Bryan Caplan  

Irrational Partisans

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I just came across another fine essay by Brink Lindsey.  Highlight:
First, partisanship undermines clear thinking. Second, it undermines moral integrity. In both cases, the root cause is the same: the conflation of friend and foe with right and wrong.

Consider this pair of poll results cited by Andrew Gelman in his wonderful book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State. According to a survey conducted in March 2006, nearly 30 percent of Republicans believed not only that Iraq had possessed weapons of mass destruction, but that the U.S. military had actually found them. Meanwhile, in a May 2007 poll, 35 percent of Democrats expressed the view that President Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance.

It's not just that partisans are vulnerable to believing fatuous nonsense. It's that their beliefs, whether sensible or otherwise, about a whole range of empirical questions are determined by their political identity. There's no epistemologically sound reason why one's opinion about, say, the effects of gun control should predict one's opinion about whether humans have contributed to climate change or how well Mexican immigrants are assimilating -- these things have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Yet the fact is that views on these and a host of other matters are indeed highly correlated with each other. And the reason is that people start with political identities and then move to opinions about how the world works, not vice versa.

Incidentally, this is why the betting norm is so important.  Moving from identity to opinions about how the world works is a lot less tempting once you commit to putting your money where your mouth is.

Brink continues:
Consequently, I believe there is an inverse relationship today between one's commitment to both the truth and the public interest and one's commitment to partisanship, whether Republican or Democrat. To put it more bluntly, these days I don't see how you can be both a good citizen and a zealous partisan. This isn't to say you can't lean one way or the other. Without a doubt, it's possible to reach a fairly stable conclusion that one party ID or the other is a relatively better fit. But it should be an uncomfortable fit. If you can't see that sometimes, even frequently, your party is dead wrong, and that sometimes the country would be better off if your party lost, then in my book you've got a problem. The fact that it's an extremely common problem only makes it worse.
Which reminds me: After David Balan and I debate the Separation of Health and State, I hope we'll schedule a rematch on Democrat-Republican moral equivalence.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Ted writes:

I'm not sure it's partisanship in the way the author portrays it. A lot of people don't have a very good grasp of the issues, be it the Iraq War, climate change, or health care. Many people normally just have a general philosophy they attach to and vote with those who seem to share that general philosophy, they aren't really informed about the issues. Since it's costly to obtain that information on complex issues like climate science they just side with those that have a similar generic philosophy. That's why you see such bizarre strong correlations, like that between support for gun control and believe in global warming.

Also, the news media and partisan activists thoroughly take advantage of this. It isn't a coincidence that the people who watch Fox News are substantially more likely to believe that we found WMDs in Iraq. They exploit their viewers lack of knowledge by either outright lying or deliberately using language to misinform them without outright saying it (e.g. "Hussein was clearly a threat to the United States, our intelligence said so" - without addressing if our intelligence was even remotely correct). Given the viewers lack of information on the matter, they simply side with the partisans on the TV who they share similar views with without knowing anything about the matter. I could illustrates similar examples for climate change or gun controls or whatever.

TJIC writes:

I'm not a Republican (I'm a libertarian / anarcho capitalist), but WMD were used by Iraq prior to the US invasion, and WMD were ** found ** by US forces.

It's insane to argue that WMD haven't been found. You should phrase your argument as either "I believe that the DoD is lying about finding WMD", or "WMD were not found in a quantity that I declare to be meaningful".

If you go down the latter route, please say what quantity of chemical weapons you would find to be meaningful. If the 500 shells don't count, what does? 1,000 shells? 5,000 ?

Jacko writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

Steve Roth writes:


1. Brink is right: "there is an inverse relationship today between one's commitment to both the truth and the public interest and one's commitment to partisanship,"


2. Haidt is also right, that 'pubs are more loyal to their group (more partisan),


3. Pubs are less committed to both the truth and the public interest.

Holes in that syllogism?

This leads me to ask again: who thinks more like economists? Pubs or dems, libs or cons?

The SAEE tells us, doesn't it?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I agree with Ted - it might be more ideology than party. But the end result is still the same. This is an excellent and very interesting post.

I had a similar thought on a poll I read about on health reform this morning. It was remarking on the split nature of the opposition - some think the bill was too liberal, and some think the bill was too conservative - that whole deal. Anyway, what I noticed was that the poll had four options:

- support the bill, think it's just enough
- oppose the bill, think it's too liberal
- oppose the bill, think it's too conservative
- unsure/DK

But it didn't have my personal feeling:
- support the bill, think it's too liberal

There are some things I didn't like in it - and I hope are adjusted by courts or the Congress in the future. But passing it seemed better to me than not passing it. It's not exactly what you're talking about here, but it's the same idea. Since around August, 2008 - when IMO the reasonable Democrat got nominated, and unfortunately the only reasonable Republican chose a ridiculously unreasonable running mate - I've given up the whole pretense of being an "independent" and figured it was just less embarassing to say "sure - for the time being I'm basically a Democrat". I voted for one Republican on the ballot that November, but I still wasn't going to leave any doubt who I was more in tune with on the whole. But when you make a statement like that, you should still be able to say "well, I support this legislation but it goes too far to the left on X, Y, and Z". Nevertheless, polls don't ask questions like that. News organizations don't report news like that. It's sad. Independents are allowed to be somewhat ecclectic, but once you've said "ya - I'm pretty satisfied with Obama", there's no middle ground. And anyone that does depart from the party line is assumed to depart on only a single issue - like Stupak as a "pro life Democrat". It's not even conceivable to people that someone that calls themself a Democrat for the convenience might disagree 35% of the time.

Yancey Ward writes:

Simply put- partisans never admit they are/were wrong. They are always easy to identify if you deal with them long enough.

Brian writes:

I agree with TJIC. The survey is actually a sadly low number showing how poorly informed people are (despite WMD being a lot smaller than everyone thought the terrorist links were way stronger than originally thought. Funny how no one talks about that except highly academic publications.) Now if the poll asked about Nuclear weapons and had a similar result’s, it would be evidance on how misinformed the Republican public is.

The real question is identity politics. Both parties do use identity politics, however, this tends to be Democrats bread and butter verse a major tactic used by some Republicans (Palin and Huckebie come to mind). I think (based on observations) there are a lot more Yellow Dog Democrats (A Democrat who would vote for a Yellow dog if it ran as a Democrat against a Republican) than vise versa.

I have said it before and I will say it again. The terms Liberal/Moderate/Conservative have drastically been redefined over the years and the meaning of the words are very opinionated.

For example a large group of people define themselves as Regan conservative’s, but Regan pardoned all illegal immigrants. So by calling yourself a Regan conservative does that mean you are for amnesty of illegal’s? I would bet it is in the single digits (%) of people who call themselves this who are for amnesty.

That is a major problem with political polls. They are not specific enough and are poor at picking very technical terms that are extremely well defined that are understood by most of the population of the sample. (It really is a problem with society as a whole how we change the meaning of words which leads to more confusion and disinformation)

I think for most part it is perfectly rational behavior to agree with your parties position. As stated before these are complex issues which most people care less about to analyze and come to a well informed opinion. Therefore they tend to trust the positions of others when taking sides. The opportunity cost for the public is to high to be welled informed verse trusting partisan talking points. So the public tend to agree with others that have similar beliefs in areas they consider are import (and or the public is better informed about). Also, when a trusted source explains something to them in which a individual has little perceived personal interest in he tends to trust the information at face value.

Over all the whole agrument really is just a rationalization to justify ones independant status.

Walt French writes:
“Many people normally just have a general philosophy they attach to and vote with those who seem to share that general philosophy...”
Ted's argument sounds at least about right. A similar notion is that one comes to a political affiliation out of a general world-view and it is that underlying view that informs our assumptions about people's behaviors, how Nature works, etc. Absent — even in the face of — hard evidence, we use these Rules of Thumb to understand the world.
Joshua Hedlund writes:

I've thought about the partisan correlations on different issues. I think it's because many issues are so complex that it is very easy to rationalize either of opposite viewpoints. The issues are complex enough to leave enough room for both sides to tout facts, all individually true, and even rebut many of the other side's points. Thus since either position can be easily rationalized, it is much more likely for a person to accept the side that is associated with the bias they already have, whether it is due to upbringing or peers or experience or whatever.

I've been developing these thoughts about rationalization for awhile, although it still doesn't explain why various seemingly unrelated positions are associated with each other in the first place.

Nathan Smith writes:

As TJIC points out, weapons were found in Iraq that can more plausibly than not be characterized as WMDs. However, the quantities and nature of the weapons found certainly cast doubt on whether they constituted an adequate *casus belli.*

What this case shows is not that people's beliefs are biased by ideology, but that they frame the debate in ways that are to their advantage.

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