The Power of Partisanship

The Atlantic‘s  It’s Not About the Economy is a disheartening, albeit unsurprising, read.  It is just another reminder that partisanship trumps facts and evidence, which helps explain the difficulties in our current political context.

“People’s predispositions affect their factual beliefs about the world,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College who has researched why people believe what they do about politics. “What we want to be true influences what we believe to be true.”

I recommend the whole piece.

 

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Valuing truth for truth’s sake is the highest level, self-actualization, which is only a concern once all of the needs lower in the hierarchy have met.

    More commonly, our interest in truth is far more utilitarian: we believe in truth only to the extent that it’s necessary to fulfill some other goal.

    In politics in particular, truth often comes in conflict with group loyalty. As our need for belonging is more fundamental then our need for self-actualization, group loyalty is invariably going to win out.

  2. Jen says:

    This emerging American ability to believe whatever one cares to despite whether or not there is a factual basis to support those beliefs is disheartening. There is just so much wrong with a mindset that is intent on ignoring factual evidence when it contradicts with an individual’s personal beliefs.

    Truly a depressing and maddening piece.

  3. MBunge says:

    The whole piece is itself a demonstration of what the author is talking about.

    Hiring signs dot the doors of the Wal-Mart, the McDonald’s, and the Long John Silver’s.

    I hate to break it to Alana Semuels, but that is NOT the sign of a wonderful economy and before trumpeting unemployment figures, she might have asked someone how much of their decline is connected to people leaving the workforce instead of job creation. Even if you give Obama the benefit of only counting from when the job losses of the Great Recession ended in 2010, I believe he still created fewer jobs as a percentage than Clinton, Reagan or LBJ. If you don’t cut off the start of his Administration, Obama’s job creation record is weaker than Nixon’s. Meanwhile, income growth has continued to stink for everybody outside the top 20% and a lack of economic mobility has ensured that tens of millions of Americans have found it impossible to get into the top 20%.

    So, while Obama did successfully guide the country out of a horrible economic crisis, things have actually NOT been that great for most Americans over the last eight years and very little has been done to address economic problems that have plagued us for decades. But because a Democrat has been in charge, Alana Semuels is largely oblivious to that.

    Mike

  4. @MBunge: But to even further exemplify the point, you ignored the sentence before and after:

    Elkhart’s unemployment rate, which had reached a high of 22 percent in March of 2009, is now at 3.9 percent. Hiring signs dot the doors of the Wal-Mart, the McDonald’s, and the Long John Silver’s. The RV industry makes 65 percent of its vehicles in Elkhart, and the industry is producing a record number of vehicles, which is creating a lot of jobs in this frosty town in northern Indiana.

    And yes, I noticed the reference to low paying entry-level jobs as well when I read the piece and thought it was not the best evidence in and of itself. But one cannot also not ignore a move from 22% unemployment to 3.9%.

  5. And yes: income inequality is a major issue. I am curious as to your suggestions on how to improve it.

  6. wr says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “But one cannot also not ignore a move from 22% unemployment to 3.9%.”

    Well sure you can. As long as you’re a Republican desperate to blame Democrats while simultaneously maintaining that you are above partisanship. Then you kind of need to ignore all sorts of facts.

  7. Jen says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: @MBunge:

    One of the reasons that the hiring signs are going up in the windows of the fast-food/retail places is that the people who had initially been laid off from the RV work are leaving those jobs and returning to their previous work, I suspect.

  8. @Jen: That and an increase in general economic activity means a need for more service jobs.

  9. Jc says:

    From the piece: ” As for the shrinking unemployment rate in Elkhart, “they changed how they report unemployment numbers,” he told me, so they’re not believable.”

    Partisanship, sure…but its this kind of gross ignorance that I cannot accept. I write you off as a person to be taken seriously when you utter stuff like this gentleman did.

    We have become a country that believes lies as facts and believe the fact checkers are liars – How the F do you solve this? Partisanship, okay – Ignorance though should not be accepted.

    Its like people want to live in an alternate reality because they cannot accept the truth. Isn’t that a mental health issue?

  10. MarkedMan says:

    I’m an Engineer by training and by vocation and I would like to say that people plying my trade are more truth oriented. After all, when debugging a problem you inevitably learn that the machine doesn’t really care about your theories no matter how perfectly formed, and that amazing feeling you get when finally everything clicks into place, well, it’s just another emotion and just because it feels wonderful doesn’t make it any more or less likely to be true. So I would like to say those things lead us to value hard facts over wishful thinking but in reality there seems to be just as many climate-deniers, anti-vexers, and crime-rate-truthers as in any other profession…

  11. gVOR08 says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I would like to say that people plying my trade are more truth oriented.

    I’m also an engineer, mechanical, recently retired. I’d also like to say engineers are more truth oriented. But like you, in a fifty year career I failed to find evidence to support such a claim. Engineers do tend to run conservative. I agree with George Lakoff that conservatives can think things through logically, but their default is to look at things moralistically. One doesn’t attach morality to the machine, or system, so it’s easier to be logical at work.

  12. Stormy Dragon says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I’m an Engineer by training and by vocation and I would like to say that people plying my trade are more truth oriented. After all, when debugging a problem you inevitably learn that the machine doesn’t really care about your theories no matter how perfectly formed, and that amazing feeling you get when finally everything clicks into place, well, it’s just another emotion and just because it feels wonderful doesn’t make it any more or less likely to be true. So I would like to say those things lead us to value hard facts over wishful thinking but in reality there seems to be just as many climate-deniers, anti-vexers, and crime-rate-truthers as in any other profession…

    This is kind of what I was talking about when I was contrasting philosophical vs. utilitarian valuation of the truth. A civil engineer is deeply concerned with the truth of their stress and strain calculations not because they value truth for truth’s sake, because if they don’t, their bridge will collapse and they’ll get fired, sued, and imprisoned.

    The same engineer’s life is not going to be measurably impacted one way or the other based on their personal belief or lack of belief in climate change, so they’re free to believe whatever nonsense they wish about it.

  13. Gustopher says:

    @MBunge:

    how much of their decline is connected to people leaving the workforce instead of job creation

    Why do you assume people are only worth something if they have a job? Fundamentally, that’s what a focus on labor participation rate says. Leaving the workforce is the American dream, and if people are leaving the workforce when there is a 3.9% local jobless rate then they do not want and do not need a job. (Or they have been fired by all the employers in their area.)

    Falling middle class incomes are an issue, but the labor force participation rate isn’t the number that demonstrates it.

    A declining participation rate means very different things with a 3.9% unemployment rate and a 22% unemployment rate.

  14. MarkedMan says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    This is kind of what I was talking about when I was contrasting philosophical vs. utilitarian valuation of the truth.

    I’ve never thought about it like that but your perspective is really interesting. It may cover quite a few cases.

  15. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Gustopher:

    Why do you assume people are only worth something if they have a job? Fundamentally, that’s what a focus on labor participation rate says.

    To paraphrase P. J. O’Rourke, “Being ‘fully employed’ has never particularly been a life goal of mine, but it seems important to the government.”

  16. MBunge says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Uh, is the article ONLY about Elkhart, Indiana? Because if it is, I will free grant that it is pretty clear evidence of partisanship outweighing other considerations. Of course, one could write essentially the exact same article about how Democratic partisans in Chicago ignore violent crime or how Democrats in New York City continued to vote Democratic even as they were gentrified into New Jersey.

    If the article was trying to make some broader point about partisanship implicitly affecting Republicans who just don’t appreciate how gosh darn wonderful the Obama economy has been, I think my point stands.

    Trump is going to be President in large part because Democrats believed in a myth. That myth was “Bill Clinton never did anything wrong but lie about sex and Hillary didn’t even do that.” Now a new myth that has been aborning for a while seems to be crystallizing, and not just among Democrats. “People who don’t vote the way I want are obviously stupid and don’t know what’s good for them like I do.”

    Believing in that myth is going to get us in even bigger trouble.

    Mike

  17. @MBunge:

    So, what’s your solution?

    What is your diagnosis (your myths aren’t diagnoses)?

  18. Also: the article rather clearly notes that the problem with partisanship and information runs for both parties.

    Seriously: 1) try and actually have something to say, and 2) at least read the article before you comment.

  19. MBunge says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The solution is pretty obvious. Standards. Value and uphold them. Let’s take you for an example. You spent the last 25 years watching conservatism and the Republican Party go increasingly bonkers and your response to it has been…what?

    Or let’s take Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. He just tweeted out a link to a hardcore porn video. He hasn’t deleted it. He hasn’t apologized for it. He hasn’t even explained it, as far as I know. One could even be a fan of porn and still recognize that someone like Marshall tweeting out a porn link is inappropriate. But how many people who have condemned Trump’s vulgarity will cancel their subscription to TPM Prime?

    And of course, there’s Bill Clinton and how behavior that was completely unacceptable, became acceptable…then became unacceptable again for Anthony Weiner.

    And you can throw me in here too. I should be more negative about Trump than I am but I let my disgust with the supposedly “normal” elements of our political and cultural establishment get the better of me.

    Like most of life’s problems, the answer is quite simple. It’s just very, very, very hard to do.

    Mike

  20. george says:

    @gVOR08:

    Also an engineer, electrical/computer after doing physics as a grad student. My observation is that most engineers are fiscally conservative, socially indifferent (as in most really don’t care about social politics one way or another, they only care about the fiscal end).

    I’ve met very few socially conservative engineers, somewhat more socially liberal engineers (fairly common in hi-tech), but in either case they seem to weigh fiscal elements much heavier than social. Quite a few vote Democratic because they’ve observed the GOP tends to run up deficits, and they simply don’t care about any other issue. Seriously, the number of arguments about social issues I’ve heard at work is minuscule. About government finance – well, just about every day.

  21. george says:

    @MBunge:

    I tend to agree; a lot of people are angry about the lack of good jobs. When I talk to relatives back south (I’m currently in Canada), most of the young folks, despite good education credentials, are working two low paying jobs just to make ends meet. They don’t show up on unemployment figures, but they’re not happy – they look at their future and think “This is it? For the rest of my life?”

    And its going to get worse. Not because of immigration (a trivial number of good jobs involved in that), but because of first out sourcing, and increasingly robotics and expert systems. We’re going to need a solution, because it won’t be long before computer aided design is going to be taking over 90% of the jobs in everything from medicine to engineering to law to finance, and of course, most manufacturing jobs. If you think income inequality is bad now, wait a decade.

    Having a significant portion of young people angry and hopeless about their future is not going to work out well.

  22. @MBunge: That is a wholly non-substantive response.

  23. MBunge says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I obviously read the article. That’s how I was able to quote from it. In addition…

    1. While it referenced the influence of partisanship on Democrats, the overall article is dominated by examples of Republican partisanship. You know the audience you have here. How many of them do you think read that article and came away thinking “Yep! It’s a problem for both sides!”

    2. It is entirely correct to point out that the article itself is based on the assumption that the Obama economy has been good enough that it should have made people more supportive of him and his designated successor. Elkhart was offered up as a specific example but the author was undeniably trying to make a more general point. However, there are entirely legitimate reasons why people could be disatisfied with Obama’s economic record and the author seems to have no clue of that. Do you think if a Republican had been in charge the last eight years, ‘The Atlantic’ would publish an article about how Democrats just don’t appreciate how good things are?

    Pardon me if I’m wrong but it seems like you keep asking the same question. “How did people vote for Trump?” That’s not going to get you anywhere because you are shifting the focus to someone else. You need to look inward. “Why couldn’t my side beat Trump? Why we’re our candidates terrible? How were our policies and politics wrong?”

    Those are the questions you need to answer. Those are the questions you can answer, as opposed to adolescently assigning meaning to the unknowable hearts and minds of others.

    Mike

  24. @MBunge:

    as opposed to adolescently assigning meaning to the unknowable hearts and minds of others.

    Says the guy assigning an awful lot of meaning to a very brief post.

  25. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Well, stupidity is its own punishment. The next time a major crisis (foreign or domestic) looms, they’ll find a way to blame someone other than Trump. That won’t help them endure the consequences, but at least they’ll feel better about it.

  26. Jen says:

    @george:

    most of the young folks, despite good education credentials, are working two low paying jobs just to make ends meet. They don’t show up on unemployment figures, but they’re not happy – they look at their future and think “This is it? For the rest of my life?”

    This is interesting to me. When I graduated from college, we were just hitting a recession in 1991/92. I worked temp and did a variety of other odd/part-time jobs–it certainly wasn’t ideal, but I never thought it would be for the rest of my life. I figured that I’d find something eventually, and I did. By early 1993, I was in a full-time job that although it didn’t pay much (~$14K/year), I felt strongly that it would lead to better opportunities (and it did, rapidly).

    I guess I’m sort of fascinated by the cynicism that nothing will get better. I can’t tell if it’s generational (I’m obviously Gen X), or if there’s something else going on.

  27. MBunge says:

    Just one more thing.

    Trump is going to be President because he won Indiana, Iowa, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina, all of which voted for Obama in 2008, and was also the first Republican to win Pennsylvania and Michigan since 1988 and the first Republican to win Wisconsin since 1984. It is nonsensical to suggest that can be explained by the intellectual distortion of partisanship. That’s just a dodge to avoid looking at the real issues.

    Mike

  28. Kylopod says:

    @MBunge:

    It is nonsensical to suggest that can be explained by the intellectual distortion of partisanship. That’s just a dodge to avoid looking at the real issues.

    If you were living in cave and were to look at the exit polls from 2016 without knowing anything else about what happened this year, there’d be very little to tip you off that either of the candidates were abnormally unpopular. Clinton and Trump together got about 94% of the total vote. Clinton won 89% of the Democratic vote, Trump 90% of the GOP vote. Sure, that’s lower than four years ago (when Romney got 93% from his own party, Obama 92%), but not by much. The fact is that the vast majority of voters voted the way they always vote. That’s a pretty startling testament to the power of partisanship.