Sunday, June 23, 2019


The group More in Common has published the results of a new study that they've conducted, and it shows that, basically, Democrats and Republicans don't really understand what the "other side" thinks, in that they tend to ascribe a higher percentage of "extreme" views to the opposite party than polling bears out. For me, this is the rough equivalent of a study that informs us that water is wet. While I have a number of politically engaged friends and acquaintances, they don't really share their political viewpoints with me, outside of the occasional browbeating about which candidates they want me to vote for. And so where they stand on, for instance, whether most police officers are bad people or if properly controlled immigration will strengthen the nation are mysteries to me. Our conversations don't turn on such topics.

What I can usually put my finger on is the degree to which my friends trust corporate America. And the answer to that question is: not much. A surprising (to me, anyway) number of my friends have a deeply conspiratorial mindset when it comes to how businesses operate. And there is, to a degree, a similar conspiracy-minded view of politics, especially among some of the more politically engaged people I know. The idea that "the other side's" policies were designed to advance some hateful backroom scheme is fairly prevalent.

More in Common's research appears to bear this out. When asked to assess whether the other were "Brainwashed," "Hateful" or "Racist," large numbers of Democrats and Republicans alike were willing to lay these judgements. Republicans were slightly more charitable than Democrats, except when it came to assessing racism, where they were significantly less likely to call out Democrats than vice versa. Still, 71% of Republicans were willing to describe Democrats as racists, so that may not be as hopeful a sign as could be wished for.

David Brooks once pointed out that a lot of what is at work in the divide between liberal and conservative viewpoints in the United States, whether applied to domestic or international affairs, has simply to do with where and how people live, and thus what they understand is most useful for them. "Blue America" tends to live in areas of high population density, where the externalities of individual behavior are everyday things. "Red America," on the other hand, being less dense, has more concern with being able to do what they need to in order to look after themselves. To the degree what systems that work well for one group tend to make life difficult when applied to the other, there is a friction. And when people see that friction as intentional, anger develops. Understanding one another better would help bridge this gap, I believe, even though I understand that many people see half-measures and compromises as the same as inaction.

More in Common tends to somewhat disagree with my assumption that people understanding one another, and the problems that people are attempting to solve, would lead to a less-fractured polity:

That is because our analysis reveals a powerful polarization ecosystem that thrives off of outrage and division. Traditional media, social media platforms, friend networks, political candidates and consultants benefit from dividing Americans, exaggerating disagreements and inciting conflict. These forces of division must be held to account.
And this is where the whole exercise took a turn towards the ironic. As near as I can tell, the problem has never been that people don't want to be unified, it's that they believe that there are people who directly benefit from deliberately creating problems and blocking solutions. At the same time, people see themselves as above being taken in. The reason why 86% of Republicans are willing to describe Democrats as "Brainwashed," and 88% of Democrats are willing to return the favor isn't that they are unaware of "traditional media, social media platforms, friend networks, political candidates and consultants." It's that they're secure in their own objectivity and that of people who agree with them, and so it's only those who don't see the world properly who are being fooled. And this is perfectly reasonable; who would want to believe that their friends and the candidates they support for elective office are effectively colluding to make fools of them?

In this, More in Common's invocation of vague "forces of division" drives the very judgements of bad intention, poor character and limited discernment that they decry. According to More in Common's numbers, even though 86% percent of Republicans believe that Democrats are "Brainwashed," 31% of them also believe that Democrats are "Caring." As these numbers together add up to 117%, there must be some overlap. Even the less charitable opinions of Democrats about Republicans result in the numbers adding up to 107%. From this, we can guess that at least about one in six Republicans and at least about one in fourteen Democrats may believe that there are some number of their "opposites" that are caring people, brainwashed by "élites," because they don't understand that the people they receive their information from "benefit from dividing Americans, exaggerating disagreements and inciting conflict." In other words, they're blind to the conspiracy that manipulates them.

The message that "there are enemies; people just have to know who they really are," very often becomes "there are enemies; other people just have to know who they really are." In Yascha Mounk's column in The Atlantic that reports on the More in Common study, he notes:
What is corroding American politics is, specifically, negative partisanship: Although most liberals feel conflicted about the Democratic Party, they really hate the Republican Party. And even though most conservatives feel conflicted about the Republican Party, they really hate the Democratic Party.
And this makes perfect sense. If you understand a partisan apparatus of traditional media outlets, social media networks, groups of "friends," candidates chosen by powerful élites and consultants employed by the same exaggerating disagreements by portraying you as an extremist so as to divide the country and incite conflicts and, in the process turning people with the capacity to be honest, reasonable and caring into brainwashed, hateful racists, what's wrong with hating that? What's wrong with hating people who are deliberately sowing unnecessary dissension for their own benefit?

Once people understand that there are bad people in the world around them, they will look for them and they will likely find them. And not only in the places that one might want them to.

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