Psychology shows that Democrats and Republicans can’t even agree on objective reality

Mirror mirror on the wall.
Mirror mirror on the wall.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

If you think this year’s election has reached unprecedented levels of partisan acrimony, you’re right.

According to a June 2016 Pew Research Center poll, for the first time since 1992, a majority of Democrats and Republicans not only express frustration with each other, but they also claim to live in anger and fear of the other side. The top three attributes Republicans assign to Democrats are being close-minded, immoral, and lazy. And the top three that Democrats assign to Republicans? Close-minded, dishonest, and immoral.

To move towards a more amicable and constructive debate, we have to try to better understand the psychological nature of our partisan disagreements. This requires recognizing just how far down the rabbit hole our disagreements go. We’ve moved way past the stratum of subjective opinion, where partisans differ on the values they champion and the policies they deem most worthy. Instead, political partisans now commonly disagree about the fundamental truths they attach to America; they dispute each other not based on priorities. but objective reality.

In the last three years, for example, surveys have shown that Republicans and Democrats hold wildly different beliefs about the American economy. Democrats and Republicans often describe two completely different countries. Among Democratic voters, 71% believe that unemployment has gone down since president Obama took office, but only 25% of Republican voters agree. Only 20% of Democrats believe the tax burden on the middle class has increased, but 72% of Republicans think it has. Less than half of Democrats think the annual deficit and total national debt have increased under Obama, but 85% of Republicans think both have. What about if the stock market gone up? Of Democrats, nearly three out of four say yes while 56% of Republicans say no.

Further, by an almost 4 to 1 margin, Republicans think crime has gone up nationally, whereas Democrats agree with this statement by a margin closer to 2 to 1. Roughly two-thirds of Republicans think Obama has reduced deportations of undocumented immigrants, but less than half of Democrats agree. Even memory for one’s household health-care costs is tied to politics: Asked in 2014 whether their own personal health-care costs had gone up in the past year, over 55% of Republicans said it had whereas only 30% of Democrats agreed.

In short, Democrats and Republicans don’t so much disagree about where to take the country, they disagree about which country they would be taking.

To any political scientist, this is not news. Survey data has long shown that factual claims often reflect partisan sympathies more than they do reality. Back in the day, at the end of former US president Ronald Reagan’s administration, many Democrats didn’t believe that unemployment had decreased during the conservative president’s time in office. Likewise, at the end of former US president Bill Clinton’s first term, Republicans disproportionately denied that the budget deficit had shrunk, even though it was only a tenth of its former size.

This explains why intransigence and rancor seem so reasonable. As a Republican, how can you seriously consider liberal policies when you believe that the stock market is down and unemployment, taxes, the deficit, the debt, health-care costs, and crime are all up due to a Democratic administration? As a Democrat, how can you sincerely argue with an opponent who refuses to give credit to an administration that has lowered unemployment, taxes, the deficit, the debt, health-care costs, and crime, while presiding over a stock-market boom?

I think that eliminating these differences in factual belief would be a giant step toward reducing our rancor. Toward that effort, there is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that people do show a willingness to reconsider their partisan factual beliefs. Recent studies from Princeton used two methods to reduce the factual discord of partisans by over 50%: the enticement of financial incentives as low as $1 per unbiased answer, and simple appeals for accuracy as ”it is really important that you answer these questions as accurately as you can.” If properly nudged to be impartial, partisans will permit truth to have a larger impact on their thinking.

The bad news, however, is that if people want to fact check their beliefs, they have to be very discerning. The internet is rife with sites stuffed with political misinformation. Political candidates are also not above shading—or even bulldozing—the truth. Thus, the truth is out there, but let’s be careful trying to find it.

Thus, I recommend two further correctives. First, check your reality. Make sure what you believe is not just your reality, but the reality. It is often said that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. We should acknowledge that dictum and put more effort into living by it. At the very least, we should not blithely assume we are already abiding by it, whereas our political opponents are not.

As part of this effort, seek out mainstream news sites (or a range of sites representing a diversity of political views) to examine whether your reality matches real data. If your fact checking leads you to sites that almost always agree with you, it’s time to diversify your information portfolio. Also, if you are going to have an argument with someone, make sure you both agree on the facts before turning up the volume.

Second, I think news organizations are missing opportunities. Everyone seems to publish a dozen polls a month highlighting American disagreements over subjective opinions. Why not publish more stories doing the same about factual opinions—and then take pains to describe the actual truth? If the idea is to shock and amaze people, I think factual surveys will likely do the trick.

Removing this “reality gap” between political partisans would be a useful start to moving us towards the serious and difficult discussions we should be having. Real and reasonable disagreements exist about the values and priorities we wish for our country; after all, the way we experience life in America is not identical.

If you live in Utah, America is humming. In 2015, state GDP grew over 3%, with unemployment at 3.5%, topping the country in start-up activity, patents, and venture capital. Mississippi lags behind in a different reality: Its GDP dropped by 1% in 2015, with 23% of its population living below the poverty line. Its ill economic health has physical health consequences: Child immunization rates over the past two years have plummeted 9%, and cancer deaths have increased 15% since 1990.

We cannot have a serious discussion of these stark and genuine differences—with the challenges and opportunities they represent—until we first rid ourselves of differences born of partisan imaginations. These partisan differences are merely fantastical; the only reality is the impediments they create toward progress in our national conversation.