The political psychology of Mitch McConnell -- and the rest of us
I don't think we need to get into talmudic arguments over whether, when Mitch McConnell says "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," he's implying a strategy of "deliberate economic sabotage" or simply offering a confused and politically counterproductive pander to his base. For what it's worth, I don't believe he believes he'd do anything to hurt the economy. Political actors are rarely so rationally cynical as that. The problem is subtler: Can McConnell bring himself to support a policy that will help the economy if it also helps President Obama?
On the simplest level, American politics presents us with an incentives problem: McConnell -- like most minority leaders -- is an avowedly reflexive opponent of the president's reelection. The president's reelection campaign depends on an improved economy. That a rational actor working inside the system's rules might prefer -- and even be able to bring about -- a weak economy should scare us, even if we don't believe they'll purposefully try and do it.
In part, that's because the word "purposefully" doesn't offer as much protection as we might wish. Humans have a funny way of following their incentives even when they don't realize that's what they're doing. McConnell doesn't have to believe he's hurting the economy in order to hurt the economy. Rather, if the incentives and distortions of heated partisanship leave powerful actors like McConnell unable to partner with the White House to help the economy recover, that in itself could do damage to the economy, particularly amid divided government (indeed, there's some evidence that the economy performs better under unified government). And McConnell could easily do that while believing everything he's doing is meant to help the economy.
Psychologists call the mechanism behind this "motivated skepticism." When we're faced with information or ideas that accord with our preexisting beliefs about the world, we accept them easily. When the ideas and information cut against our beliefs, however, we interrogate them harshly, subjecting them to endless scrutiny and a long search for contrary evidence which, when found, we accept uncritically.
Let's start with an amusing experiment that Peter Ditto, a political psychologist at the University of California at Irvine, and David Lopez, a psychologist at Kent State, use in their paper "Motivated Skepticism." Ditto and Lopez assembled 67 female undergraduates to conduct hypothetical evaluations of the intelligence of prospective college applicants. The participants were given two pieces of information: One, a pre-graded test where they could see how well the applicant had done. The other, an evaluation from someone who'd worked with the applicant. For the control group, the evaluation was blandly positive. For the experimental group, the evaluation was sharply negative: The subject was presented as rude, condescending, and unlikeable. Oh, and there was one catch: The undergraduates were supposed to grade the tests as quickly as possible.
You can see the results on the right. If the applicant got all the questions right, the grader usually judged them as intelligent. But when an unlikable applicant got the questions wrong, the grader would cast them aside far quicker than when a likable applicant got the answers wrong. We're much more skeptical of evidence that harms people we like than people we don't like -- and that's true no matter the quality of the evidence.
Perhaps the seminal paper (pdf) in the field was conducted by Stanford's Charlie Lord in 1979. In it, "subjects supporting and opposing capital punishment were exposed to two purported studies, one seemingly confirming and one seemingly disconfirming their existing beliefs about the deterrent efficacy of the death penalty." The studies were methodologically identical, but you can probably guess which paper found each group found most convincing, and which they found methodologically flawed. In other words, what mattered wasn't the evidence. It was the conclusion.
My favorite study (pdf) in this space was by Yale's Geoffrey Cohen. His experiment found the position of an individual's preferred political party overwhelmed both the objective policy content and the individual's preexisting beliefs. Cohen had a control group of liberals and conservatives look at a generous welfare reform proposal and a harsh welfare reform proposal. As expected, liberals preferred the generous plan and conservatives favored the more stringent option. Then he had another group of liberals and conservatives look at the same plans -- but this time, the plans were associated with parties.
Both liberals and conservatives followed their parties, even when their parties disagreed with them. So when Democrats were said to favor the stringent welfare reform, for example, liberals went right along. Three scary sentences from the piece: "when reference group information was available, participants gave no weight to objective policy content, and instead assumed the position of their group as their own. This effect was as strong among people who were knowledgeable about welfare as it was among people who were not. Finally, participants persisted in the belief that they had formed their attitude autonomously even in the two group information conditions where they had not."
As Ditto reminded me in an e-mail, sophisticated psychology isn't necessary for apprehending this tendency. Bertrand Russell had it long ago, when he said "If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence."
And that's where things get complicated. No one in American politics believes they're acting against the interests of the country. What's difficult, however, is the evidence suggesting that political actors are primarily acting against the interests of their opponents. This is particularly true for minority parties, who often find themselves reacting to the majority's proposal, while the majority is often reacting to external conditions. President Bush's critics -- myself included -- found it very difficult to credit the success of the surge, even after the evidence that it was working began piling up. And in the Obama years, Republicans have turned sharply against stimulus proposals and health-care bill that are not all that different from what they themselves have supported at other times.
None of this is to say that there aren't legitimate and difficult policy questions that need to be hashed out. The White House may be wrong. McConnell may be right. But when McConnell suggests that his main interest is defeating Obama, it suggests that partisanship, and not policy analysis, is in the cognitive driver's seat.
And that has downstream effects: Politically knowledgeable individuals tend to be partisans who take cues from their parties. Voters take cues from politically knowledgeable friends. Divided government needs agreement to function. If the actors at the top of the pyramid give in to total partisanship, there's little hope of getting anything done -- and that may be very bad if the economy requires further help.
Photo credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post.
| November 30, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
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