Group Thank

I don’t think I’ve made my distaste for the two-party system much of a secret. As I’ve mentioned, it severely limits the scope of political options people feel comfortable taking, encourages clustering around positions that benefit the most powerful and gives the illusion that people can only have one of two opinions on any subject. But when this fact is presented to die-hard partisans, they counter with a large set of issues which differ sharply across party lines. This includes health care, abortion rights, women’s health and so on.

Ezra Klein wrote an editorial in the New Yorker a few months ago, which discussed the hive-mind-like characteristics of the two parties. Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt’s work with groups illuminates a crucial reason why disagreements across part lines are common, but are rarely seen within.

our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group’s interests, in competition with other groups. We are not saints, but we are sometimes good team players

He mentions how in 2007, both John McCain and Newt Gingrich were in favor of a cap-and-trade program to curb carbon emissions, a program which no self-respecting Republican would support today. And as we know, Romney supported a program strikingly similar to “Obamacare” when he was the governor of Massachusetts, a position which he doesn’t much like recalling these days. People within a given party will actively change their positions on various issues to conform with those who support them, which should be obvious. Under the guise of “cooperation” and “solidarity”, a large part of the politician’s job has become rationalizing and justifying political positions that they may or may not agree with.

Again, this is obvious. For all intents and purposes, politicians work for their political party. We’ve had a pretty good idea of this for a while. Whether it’s because the party is explicitly forcing politicians to agree with them, the politicians are too busy to hold their convictions for every issue that’s on the table, or some other reason, there’s a pretty small range of political opinions within part lines. But at least the American people don’t conform to these arbitrary party lines, right?

Wrong. You do, I do, we all do.

Understanding how we can be fooled by the bi-partisan illusion can hopefully shine light on the Congressional gridlock and extreme intolerance between Dems and the GOP. A psychological study run by Geoffery Cohen explains,

The students were shown two articles: one was a generic news story; the other described a proposed welfare policy. The first article was a decoy; it was the students’ reactions to the second that interested Cohen. He was actually testing whether party identifications influence voters when they evaluate new policies. To find out, he produced multiple versions of the welfare article. Some students read about a program that was extremely generous—more generous, in fact, than any welfare policy that has ever existed in the United States—while others were presented with a very stingy proposal. But there was a twist: some versions of the article about the generous proposal portrayed it as being endorsed by Republican Party leaders; and some versions of the article about the meagre program described it as having Democratic support. The results showed that, “for both liberal and conservative participants, the effect of reference group information overrode that of policy content. If their party endorsed it, liberals supported even a harsh welfare program, and conservatives supported even a lavish one.”

In other words, most of us judge programs primarily based on party lines, a mistake that I’ve definitely been guilty of. First of all, imagine that you’re a staunch Democrat, and you’re given a welfare proposal written by Newt Gingrich. Given the fact that no one can take that man seriously anymore, there’s at least a 70% chance that you’re not even going to read it. And even if you do, you’re going to be looking for reasons to hate it because you’ve come to expect only the most horrible things from Newt.

Continuing to assume that you’re a pinko Democrat commie, if Bernie Sanders were to submit that same welfare proposal, the probability of you reading it seriously and realistically sharply increases. For many Democrats, provisions that would have made you sick to your stomach if Gingrich proposed them, may seem reasonable now that Bernie suggested then. And even if you disagree with aspects of the plan, you’ll blame it on “the need for middle ground”, or simply assume that he has a good reason for his unusually right-of-center proposal.

Of course, this doesn’t hold true for everyone. Those knowledgeable about politics and economics are much more likely to be able to read such a proposal objectively, and are probably more willing to criticize those within their own party. But I find it extremely unbelievable that how the voted in the last election has no effect on their opinion.

People really don’t like being told that they don’t have complete control over their political opinions. But piles of evidence shows that our subconscious is pretty inept at filtering out information about the source of the information. Even choosing where to read/watch your news is a biased decision, which often times re-enforces political beliefs that you already held. And once again, I’m totally guilty of this. About 85% of my links come from the same 4-5 news sources.

This is yet another reason why the two-party system is destructive. Our intrinsic and possibly evolutionary traits cause us to assimilate many of our opinions to whichever group we choose to be in. If we had a dozen political parties, this wouldn’t be much of a problem. There still may be a few issues which we are forced to concede, but the variety of groups would allow us to match our views as well as possible. But these days, we have no choice but to choose our own disaster.

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One thought on “Group Thank

  1. […] The problem, as TCM points out with the deficit reduction issue, is that these differences of opinion coalesce around a very limited set of issues, and they’re only two among many possible opinions.  Our current version of two-party politics means that there are many issues on which there is bipartisan consensus and many that are just never addressed at all by either party.  And there are many other policy positions and possible solutions to social and political issues that are never raised because they lie outside the very limited realm of our two-party universe.  (My friend Jacob has discussed problems with the two-party system at greater length here and here.) […]

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