Politics & Policy

America’s Most Educated, Engaged Citizens Are Making Politics Worse

President Donald Trump at the State of the Union shakes hands with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in Washington, D.C., February 5, 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times/Pool via Reuters)
It turns out that the people who care the most about politics have the least understanding of their political opponents.

The More in Common project has just released the results of its latest deep dive into American polarization, and they make for a deeply discouraging read.

It turns out that most Americans have fundamentally mistaken notions about their political opponents, consistently believing that they are substantially more extreme than they really are. For example, Democrats are far less likely to support open borders, far more likely to support private ownership of firearms, and far more friendly to police than Republicans believe they are. Republicans support controlled immigration far more than Democrats believe, and an overwhelming majority believe that racism and sexism still exist in the United States.

At one level, these conclusions are hardly surprising. After all, previous research has shown that Democrats and Republicans have wildly false notions of the demographic make-up of the opposing party. Democrats think Republicans are older, richer, and more Evangelical than they really are. Republicans think Democrats are more secular, black, and gay than they really are.

And more broadly, surveys showing civic ignorance are squarely in the dog-bites-man category. Spend nine seconds on Google, and you can find depressing studies that show “more than half of Americans can’t name a single Supreme Court justice” or more Americans know that Randy Jackson was a judge on American Idol than know John Roberts is the chief justice of the United States.

But the More in Common survey is different, and disturbing: It shows that political ignorance about the opposing party is driven by America’s most engaged and (at least on the left) most highly educated citizens. In other words, the more you pay attention to political media, the less likely you are to understand the true beliefs of your political opponents.

The survey found that “the most partisan, politically active Americans – a group we call the ‘Wings’ – have deeply distorted perceptions of the other side.” Crucially, “politically disengaged” Americans were “fully three times more accurate in their estimates of political opponents” than those on the right and left edges of American politics:

But not all media are created alike. If you follow the much-derided (at least by the “wings”) broadcast news, you’ve likely got a more realistic view of the other side. If you follow the partisan outlets that often purport to tell the “real story” about your opponents, you’re likely wildly wrong:

Then there’s the education factor. Better-educated Republicans don’t gain materially improved understanding of Democrats, while Democrats’ knowledge of Republican beliefs “actually gets worse with every additional degree they earn.” Moreover, “this effect is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree” in their perceptions of Republicans.

Spend any time reading online political commentary — or hearing campus progressives describe American conservatives — and these findings make intuitive sense. Going all the way back to my law-school days, I consistently heard descriptions of Republicans, Evangelicals, and conservatives that made little sense to me, a lifelong Republican, Evangelical, and conservative. It was as if I was hearing anthropologists describe primitive tribes from faraway places rather than my neighbors and fellow citizens.

The problem is compounded by both social media and clickbait journalism. Perhaps the single best term to describe modern discourse was coined by Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum more than a decade ago. The term is “nutpicking” and it refers to the practice of finding an extreme and outrageous member of a group and attempting to make them emblematic of the whole. Entire business models are built on nutpicking, and it’s constantly justified as the practice of finding the person who will say what the other side “really thinks” — or, to use a phrase popular on parts of the left, the person who says “the quiet part out loud.”

Let’s take two real-life examples that I’ve dealt with recently in my own work. For the better part of a month I’ve been fending off criticisms from people who demand to know why my political philosophy won’t shut down or inhibit something called “drag queen reading hour,” a series of events held at a handful of libraries across America attended by a truly insignificant numbers of Americans. The very existence of this voluntary association has been heralded, by these critics, as a sign of a cultural emergency that classical liberalism simply can’t handle.

Conversely, I recently participated in a panel discussion at a fascinating and thought-provoking environmental conference in San Francisco. My panel was focused on the religion and the environment, and my role was to discuss Evangelical attitudes toward modern environmentalism.

One of the panelists made an earnest and sincere case that it can be extremely difficult to work with religious groups in part because their beliefs can be so unscientific and strange — and as evidence he highlighted a person I’d never heard of who has exactly zero political influence over the Evangelical political movement. The person he cited had extreme ideas about the environment, and he was being “nutpicked,” used as emblematic of people of faith more generally.

So that’s where we are, and if you think the phenomenon doesn’t have a malignant effect on our national discourse, I’m going to show you one more chart. This is what Democrats and Republicans think of each other:

It’s a truism that the people who care the most about any given industry or activity tend not only to drive perceptions about that industry or activity but also to set its ultimate course. Comic-book superfans have outsize influence on superhero movies. Sports fanatics have an outsize influence on the culture and rules of their favorite leagues. Political obsessives have an outsize influence on our nation’s political culture.

It turns out that our influence is malignant in part because we’re ignorant. We’re consuming (and producing) vast amounts of misleading information that reinforces wrong impressions. Ignorance and misinformation are building enmity, and when America’s most political citizens are the source of the problem, the future of American polarization looks bleak indeed.

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