Saturday, December 22, 2018

A new theory for why Republicans and Democrats see the world differently

My experience is that liberals can be fooled by misinformation, but when they are given correct information, they are much more likely than conservatives to accept the correct information.

By Ezra Klein Dec 18, 2018, 8:50am EST

“Of the many factors that make up your worldview, one is more fundamental than any other in determining which side of the divide you gravitate toward: your perception of how dangerous the world is. Fear is perhaps our most primal instinct, after all, so it’s only logical that people’s level of fearfulness informs their outlook on life.”

That’s political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, writing in their book Prius or Pickup, which marshals a massive trove of survey data and experimental evidence to argue that the roots of our political divides run so deep that they make us almost incomprehensible to one another. Our political divisions, they say, aren’t about policy disagreements, or even demographics. They’re about something more ancient in how we view the world.


There’s a paragraph in your book I’ve been thinking about since I read it. You write, “America has had [political parties] basically forever and the country hasn’t always been polarized. For political parties to be polarizing, people need to feel that particular identity intensely.”


Importantly, most Americans didn’t have intense commitments on this question. In addition, party elites could compromise across it. Hence, the political conflict spawned by it wasn’t rancorous most of the time.

That changed in the late 20th century, accelerating into the present day. The dividing line between the parties was no longer a philosophy about governing (a political ideology — more or less government). It evolved into differences in philosophy about life (a worldview — is the world a basically safe place to explore, or is it a dangerous snake pit to hunker down against).

If you think the world is dangerous, safety is always the No. 1 concern. When it comes to physical safety, letting your guard down against adversaries could be disastrous. If you think the world is safe, however, discriminating against groups that have generally been down the racial, gender, or sexual orientation hierarchy is the real sin.


Today’s political acrimony results from Americans’ worldviews becoming married to their partisanship. Because people’s worldviews organize their whole life — not just the political part of it — a party identity defined by them produces intense conflict. Opposing worldviews have always existed in America (and probably since humans have been around). What is new is that they are now mapped neatly onto Americans’ party identities.

Evidence is everywhere. The clear theme of the 2016 GOP convention was that life in 21st-century American is perilous. “American carnage” was central to Trump’s inaugural. His recent statement on standing with Saudi Arabia literally began with, “The world is a very dangerous place!”

When Democrats see, hear, and read these things, they just don’t get it. Although they see danger, it is in the form of Republicans who perceive people who look or sound different as threats to national security. Modern-day Democrats see old traditions that discriminate against minorities, women, and LGBT people as the real threats to American life.

The reality that the world is actually safer hardly matters. What matters to today’s politics is that the bases of the two parties see it much differently.


You argue that there’s an asymmetry in truth-seeking between the two sides — that “misperceptions about climate change, crime rates, and the side effects of vaccinations all find their staunchest defenders on the political right, rather than the left.” You go on to say that “evidence is piling up that those on the political right seem to have a stronger tendency to take steps to buttress their worldview than those on the political left.”


You express a concern about being seen as “insulting and biased” to conservatives, a concern we share. But it seems an asymmetric one. When did you last observe conservatives worrying that about exaggerating liberal pathologies? Regardless, we don’t argue there is some “problem” with conservative Americans. The problem starts with conservative leaders.


For things to change, something must supplant these primal worldviews as the dividing line between the parties. That impetus must come from the top. Leaders set the grounds of debate. Ordinary people follow their lead. Democrats, for their part, seem to be trying. In focusing on health care and wages in 2018, they are making the dividing line about the size of government. It is a winning strategy.

I worry, though, that politics divided by worldview may be the natural state of things. We just didn’t realize that because we grew up in an anomalous time when the divide was about the size of government. Looking back over centuries, politics has almost always been fought between forces who favor the traditional and those who favor modernity. Governments didn’t have the resources to do much, so it couldn’t be the central source of division. We’ve gone back to the future.

As chapter seven of our book shows, the same process is playing out in Europe. Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil suggests the same thing there. It is not a happy story.

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