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Monday, November 16, 2015

Why People Remain Partisan Despite the Facts

"I would argue that the sharp decline in American quality of life the last 30 years is not because of Republican policies or Democrat policies, but rather, because we are unable to choose legitimate policies to legitimate problems. Everything is framed as black or white, Jesus-lover or Jesus-hater, yes or no.

"Well, life is more gray area than anything else. Some tax hikes are necessary, to pay for the things that the nation needs. Some spending cuts are necessary, because we spend too much money on things we do not need. Some large military cuts are necessary, because it's ridiculous for one nation to have the army we've amassed. This is not rocket surgery, folks. It only appears to be that way because of how we approach politics — like it is a team sport, a religion, and "our" side is right while "their" side is wrong. That is the kind of attitude that starts wars, that leads to the dark side. That attitude is why we can't get anything done."

(John Thorpe. "Why Are American Politics So Divisive?" Benzinga. November 30, 2011.)

When political writer and analyst John Thorpe speaks of divisive American politics, he proposes that  most people are not "pure Republicans or pure Democrats." But, our political system so encourages such black and white thinking that voters have "nowhere else to go." They must choose a political identity, and their identity as a Democrat or as a Republican means, to them, that they accept a certain set of core beliefs as gospel truth -- "much like how Christians all view Jesus as the son of god."

Thorpe says ...

"You get two packages to choose from, and neither one is even remotely palatable. It is as if you went to pick a religion, and your only choices are extreme insane Islam or Fred Phelps' Westboro Church. You have to pick one, and only one. How the hell can anyone survive like that?"

To me, Thorpe's description of the current divisiveness is accurate. Today, rarely do we find politicians who pride themselves on strong traits of negotiation and compromise. Following the "party view" of policies means everything to officeholders because party solidarity is the best guarantee to reelection in this system of preferential alienation. The predictable results are gridlock in Congress and continuous threats of government shutdown. The citizens of America are left to suffer the consequences of inaction, yet, still, they dutifully align themselves along rigid party lines.

Recent Gallup polls (2013) show Americans' trust in "the American people" to make judgments about political issues facing the country has declined each year since 2009 and, at 61%, is down nearly 20 percentage points from its recent peak in 2005. Americans' average level of trust in the American people during the 1970s was 85%, including a high of 86% in 1976. The average since 2001 is 71%.

Still, that exceeds the 46% of Americans who trust the "men and women … who either hold or are running for public office," which is one point above the historical low from 2011.

The same poll found that Americans' trust in the federal government to handle domestic and international problems, their trust in the news media, and their trust in the three branches of the federal government, and in state and local governments are all at or near historical lows.

Why do we hold ever-higher levels of distrust for our fellow Americans? And, why are we becoming willing members of parties that really don't represent our varied views on important issues or even care to carry out bipartisan solutions to our problems?

At least one very interesting answer makes sense to me. We don't have to look hard to find that individual investigation is a vanishing way of understanding key issues, and, instead, many folks today rely upon editorializing media reports and shallow sound bites for their exposure to key issues and ideas. Doesn't this common acceptance of secondhand interpretation contribute to our quick, lazy adherence of categorical thought?

The editorial staff of the Intermountain Jewish News explains that the decline of our rich and varied political discourse calls for a broader dedication to individual reading. They explain ...

"To us, the ultimate cause is the decline of reading, specifically, of daily newspapers. Reading? you might squint. What does this have to do with acid rudeness between many candidates, widespread animosities on Capitol Hill and the bellicosity on the radio? If news is acquired in snatches and sound bites, if complicated issues are reduced to screed on the Internet, if the quiet of the kitchen or the living room is no longer the crucible of thinking about politicians and political issues, then thinking declines.

"And when thought declines, oversimplification rises. When news is absorbed primarily via the ear rather than the eye, emotion intensifies. When a complex set of facts — laid out in cold, hard, unchangeable type — is not absorbed simply because it is no longer read, the alternative is, well, just what we have. Snap judgments. Aggressive characterization of opponents. The inability to see the other side of an argument. In a word: a non-literate way of being."

(Editorial Staff. "Why Our Political Culture Is So Contentious, Angry and Divisive."
Intermountain Jewish News. December 03, 2009.)

The Jewish News rightly contends that we are moving from a deliberate, fact-driven mode of learning and evaluating to a mode that is driven by quick, superficial impressions. The editors believe this is one of the many consequences of the decline of daily newspapers. They say ...
"People speak of a 'paperless society' without thinking of the consequences. When information is absorbed primarily, or only, on a moving screen; when a difficult set of facts cannot reside in the mind for a period of time, and cannot be returned to for reexamination, as the physical artifact of a newspaper can be returned to, thought declines.

"A paperless society might save on pollution, but, by the same token, it will intensify the breakdown in thinking, thus leading to bad decisions about the environment. Environmentalists need to think twice about ultimate goals before advocating a paperless society."

(Editorial Staff. "Why Our Political Culture Is So Contentious, Angry and Divisive."
Intermountain Jewish News. December 03, 2009.)

And, I believe, even if people read reliable, factual-based, online sources such as unbiased newspapers and journals, they still practice literate, responsible decision making. That is, if they can read political articles with an open mind and overcome the strong desire to be obstinate and cling to their preconceived opinions.

A study at Ohio State in 2009 provides some of the strongest evidence to date that Americans prefer to read political articles that agree with the opinions they already hold. Researchers found that people spent 36 percent more time reading articles that agreed with their point of view than they did reading text that challenged their opinions.

Even when they did read articles that countered their views, participants almost always balanced that with reading others that confirmed their opinions.

The study is important because it is one of the first to record what people actually read and link these findings to their views on the same topics.

Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick conducted the study with Jingbo Meng, a former master’s degree student in communication at Ohio State. Their results appeared in the June 2009 issue of the journal Communication Research.

“We found that people generally chose media messages that reinforced their own preexisting views,” said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, co-author of the study and associate professor of communication at Ohio State University.

People who reported that they read news more frequently, on the other hand, were more likely to avoid opposing viewpoints.

“People have more media choices these days, and they can choose to only be exposed to messages that agree with their current beliefs,” Knobloch-Westerwick said.

And that has real-world implications, she said. “If you only pay attention to messages you agree with, that can make you more extreme in your viewpoints, because you never consider the other side,” she said.

(Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick and Jingbo Meng. "Looking the Other Way: Selective Exposure to Attitude-Consistent and Counterattitudinal Political Information."
Communication Research. March 16, 2009.)

Many media outlets today specialize in shrill, harsh commentary that demonizes opposing viewpoints. If that is all that people hear, it can reduce political tolerance and make compromise less likely.

“That may be one reason for the increasing polarization of American voters,” Knobloch-Westerwick said. “Citizens really should be weighing and monitoring diverse arguments in order to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, that’s not happening as often as it should. In general, they don’t want their views to be challenged by seriously considering other viewpoints.”

The theory of cognitive dissonance finds we find it difficult to hold contradictory ideas in our head at the same time. In fact, cognitive dissonance predicts that given the choice between our emotional ties and facts, we’ll pick emotional every time. Why in the world would intelligent people do so? Researchers Nyhan and Reifler hypothesized that partisans reject such information not because they’re against the facts, but because it’s painful. Their work explains ...

"Why are political misperceptions – which can distort individual policy preferences and undermine the factual basis of democratic debate – so prevalent? We evaluate two factors that may contribute to the persistence of false and unsupported political beliefs.

* "First, many people may not have been exposed to accurate information in a convincing format.
* "In addition, however, the threatening nature of corrective information itself may also cause people to reject information that contradicts their preexisting views.

"Results from three experiments provide support for both hypotheses. We show that providing participants with graphical information significantly decreases false and unsupported factual beliefs, but that affirming respondents’ self-worth can also reduce misperceptions among those who are most likely to be misinformed."

(Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. "The roles of information deficits and identity threat
in the prevalence of misperceptions." Dartmouth College. June 22, 2015.) says that notion suggested a possible solution: "If partisans were made to feel better about themselves — if they received a little image and ego boost — could this help them more easily absorb the “blow” of information that threatens their pre-existing views?"

The researchers had voters think of times in their lives when they had done something very positive and found that, fortified by this positive memory, voters were more willing to take in information that challenged their pre-existing views.

“One person talked about taking care of his elderly grandmother — something you wouldn’t expect to have any influence on people’s factual beliefs about politics,” Nyhan said. “But that brings to mind these positive feelings about themselves, which we think will protect them or inoculate them from the threat that unwelcome ideas or unwelcome information might pose to their self-concept.”

Two Cents

To me, working NOT to be partisan while reading accurate, current information without political spin would be a Godsend to political thinking. Also, if we were much more receptive to recognizing the apparent deficiencies of black-and-white belief, this realization would lead to fairer, more equitable policies and legislation. And, we citizens and civil servants both must acknowledge that our own personal beliefs and emotions often get in the way of the greater truth -- the need to face and meet the issues in a bipartisan approach. Progress is driven by those who find common ground in positive achievement; it is stifled by those with narrow minds and partisan goals.

I am sick of seeing intelligent people act like automatons controlled by political and religious machinery whose greatest purpose is to put them at odds with the opposition. So many people in our nation now seem very satisfied to choose sides and oppose all concessions by viewing anyone having a contrary thought as a real enemy. The name calling and emotional displays of outright indignation spew daily across social media. It's open season to many -- "us" against "them."

My President is a constant victim of such political vitriol. He has been called a Muslim, a terrorist, even the Anti-Christ. Although nominated and elected to two terms as the leader of America, partisan haters show no respect for the office or for the man. The climate created by extremists who cannot find any good in Obama's policies makes our democracy look more like a country being harassed by a juvenile gang vying for complete control of the turf on which we live.

Of course, disagreeing on issues is to be expected and even encouraged. And, oh how we do that so well. I believe we drastically miss the mark in the areas of compromise and solution. When a righteous "we" becomes a particular party, a particular religious sect, or another group with a particular viewpoint, "we" no longer respect the dignity of others. Make no mistake, no single group escapes the learning curve as it faces the complexity of living in a true democracy. No group has possession of all virtues.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand." Although Abraham Lincoln's words from 1858 describe the undisputed effect to a young nation suffering the sickness of human bondage and not partisan alignment, America is now suffering because of selfish, divisive thinking once more. Left unchecked, the hatred and outright loathing directed at people because they choose to disagree or choose to support an opposing view will breed further animosity that will erode the character of a once-great nation.

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