“The Republican Party is the party of nostalgia. It seeks to return America to a simpler, more innocent and moral past that never actually existed. The Democrats are utopians. They seek to create an America so fair and non-judgmental that life becomes an unbearable series of apologies.” --Jon Stewart, America: The Book
“Education is as much about learning what you don’t know as it is about adding to what you do," writes David McRaney in You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself. "In science, you move closer to the truth by seeking evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the same method should inform your opinions as well.”
This is especially true when it comes to socioeconomic ideas that affect us all.
Political scientists Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist, and Eric Schickler reveal in Partisan Hearts and Minds that the majority of us do not select a political party because it reflects our worldview. Rather, we inherited from our parents, peers, and cultural cues which political position we identify with. In essence, we are merely responding to our tribal nature and aligning with the heuristics of our immediate social tribe.
Heuristics are our psychological shortcuts. "Human decision making is less a matter of weighing evidence and calculating probabilities than it is of reconciling new information with old familiar patterns branded into the brain from as early as birth," explains Ellen Ruppel Shell in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. "Much like Sigmund Freud's primary system, these patterns of mind allow us to make judgments quickly and require very little if any conscious thought."
This is why few people change course when it comes to their political leanings.
“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there’s no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof,” explains Robert Trivers in The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life.
However, considering how much our economic trajectory has been manipulated in the last 35 years, how polarized ideologues have become, and how fact has become less important than the sound and the fury, it's time to reassess our default positions. As Charles Darwin once said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
In The Age of Selfishness, Darryl Cunningham brilliantly illustrates our modern straits:
“In the U.S. the Democratic party has moved to the center right to fill the void created by the Republicans, who have gone so far to the right that they have disintegrated into competing extremist factions. They have become a strange mixture of intolerant religious beliefs and blind devotion to free-market economics…
“In 1970 President Richard Nixon signed into law the environmental protection agency, created for the purpose of protecting human health and the environment. It’s impossible to imagine a Republican president wanting to conserve the environment in the modern era. No Republican candidate who held such views and wanted to run for the presidency would even be nominated by the party today. He or she would be seen as un-American and anti-business.
“Much conservative prejudice stems from a sense of unfairness when they see others getting something they did not earn. On the left, fairness means quality, but on the right it means proportionality…It is certainly wrong for anyone to live at the expense of another.
"Unfortunately, right-wing politics often fails to make any distinction between freeloaders and the poor.The unemployed are treated with suspicion, while working people are increasingly denied a decent level of earnings.
“What motivates conservatives is the need to protect the status quo [like Grover Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge], or even better, turn the clock back to some nostalgic and often imaginary golden age… There is nothing wrong with a belief in laws, family life, customs, institutions, traditions, nations, and religions. Liberals tend to underestimate the importance of such structures in the creation of a stable and cohesive society. Conservatives do care, but they find it hard to extend that care to those outside their own group,” race, or social class.
Wray Herbert confirms that assessment in On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits, “Conservative tendency is to value tradition and authority over change, and the liberal tendency is to value equality over hierarchy.” This explains why conservatives cling to social systems that deny basic human and civil rights to blacks (slavery), women (suffrage), and gays (marriage equality).
According to science journalist Chris Mooney in The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science - and Reality, authoritarians engage in more biased reasoning than those who are less authoritarian. Dr. Robert Altemeyer, retired psychologist from the university of Manitoba, found that "authoritarians like to consume information that agrees with their beliefs, and don’t want to consume evidence that contradicts them. In one series of studies, Altemeyer tested authoritarians' penchant to commit what in psychology is called “the fundamental attribution error” – ignoring situational explanations for someone’s behavior, and instead assuming the behavior is reflective of who the person really is. A classic example would be blaming a person in poverty for being too lazy to get a job.”
Modern psychology and neuroscience have been unlocking the key to these two political viewpoints. An increasing body of evidence suggests that political division originates from how we process information.
Cunningham explains, “There is a widely accepted scale used by psychologists to measure the five traits that characterize the human personality. The five are: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. We all posses these traits to a greater or lesser degree. The two traits where liberals and conservatives differ the most are conscientiousness and openness to experience.
"Liberals consistently rate higher on openness… a broad personality trait that covers everything from intellectual flexibility and curiosity to an enjoyment of the arts and creativity. Liberals are risk takers. They are experimental in their lifestyle choices and self-expression. They are tolerant of different perspectives and values.
"Conservatives rate higher on conscientiousness. They prize hard work, orderliness, and structure. They like to stick to a predictable schedule and are punctual. Conservatives are goal oriented and competent.
"Both groups score around the same on agreeableness because liberals value empathy [like Jimmy Carter's Habitat for Humanity], while those on the right emphasize politeness. Liberals like to think in challenging ways. They enjoy complex problems. For them, it is not a difficulty if things are ill-defined or unresolved.
"Conservatives are the opposite. They are more likely to categorize and divide people into either good or bad. In the conservative world there are no gray areas. Only the black and white of certainty. This creates a clash of realities.
"Conservatives are resistant to change. They have a need for stability and the desire to manage fear and threat. Tension arises between the two groups, because liberals are the people most likely to generate that dangerous change in the social, artistic, and scientific arenas. And this is not something conservatives want to see. The stability delivered by conservative values of order and structure can work well as a useful corrective for human society during chaotic times. But the dark side of these values is that the political right will instinctively resist changes, even if those changes are beneficial to them. Which is why liberals are often shocked to find that their well-reasoned and factually supported arguments are simply dismissed or even viciously attacked by the political right. Conservatives seem to have a gift for blocking out facts that threaten their worldview.”
According to science author Michael Shermer in The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, “conservatives suffer from uncertainty avoidance and terror management, and have a need for order, structure, and closure along with dogmatism, and intolerance of ambiguity, all of which leads to resistance to change and endorsement of inequality in their beliefs and practices. People vote Republican because they are cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death…
“Democrats…lack a moral compass that leads to an inability to make clear ethical choices, an inordinate lack of certainty about social issues, a pathological fear of clarity that leads to indecisiveness, a naïve belief that all people are equally talented, and a blind adherence in the teeth of contradictory evidence that culture and environment alone determine one’s lot in society, and therefore it is up to the government to remedy all social injustices. Liberals question authority, celebrate diversity, and often flaunt faith and tradition in order to care for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice at the risk of political and economic chaos. Conservatives emphasize institutions and traditions, faith and family, nation and creed. They want order at the cost of those at the bottom falling through the cracks.
Chris Mooney states in The Republican Brain, "Liberals tend to be biased in favor of disadvantaged groups."
Cunningham elaborates: “The lack of empathy shown by people on the political right toward those who are disadvantaged or different from themselves is at the heart of the gulf that separates liberals from conservatives.
"The political left and right do not share the same values. The moral systems each side has are based on different philosophies. To liberals, much of conservative policy appears unjust. [Why are corporations and the super rich motivated by more money, yet the poor and ordinary are best motivated by less money?]
"Research shows conservatives are comfortable with inequality. They are quick to judge others and have little problem dismissing any science that runs counter to their beliefs, no matter what the evidence is, or how well argued. Whereas liberals tend to be more empathetic, see more complexity in the world, and are more likely to change their opinion when presented with evidence that they are wrong."
"Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds," writes Jon H. Johnson in EveryData: The Misinformation Hidden in the Little Data You Consume Every Day. In fact, quite the opposite. An article in The Boston Globe sited a University of Michigan study that found "people who are misinformed often held fast to their beliefs. Some even felt more strongly in their false beliefs when faced with facts. Apparently, some people simply don’t like to admit when they are wrong.”
Denying uncomfortable truths that cry out for acknowledgment, debate, action, and change is known as willful blindness.
"Many of the greatest crimes have been committed not in the dark, but in full view of so many people who simply chose not to look and not to question – the Catholic Church, the SEC, Nazi Germany, Bernie Madoff, BP’s refinery, Iraq military, or sub-prime mortgage lenders – the central challenge posed by each case was not harm that was invisible, but harm so many preferred to ignore,” writes Margaret Heffernan in Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Own Peril.
Professor of International Relations Andrew J. Bacevich states in The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism that our dreams of managing history – born of a peculiar combination of arrogance and narcissism – pose a potentially mortal threat to the U.S. Today, we ignore that warning at our peril.”
Denying truths that are too painful, too frightening to confront does not render them untrue.
"Opinions often express ill-informed beliefs, not reliable knowledge," write science historians Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes in Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. “Some sides represent deliberate disinformation spread by well-organized and well-funded vested interests or ideologically-driven denial of the facts. Beware of groups that challenge scientific evidence that threatens their commercial or individual interest or ideological beliefs.”
There are "two strands of knowledge or ways of trying to understand existence: the tension between knowledge based on observation and experience, and knowledge grounded on faith and belief – the tension between fact and faith,” explain journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload.
It is our responsibility to be aware of the difference between information that is factual and ideas that are taken on faith. This goes well beyond reason and religion.
The majority of the debates of our time often boil down to reason and empirical evidence versus belief.
Or, put simply: FACT versus FAITH.
FACT: The sun is the center of the universe.
FAITH: Earth is the center of the universe.
FACT: Cigarettes cause cancer.
FAITH: Cigarettes do not cause cancer.
FACT: Global warming is man-made.
FAITH: Global warming isn’t man-made and will correct itself.
Regardless of the evidence, many of us refuse to be swayed by the facts, clinging to a gut feeling – our belief.
"Stephen Colbert coined a term for this – truthiness – things people know intuitively, from the gut, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts,” writes Wray Herbert in On Second Thought. Colbert made this an integral comic flaw of his character Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report, skewering the staunch conservative ideology of the White House during the aughts, and echoed in many of the Bush Administration's examples of hubris, from the Iraq War to Enron.
Therein lies the problem of ideology: it gives you an answer before you ask the question.
Any ideology is faith based. It's unwavering and doesn't take into account new information. Hence, its danger.
In the 21st century, this remains the key difference between the two parties: One places ideology over information. Journalist Farhad Manjoo explains in True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society that, "Republicans and conservatives are more ideological in their political posture...Their opinions tend to be derived from political principles or political values, and the rest of us tend to be more [flexible]."
Ideology should never serve as a source of authority.It is no less than a shortcut for people who don’t have the courage or the time for independent thought.
Conservatives often start with ideology, then select data to confirm that ideology. For the rest of the public, particularly the apolitical, they subscribe to no ideology.
Ideally, we absorb information, then make an informed decision. The conservative tendency to discount intellectual inquiry by discounting all who disagree usually results in their dismissal on the grounds of “liberal bias" - a term coined by Reed Irvine and his two military propagandist friends from the Vietnam War: Abraham Kalish (who taught communications at the US Army’s Defense Intelligence School) and Bernard Yoh (professor of psychological warfare at the U.S. Airforce University). Reed formed the ironically-titled Accuracy in Media specifically to discredit the media as part of an agenda to build support for Nixon's Vietnam policies.
It is no coincidence that the adjective "staunch" is only used to describe conservatives.
To paraphrase Colbert and Republican strategist Karl Rove, "Reality has a liberal bias." Which also explains why partisan media can so easily dismiss massive bodies of evidence.
Karl Rove explains that the world is no longer concerned with reality, only perceived reality. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities... We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
And study it we have, and labeled it appropriately. This manufactured version of reality is better known as propaganda, and often in the form of myth.
“In the information age, reality is simply a matter of belief, not anything objective or verified; now there is red truth and blue truth, red media and blue media. Gatekeepers have been replaced with cheerleaders; we’ve moved from the age of information to the age of affirmation,” states journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in Blur.
And research backs this up.
According to Fairleigh Dickinson University’s 2012 PublicMind survey, researchers found that someone who watched only Fox News was less informed on both national and international news than those who watched no news at all, while those who listened to NPR were the most informed.
Former Republican David Brock confesses he once "forwarded the rightwing agenda, not as an open political operative or advocate, but under the guise of journalism and punditry fueld by huge sums of money from rightwing billionaires, foundations, and self-interested corporations. By the time I said goodby to the rightwing in 1997, what was once a voice in a wilderness was drowning out competing voices in all media channels... Conservatives had changed the face of the cable news business with the establishment of the Fox News channel."
In the process, they've condemned the public to no longer differentiate between information and propaganda - outright deception with no basis in fact. "Just as Nixon exemplified the very traits he ascribed to the press, conservatives in the media would do precisely what they claimed liberals did - they used the media to indoctrinate the public into the ideology of their unrepresentative faction," Brock writes in The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy.
Brock elaborates in his book The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network into a Propaganda Machine, "Fox’s version of 'balance,' according to its president, isn’t to provide its viewers with an equal hearing of all sides. Rather its purpose is to supply right-wing bias to correct what it wrongly perceives to be an error in the media cosmos.”
This is exactly why Roger Ailes was hired in the 1970s to run a television news company by ultra-conservative beer magnate Joseph Coors, whose family, taking a page from the Powell Memo, wanted a rightwing news agency to promote their conservative, pro-business agenda unrepresented by actual journalism. Ailes wasn't hired because he was a newsman, he was recruited solely based on his Republican affiliation, reports Ian Haney Lopez in Dog Whistle Politics. They didn't want journalists, they wanted proselytizers.
This made Ailes a natural choice to head Fox News. "By then the flimsy wall between news and opinion...had crumbled." After all, Ailes entered politics working for Richard Nixon, showing the campaign how to present paid political events so that they would appear to be news, in order to manipulate public opinion, explains David Brock. "At Fox, Ailes has ushered in the era of post-truth politics. The facts no longer matter; only what is politically expedient, sensationalistic, and designed to confirm the preexisting opinions of a large audience." In other words, fake news.
Brock explains that there is nothing comparable to the Fox behemoth on the left. "No mainstream left-of-center media organization, however broadly you define that category, departs so willingly and extensively from journalism’s fundamental mission to report facts as fairly and objectively as possible. No upright lie is accepted as widely on the left as distortions...have been on the right. Beyond the lies, Roger Ailes has been at the forefront of a political culture that seeks to divide our country. On the Nixon and Bush campaigns, he worked to fragment America along racial lines [Southern Strategy]. Now at Fox, he’s continued that effort. In addition to dividing us by party and ideology, vulcanizing our nation makes it practically impossible for our leaders to work together."
In It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, political scientists Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein observe, "There is little doubt that Fox News is at least partly responsible for the asymmetric polarization that is now such a prominent feature of U.S. politics.”
Entrepreneur and TED Talker Nick Hanauer aptly describes the Fox News business model as "rich people persuading the middle class to hate poor people."
And Fox orchestrates this vitriole through fear tactics. “When fear replaces reason, the result is often irrational hatred and division,” warns Al Gore in The Assault on Reason. Fox News peddles fear in the form of demagoguery - the act of gaining power by arousing emotions, passions, and prejudices.
By their deliberate use of demagoguery, they exploit fear for political gain, and they promote this hatred as entertainment. When we abandon reason, we submit to dogma – dangerous to facts and progress.
As Steve Jobs famously warned Stanford University's graduating class of 2005, "Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."
According to Kovach and Rosenstiel in Blur, “Perhaps no device is as common in the journalism of affirmation as when a talk show host attempts to undermine a guest’s argument by attacking the speaker instead of addressing the argument…this is a classic example of flawed logic. It is an ad hominem attack…it is also a diversion, often an insult, that moves the discussion away from inquiry.”
Douglas Walton elaborates, “Ad hominem arguments are easy to put forward as accusation, are difficult to refute, and often have an extremely powerful effect on persuading an audience to reject someone’s argument…even when little or no evidence has been brought forward to support the allegation.”
This most frequently occurs when one side of an argument states a fact, and the other side has no defense except to undercut the expert testimony. Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and nearly every conservative pundit on Fox News does this to discredit research and data on inequality, poverty, global warming, pollution, healthcare reform, tax reform, immigration reform, crime, Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood, abortion, and the list goes on.
The biggest indicator that a debater is on the losing side of an argument is when he resorts to only attacking the messenger, not the message. The Republican response to their MSNBC debate is a prime example. Anderson Cooper pushed far harder, even if unnecessarily, at the Democratic debate. And who can forget when Sarah Palin claimed "What magazines do you read?" was a gotcha question.
Ad hominim attacks use labels like liberal media, liberal elite, intellectuals, gotcha questions, etc. If you can’t deny the facts, undermine the messenger. It’s become the default conservative defense.
It is with ad hominem attacks that politics become unsavory. When you attack a messenger, you resort to name calling, heresy, and bullying. Nearly all attacks on character are ad hominem, meant to undermine the person’s message and strike a blow against their credibility.
“Almost every political campaign waged in the U.S. is a battle of the illusions of truth," warns David DiSalvo in What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite.
This is why the Information age has turned a red v. blue argument into one of Fact v. Faith, or for the general public, information v. propaganda. The true challenge of the Information Age will be to decipher what is truth and what is myth.
Historian Rick Pearlstein sums it up best in Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, that liberalism is rooted in the notion of Englightenment, "the idea that we can use our reason and we can use empiricism and we can sort out facts, and using something like the scientific method...to arrive at consensus views of the truth that have a much more solid standing, epistemologically, than what the right-wing view of truth is: which is much more mythic, which is much more based on tribal identification, which is much more based on intuition and tradition."
And as Chris Mooney elaborates in The Republican Brain, "On history, as on science, as on economics, conservatives have...written a powerful and compelling, though inaccurate, script that reinforces their system of beliefs in both a logical and an emotional way." This narrative myth reaffirms a deeply held belief that bolsters their identity and satisfies a psychological need.
Politicians understand this, and they often exploit it.
“After all, you don’t have to be Karl Rove to suspect that evidence often fails to persuade," writes philosophy professor Michael Patrick Lynch in The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data. "What generally changes opinion is good advertising, emotional associations, and having the bigger stick, or super PAC.”
This is unfortunate, as far too often the powerful look out only for their financial interests at the expense of our own.
As JFK prophetically warned, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
As Margaret Heffernan concludes in Willful Blindness, "We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking. The very fact that willful blindness is willed, that it is a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neurons, and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it... We can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do."
The challenge of our adult lives is to evolve beyond the indoctrination of our upbringing. It narrowly confines us to a system of beliefs instilled in us by our family and culture that isolates us from the ability to critical think and experience contrary points of view.
When an uncomfortable truth challenges our most sacred myths - particularly our social, political and economic identity - we must find the courage to shed our preconceived notions, regardless of how convenient they may be.