Hope and Change

Despite the seemingly constant claims of the political rhetoric, I don’t expect the economy to improve dramatically after the election no matter which presidential candidate wins.  The inherent problems are real and the risks are high.  Moreover, presidents have far less control over the economy than is commonly assumed.  There are no silver bullet solutions available.

If we are to expect real political progress on economic issues going forward, the current political dysfunction needs to be altered.  I propose three starting points for fixing things.

1. Assume good faith unless and until the lack of it is clearly demonstrated.  We live in a politically polarized time.  The divisiveness is both pervasive and corrosive.  Partisans are convinced that their positions aren’t really debatable.  Indeed, they think (assume even) that their opinions are objectively and obviously true.  After all, if we didn’t think our positions were true, we wouldn’t hold them.  As Jeffrey Friedman has reminded me, Walter Lippmann made this case almost a century ago:

Where two factions see vividly each its own aspect, and contrive their own explanations of what they see, it is almost impossible for them to credit each other with honesty. If the pattern fits their experience at a crucial point, they no longer look upon it as an interpretation. They look upon it as ‘reality.’

In other words, we think our opponents are suppressing or denying the obvious truth.   

Because the base-case assumption — steeped in bias blindness — is that those on the “other side” are not generally acting in good faith, the necessary conclusion is that they must be stupid, delusional or dishonest (for example, see here, here and here – and note the comments). I don’t mean to suggest that politics is not fraught with deception and fraud.  But these should not be our default assumptions.  We should never underestimate the power of confirmation bias or bias blindness

We increasingly couch political and policy arguments in moral terms.  As cognitive psychologist Robert Siegler has argued, we now tend to see elections as more crusade than choice.  But if we are to have any hope of seeing leaders with different viewpoints working together to solve problems, it ought to start with the idea that those who disagree are generally people of goodwill acting in good faith for what they see as the good of the country.  In other words, they may be wrong, but they aren’t necessarily (or even likely to be) stupid, delusional or evil.  Recognition of the reality and the power of our behavioral biases would provide a good start toward making some progress toward a political process that actually works.

2. Commit to the idea that data trumps ideology. We all like to think that we act like impartial judges, making decisions only after a careful weighing of all the evidence. But that is rarely what happens, as the behavioral research establishes beyond doubt.  We are much more like lawyers, scavenging for whatever arguments we can find that might help, irrespective of relevance or accuracy.

Our overriding tendency is to concoct belief systems based upon incomplete evidence or even out of whole cloth and then to set out looking for evidence to confirm what we have already decided. Moreover, we are not anything like objective. We interpret the evidence we do examine in ways that tend to support our prior commitments. We are ideologues through and through. 

Per Friedman, when properly conceived, political and policy questions most often resolve into questions of fact or factual interpretation.  That is not to say that politics does not involve clashes of values.  But they are far less frequent than we assume.  And factual claims are much more conducive to discourse, debate and compromise than moral assertions.

Because we are such ideologues, it can be exceedingly difficult for us to come to the realization generally and (especially) in specific cases that careful factual analysis can answer most questions.  But if we are to succeed as individuals and as a nation, especially with respect to difficult and contentious issues, we must commit to a data-driven process that requires that our political actions and decisions be based upon what can be demonstrated factually rather than upon our ideological presumptions (of whatever stripe).

3. Demand that partisans explain why they hold their views and why we should expect them to work. As Steven Sloman, a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University recently pointed out in The New York Times, the “illusion of explanatory depth” (an idea developed by the Yale psychologist Frank Keil and his students) means that we typically believe that we understand how complex systems work even (perhaps especially) when we don’t. It is not until we are asked to explain how such a system works that we come to realize how little we actually know.

Significantly, it is not good enough merely to ask people to justify their positions.  Indeed, discussion and argument generally harden positions and make people less likely to alter their views.  To have an impact on their understanding and thus their behavior, we must ask them to explain the mechanisms by which a policy could and would work.  When we do, those with limited understanding tend to moderate their views.  In other words, by demanding a data-driven explanatory process, we increase the likelihood of compromise and perhaps even consensus.  As the expression goes, we’re all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.

I hasten to add that these three approaches won’t help much if the political factions and the political actors that represent them continue to refuse to engage in substantive dialogue, to resist even the idea of compromise and to see recalcitrance as being in their best political interest.  Even so, no matter how naïve I may be for saying so, these three ideas would offer – like the old joke about 100 dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean – a really good start.

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This post is a follow-up to last week’s Bias Blindness and Political Polarization.

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