A Natural Experiment

We are in the midst of a natural experiment at the national level.

As I wrote about a few months ago, there is a great perceptual divide in the nation. I argued at the time that in the face of mounting evidence of lies and corruption “one portion of American society recoils in disgust, lamenting assaults on the rule of law, separation of powers and fundamental human decency” while “another group of American citizens grows increasingly angry with what they perceive to be a coordinated effort to delegitimize an administration that simply refuses to adhere to conventional norms imposed by elites, and takes delight in this refusal.”

The perceptual rift is deeply embedded, driven, as social psychologists have shown, by motivated reasoning in which individuals adjust to evidence threatening to their world view by modifying their justification for embracing that view rather than revising that view itself.

This appears to be a cogent explanation of a world in which, according to a June Quinnipiac poll, 82% of Democrats believe the Mueller probe is legitimate, while 81% of Republicans indicate it is a “political witch hunt.”

When Prophecy Fails.pngThe psychology of the perceptual divide explains why the incremental accrual of evidence is unlikely to result in significant converge of views. But we have now embarked on a natural experiment — a study in which events unfold that are not designed or planned by those conducting the experiment, and which are applied to the study group — i.e., supporters of the current administration. (Note that the study group would be those who condemn the incumbent of the White House as venal and dishonest were there mounting exculpatory evidence. That is by no means where the evidence is trending.)

The “treatment” applied to those who see a politically motivated investigation of the administration arrives in the form of confirmed legal evidence of massive and pervasive corruption, from tax fraud to money laundering to obstruction of justice, and likely more.

The outcome of the experiment could not be more significant, for the result will illuminate the future course of  American democracy. Will there be continued support for an unfettered press, democratic accountability and for rule of law?

Amazingly, we also have underway a localized microcosm of the larger experiment that is, chronologically, running just ahead of the national experiment.

In California’s 50th Congressional District, Congressman Duncan Hunter was indicted on August 21 – the very same day of the federal indictment against Michael Cohen and the finding of Paul Manafort’s guilt on charges of bank and tax fraud. The indictment against Hunter detailed misuse of $250,000 worth of campaign funds for personal expenses, along with wire fraud, falsification of records, breaches of campaign finance rules and other crimes.

While Hunter has been under federal investigation for a year, we now have an indictment detailing very specific and egregious illegal activities.

The indictment can be viewed as the “treatment” in the “experiment” underway. How will Hunter’s constituents react?

The experiment will continue until results of the November 6 election are settled, unless Hunter were to resign or drop out prior to that time, which to date he has indicated he will not do.

A recent New York Times article about Hunter’s 29-year old Democratic challenger, Ammar Campa-Najjar, quoted a veteran and supporter of the current occupant of the White House who was particularly disturbed by Hunter’s falsified filing of one set of personal expenditures as a contribution to the Wounded Warrior Project.

“It’s a form of stolen valor,” this person asserted, adding “that’s just a really crappy thing to do.” The conclusion? This individual “had not decided whom to vote for in November.”

How might we explain a logic that enables those observing the corrupt behavior to nonetheless continue to support, or at least to consider supporting, the perpetrator?

While offering only anecdotal evidence, the San Diego Tribune recently published a few reactions from constituents.

One wrote: “Gadz!! A politician involved in a scandal. That’s it, the world is about to end!!! Truthfully, I think it’s a slap in the face to his constituents, but I’ll vote for him (again) over his opponent, as the thought of the Democrats gaining even one more seat in the House is distasteful at the very least.”

Two components of the logic at work justify the decision to stick with Hunter: (1) all politicians are corrupt; and (2) electing a Democrat to Congress is the worst of all possible outcomes.

A commenter responding to an August 23 article in The Federalist echoes the first element of the justification for backing Hunter despite the indictment:

“This was a stupid crime, easily exposed and provable. Hunter and his wife wanted to live the good life. They probably hobnobbed with many rich people and wanted more. But I wonder if all the other members of Congress are now being audited to see if they did similar things?”

Presenting a version of the second component of the argument – that a member of Congress is simply an instrument for delivering a vote in support of an agenda, another constituent writes to the San Diego Tribune:

“Our good Congressman Duncan Hunter is criminally indicted for spending some campaign funds for personal use. As a public record that should be the extent of it. It was donated money. It’s disappointing, but no one here was a victim. Accordingly, I see no problem with a congressman choosing how to spend campaign funds for election probabilities. He may sacrifice in other ways no one is aware of. It’s how he votes that matters.”

Here we have a third logical construction at work that extends the ability to confirm support in the face of damning evidence: the Congressman makes other sacrifices for his constituents that are not visible. The psychological value of this rationale is that it is entirely irrefutable. Since the sacrifices are unnamed and invisible, their extent and magnitude are up to the imagination.

Buttressing the “all politicians are corrupt,” “it’s how he votes (and the opposition is far worse) that matters” and “he sacrifices in other ways” logics are rationales for dismissing the evidence that involve an embrace of macro-level narratives advanced by the current administration, involving distrust of the media and of the workings of the “Deep State” judiciary.

The recent New York Times article focused on Hunter’s Democratic challenger cites a self-identified conservative and supporter of the current occupant of the White House who is “withholding judgment” on Hunter’s indictment due to mistrust of the media. “How can you have an opinion about it if you don’t really know the circumstances?” asked this individual.

Another respondent to the August 23 article in The Federalist, implicitly embracing the “Deep State” conspiracy, writes:

“My question is why was this withheld until after the primary? Most of these events happened years ago and the investigation has gone on for a year. Why the delay? Was it to disadvantage the Republicans in the general election? It seems like it to me.”

Despite this anecdotal evidence, we do not know what the aggregate result of the stark verification of corruption will be. We know that some portion of voters will rationalize – through logics including those outlined above – their continued support for the corrupt member of Congress from the political party they support. We can surmise that that share of supporters of the corrupt Congressman will be substantial, but we do not know if it will be sufficient to carry him to reelection.

The most recent poll of likely voters – from late July — shows a somewhat narrowing race, with Hunter  ahead by 9 points. While this poll occurred in a context of investigations and allegations of campaign finance fraud, it does not yet factor in the formal indictment.

Dynamics at the national level look similar. The experiment is in a relatively early phase, so results remain uncertain. The psychology of motivated reasoning, along with the administration’s construction of narratives of media conspiracy and judicial illegitimacy may be reasons to despair of any convergence of views of American voters. But there are also some glimmers of hope.

A recent Washington Post article cites evidence – however tentative – that the administration’s attacks on the Mueller probe are becoming less effective.

There is little doubt that much more evidence of fraudulent and criminal behavior by the current occupant of the White House is soon forthcoming. The “treatment” applied in the experiment, in other words, will intensify.

As this occurs, we will have a crucial test of the extent to which assaults on democratic institutions and the rule have done deep and lasting damage to American democracy.

The Great Perceptual Rift

As the perversions of contemporary governance in the United States accumulate, the perceptual divide in society deepens.

We witness daily the lies of the current administration and levels of corruption that we have not seen for many decades. As this takes place, one portion of American society recoils in disgust, lamenting assaults on the rule of law, separation of powers and fundamental human decency and the failure of those with institutional levers of power to use them to achieve accountability.

Meanwhile, another group of American citizens grows increasingly angry with what they perceive to be a coordinated effort to delegitimize an administration that simply refuses to adhere to conventional norms imposed by elites, and takes delight in this refusal.

This dynamic is not unique to the United States. In the UK, evidence mounts that Britain’s exit from the European Union will be economically damaging, that the British government is faring poorly in negotiations over the terms of exit and that the promises of the loudest champions of a British exit were entirely hollow.

Yet the roughly even divide in British society about the desirability of leaving the European Union persists.

So how do we explain these great rifts in the realm of human perception, and what are the consequences?

Social psychology yields substantial insight. The literature identifies two different types of motives undergirding attitudes. Some beliefs result from a desire to arrive at the best conclusion warranted by the evidence at hand – an accuracy motive.  However, other attitudes and beliefs are central to an individual’s sense of identity or self-worth, and therefore defense of those beliefs has psychological utility.

While the first set of beliefs may be revised in response to additional information, the latter will prove resistant to revision, and the individual’s response to contrary evidence or counteragument will be to adopt strategies that intensify their convictions.

As experimental evidence suggests, when individual attitudes follow from a quest for accuracy, individuals will make evidence-based claims, and may respond to challenges by citing additional evidence or by seeking to establish the superior value of their body of evidence. Such claims, though, will be vulnerable to contradictory evidence, and the individuals can revise their views without incurring high psychological costs.

When attitudes are central to identity, individuals will be less willing to leave their views vulnerable to falsification.  Accordingly, the likely response to evidence-based challenges is to justify the position in unfalsifiable terms. As authors Frieson, Campbell and Kay argue, “people will shift their reported reasons for a political stance to be more unfalsifiable . . . because this unfalsifiability allows them to maintain their stated stance even when the facts appear to contradict it.”

The consequences are damaging to society in two fundamental ways. First, when society is deeply divided on fundamental interpretations of political behavior, political leaders are not held accountable for their actions. Democracy itself is endangered.

Second, when there is no shared grounding in objective reality, it becomes impossible to have genuine policy debates. Debates about taxes, healthcare, education, climate change are stunted in two ways: (1) there is no shared understanding of the nature of the problem we confront; and (2) political leaders have incentives to mobilize supporters around their preferred conceptions of reality rather than around particular policy programs. To give an obvious example, the national debate about climate change focuses at least in part on alleged motives and biases of the scientific and academic community warning of the dangers of climate change rather than on the appropriate mix of government-led and market-based solutions or the most promising avenues for the application of technology.

Given the proliferation of media sources and the attendant ability of individuals to select information from outlets that confirm and reinforce their biases, we seem to have reached an equilibrium characterized by a self-perpetuating societal chasm.

Is there a way out?

I offer three potential paths. First, a dramatic break. This would entail something like an indictment of the current occupant of the White House for obstruction of justice, with an avalanche of evidence that renders it untenable for Congress to continue to enable the administration’s abuses. The challenge to world views of all but the most ardent supporters would be so fundamental that perhaps at least some would be willing to countenance an alternative version of reality.

A second path would involve the emergence of new national leadership – perhaps in the 2020 presidential election – dedicated to diminishing the societal divide. One question is whether, in a climate of deep division, such leadership can even emerge. All incentives at present are for strategies of mobilization around competing realities.

The third path requires that a critical mass of citizens engage sufficiently on a daily basis to draw the polity back toward reason in the interest of democracy, inclusion and decency. There are indicators afoot of such political activism and efforts in educational institutions, for example, to teach students to more carefully assess the validity of information sources.

But can any of these paths serve to bridge the divide?

I don’t know.

I invite readers to engage this question by commenting on this post. Do you believe there is a way out of the great societal rift? If so, what does it look like?