Deliberation requires listening to other people. Political polarization involves both the way we look at people on the other side, as well as ideas on that side.
Political discourse has always had a shadowy component, all the way back to Thomas Paine’s pamphleteering in favor of American independence. But nothing has empowered casual vitriol in the Internet age like the pressure on news organizations to publish any and all anonymous feedback. This has scaled up our ability to express political hate with astonishing efficiency.
Before you dismiss this as harmless chatter, consider a 2014 article in the academic journal Personality and Individual Differences, titled “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun.” Three Canadian psychologists found that habitual Internet commenting is strongly correlated with hateful personality pathologies. The total amount of time spent posting comments online correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. And this held especially true for those who relished “trolling,” the anonymous posting of negative and destructive comments. The 5 percent of participants who listed trolling as their favorite activity earned the highest scores on those unsavory psychological measures.At Commentary, Peter Wehner writes:
I recently wrote about confirmation bias and the limits of human knowledge. In that discussion, I observed that in politics the desire to defend our “team” is often an even more powerful inducement to ignore contrary arguments than the desire to confirm our own personal assumptions.
In response to that post, I received a note from Whit Ayres, a prominent Republican pollster and political consultant. He alerted me to a polling experiment (sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center) that he had done in 2013 with Mark Mellman, a Democratic public opinion researcher and communications strategist. Mr. Mellman wrote about their findings in The Hill. They are fascinating:
We presented respondents with two different education plans, the details of which are unimportant in this context. What is important is that half the sample was told A was the Democratic plan and B was the Republican plan, while the other half of our national sample was told A was the Republican plan and B was the Democrats’ approach.
The questions dealt with substantive policy on a subject quite important to most Americans — education — and issues that people are familiar with — class size, teacher pay and the like.
Nonetheless, when the specifics in Plan A were presented as the Democratic plan and B as the Republican plan, Democrats preferred A by 75 percent to 17 percent, and Republicans favored B by 13 percent to 78 percent. When the exact same elements of A were presented in the exact same words, but as the Republicans’ plan, and with B as the Democrats’ plan, Democrats preferred B by 80 percent to 12 percent, while Republicans preferred “their party’s plan” by 70 percent to 10 percent. Independents split fairly evenly both times. In short, support for an identical education plan shifted by more than 60 points among partisans, depending on which party was said to back it. [emphasis added]
The Ayres and Mellman survey is ingenious because it empirically revealed an uncomfortable reality: the views many of us hold are largely dictated by partisanship and ideological affiliations rather than intellectual rigor. Everything needs to fit into well-worn grooves, into familiar categories, into pre-existing patterns. This in turn leads to an almost chronic unwillingness to revisit and refine long-held positions. Our thinking on matters of politics and philosophy and faith not only can become lazy; it can easily ossify. It may be worth asking yourself (and me asking myself): In the last 15-20 years, on what issues of importance have you changed your mind, re-calibrated your thinking, or even attempted to take a fresh look at? Or has every event, serious study, and new set of facts merely confirmed what you already knew? To put it another way: do you think you’ve ever been wrong?