Saturday, June 05, 2004

David Brooks Gets It (Mostly) Right

It's good to see David Brooks staying away from the usual inanities and writing something instructive for a change:

Today's topic is what it means to be a partisan, because partisanship is the building block of polarization.

In a perfectly rational world, citizens would figure out which parties best represent their interests and their values, and they would provisionally attach themselves to those parties. If their situations changed or their interests changed, then their party affiliations would change.

But that is not how things work in real life. As Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist and Eric Schickler argue in their book, "Partisan Hearts and Minds," most people either inherit their party affiliations from their parents, or they form an attachment to one party or another early in adulthood. Few people switch parties once they hit middle age. Even major historic events like the world wars and the Watergate scandal do not cause large numbers of people to switch.


Party affiliation even shapes people's perceptions of reality. In 1960, Angus Campbell and others published a classic text, "The American Voter," in which they argued that partisanship serves as a filter. A partisan filters out facts that are inconsistent with the party's approved worldview and exaggerates facts that confirm it.

That observation has been criticized by some political scientists, who see voters as reasonably rational. But many political scientists are coming back to Campbell's conclusion: people's perceptions are blatantly biased by partisanship.

For example, the Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels has pointed to survey data collected after the Reagan and Clinton presidencies. In 1988, voters were asked if they thought the nation's inflation rate had fallen during the Reagan presidency.

In fact, it did. The inflation rate fell from 13.5 percent to 4.1 percent. But only 8 percent of strong Democrats said the rate had fallen. Fifty percent of partisan Democrats believed that inflation had risen under Reagan. Strong Republicans had a much sunnier and more accurate impression of economic trends. Forty-seven percent said inflation had declined.

Then, at the end of the Clinton presidency, voters were asked similar questions about how the country had fared in the previous eight years. This time, it was Republicans who were inaccurate and negative. Democrats were much more positive. Bartels concludes that partisan loyalties have a pervasive influence on how people see the world. They reinforce and exaggerate differences of opinion between Republicans and Democrats.

The overall impression one gets from these political scientists is that politics is a tribal business. Americans congregate into rival political communities, then embrace one-sided attitudes and perceptions. (emphasis added)
I think that final bit is key, and it's why I find reading so many Bush-bashing orgies grating. I don't personally have a dog in the fight between the Republicans and the Democrats, as I find both to have policies I consider odious, but it's simply ridiculous the way even clever Democrats who ought to know better go on and on and on about the failings of Bush. His failings are indeed major, and I've gone on about them myself in the past, but all that talk about his being the "worst President ever" is simply evidence that some minds have become unhinged by impotent partisan rage. Bush has proven himself to be largely unprincipled, but he's no different from Bill Clinton in that regard, nor can any intellectually honest person lay the door for the post-bubble recession at his door, seeing as he had no hand in priming the bubble that caused it. As for his foreign policy ... we'll see, but as bad as things like the Abu Ghraib mess are, and as shameful as it is that not a single high-ranking official has had the decency to step forward and take responsibility, Iraq is currently very far from being a fiasco when the numbers are regarded in the light of historical experience.

I'd like to end this post by offering a few words of advice to Democratic partisans: your arguments are far more likely to make an impression on the minds of those who are uncommitted if you're able to at least preserve an illusion of even a tenuous attachment to reality by acknowledging that your opponents aren't devils incarnate, and Bush is not at once an cunning machiavellian and an incoherent idiot. Nor is it true that yours is the side of the angels, and a willingness to criticize those in your party for their excesses is a good thing - for instance, it would have been nice if a few prominent Democrats had shown enough gumption to lambast Fritz "Wetback" Hollings (D - RIAA) for his insinuation that the war in Iraq was orchestrated for the sake of Israel, or ex-Klan member Robert "White Nigger" Byrd for his many bigoted utterances. Acting as if racism, intolerance of dissenting views and a distaste for people exercizing their personal freedoms in ways one dislikes are exclusively Republican failings is partisan dishonesty of the most egregious kind.