Political De-Biasing

I was going to post the piece below riffing on Arthur C. Brooks’s column about de-polarizing political biases.

And then came the Democratic presidential debates this week, which provided a glaring example of how political biases often are generated and spread.  This post uses these debates as an illustration of the process and then discusses theoretical ways to de-bias the conversations, though I am not sure how well they would work in the current environment.

Political Biasing

Unfortunately, the presidential debate system is horribly biased.  Not for one side or another – but rather biased for creating cable-news reality show sound bites of stimulated conflict.  The candidates have to play by the networks’ rigid rules – and some seek political advantage in creating just the kind of sound bites that will drive up the networks’s ratings (and revenue).

Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever wrote a column, “Can we get past the idea that politics is a reality show?  Not if CNN has anything to do with it.”

Having subjected us to two nights of garishly adorned, overproduced, conflict-obsessed live “debates” among a field of 20 Democratic hopefuls (its own delusional gridlock of egos), CNN and the Democratic National Committee summoned the worst aspects of some of TV’s most popular genres and visual tropes.

The overall tone, of course, was cable-news alarmism, but the debates also resembled those celebrity-packed, prime-time game shows that litter the schedule all summer.  One also got wafts of the blaring bombast of professional football broadcasts, and, yes, the stage-managed awkwardness of the lesser styles of reality TV.

“We are playing right into Republican hands,” one of the candidates, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), said during Wednesday night’s debate, in which CNN’s tenor of questioning seemed determined to portray a gamut of Democratic policy and beliefs as chronic afflictions rather than workable ideas.  Candidate Andrew Yang, in his closing remarks, also went meta in the moment, pointing out the absurdity of the format, the game itself, where more people will notice his lack of a necktie than his platform.

[W]e were watching CNN make television — pieces and bites and clips of which it can repurpose into more programming fodder, days’ worth of pundit banter, befitting the network that overhyped the event for weeks with name-drawings, a countdown clock and relentless reminders to watch.

Many of the debate questions seemed designed to stimulate TV moments more than explore the most important issues.  For example, most of the Democrats have similar perspectives about immigration policy and the moderators’ questions focused on whether it should be a criminal or civil violation to enter the country illegally.  I’m not an expert in this subject, but I suspect that the legal nature of the violation is not a critical issue in explaining the problems or potential solutions to them.  Sometimes this is the result of candidates’ clever tactics to put their issues on the agenda, as Secretary Julián Castro did about this issue.

Predictably, the debates produced headlines noting how the candidates attacked each other.  The foreseeable result of the current debate process is an increase in conflict and presumably polarization by news media consumers.  Unfortunately, this reinforces a cycle perpetuating even more political conflict.

Political De-Biasing

In a recent post, I wrote about the process of gaslighting – distorting others’ perceptions of reality and undermining their confidence in their own reasoning ability.  That post described President Trump’s use of gaslighting and techniques for un-gaslighting in politics, which negotiators and mediators often use to resolve difficult disputes.

Washington Post columnist Arthur C. Brooks wrote a related article citing research on political polarization and discussing ways to reduce politically biased perceptions of the other side.

He summarizes studies showing that Republicans and Democrats generally misperceive the other side’s beliefs and motives, leading to pointless conflict.  “Ignorance of opponents’ motives leads to needless conflict through what psychologists call ‘motive attribution asymmetry’: the belief that I am motivated by love but you are motivated by hatred.”

Mr. Brooks writes that the evidence shows that this ignorance is true for “average” citizens and even more true for activists and those who consume a lot of media about politics.  He writes, “This is almost certainly a function of partisans’ compulsive consumption of media sources that support their existing biases.  Your political IQ is probably higher after watching reruns of ‘Full House’ than hour after hour of political TV shows.”

He describes how this creates a serious threat to our politics and the insight that we can address this threat through sincere, respectful listening to people on the other side politically.

[W]hen we exaggerate these differences, we see enemies where we should see potential allies.  Motive attribution asymmetry makes us unwilling to cooperate. When we hate our neighbors, we lower our defenses against the virtual invaders who detest the United States’ pluralist and classically liberal values.

This is a major threat, but also an opportunity for countercultural leaders to disrupt our dysfunctional political culture. They can do this by spending time listening to their opponents, with a goal of understanding rather than outrage.  They can publicly refuse to caricature and trash people with whom they disagree.  They can assume the best, not the worst, about others — which has the virtue of being closer to the truth about the majority.

This can be hard to do in the current political environment, with strong political and media structures designed to reinforce our polarization within and between political parties.  Perhaps it is naive to expect that the majority of the public will reject politics based on relentless hatred and vilification – especially when some political forces truly deserve condemnation.

But I suspect that the vast majority of the public is turned off by the vile hatred pouring out of our political system.  Disgusted by the status quo, they may elect leaders using a more respectful political process in which people genuinely seek to understand each other and seek broadly-acceptable solutions.  Hopefully, sooner than later.

Of course, the approach that Mr. Brooks advocates is the stock in trade of our field.  Indeed, many organizations promote truth and reconciliation.  Let it come soon.

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