How Tribal Politics Is Undermining Our Democracy
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The Fiscal Times
June 13, 2014

There’s a disturbing nugget buried deep in the remarkable study on political polarization in the U.S. released by the Pew Research Center on Thursday. For 20 years, Pew has been using a battery of ten questions to locate a respondent on the continuum between extreme liberalism and extreme conservatism. And it makes no sense.

Or at least, it shouldn’t.

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The pollsters ask respondents to identify which of a pair of statements about a particular issue comes closest to their actual beliefs, even if the match isn’t perfect. In one example, people are asked to choose between the statements, “Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient” and “Government often does a better job than people give it credit for.”

Okay, fine. That seems a pretty fair proxy for conservatism versus liberalism. Reading down the list, though, it becomes clear that on a totally objective basis, there’s no reason the various issues should have a conservative/liberal split.

Why on earth, for example, should there be any correlation whatsoever between your opinion on gay marriage and your opinion on whether environmental regulations are worth the costs they impose on businesses? The issues are utterly unrelated.

Why should your thinking about how much the country spends on national defense correlate with your opinions about whether racism continues to have a negative impact on the condition of African Americans? Again, the issues have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

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The depressing answer is that, while these things shouldn’t correlate, they do. As the Pew researchers put it, “while there is no ex-ante reason for people’s views on diverse issues such as the social safety net, homosexuality and military strength to correlate, these views have a traditional ‘left/right’ association.”

According to people who study both politics and our brains, the reasons are real and largely intractable.

“It all kind of starts with a misunderstanding we have about how people come to have their opinions on issues,” said Vanderbilt University political science professor Marc Hetherington. “We tend to have this belief that people’s positions on the issues come first, and that they pick their party based on its positions on those issues.

“But what we’ve learned is that’s not how politics work,” he added. “Party comes first.”

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As they come to their views on politically fraught questions, people are more concerned about how their conclusions will affect their status with the group they already belong to than they are with coming to factually accurate conclusions.

Most of us, at least, desperately want this to be untrue. We see ourselves as rational actors in the world, making decisions based on the facts as they present themselves. But sadly, people who study the way our brains work when we make decisions find that this isn’t the case. We want to be ruled by rationality, but emotion and the desire to remain a member in good standing of our social group are the real drivers of our behavior.

Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University and the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, compares the rational mind to a person sitting on the back of an elephant who has no control over where the beast goes. Therefore, he spends all his time using his intellect to create ex post facto justifications for why it took one direction rather than another.

Yale professor Dan Kahan famously studied attitudes toward man-made global warming, which is almost uniformly regarded as a real phenomenon by the global scientific community, but which some conservatives in the U.S continue to deny. He found that not only do conservatives tend to discount the arguments in favor of manmade climate change, but also that the more scientifically literate a conservative is, the more powerfully that person can be expected to dispute the consensus finding that climate change is real.

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Kahan found, “The costs of being out of line with my cultural group on an issue that becomes kind of a symbol of whether I’m really ‘part of the team’ or not is high. The cost of getting science wrong is zero. Wouldn’t you imagine that people – rational people – would attend…to what it is their group believes?”

This phenomenon isn’t unique to conservatives, by the way. In another study, Kahan presented liberal subjects with data suggesting that legislation allowing individuals to carry concealed firearms leads to an overall decrease in crime. He found that even the most mathematically savvy liberals, confronted with data that challenged their worldview, consistently misinterpreted it in order to draw a conclusion that didn't conflict with their overall belief system.

“Most people know what team they are on,” said Vanderbilt’s Hetherington. “They’re on the red team or the blue team, and they know who their representatives are and what they think.”

“What the public is doing,” he said, “is simply reflecting the lack of diversity of ideas in the people who represent them.”

Of course, attachment to a social group isn’t exactly a new phenomenon in human history, but the Pew study indicates that within the U.S., at least, the division between conservatives and liberals is deepening.

Joshua Greene, a psychology professor at Harvard and the author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, says modern technology, rather than helping things, is making them worse.

Greene says that “mobility and the proliferation of multiple sources of information” have made it possible for us to so thoroughly isolate ourselves from opinions that challenge our worldview that even talking to one another has become a challenge.

Not only do conservatives and liberals disagree on whether mankind has contributed to global warming, he noted, substantial majorities on each side even disagree about other seemingly factual questions such as whether species evolve through natural selection and which country  U.S. President Barack Obama was actually born.

“People not only have different values,” said Greene, “they are operating with a different set of facts.”

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A longtime reporter on the intersection of the federal government and the private sector, Rob Garver is National Correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He has written for ProPublica, The New York Times and other publications.