There’s a danger. Well, perhaps more than one danger, but the one I’m thinking of at the moment is the danger of “motivated reasoning” aided by the twin demons of selective perception and confirmation bias. At some fairly superficial level, most of us believe it’s important to keep an open mind, listen to new evidence and consider the possibility that one or more of our beliefs is incorrect, at which point we are supposed to change our minds.
But in practice too many of us read and listen to those with whom we expect to agree. And when we do listen to those with whom we disagree, we are motivated to disbelieve their argument and treat their facts more skeptically. Although I try to be an exception to the dangers of motivated reasoning, selective perception and confirmation bias, I mostly fail. (Or maybe it’s just that my beliefs are just, you know, right.)
For example, as regular readers of Black Ink have noticed, I’m fairly convinced that the U.S. system of politics and government is slowly but steadily breaking down. We have a system that — more than pretty much any other in the world — requires compromise across party lines for the government to function. But our parties have mostly lost the ability to compromise. I do believe that most of the fault for this is on the right/Republican side, where the notion of compromise is more frequently treated as a form of betrayal or surrender. All of this is available for more discussion as we head into our ridiculously long and very enlightening presidential campaign season.
But Tuesday, the regular morning note from NBC’s politics crew, starting with Chuck Todd, focused on the connection between the modern way of winning presidential elections (which has less and less to do with appealing to moderate swing voters) and the gridlock in Washington. First you ignore most of the country because only a relative few swing states matter. But even in those states, you don’t put most of your effort into persuading moderate swing voters. The new formula focuses much more on identifying people who would vote for your candidate, if they vote, and then motivating those voters to vote. Those are, in the passage below, “the voters you need.” And you motivate them by scaring them about the consequences of the other side winning.
From that article:
David Plouffe, Obama’s former top political strategist, summed it up this way: “If you run a campaign trying to appeal to 60 to 70 percent of the electorate, you’re not going to run a very compelling campaign for the voters you need.” In today’s highly polarized political world, this is how you win elections — by motivating your base and by recognizing there are few swing voters left. But it also makes governing harder, especially when the parties are trading electoral victories every two years (with Democrats benefitting from presidential turnouts, and with Republicans benefitting from midterm turnouts). When you have data-driven candidates appealing to win 51% of voters, it means that a president’s job-approval rating is never going to get much higher than that, and it means that bipartisan policy goals (like the TPP free-trade agreement) are the exception rather than the rule.