It's confirmation bias all the way down when it comes to political divisiveness.
Only those who kill with malice aforethought should be put to death. That's a viewpoint I've had for almost my whole adult life.
I am well aware of the long-running argument regarding capital punishment. Over the years, I've made it a point to study the numerous contradicting research on the practice's efficacy. But it didn't matter to me whether or not killing convicted criminals has a deterrence effect: I wanted to see justice done.
I'm a peaceful person by nature, and I haven't smacked someone in anger since I was a teenager. But my understanding of what is right is shaped by what I would want to do if someone wilfully killed my wife, another family member, or a close friend: inflict barbarous atonement for a barbaric deed. One of the major goals of state-sanctioned executions has been to prevent blood feuds between people who might otherwise seek justice on their own.
I wasn't the only one who advocated for the death penalty for murderers. During the first decade of this century, Gallup found that 66 percent of Americans (a majority of both parties) supported the death sentence for convicted murderers. However, by 2020, that percentage had plummeted to 55%. Over the last two decades, Gallup has documented a widening divide between Republicans and Democrats on the topic, with a solid 80 percent of Republicans still preferring the death sentence, while Democratic support has slipped to around 40 percent.
Despite the recent change in the percentages, the outrage about the rising party difference on the death penalty has been muted compared to the growing polarization on topics like firearms, affirmative action, climate change, and vaccines. According to research, Americans are increasingly aligning their opinions on hot-button topics along party lines, and once committed, they are more likely to remain to those beliefs.
If you belong to one of the two major political parties in the United States today, you are statistically more likely to despise and distrust members of the other party. While your feelings for your own political party haven't changed in recent years, your dislike for the other has. You are wary of news sources favored by the other party. Its followers are becoming increasingly alien to you: not simply in terms of partisanship, but also in terms of social, cultural, economic, and even ethnic qualities. In certain ways, you may even consider them subhuman.
You're also likely to be mistaken about the traits of the other party's members, what they genuinely think, and even how they feel about you. However, the psychological repercussions of confirmation bias have imprisoned you in a partisan jail. When presented with facts that contradict your previously held beliefs, it does not change them; in fact, it may reaffirm them. Partisans who demonize the opposing party inadvertently behave in the norm-breaking and game-rigging ways they think their opponents would. It's a classic vicious loop that's getting worse.
It also confines people to their pre-existing worldviews. As a libertarian, I am unconcerned with traditional left/right party divides on many public policy matters. But, as my dissatisfaction with the death sentence grew, I discovered an unusually strong aversion to openly changing my mind and reneging on previous pledges on the subject. Why is it so difficult to confess when you're wrong, particularly in politics?
Affective polarization is a phrase used by social scientists to explain the phenomenon mentioned above. In the United States, this refers to the rising animosity and distrust between Democrats and Republicans.
Eli Finkel, a psychologist at Northwestern University, and his colleagues have been trying to record this behavior with a thermometer since 1978. They discovered that people felt rather warmly about their co-partisans, regularly responding between 70 and 75 degrees on a scale of cold (0 degrees) to warm (100 degrees), by asking them to express their sentiments on a range of cold (0 degrees) to warm (100 degrees). Feelings for opposing partisans, on the other hand, have dropped from a pleasant 48 degrees in the 1970s to a chilly 20 degrees today, signaling an emotional chill. "Out-party hatred has been greater than in-party love since 2012—for the first time on record," they write in Science on October 30, 2020.
Several more studies, like those by Louisiana State University political scientist Nathan Kalmoe and University of Maryland political scientist Lilliana Mason, show the repercussions of this large cold. In a 2017–18 study, 60 percent to 70 percent of respondents in both parties felt the other party was a "major threat to the United States and its people," and 40 percent of respondents in both parties said the other party was "downright wicked." According to another survey, 15% of Republicans and 20% of Democrats felt that the country would be better off if huge numbers of opposing partisans in the public now "simply perished." Violence would be justifiable if the opposition party won the 2020 presidential election, according to 18% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans.
Such studies suggest that there is something substantially different about the virulence of partisan sentiment in recent years and that the trend isn't going away.
Why are Americans becoming more critical of their political adversaries? People may be receiving signals from political leaders to some level. Examining Democratic and Republican legislators' roll call votes since the 1970s demonstrates a sharp rise in party division in Congress. Texas Tech political scientist Kevin K. Banda and University of Massachusetts Lowell political scientist John Cluverius found that "partisans respond to increasing levels of elite polarization by expressing higher levels of affective polarization, i.e. more negative evaluations of the opposing party relative to their own" in a 2018 Electoral Studies article on how party elite polarization affects voters.
Steven Webster and Alan Abramowitz of Emory University have been following the rising mutual animosity between Democratic and Republican supporters, and they believe that the widening ideological divide between Republican and Democratic Party leaders is leading to greater party polarization.
Furthermore, partisanship used to be less closely linked to other social and political differences. Mason and Nicholas Davis, a political scientist at Louisiana State University, studied survey data from YouGov/Polimetrix and the American National Election Studies from 1948 to 2012. The two academics conclude in a 2015 working paper that "The more closely our religious, racial, and partisan identities are tied, the more closely our political parties correspond to our ideological identities. This rise in ideological consistency is accompanied by a rise in partisanship and intolerance among voters."
Partisans vastly overstate the substantial distinctions between members of the two parties, notwithstanding the widening ideological divide.
In a 2015 YouGov survey, respondents reckoned that 32 percent of Democrats are LGBT, 29 percent are atheists or agnostics, and 39 percent belong to unions; the right figures are really 6, 9, and 11 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, they estimated that 38 percent of Republicans earn over $250,000 per year, 39 percent are over age 65, and 42 percent are evangelicals; actually, just 2 percent earn that much, 21 percent are senior citizens, and 34 percent are evangelicals.
Both Democrats and Republicans frequently exaggerate how much their opponents despise them. On a scale of 0 (least evolved) to 100 (most advanced), Republicans assessed their fellow Republicans' humanity at roughly 85 points, while Democrats rated it at 62 points, a 23-point gap. Democrats, on the other hand, gave 83 points to their political colleagues and only 62 points to Republicans, a 21-point gap. Even more intriguing, Democrats predicted that Republicans would award them just 36 points (26 points fewer than the actual amount), but Republicans predicted that Democrats would grant them only 28 points (34 points less than the true number).
"Democrats and Republicans equally dislike and dehumanize each other," concluded the University of Pennsylvania political scientist Samantha Moore-Berg and her colleagues in a 2020 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "but think that the levels of prejudice and dehumanization held by the outgroup party are approximately twice as strong as actually reported by a representative sample of Democrats and Republicans."
One of the more dire consequences of this exaggerated meta-perception—the perception partisans have of the other side's perception of them—is that it seems to make people more willing to support illiberal and antidemocratic policies, such as curbs on free speech and political participation.
Moore-Berg's findings were essentially replicated in a 2021 study by the University of California Santa Barbara social scientist Alexander Landry and his colleagues, who further found that "despite the socially progressive and egalitarian outlook traditionally associated with liberalism, the most liberal Democrats actually expressed the greatest dehumanization of Republicans." Democrats also expressed greater antidemocratic outgroup spite than Republicans.
Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik, Yale political scientists, performed studies in which they asked partisans if they would still support their party's standard-bearers if those standard-bearers campaigned for policies that violate democratic principles. One of the plans is a redistricting plan that would give their own party two additional seats despite a drop in polls, as well as a proposal to lower the number of voting stations in regions where the opposing party is strong. Only a tiny fraction of people withheld their support from officials from their own parties who broke such conventions, according to the study. "To put it frankly," they write, "our estimations suggest that a majority-party candidate might openly violate one of the democratic ideals we evaluated and yet get away with it in the great majority of U.S. House districts."
According to Kalmoe and Mason, about 20 percent of both Democrats and Republicans agreed that if their own parties break a few rules to oppose the other party, it's because they need to do it for the sake of the country.
Given that many of these views about the opposing party are mistaken, would more accurate information help solve the problem? Unfortunately, a large body of research shows that political partisans tend to see what they want to see when confronted with data and that they tend to seek out information that confirms their previously held views, even when the cost to doing so is clear.
In a 2012 experiment, partisan viewers were shown the same protest video. "When participants thought that the video depicted liberally-minded protesters (i.e. opposing military recruitment on campus), Republicans were more in favor of a police intervention than Democrats, whereas the opposite emerged when participants thought the video showed a conservative protest (i.e. opposing an abortion clinic)," observed the New York University psychologist Jay J. Van Bavel and the Leiden University psychologist Andrea Pereira in a 2018 Trends in Cognitive Science article. "Faced with the same visual information, people seem to have seen different things and drawn different conclusions depending on their political affiliations."
Is it true, however, that partisans view things differently? Perhaps they're more interested in cheering for their team than expressing genuine convictions. In a 2020 paper for Political Epistemology, University of Nottingham philosopher Michael Hannon explores this theory. In January 2017, he conducted a study of almost 1,400 Americans. Half of the respondents were shown photographs of crowds on the National Mall during Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural and Donald Trump's 2017 inauguration, simply designated A and B. For each president, they were asked which photo portrayed the audience. The photo with the bigger crowd, which was actually from the Obama inaugural, was deemed to portray the Trump inauguration by 41% of Trump backers. Only 8% of Hillary Clinton supporters chose the incorrect photo. The researchers argue that it is likely that Trump voters picked the photo with the larger crowd as a way to express their partisan loyalties and show their support for him.
The researchers also asked the other half of the respondents which photo they thought best represented the bigger crowd. One of the answers was unmistakably right. However, Trump supporters were seven times more likely (15%) than Clinton supporters (2%) to believe that the less crowded photo of Trump's inauguration had more people. Surprisingly, 26% of Trump backers with college degrees got the question wrong. "When a Republican claims that there are more people in Trump's inaugural photo, they are not truly disputing with those who assert otherwise." "They're merely cheerleaders," Hannon contends. "People are merely asserting facts to demonstrate their devotion to a specific ideological community."
Partisan cheering appears to be harmless—after all, isn't it similar to supporters rooting for a local football team? Nope. "We cannot interact with each other's perspectives if our disputes are not based on actual reasons or arguments," Hannon claims." If team loyalty is the main thing, then the upshot for Hannon is that "we cannot decrease polarization by reasoned debate."
A 2015 study in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science sought to distinguish partisan cheerleading from sincere partisan divergence. The Northwestern University political scientist John Bullock and his colleagues found that offering participants small payments for giving correct and "don't know" answers to politically salient questions reduced the partisan gap between Republicans and Democrats by about 80 percent.
"To the extent that factual beliefs are determined by partisanship, paying partisans to answer correctly should not affect their responses to factual questions. But it does," they observe. "We find that even modest payments substantially reduce the observed gaps between Democrats and Republicans, which suggests that Democrats and Republicans do not hold starkly different beliefs about many important facts." Based on these results, the researchers urge analysts of public opinion to "consider the possibility that the appearance of polarization in American politics is, to some extent, an artifact of survey measurement rather than evidence of real and deeply held differences in assessments of facts."
On the other side, Texas A&M political scientist Erik Peterson and Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar ran a series of tests. They asked Republican and Democratic partisans to evaluate the truth of claims about several hot-button issues, such as "illegal immigrants commit violent crime at a significantly higher rate than legal American citizens," and "40 percent of firearm sales in the United States occur without a background check," as they report in a 2021 article for the American Journal of Political Science. (In both circumstances, the proper response was no.) According to the study, 97 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of Republicans got the proper answer when it came to immigration crime. However, just 22% of Democrats correctly answered the question on gun purchases, compared to 56% of Republicans.
Peterson and Iyengar also gave respondents access to various news sources so that they could check for additional information on whether their beliefs were accurate. These included sources identifiably associated with both liberal and conservative partisan loyalties, so-called mainstream sources, and expert sources from peer-reviewed journals. Some 29 percent turned to co-partisan sources, 26 percent to expert sources, 38 percent to mainstream sources, and only 7 percent to out-party sources.
Another group of respondents was given a minor monetary incentive as well as access to numerous news sources in exchange for submitting accurate responses. "Roughly 60 to 70% of the initial political disparities remain" even with the incentive, they discovered. That supports some cheering, but it also implies that the majority of partisans really accept false assertions.
If unincentivized partisans are largely cheerleaders, Peterson and Iyengar reasoned, then when they are compensated to offer an accurate answer, dependence on friendly partisan news sources should drop. Partisans' preferences for skewed information, on the other hand, would be unaffected by a financial incentive if they are certain that their replies are already right. "The incentives have no influence whatsoever on news choice," Peterson and Iyengar write.
Nearly 900 people volunteered to have their daily media diets recorded via an app installed on their computers as part of Peterson and Iyengar's investigation. These participants also tended to rely on news sources that validated their political beliefs when they were out in the wild.
Political sectarians have plenty of opportunities to find information that confirms their ideological predispositions and disparages their opponents' views thanks to the proliferation of self-consciously partisan broadcast media like Fox and MSNBC, as well as partisan gathering places on social media platforms. "Both liberals and conservatives were prejudiced in favor of information that corroborated their political ideas, and the two groups were biased to fairly comparable degrees," according to a study of 51 research published in Perspectives on Psychological Science in 2019.
"Our studies indicate that partisans are genuinely committed to the inaccurate beliefs they report in surveys," Peterson and Iyengar conclude. It's confirmation bias all the way down.
Maybe the way out of this quagmire is to examine why partisans believe their views are correct in the first place and why they're so sure their opponents are wrong.
Hrishikesh Joshi, a philosopher at Bowling Green State University, did just that in a 2020 paper called "What Are the Chances You're Right About Everything?" He begins by listing nine highly politicized propositions: abortion is wrong; a carbon tax to address global warming is a good idea; illegal immigration is a serious problem; homosexual couples should be allowed to marry; the federal minimum wage should be raised; controls on gun ownership should be increased; racial affirmative action in college admissions is not justified; African Americans are unfairly targeted by police; and there are too many regulations on U.S. businesses.
Joshi contends that these propositions are orthogonal—that is, your position on one doesn't necessarily commit you to any particular position with respect to the others. Your stance on abortion rights should not, as a matter of pure logic, suggest anything about your views on climate change. And yet we all know that by quizzing people about their views on a couple of hot-button political issues, we can often figure out where they stand on the rest of Joshi's list of nine. If they support gun control, they are likely to favor affirmative action. If they don't support gun control, they are likely to think business is overregulated.
"Since the two sides disagree with respect to a host of political issues," Joshi writes, "one side's getting it consistently right entails that the other side is getting things consistently wrong." Somehow, each side's political opponents "succeed in consistently getting the wrong answer with respect to a large domain of rationally separable political questions!" If that were so, argues Joshi, those opponents would be not just unreliable but anti-reliable: They would reliably choose the wrong answer on each separate issue. He challenges partisans to "identify psychological differences between conservatives and liberals that can plausibly ground an explanation of why one side is anti-reliable with respect to the issues of partisan disagreement."
Joshi himself explores various ways that this could happen. One possibility is that they are systematically wrong because they share a core false belief.
As an example, Joshi posits a libertarian belief in a limited-government night-watchman state. For proponents of an extensive social welfare state, such a libertarian would be anti-reliable with respect to funding universal health care, generous unemployment insurance schemes, and subsidized housing for low-income individuals. But as Joshi points out, these issues are related to the libertarian's core belief and so are not orthogonal—that is, they are rationally related to one another.
Other factors for political opponents' unreliability are considered by Joshi. Is one side of the political spectrum more intellectual than the other? Not at all. Joshi cites a 2019 study titled "(Ideo)Logical Reasoning: Ideology Impairs Sound Reasoning," which found that liberals and conservatives alike have a tendency to disregard the soundness of classically structured logical syllogisms in order to reach conclusions that support their already held political beliefs. (He also mentions a 2018 study by Danish psychologists that found that more cognitive capacity predicts more social liberalism but more economic conservatism, a combination that libertarians may recognize.)
Joshi points out that recent research shows neither liberals nor conservatives fear scientific knowledge, but that increased science literacy is linked to more divided attitudes on matters like climate change and stem cell research. To put it another way, better scientific understanding may make it easier to defend opinions based on nonscientific considerations.
Another alternative is that your opponents are continually incorrect on political problems because they are enslaved by a perverse set of morality. However, according to a research published in Political Psychology in 2018, "Deep Alignment with Country or Political Party Shrinks the Gap Between Conservatives' and Liberals' Moral Ideals," liberals and conservatives have similar moral foundations and values.
Liberals and conservatives, on the whole, do not express themselves in fundamentally different ways. And, according to Joshi, this implies that partisans are unable to explain why their opponents must be untrustworthy.
"It is not plausible to suppose that there are some people who are in general drawn toward falsity," concurs the University of Colorado philosopher Michael Huemer. "Even if there are people who are not very good at getting to the truth (they are stupid, or irrational, etc.), their beliefs should be, at worst, unrelated to the truth; they should not be systematically directed away from the truth. Thus, while there could be a 'true cluster' of political beliefs, the present consideration strongly suggests that neither the liberal nor the conservative belief-cluster is it."
Joshi admits that his arguments concerning opponents' unreliability do not apply to libertarians, Marxists, or those who base their political beliefs on a central principle. (Five of the nine proposals Joshi cites are ones I agree with.) Instead, his theory applies to partisans who are sure in practically all of their beliefs on one side or the other of the traditional right/left divide. "The partisan's problem isn't just that someone disagrees with her," Joshi contends. "The issue is that political ideas are dispersed over the population in such a manner that it's extremely improbable that a partisan's beliefs are entirely or largely correct." This suggests that partisans should lose confidence in their positions.
Joshi suggests that partisans seek out and engage with the best arguments for their opponents' convictions. His recommendation mirrors John Stuart Mill's admonition in On Liberty: "He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion."
In an intriguing 2020 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, a team of Duke psychologists notes that "Americans have become increasingly likely to dislike, distrust, and derogate their ideological opponents on contemporary social and political issues." Why? Perhaps partisans assume that their opponents do not have good reasons for their views, leading them to believe their opponents must be intellectually or morally deficient. What would happen, the Duke researchers wondered, if we provided partisans with their opponents' arguments on such issues as concealed gun carry, mandatory body-worn cameras on police, and universal health care?
The good news is that when presented with reasons favoring their opponents' views, partisans were less likely to report that their opponents lacked intellectual ability or moral character. "Our results provide evidence that reasons serve a novel function distinct from persuasion, decision change, or acquiring knowledge," conclude the researchers. "Even if the consideration of opposing reasons does not induce a change in one's position, our results indicate that presenting opposing reasons might at least make people less likely to view their opponents negatively. This, in turn, might have the potential to make people more willing to listen to opponents and more willing to engage in genuine discussion with their opponents, which might have positive implications for compromise, fruitful deliberation, and the pursuit of a common good."
With all that in mind, let's turn back to the partisan split over the death penalty. For years I defended capital punishment in arguments with friends, colleagues, random people I met in bars, and my patient wife. Although I don't think I ever persuaded anyone to come around to my view, I hope that, since I was giving reasons for my position, at least some of my interlocutors concluded that I was not entirely lacking in intellect and morals.
Many of my opponents' desire to eliminate capital punishment stemmed from their abhorrence of state-sanctioned executions. They contended that modern civilized people could not support such barbarism. They were well aware that I did not share their viewpoint. As a result, they would cite research claiming that the death sentence does not deter killers. Of course, I tried to persuade them with the same kind of evidence—contrary study demonstrating that the death sentence deters would-be killers.
For years, these back-and-forth discussions did little to dampen my drive to exact vengeance on those who murdered others with premeditated brutality.
However, many of my opponents used one argument against the death sentence that wounded my conscience: the risk of an innocent person being mistakenly killed for a murder he or she did not commit. They would cite the growing number of prisoners exonerated after serving time on death row (now at 186), as proof. I had to acknowledge that this reality bothered me. Nonetheless, I would react by pointing out that none of the more than 1,500 persons who have been killed since the Supreme Court restored the death sentence as constitutional in 1976 have been decisively proven innocent.
Then, in 2021, delayed DNA testing of genetic material from Ledell Lee's murder weapon led to an unknown someone else. Lee was executed by the state of Arkansas four years ago for murder. Maybe he was guilty, but the evidence that the government murdered an innocent guy in his instance is pretty convincing.
My passion for vengeance has not waned in the least. But the reasons advanced by friends, coworkers, random bar customers, and, yes, my wife over the years have ultimately persuaded me that the death sentence cannot be applied fairly. It was a mistake on my part to endorse it.
It was excruciatingly difficult for me to change my position on this subject, despite the fact that I was joining my fellow libertarians, who, for the most part, reject the state's application of the death sentence, thus I had little at lose in terms of my other past commitments.
Affective polarization between parties in the United States is expanding, according to both everyday experience and political science statistics. The fact that many Americans prefer to seek out facts and arguments that reinforce their existing beliefs while dismissing contrary data helps to maintain and widen the political gap.
Joshi convincingly refutes the idea that one part of the traditional right/left political spectrum is likely to be correct on every subject. As a result, he advises partisans to be less certain of their positions and to seek out and engage their opponents' greatest arguments. In fact, other promising new study shows that when partisans are supplied with grounds to support their opponents' viewpoints, they think more positively of them. The issue is: How probable is it that today's partisans would stop yelling past one other long enough to see that the other side could have a point?
Even in the absence of substantial emotional polarization, it took decades for my friends and colleagues to convince me that I was wrong about the death penalty. This is not a good omen.