Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 11/30/2010

The political psychology of Mitch McConnell -- and the rest of us

By Ezra Klein


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.

dittoandlopez.pngYou 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.

By Ezra Klein  | November 30, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Psychology  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Wonkbook: Dem compromise would extend 90% of Bush tax cuts; food-safety bill comes to vote; federal-pay freeze
Next: Obama 'lost my vote with this move'


So why are so many of us liberals so upset with Obama and the congressional democrats?

Posted by: fuse | November 30, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

So why on Earth would anyone want to give more power to politicians? They should be stripped of their accumulated power and left to fulminate harmlessly amongst themselves.

Posted by: msoja | November 30, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Ezra--I think you're over analyzing this. One, McConnell spends all of his time fund raising and politicking, he doesn't think about policy. Two, he is not "immoral", he is "amoral", it’s not that he wants to hurt the economy, he doesn’t care. Three, he lives in the conservative echo chamber where Keynes was a fringe nutcase, tax cuts grow the economy, poor people caused the financial crisis, etc. To the limited extent he thinks about policy at all, he truly believes and has internalized this country club conservative nonsense.

Posted by: gVOR08 | November 30, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Motivated skepticism tilts thinking, but isn't the only factor, of course. I would say, though, that there's a tendency to overstate dissatisfaction on the left. According to the latest Gallup poll, Obama is at 83% among Dems and 76% among liberals. That's pretty high!

Posted by: Ezra Klein | November 30, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Charles Krauthammer's Obama's 2nd Act..

The net effect of 18 months of Obamaism will be to undo much of Reaganism. Both presidencies were highly ideological, grandly ambitious and often underappreciated by their own side. In his early years, Reagan was bitterly attacked from his right. (Typical Washington Post headline:

"For Reagan and the New Right, the Honeymoon Is Over" -- and that was six months into his presidency!) Obama is attacked from his left for insufficient zeal on gay rights, immigration reform, closing Guantanamo -- the list is long. The critics don't understand the big picture. Obama's transformational agenda is a play in two acts.

Act One is over. The stimulus, Obamacare, financial reform have exhausted his first-term mandate. It will bear no more heavy lifting. And the Democrats will pay the price for ideological overreaching by losing one or both houses, whether de facto or de jure. The rest of the first term will be spent consolidating these gains (writing the regulations, for example) and preparing for Act Two.

The next burst of ideological energy -- massive regulation of the energy economy, federalizing higher education and "comprehensive" immigration reform (i.e., amnesty) -- will require a second mandate, meaning reelection in 2012.

That's why there's so much tension between Obama and congressional Democrats. For Obama, 2010 matters little.

Big Note: If Democrats lose control of one or both houses, Obama will probably have an easier time in 2012, just as Bill Clinton used Newt Gingrich and the Republicans as the foil for his 1996 reelection campaign.

Obama is down, but it's very early in the play. Like Reagan, he came here to do things. And he's done much in his first 500 days. What he has left to do he knows must await his next 500 days -- those that come after reelection.

The real prize is 2012. Obama sees far, farther than even his own partisans. Republicans underestimate him at their peril.

Posted by: omaarsblade | November 30, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

"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."

Or maybe McConnell's interest in defeating Obama suggests that he believes Obama's policies are destroying the country.

Posted by: bgmma50 | November 30, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

One need only see the right's response to the TSA to understand they'll do anything, up to and including making air travel less safe, to harm the president's prospects.

They are willing to burn the village in order to save it.

Posted by: Hieronymous | November 30, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Obama came into office "with a $1.3 trillion deficit before I had passed any law. ... We came in with $8 trillion worth of debt over the next decade."

Barack Obama on Friday, January 29th, 2010 in a Republican retreat in Baltimore

"The fact of the matter is," Obama replied, "is that when we came into office, the deficit was $1.3 trillion -- $1.3 trillion. So when you say that suddenly I've got a monthly deficit that's higher than the annual deficit left by Republicans, that's factually just not true, and you know it's not true. And what is true is that we came in already with a $1.3 trillion deficit before I had passed any law. What is true is, we came in with $8 trillion worth of debt over the next decade."

We checked Hensarling's claim in a separate item. Here, we'll look at Obama's claim that he came into office with a $1.3 trillion deficit and $8 trillion worth of debt over the next decade.

On Jan. 7, 2009, two weeks before Obama took office, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the deficit for fiscal year 2009 was projected to be $1.2 trillion. The 10-year projection was estimated to be about $3.1 trillion. So Obama's number was very close on the 2009 deficit -- he said $1.3 trillion -- but substantially different from the 10-year projection -- he said $8 trillion.

There are two reasons why he differs from the CBO. On the difference between the $1.2 trillion and the $1.3 trillion, the Obama administration credited a small portion of spending on its watch to policies of the previous administration. The reason for this is that the federal government runs on a fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, so Bush and Obama technically split responsibility for 2009 spending.

The large difference on the 10-year projection has to do with Bush administration tax cuts. The CBO creates its estimates based on current law, which means the CBO assumes that the Bush tax cuts will end in 2010 and everyone will start paying higher taxes in 2011 and going forward. The Obama administration, on the other hand, assumed in its baseline that those tax cuts would be renewed.

Economists we spoke with -- Josh Gordon, policy director for the Concord Coalition, and Brian Riedl, lead budget analyst of the conservative Heritage Foundation -- both said they believe the White House approach is more realistic because it assumes current policy will continue.

So the CBO's estimate is $5 trillion lower than the White House numbers, though economists don't quibble with the White House methodology. It does highlight, however, that when it comes to budget projections, people can have differences of opinion about what to include. In any budget projection there is room for interpretation, but it seems reasonable to assume for a baseline that the Bush tax cuts will continue. Obama's numbers are fairly solid, so we rate his statement Mostly True.

Posted by: omaarsblade | November 30, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

You don't have to talk about the "Professional Left" to say that dissatisfaction with Obama can be drawn not by identification with all Democrats and liberals but by the subgroup of Democrats and liberals that you know well.

Posted by: 4jkb4ia | November 30, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse


Stick around. Fact based analysis is always welcome.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 30, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

I prefer Benjamin Franklin's comment to Bertrand Russell. After lapsing from his vegetarianism when he found himself craving fish, he justified it by observing that fish eat other fish.

But he noted that he might have other motives, saying, "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."


Posted by: sterlinm | November 30, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Interesting that you should use unwillingness to acknowledge the success of the Iraq surge as an example of motivated skepticism. Actually, the surge didn't work, not as promised. It was supposed to be a brief escalation of force that would tamp down violence, give time for an Iraqi government to stabilize, and allow quick removal of the extra troops. Opponents feared that Iraq wouldn't stabilize, more lives would be lost, and the benefits would disappear as soon as the extra troops left.

More troops did tamp down violence, as I think both proponents and opponents expected. But Iraq didn't stabilize in the time the surge was supposed to last. The fears of what would happen when the surge ended never got tested, because the surge didn't end. Instead, it became a long term escalation. Promising a quick withdrawal had overcome some of the resistance to getting troops there, and once they were there and proved their ability to reduce the violence, resistance to their remaining was much less.

So what was successful wasn't the surge, but a long-term escalation. Given the continuing political problems in Iraq, the jury's still out on how successful even that was, but the worst fears of the opponents of continued military occupation weren't realized.

I find it interesting that the surge is now regarded as successful by nearly everyone. It was never surprising that long term hawks, like the Post editorial page, griped that people wouldn't acknowledge the success of the surge, even long after the promised deadline for bringing the extra troops home had passed and the original strategy had clearly failed. More interesting is the acceptance of the redefinition of success by the original opponents -- or more accurately, the redefinition of "surge" to allow the policy to be called successful. Surge once meant a pulse of extra force, an escalation of limited duration, but it is now almost universally used (for example in discussing Afghanistan) as a synonym for escalation with no time limit.

So is my post motivated skepticism, or is the willingness of original opponents to consider the surge successful an example of some kind of motivated credulity :-)

Posted by: dwsmall | November 30, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Late to the debate, but here are 3 things want to say:

1. Ross Douthat had good column in this regard in NYT. (

2. So is Ezra trying to 'show off' opposite of 'epistemic closure of GOP'? Well he is not showing off and it is very valuable post. Just contrasting this with GOP is very revealing.

3. Iraq surge - yes, militarily it might have had setbacks. Read Andrew Sullivan, he has been highlighting it. But politically it has been a success - within America as well as in Iraq. So yes, Ezra is right to take this example.

Good way for Dems to partially compensate for their surge opposition will be to recommend to Iraq Gov to name Baghdad airport as George Bush International Airport and fund George Bush Freedom University in Baghdad. If Dem Administration does that; that will be one way to heal wounds, at least partially.

Posted by: umesh409 | November 30, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I agree with your general point, Ezra, that we're all motivated to accept arguments for our existing points of view and scrutinize those arguments that oppose them.

But one problem I have with some of the studies is that they're too broad. In the Ditto study, I'd bet the participants were not judiciously assessing intelligence but something like "hirability," even if they were told to assess only intelligence. Others might define intelligence differently, to incorporate some of the results of the evaluations. Others might have inferred the evaluator's opinion of the subect's intelligence and given that some weight.

In the Cohen study, it makes some sense for Republicans to support the more generous plan if they think the Republican leadership is the group that will implement it. Same for the Democrats with the stringent plan.

In other words, the law as written is not the only factor in play. If you know you share an ideology with the people who are advocating for a law, you give them the benefit of the doubt on all the "unknowns." If you don't share an ideology, you don't trust them on the unknowns.

This is not irrational. It's a heuristic that might often be false, but it is a rational approach.

I recall a Republican candidate saying he was OK with the current wiretapping laws with Bush in charge, but not Obama. This isn't an inconsistency. (It makes my jaw drop, but it's not logically inconsistent.)

Posted by: dpurp | November 30, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Ezra writes: ***For what it's worth, I don't believe he believes he'd do anything to hurt the economy.****

Ezra: Are you serious? I think it's obvious McConnell is one of the smartest people in Washington. Surely he MUST realize insufficient fiscal support hurts the economy, at least in the short term. I mean, how can massive public sector layoffs (because of lack of aid to the states) and a cutoff in unemployment benefits (per CBO, UI gives biggest bang/buck in terms of stimulus) be GOOD for an economy that is performing so far below capacity?

I think the more plausible explanation -- if one wants to give the senator the benefit of the doubt -- is that he doesn't believe that GOP obstructionism hurts the economy in the LONG TERM, and that an Obama second term DOES hurt the economy in the long term. Ergo, higher unemployment between now and November 2012 is in the country's national interests.

Posted by: Jasper999 | November 30, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

I will say this about McConnell he sure knows how to bamboozle the poor and middle class of his state. But then so does the rest of republican leadership,

Posted by: bm66535 | December 5, 2010 7:38 PM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

characters remaining

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company