Making Sense of Public Opinion

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  1. Avatar Christopher Carr
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    I don’t want to sound like an elitist, but influential participation in democratic discourse was the province of the elite and well-informed when our democracy was formulated. Incoherence is and always has been a natural by-product of democracy, and I think information technologies, more than informing us, make us aware of how uninformed we really are.Report

  2. Avatar Creon Critic
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    Excellent post. I’d add this phenomenon isn’t at all unique to America. Cognitive polyphasia is how one pollster described public opinion prior to the elections in the UK. Voters desire public policy that reconciles the irreconcilable. The examples the pollster used were the British public’s wanting Swedish level public services on American levels of taxation, local control over public services without the postcode lottery, and more fellow citizens to participate in local governance without personally volunteering for the task. The rational ignorance explanation you outline seems reasonable to me. Not sure if there are any satisfactory solutions. More education, compulsory voting, better campaign ad limits, a new fairness doctrine? Brecht’s poem comes to mind, dissolve the people and elect another.Report

  3. Avatar Pat Cahalan
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    I like this post, but you’re missing something:

    “That happens either by demonstrating that there is in fact, no inconsistency between our beliefs and new information, or by modifying our beliefs to account for the new information.”

    You missed the third, actually most common response: people rationalize away the inconsistency, while retaining their belief system. There’s *loads* of evidence on this score; not just anecdotal cultural references, but neuropsychology studies.

    So, they don’t reconcile their belief system with the new evidence. They either discard the evidence as insufficient, irrelevant, or biased, and continue along their merry way with the belief system.

    This is nonpartisan. Liberals do it, so do conservatives.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Pat Cahalan
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      @Pat Cahalan, I definitely agree with your third option, and it is probably the most prolific outcome.

      The only reason I don’t acknowledge it as a third option is because it doesn’t objectively resolve the inconsistency. That is, while it “resolves” it through rationalizing on the part of the individual, an outside audience would still note that an inconsistency exists. What I was getting at was that, if you want to correctly address and inconsistency, you only have those two options.

      Of course, the evidence indicates that in fact people are more likely to shove the discrepancy under a rug than resolve it, in the manner that you suggest.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill in reply to Pat Cahalan
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      @Pat Cahalan, quite true! This is one of those reasons that visceral issues are so important. Disdain for people that believe things you don’t or live lifestyles you consider ugly. I was about to say “social issues” but that’s not entirely accurate. Resentment of the wealthy or the education, contempt for the poor or the uneducated. These things are stronger than facts.Report

  4. Avatar Trumwill
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    says:

    The main problem with Obama’s comments is the implication that voters behave irrationally and out of bad instincts when they go the other way. I think what he says is true, but it’s true in the same way that Obama’s middle name actually is Hussein. It’s the context in which you bring it up that’s the problem. This is one of those things that easily becomes a tool of partisanship.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Trumwill
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      @Trumwill, Right, he might have saved himself from that implication had he offered examples of where he thinks his opponents disagree on rational grounds to demonstrate he’s not saying disagreement is prima facia irrational.

      Of course, to my knowledge, he didn’t modify his remark, so it is entirely possible that the implication is accurate.Report

  5. Avatar E.C. Gach
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    says:

    Something else that’s interesting, is the double standard both sides use to approach methods of reasoning and standards of morality. Where as the left often wants to subscribe to strict rules of argument and reasoning, they call foul when the Right wants to do that same thing in acknowledging strict rules of morality. The one side is predisposed towards moral relativism while the other is as predisposed towards some form of reason relativity.Report

    • Avatar Simon K in reply to E.C. Gach
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      says:

      @E.C. Gach, Aren’t the standards of reason and debate ethical rules, though? I’m pretty sure the emotion I feel while listening to Sarah Palin is moral outrage, and there’s a definite priggish tone to liberal admonishments of conservatives for failing respect the rules of discourse.

      The difference of opinion on ethics between liberals and conservatives is far deeper that liberals are relativists and conservatives are absolutists. My pet theory is that liberals believe that man is perfectible, whereas conservatives believe man is inherently flawed. Everything else pretty much follows from that.Report

      • Avatar Hyena in reply to Simon K
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        says:

        @Simon K, why do you need to believe that? What part of the liberal agenda even suggests it?

        You can boil almost all left-right questions in this country to difference in whether personal welfare is itself a basic concern of justice. If it is, then you have a nascent duty to protect personal welfare as extended over the entire universe of discourse (some people might extend it to animals or even groups, for example).

        If you don’t believe that personal welfare is a question of justice, then you are under no such duty whatever and attempts to advance it violates principles most everyone agrees on.Report

        • Avatar Simon K in reply to Hyena
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          @Hyena, I don’t need to believe it – I just think its an interesting idea, since the debate over whether man is inherently flawed or not goes back to at least Augustine and Pelagius and the liberal/conservative distinction occurs in all political cultures, implying that its somehow very fundamental. I am, incidentally, far more a liberal than a conservative in this and most other respects.

          To pick an example that’s not too emotive, take drug laws. Conservatives favor them, because they believe that man is flawed, and his natural inclination to get high needs to be controlled, either for the good of society or because god wants it that way or whatever. Liberals generally oppose them, or at least favor them only in so far as they reduce harm to the vulnerable, because they believe that man is quite capable of controlling himself to whatever extent is necessary, and that if individual men are not, that constitutes a personal flaw that can be remedied with therapy or confession or whatever, because man can be perfected, or at least improved. See how that works? I just think its an interesting way to look at it.

          Liberals certainly do tend to see personal welfare as a concern of the state and conservative tend not to, but this doesn’t explain why conservatives tend to favour laws to enforce morality and liberals tend not to. But I do think concern about welfare in the abstract follows from one’s view of whether man is perfectible or not. If man is perfectible, then the fact that someone is suffering preventably is clear evidence that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. If man is inherently flawed, his suffering may well simply be a consequence of his flaws or flaws in society and not evidence of anything much, and furthermore not fixable at all.Report

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