Tuesday, November 06, 2012

May God Bless America To Be Less Partisan

Not all Independents, such as I, self-identify as ideological moderates but according to Pew Research Center 47% do, and so do 24% of Republicans and 41% of Democrats.

In my opinion, that should be enough to one day soon reclaim our country from it’s paralyzed state of partisan gridlock, but according to some who analyze them, moderates don’t fashion themselves to be like sporting event refs or officials responsible for breaking up fights between rival teams or their fanatic followers.

Key to any eventual resurrection of the influence of moderates will be the findings in a new study entitled Partisan Sorting and Behavioral Polarization in the American Electorate by Lilliana Mason, a doctoral candidate and researcher in political psychology at Stoney Brook University.

Mason found that extreme positions on issues have “an effect that is less than half the size” of what sorting by political identity, such as party affiliation, does on polarization.  She notes the finding that “…partisan identity increases thermometer bias [strength of emotion] by about 43 percent” of in-group bias, concluding that:

“This psychological and emotional sense of attachment to a party, an ideology, a religion or a race, and the extent to which those attachments overlap, is powerfully capable of driving behavioral polarization, even when the presumptive reasons for choosing a party - issue positions - are held constant.”

According to the study, “The strength of a person’s identification with his or her party determines how biased, active and angry that person is, even if that person’s issue positions are moderate…The moderation of issue positions cannot moderate the effect of identity on behavioral polarization…”

Moderates have their work cut out for them, especially the 47% among those who self-identify as unaffiliated with either major political party, approximately half of all moderates, because as Mason states in an article by Tom Jacobs for Pacific Standard, “There is no way to educate people into being less polarized.”

According to columnist David Brooks, who may be moderate but is definitely conservative, moderates like “mixing and matching from columns A, B and C. They try to create harmonious blends of policies that don't, at first glance, go together.”

Moderates tend to avoid both “confirmation bias” and “hindsight bias” which were clearly described last week in the Health Section of the New York Times by Benedict Carey:

“Confirmation bias” describes a condition where individuals or groups start off with an assumption and then pay attention only to information that is supportive.

“Hindsight bias” describes a condition where individuals and groups “retrofit their opinions and judgments” to fit the evidence.

Political parties, before, during and after campaigns, try to exploit both conditions to keep those who are faithful in line as well as to create doubt in the minds of partisans on the other side.  Campaign rhetoric aside, reaching across the isle as true moderates do is something partisans find problematic.

In another study published last summer along with Dr. Phoebe Ellsworth, Ed O’Brien a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Michigan conducted experiments to determine empathy across the political isle and concluded that -- “Perceived dissimilarity – even in an incidental domain such as political values – may expose deep constraints on people’s ability to appreciate the experiences of those who may be in greatest need of their consideration.”

However, the political party partisans may be powerless to influence incumbent-halo linkages such as is noted in a study reported in a Style Section article by Paul Farhi in the Washington Post.

"Research shows that voters in a college team’s home county tend to reward the incumbent presidential candidate after the local team wins” in the 10 days leading up to the election, with an average bump of 1.61 percent of the vote, and as much as 3.35 percentage points if the team is a powerhouse.

In a parallel experiment involving college basketball fans, the researchers found that the further a team advanced in the Final Four tournament, the higher they rated the President’s job performance.  “Another study found a relatively high correlation between sports teams’ success and mayoral reelection.”

Republicans in particular will probably be heard muttering that “correlation does not equal causation,” that is unless their candidate wins.

The “tribalness” of political affiliation is called “groupishness” when applied to religion and other parts of society by psychological researchers such as Dr. Jonathan Haidt at NYU’s Stern School of Business.

Soon-to-be Dr. Mason’s claim that realigning political affiliations is as difficult as changing someone’s religion reminded me of a recent post on this blog about the findings of a scientific poll updated two weeks ago by university researchers on behalf of The Associated Press, which shows that Americans are as divided today as they were at the time of independence by issues of race:

“More than half of all Americans now express explicit anti-black and anti-Hispanic attitudes, 79% among Republicans; but when tested implicitly, the anti-black sentiments are also held by 55% of Democrats and 49% of Independents, much of it refueled, in my opinion, by uncivil discourse and coded rhetoric stoked after the election of the first black President of the United States.”

Mason pointed out to journalist Jacobs the “cleavages” during our history that have resulted in political realignment usually over a period of decades.  Far too many it seems, if not all, have been over race, such as the struggle among the founders during the writing of the Constitution that intensified after its adoption during the presidency of George Washington in the guise of so-called “state’s rights” as a counter to a vigorous federal government.

Another occurred over the same issue, slavery, with the election of President Abraham Lincoln which resulted in secession and all-out Civil War.

Another cleavage occurred with the rise of the Progressive Movement in 1890 to reform the ills of another gilded age and which southern states adulterated with “separate but equal.”  And the most recent realignment which was spurred by race as well occurred when Democratic Party leaders forged the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Only time will tell when realignment will break up the current polarization, but the AP’s survey findings lead me to believe that it will once again be over issues related to race, which are thinly veiled in campaign rhetoric about poverty and immigration including one of the worst examples, the “Food Stamp President,” even though 1 in 3 are white and only 1 in 5 are black.

If race as an issue remains unresolved throughout the nation’s third hundred years, then another cleavage may certainly be forced by climate change and the environment as Mason speculates in Jacobs’ Pacific Standard piece.

Regardless of who wins election as President or to Congress today, may God Bless America and especially moderates in hope that they may finally get it right.

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