How critical is the truth when it comes to your political opinion? How important are the facts about the candidates you vote for?
Do you consider these ridiculous questions? Of course we all strive to reach logical conclusions about politics based on the truth!
Actually, evidence shows that for many partisan thinkers, facts and veracity aren’t as vital as their support for their political party.
An Emory University study used MRIs to study the brain activity of “committed” Democrats and Republicans while they evaluated facts about candidates in the 2004 presidential race.
“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,” says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory. “What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up.”
Partisans displayed “a pattern of emotionally biased reasoning” and simply ignored facts that worked against their preconceived notions. For example, when confronted with a candidate’s contradictions in words and deeds, or shown evidence of a candidate’s dishonesty, partisans were able to deny the duplicity of their party’s candidates while having no difficulty detecting dishonesty in the opposing candidate.
Researchers found that not only did portions of the brain that mediate negative emotions like sadness and disgust turn off, but after partisans came to their biased conclusions about their own candidates they got a “blast of activation in brain circuits involved in reward — similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix.”
Of course it’s not only voters who let partisanship blind them– politicians have even more of an incentive to choose bias over logic, whether consciously or subconsciously. After all, for them partisanship isn’t just about feeling an emotional attachment to a political community. Without the backing of a party, their entire livelihood is at stake.
Politicians are obliged to support the platforms and the leaders of their party. But what if they find fault with their colleagues? What if they don’t agree with the positions they’re expected to uphold?
In psychology, “cognitive dissonance” describes the stress or discomfort a person experiences when he holds two or more beliefs that are contradictory, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing ideas or values. For example, a politician may think:
“I am a proponent of peace. I belong to the party that’s opposed to war,”
while he is also faced with the knowledge that,
“The party I belong to is propagating war.”
To reduce the powerful disturbance created by these two conflicting truths, the politician can:
- Try to change the way his party behaves, which would be extremely difficult and potentially be fatal to his career,
- Switch his allegiance to a party that’s promoting peace, if there is one,
- Change his mind about being opposed to war, or
- Rationalize away the conflict by convincing himself that his party’s actions are somehow justified, or making an exception is more important than his quest for peace.
In 2007, then-Senator Joe Biden made an impassioned speech about the Iraq war that had been initiated by George W. Bush, stating that, “The president has no constitutional authority to take this nation to war against a country of 70 million people unless we are attacked or unless there is proof that we’re about to be attacked. And if he does, if he does, I would move to impeach him.”
Yet Vice President Joe Biden has stood by supportively as President Obama authorized military operations and bombed seven countries without any imminent threat of attack. There was little debate over the President’s authority despite that, unlike Bush, Obama didn’t even seek congressional authorization for his actions as dictated by law.
Examples of seemingly irrational behavior are common from both Republican and Democratic politicians. Sometimes it’s rational to be irrational, explains Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter. People employ “rational irrationality” if taking an illogical stance makes them feel better about themselves or allows them to keep membership in a valued group. When it’s difficult for people to deeply examine their choices or seek the truth, it becomes more sensible to accept irrational decisions than to go through the pain of facing contradictions.
What if you’re a politician, and the rival party makes a policy decision that’s not only one you’ve endorsed in the past, but could possibly lead to good press that will bolster their chances in upcoming elections? Do you change your mind on the policy?
When George Bush was in office, Senator John McCain was a proponent of normalizing relations with Cuba. “I’m not in favor of sticking my finger in the eye of Fidel Castro,” said McCain in 2000. “In fact, I would favor a road map towards normalization of relations such as we presented to the Vietnamese.”
Yet when this very thing was proposed by President Obama in 2014, McCain asserted that normalization with Cuba was “about the appeasement of autocratic dictators, thugs, and adversaries, diminishing America’s influence in the world.”
Why do politicians get away with irrational behavior? Because for voters, it may be sensible to maintain a “rational ignorance.” Americans are busy people. Since our one vote isn’t going to make or break an election, it doesn’t make sense for us to invest an excessive amount of time on political analysis. Many of us rely on intellectual shortcuts, supporting candidates from the party that we trust, and simply counting on them to make good decisions.
Political loyalty has become a convenient alternative to facing hard truths and thinking for ourselves.