by a study conducted in 2021 and are highly counterintuitive to what I believe I am experiencing.

Depressingly, the article goes on to say that providing more accurate information generally fails to convince anyone siloed in their partisan points of view of anything other than their rightness. We select and deploy the information that supports our silo.

And here is a critical point for me:

Partisan cheerleading sounds harmless—not much different from fans rooting for a local football team, right? Nope. Hannon argues that ”if our disagreements are not based on genuine reasons or arguments, then we cannot engage with each other’s views.” If team loyalty is the main thing, then the upshot for Hannon is that “we cannot decrease polarization by reasoned debate.”7

A recent conversation with a family member about January 6 (they were denying it was anything other than a first amendment sanctioned protest) quickly made me angry and when I shut it down (a moment I was not entirely proud of), they noted that they were just trying to relate how things looked to “their team.” Hmmm…

And what if people are offered a range of information sources which could provide additional information about whether their beliefs are accurate? Will they take advantage of it? Apparently not:

Peterson and Iyengar also gave respondents access to various news sources so that they could check for additional information on whether their beliefs were accurate. These included sources identifiably associated with both liberal and conservative partisan loyalties, so-called mainstream sources, and expert sources from peer-reviewed journals. Some 29 percent turned to co-partisan sources, 26 percent to expert sources, 38 percent to mainstream sources, and only 7 percent to out-party sources.8

I have found this to be true of myself in the past. Even now, after a number of years of making the effort to read from various sources across the political spectrum, I struggle with information that contradicts a strongly held view. It is critically important to put together a range of factually accurate sources of information which both support and call into question our partisan beliefs and most people, on both sides, don’t do that.

The proliferation of self-consciously partisan broadcast media, such as Fox and MSNBC, and of partisan gathering places on social media platforms provides political sectarians plenty of opportunity to find information that confirms their ideological predispositions and disparages their opponents’ views. In 2019, a Perspectives on Psychological Science review of 51 studies testing for political bias found that “both liberals and conservatives were biased in favor of information that confirmed their political beliefs, and the two groups were biased to very similar degrees.”910

In case you thought your side was superior in its ability to follow the facts where they lead there is:

… a 2019 study, “(Ideo)Logical Reasoning: Ideology Impairs Sound Reasoning,” that found an equal tendency among liberals and conservatives to ignore the soundness of classically structured logical syllogisms in order to reach conclusions that supported the political beliefs that they already held.

Or perhaps you thought your side has the superior set of moral values:

… a 2018 study in Political Psychology, “Deep Alignment with Country or Political Party Shrinks the Gap Between Conservatives’ and Liberals’ Moral Values,” found that liberals and conservatives broadly share the same moral foundations and values.11

Towards the end, Bailey notes that the partisan divide around any given issue can be thawed if each side gives reasons for their views, rather than engaging in debates about those views, as most of us are all too quick to do:

The good news is that when presented with reasons favoring their opponents’ views, partisans were less likely to report that their opponents lacked intellectual ability or moral character. “Our results provide evidence that reasons serve a novel function distinct from persuasion, decision change, or acquiring knowledge,” conclude the researchers. “Even if the consideration of opposing reasons does not induce a change in one’s position, our results indicate that presenting opposing reasons might at least make people less likely to view their opponents negatively. This, in turn, might have the potential to make people more willing to listen to opponents and more willing to engage in genuine discussion with their opponents, which might have positive implications for compromise, fruitful deliberation, and the pursuit of a common good.”12

And that is what led me to the steps for stepping back from the partisan divide at the beginning of this post.

  1. Note: there are no cable/television news outlets on the list because i don’t consider any of them a good source of nuanced information about the issues that confront us [return]
  2. Benjamin Wittes, Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post, and America’s Moral and Political Seriousness, The Bulwark, December 08, 2021 [return]
  3. Ronald Bailey, Why Is It So Hard To Admit When You’re Wrong?, Reason Magazine, January 2020. [return]
  4. Ibid. [return]
  5. Ibid. [return]
  6. Ibid [return]
  7. Ibid [return]
  8. Ibid. [return]
  9. Ibid [return]
  10. The fact that MSNBC, which I watch, and Fox were mentioned in the same sentence in a way that made them roughly equivalent caught me by surprise. The idea that MSNBC is the liberal equivalent of Fox unsettled me. Fortunately, I depend much more on reading for information than cable news. Even so, I have become more and more aware of the way in which my preferred cable news outlet provokes my anger at the other side. [return]
  11. Ibid. [return]
  12. Ibid. [return]