rational irrationality, the media, and political participation

Our political discussion these days is quite polarized. Battle cries and ideologues abound. Equal amounts of ire originate from both sides: vicious comments from a liberal about the reckless obstructionism follow calls for revolution from right wing groups. But the one thing people seem to be able to agree on right now is how angry they are about what is happening in Washington. This is especially true of the situation in the House of Representatives and the Tea Party caucus’s stand against every bill that doesn’t match with their ideological viewpoint. Certainly we are all rational people and can look at facts and come to a level headed solution to the problems that are facing our nation today? Right?

Professor Michael Huemer, of the University of Colorado Boulder takes a look at the issue in this article. He makes a pretty great argument for why “rational irrationality” dominates our approach to political discussion. That is, people choose to not look at an issue based on an unbiased view of facts for a slew of reasons, viz., self-interest, self image, for purposes of fitting into a social group that they see themselves in, or for coherence of their other preconceived notions. He also points out the nature of many people’s political views (that they are strongly held and that they personally identify with those views in terms of sex, religion, and past life experience) is the reason why very few if any political discussions end with someone changing their minds about something. Consider the following excerpt:

“In one psychological study, subjects were exposed to evidence concerning the deterrent effect of capital punishment. One study had concluded that capital punishment has a deterrent effect; another had concluded that it does not. All experimental subjects were provided with summaries of both studies, and then asked to assess which conclusion the evidence they had just looked at most supported, overall. The result was that those who initially supported capital punishment claimed that the evidence they’d been shown, overall, supported that capital punishment has a deterrent effect. Those who initially opposed capital punishment thought, instead, that this same evidence, overall, supported that capital punishment had no deterrent effect. In each case, partisans came up with reasons (or rationalizations) for why the study whose conclusion they agreed with was methodologically superior to the other study. This points up one reason why people tend to become polarized (sc., to adopt very strong beliefs on a particular side) about political issues: we tend to evaluate mixed evidence as supporting whichever belief we already incline towards—whereupon we increase our degree of belief.”

With this decidedly unrigorous approach to making up our minds, it’s no wonder we have such a problem agreeing on things. But while Prof. Huemer calls this problem “the greatest social problem that humanity faces,” I see it differently. If all political debate was reduced to a cold, rational look at facts the average person would rarely if ever be interested in doing the requisite work to understand the topics of the day (a fact which Prof. Huemer himself acknowledges). In this era of the 24 hour news cycle, twitter, news apps, and smart phones, the one thing that motivates people to watch the news and get at least some level of understanding of political issues is the fact that people are emotionally involved with issues. People are passionate about such things as abortion, capital punishment, the budget, Obamacare.

In a perfect world, yes, all the citizens of our country would set aside time each day to do a rigorous analysis of the issues facing our country and would democratically urge their Congressmen to vote the way the facts pointed. They would in high-minded, philosophical tones reminiscent of an ancient greek symposium. Joe the plumber would rather come home from work, kick off his shoes, watch 30 minutes of Tom Brokaw and then play with his kids or fix the laundry machine than read a scholarly article on the economic nuances of freshwater vs. saltwater economics. But the fact that he wants to watch that news broadcast because there was a Supreme Court announcement on abortion rights or whatever other issue he cares about, is a direct of the result of the fact that he is emotionally and ideologically passionate about those issues.

In short — we must work to make the dialogue as intellectually rigorous as possible, but not forget that political participation runs on the passions of common people, for better or for worse. It is the direct result of a free, capitalist-run press, which is beholden to the entertainment desires of the public. The questions leaders should be asking is “How can we embrace this fact and use it to pass needed reforms?” A tough question indeed… At any rate, looking at things in this way will at least help us to understand each other in political debate and maybe reframe the paradigm through which political discussion takes place.

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