By Chris Sick
The United States is an undeniably strange place to live, even on the best of days, but never more so than during an election. I’d love to not mention Donald Trump in one of my columns, but it’s becoming difficult to talk about upcoming elections or politics and ignore his domination of the Republican polls. As of this writing, he led his closest rival by about 14 points.
Trump confounds political pundits and analysts, and his position in the polls defies all their expectations. I’ve given up hope that I’ll somehow explain his popularity when most of the political press has spectacularly failed. For my purposes, however, he’s a useful example of the divisions and partisanship that’s poisoning the discourse and turning disagreements into existential battles between and within both parties.
Trump frequently is described as a “polarizing figure,” a polite way to say that half the country thinks he’s completely, round-the-bend, crazy. Which also is a useful summation of how partisans feel about their political opposition. So that raises an interesting question. If half of the 244 million adults living in this country think the other half is completely insane, regardless of which half you agree with, it seems pretty likely they can’t both be right.
If half the country believes something, it is by definition within the realm of mainstream politics. It is hard to describe something so many people subscribe to as beyond-the-pale insane. Examining the most recent controversies in the news, be it Planned Parenthood or Black Lives Matter or the Iran Nuclear Deal, all serve as examples of fierce partisan disagreement. And a constant theme is not just mild controversy, but insistence from each side that the other is amoral, incorrect, and outright lying.
These are not simply debates of differing opinion. The disagreements surrounding abortion are completely intractable, both in the sense that there is no compromise position which could be found between the different factions, but that opinions have remained fairly constant over time. Today’s debate is grounded in the fact that opponents of Planned Parenthood view the sting videos as proof positive of criminal activity on the part of the organization, while defenders insist they show no such thing.
To be clear, defining what is and is not a crime isn’t always a clear-cut empirical act; jury trials exist for exactly this reason. But when (roughly) half the population sees one fact in a video and the other doesn’t see it at all, we’re starting to get the sense of a bigger problem.
This is what scientists would call a known problem. Researchers ranging from psychologists to neurologists to philosophers to journalists have studied and examined the limitations of people’s ability to change their own minds and how easily they can be persuaded into tribal partisanship. The human brain, they suggest, is hardwired for tribal affiliation and resisting evidence that doesn’t confirm to a person’s underlying worldview.
One of the notable researchers on the subject is psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who devised a series of tests to determine how people reason through questions of morality. He found that morality is a reflexive instinct and not a rational process. That is, people frequently have instinctual moral responses to things that they cannot logically justify or explain, they just are. Their morality is ingrained.
Findings like this and the so-called Backfire Effect, the phenomenon of how people resist new information that challenges their beliefs, suggests a bleak picture for future elections. People are more greatly polarized and partisan than at any time in modern history, and their elected representatives are, well, representing them in the same way. Worse, recent studies find that people are less supportive of their party than ever before, but rally to support it due to an intense loathing of those they disagree with, what researchers call “negative partisanship.”
So where does that leave us as we head into next year’s election? More important – where does this leave me?
I argue. Constantly. Here at Blitz I write comprehensive arguments designed to explore and, ultimately, convince you that I have the correct position on whatever issue I’m covering. In school, I argue with classmates and professors. When I get bored I hunt up (bad/dumb) arguments on the Internet. My lifelong goal is to get paid to argue, without having to suffer law school.
You cannot possibly imagine how little fun I am at parties.
But at some point I have to ask, to what end? According to all of the research I’ve come across – and I should probably tell you I am not a scientist and not necessarily qualified to evaluate it – there virtually is no hope of convincing someone who disagrees with me to join my side of the argument.
And as disappointing as I might personally find that, the effects on national discourse and politics are probably far worse than my bruised ego. So why bother?
Well, the picture isn’t completely bleak. Researchers have found that they can encourage study participants to think of themselves as individuals, as opposed to partisans, through simple exercises. The results tend to break the partisan cycle, through simple priming that refocuses individuals outside of their partisan team.
For me, the suggestion is that maybe there’s something to be gained after all, maybe not so much through arguments, which come with the weight of determining who won them or not, but conversations. Individuals can converse, and recognize each other as individuals and find common ground and compromise. Maybe, then, the way to think of this column is not as an argument to be won by beating you over the head, but a conversation that’s ongoing and always developing.