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The Psychology of the JournoList “Scandal”: Mirror Image Stereotypes

As a regular reader of political blogs, I could not help but notice that a number of my favorite sites were writing about the same thing, specifically, their participation in a discussion group called JournoList, which included numerous media members such as Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight and Politico writer Ben Smith, both of whom I read with some regularity. These posts were prompted by the publication of numerous emails from this largely liberal group by a conservative blog, the Daily Caller, which recently ran this story (one of many on this topic):

On Journolist, there was rarely such thing as an honorable political disagreement between the left and right, though there were many disagreements on the left. In the view of many who’ve posted to the list-serv, conservatives aren’t simply wrong, they are evil. And while journalists are trained never to presume motive, Journolist members tend to assume that the other side is acting out of the darkest and most dishonorable motives.

Reading other people’s private emails evokes an embodied moral reaction in me. Maybe it’s motivated reasoning as a liberal myself, but I would hope that I’d find it similarly distasteful for a business to make money by posting the private emails of conservatives. Still, I think that the above paragraph is likely correct for some (not all) members of the list, along the lines of this wonderful post by Peter Ditto of UC-Irvine, concerning the ways that liberals and conservatives mirror each other in their negative attributions.  In it, he notes that a “mirror image pattern, two opposing sides in an ideological struggle having virtually identical stereotypes of each other, is a common characteristic in intergroup relations.” The idea is that when you find these mirror image perceptions, they are often more a function of partisanship and group conflict than reality.

It’s not hard to find quotes from conservatives that mirror the above observation of journolist members.  Consider this article entitled “Why does Obama hate America so badly?” My guess is that Democrats don’t hate the economy and Republicans don’t hate poor people, yet these mirror image negative attributions of malicious intent exist.

Here is the same story in graph form, using our yourmorals.org data, where liberals and conservatives rate both republicans and democrats on “warmth”…

and on “competence”….

Hardly surprising, but liberals think Republicans are cold and incompetent, while conservatives think Democrats are cold and incompetent.  (strangely, we generally think that we ourselves are both more warm and more competent than the average member of either party..:))

I’m sure that cherry picking any person’s email archive would lead to embarrassing material, but I would agree with Andrew Sullivan’s take on JournoList:

The far right is right on this: this collusion is corruption. It is no less corrupt than the comically propagandistic Fox News and the lock-step orthodoxy on the partisan right in journalism – but it is nonetheless corrupt…….

…..I’m glad Journo-list is over. It should never have been begun. I know many of its members are good and decent and fair-minded writers. But socialized groupthink is not the answer to what’s wrong with the media. It’s what’s already wrong with the media.

These mirror image negative perceptions are an inevitable part of intergroup conflict, so rather than morally judging the individuals involved for behavior that is likely quite common, I prefer to take this as a cautionary tale for all who want better policy. On both sides of the aisle, we should be seeking to recognize and reduce these biases, not amplify them through ideologically homogeneous discussions, such as what appeared to occur on JournoList.

- Ravi Iyer

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How did Liberals become Democrats and Conservatives Become Republicans? Levendusky Explains in “The Partisan Sort”

 

Book Review

For much of America’s history, political parties consisted of liberal and conservative elected officials and voters. In the 1970s, however, this ideological heterogeneity began a marked shift where liberals sorted into the Democratic party and conservatives sorted into the Republican party. Matthew Levendusky presents data in The Partisan Sort: How Liberals Became Democrats and Conservatives Became Republicans suggesting that this began following the decentralization of the primary election process—that is, taking the nomination process out of the hands of party bosses and letting the passionate, activists and extremists within each party vote for their preferred candidate. This change in the nomination process led to the parties running increasingly extreme candidates in general elections. Thus, as the elite became more polarized, voters became better able to distinguish between the parties and were able to better sort themselves according to their beliefs. Levendusky argues that this tendency is both good and bad, as it makes voters better informed, but can invite close-mindedness and hostility on contentious issues.

Application to Civil Politics

We at CivilPolitics agree that having engaged and informed voters is good for democracy, but see many potential negatives to having people divided into groups and sorted in such a way that sacred values enflame the competition between the groups. For instance, as people sort themselves into segregated groups, they begin to surround themselves with people with similar political beliefs as them. In doing so, we activate “group polarization” where the disagreement between the groups becomes even wider as members of each group become more extreme. Social psychologists Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper (1979) found that this polarization leads people on both sides of an issue to engage in the confirmation bias, accepting evidence in support of one’s belief at face value, while applying strict scrutiny to any evidence in opposition to one’s belief. In their experiments, they looked at groups of people who favored and opposed the death penalty. Consistent with this attitude polarization hypothesis, they found that supporters of capital punishment found evidence in support of the death penalty more convincing than evidence in opposition to it. The reverse pattern was true for opponents of capital punishment; opponents of capital punishment found arguments against the death penalty as more convincing than evidence in favor of it. Sorting may also lead to less contact with people who belong to different political parties. Less contact may prevent the development of relationships and respect for people with these discrepant views. Classic social psychological research shows us that without positive intergroup contact, group relations may become increasingly hostile. The lack of contact can be illustrated by the recurring statement, “I don’t know how Reagan[/Clinton/Bush/Obama] won – I don’t know a soul who voted for him.” This research finding makes sense in light of the disrespectful vitriol being spewed at Republicans by Democrats and at Democrats by Republicans. It’s easier to label something as evil if you are not friends with him/her. Muzafer Sherif’s famous Robbers Cave research, in addition to decades of confirming experiments, suggest that even though groups can get pretty nasty with each other in competitive contexts, there are ways besides developing personal relationships that may civilize these interactions. For instance, if there is some greater goal that allows the groups to cooperate, the intergroup friction is temporarily reduced. Perhaps if politicians in America recognized the importance of civil debate in a healthy democracy, they might be more inclined to cooperate… or at least less likely to call each other names.

Detailed Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1: The Transformation of the American Electorate

In the mid-twentieth century, Democratic and Republican officials were much more ideologically heterogeneous than they are today. By the 2000s, “Rockefeller Republicans” and conservative southern Democrats had vanished from public office. In this time span, these political elites became more polarized with Democrats shifting to the left and Republicans shifting to the right. This polarization of the elites makes distinguishing between the parties easier for voters to determine which party best represents their beliefs. In other words, as the elites polarized, it became easier for the ordinary citizens to sort into the two major parties.

Chapter 2: Why Voters Sort

During the 1950s and 1960s, candidates from both parties generally accepted the New Deal government established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, when Barry Goldwater received the Republican Party’s nomination to run for president, this consensus on the New Deal began to falter. Goldwater advocated privatizing social security, selling the Tennessee Valley Authority, strengthening right-to-work legislation, and perhaps most importantly, emphasizing the States’, and not the Federal government’s, responsibility to address racism. This helped create a schism between the parties over the question of race. Later, in the 1970s, both parties began to reform their nomination process by reducing the power of the party bosses and increasing power of the primary election voters—the people who tend to be the most passionate and extreme in their beliefs. This reform forces candidates to stake out increasingly extreme positions on issues to gain the support of the primary voters who are more likely to reject more moderate candidates than are the general election voters.

Chapter 3: Have Voters Sorted?

Levendusky presents data supporting his basic argument that voters have become more sorted than they have been at any point in history. When comparing the percentage of Americans who reported having liberal or conservative beliefs and identifying as Democrats or Republicans, respectively, we a marked increase from 28% in1972 to 46% in 2004. This number may be artificially low because it does not take into account the people who cannot identify themselves on the liberal-to-conservative continuum. In addition to sorting, there is some evidence suggesting voters have also become more polarized. This finding is not due to an increasing number of people identifying as extreme liberals or extreme conservatives. Rather, this finding is due to moderate voters starting to lean slightly toward liberalism or conservatism.

Chapters 4 and 5: Testing Competing Explanations for Sorting and Untangling the Causes of Sorting

In these chapters, Levendusky first provides correlational data demonstrating that increased elite polarization corresponds to increased mass sorting. However, as all good statistics students know, correlation does not mean causation. Thus, in order to argue that increased polarization is the factor causing increased mass sorting, he must demonstrate the correlation while controlling for the temporal sequence of the variables and other variables that could be causing the sorting. In these chapters, he does this supporting his hypothesis that changes in elite polarization predict changes in mass sorting. This relationship holds even after controlling for alternative explanations (e.g., the changing “Southern Democrat,” birth cohort variation, race, gender, and income).

Chapter 6: How Voters Sort

Partisan identification is a source of a more general identity that biases people’s interpretation of the world to fit with their partisan worldview. In other words, political parties provide people with a heuristic to understand their political worlds allowing them to sort according to their party’s stances on the issues. This is especially true for issues which voters have not invested much time into developing a particular opinion. So, if the Republican Party supports X and I am a Republican, I am significantly more likely to align my view with the Republican view. This partisan identity is remarkably stable across time. While this pattern may be the most common, occasionally, voters will shift their partisan identification to fit with their positions on the issues. As one example, Levendusky points to the conservative Democrats who became Republicans after the Democratic Party shifted left in the 1970s.

Chapter 7: The Impact of the Sorted

As sorting increases, we see that partisans on both ends of the spectrum become more emotionally polarized leading to a widespread belief that my party consists of the “good guys” and the other party is the “bad guys,” regardless of which party I belong to. This affective polarization is problematic because it may make it more difficult for legislators in one party to discuss and compromise on issues with legislators in another party. This observation may have played a part in the changing campaign philosophies over time. For many years political candidates adopted the “Downsian” model of campaigning where they believed that targeting the moderate, centrist voters would tip the electoral scale their way. Until the 1990s, campaigns spent proportionally more money targeting these “swing” voters than any other group. However, beginning in the 1990s and exponentially increasing through George Bush’s two elections (and in the 2008 Obama-McCain election, but this was not covered by Levendusky), Huntington’s “base-mobilization” campaign strategy became the focus. In this strategy, each candidate focuses on making sure their loyal supporters within their own party turn out to the polls and cast their ballot, paying little attention to the swing voters and people who typically vote for the other party.

Author Info

Matthew Levendusky obtained his doctorate in political science from Stanford University in 2006, did postdoctoral work at the Center for the Study of American Politics at Yale, and is now a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies how political institutions affect political behavior of citizens. The Partisan Sort is his first published book. His peer-reviewed research is published in some of the top journals in the field of political science including the Journal of Politics and Political Analysis.

– Matt Motyl

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Political Mavericks: Conscientious or Treasonous?

In James Thurber’s Further Fables for Our Time, he writes the tale of “The Peacelike Mongoose.”

In cobra country a mongoose was born one day who didn't want to fight cobras or anything else. The word spread from mongoose to mongoose that there was a mongoose who didn't want to fight cobras. If he didn't want to fight anything else, it was his own business, but it was the duty of every mongoose to kill cobras or be killed by cobras.

""Why?" asked the peacelike mongoose, and the word went around that the strange new mongoose was not only pro-cobra and anti-mongoose but intellectually curious and against the ideals and traditions of mongoosism.

"He is crazy," cried the young mongoose's father.

"He is sick," said his mother.

"He is a coward," shouted his brothers.

"He is a mongoosexual," whispered his sisters.

Strangers who had never laid eyes on the peacelike mongoose remembered that they had seen him crawling on his stomach, or trying on cobra hoods, or plotting the violent overthrow of Mongoosia.

"I am trying to use reason and intelligence," said the strange new mongoose.

"Reason is six-sevenths of treason," said one of his neighbors.

"Intelligence is what the enemy uses," said another.

Finally, the rumor spread that the mongoose had venom in his sting, like a cobra, and he was tried, convicted by a show of paws, and condemned to banishment.

Moral: Ashes to ashes, and clay to clay, if the enemy doesn't get you your own folks may.

This fable was written denouncing the McCarthyist paranoia that led to the blacklisting of fellow American citizens out of suspicion that they may be communist sympathizers, but the message of this tale extends well beyond the Red Scare. Today, we see that “maverick” (or, perhaps, “mongoose”) politicians who do not vote the party line are often ostracized as “black sheep” and attacked by their own folks, as Thurber suggests.

Consider Democrats’ reactions to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) running for office as an Independent after losing the Democratic Primary. Former Clinton adviser Paul Begala nicknamed him “Traitor Joe,” journalist Ari Berman described him as a “back stabber,” and television show host Rachel Maddow proclaimed him to be a “wrench in the works.” On the other side of the aisle, though, Republicans celebrated Lieberman as “a really exceptional senator” and “a national treasure.” Conservative pundits Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck all supported his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Similarly, consider Republicans’ reactions to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) after she voted in favor of the 2009 stimulus package and the Senate Finance Committee’s healthcare reform bill. Republicans lambasted her as one of three then-Republican Senators who did not vote the party line as the “Traitor Trio”. At the same time, Democrats heralded Snowe for her willingness to compromise and leadership in doing what is best for the country.

Social psychologist Pete Ditto and graduate student Andrew Mastronarde published experimental evidence supporting this phenomenon in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Across three studies, they found that although participants generally liked the idea of a political maverick, participants viewed mavericks of their own party more negatively than their party-line counterparts. Perhaps this is part of the reason that the long-self-pronounced political maverick Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is now renouncing the idea that he ever was a maverick.

From ashes to ashes, and clay to clay, if the other party doesn’t get you, extremists within your own party may.

– Matt Motyl

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Relationships Come First: Insight from the Citizens’ Civility Symposium

The Institute for Civility in Government's Citizens' Civility Symposium brought together people of all political persuasions to discuss the political process–quite civilly, I am pleased to report. While many attendees held different positions on the issues, we came to a consensus that debate in a free democratic republic should be civil.

As the invited guests spoke, they shared stories of how they had been victims of America's civility deficit. Former House Representative Bill Archer (R-TX) spoke of how Bob Novak called him a communist on the adversarial political news show, Crossfire. Rep. Archer continued by mentioning how a fellow congressperson had called him "Hitler" and a "Nazi" on the House floor.

Former House Representative Jim Leach (R-IA) shared similar stories including one where he was called a "Fascist" and a "Communist…" by the same person… in the same sentence. Apparently, the irony was lost on the uncivil politico using those epithets, since fascism is typically associated with the far-right and communism is typically associated with the far-left.

Current House Representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX) shared his surprise at how soon Democrats and Republicans are segregated once they are elected to office. As they prepare to begin their careers in Washington, D. C., all new congresspeople are invited to attend workshops orienting them to their new jobs. As Rep. Cuellar walked onto one of the buses that would take the newly-elected officials to the orientation, the bus grew silent. Someone stood up and informed him he was on the "wrong bus" and wasn't "wanted there," a scenario reminiscent of the 1960s civil rights' era. It turns out that was the "Republican" bus and that the parties do not intermingle in the orientation process. This experience led Rep. Cuellar to suggest that civility in politics is, in large part, a function of the relationships politicians form with one another.

In recent years, the number of congresspeople living in D.C. has decreased, making it more difficult for them to interact and develop personal relationships. Years of research document the many effects that this segregation may have on inter-party interactions. For example, Allport (1954) suggested that interacting with people who belong to different groups can sometimes reduce hostility and promote cooperation between groups. More recent research by Bandura (1999) and Haslam (2006) indicates that when people do not develop personal relationships with outgroup members, they are inclined to demonize and dehumanize the members of those other groups.

Perhaps this explains why liberals often depicted President Bush as primate-like, and conservatives currently depict President Obama as primate-like. This reduced contact may predispose elected officials to use demonizing language “targeting” political opponents, labeling them “Fascists” and “Communists.” The Institute created a civil public square for an afternoon, where shared experiences allowed people with very different political backgrounds to bond and recognize that we, as Americans, benefit from listening to each other’s perspectives. Our mission, here at CivilPolitics.org, is to find ways to encourage the growth of this civil public square.

– Matt Motyl

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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.