Book Excerpt: Mickey Edwards on America’s “Myside Bias”

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In Mickey Edward’s new book, The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans, he discusses how Americans’ recently-acquired inability to compromise has weakened the federal government. In this excerpt from Chapter Twelve of the book, titled “Beyond Partisanship,” he attributes the lack of compromise in part to “myside bias.”


Mickey Edward's new book is The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans

Mickey Edward's new book is The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans

A successful democracy is largely dependent on shared values and a commitment to civil discourse. A nation that is allergic to nuance and complexity can offer little guidance to its elected officials; a nation that cannot tolerate ambiguity or weigh evidence cannot easily be brought together in a common understanding of the community’s problems, much less in a reasoned conversation about proposals to address those problems. (This is why the decline in educational standards and the disappearance of classroom instruction in civics and critical thinking are so devastating to our attempts at self-government.)

It has long been assumed that the conflicts within the House and Senate are so seemingly unbridgeable because they rest on the embrace of divergent values. But if Representative A and Representative B simply disagree on the “right” course of action — the one responsive to the highest values — compromise is still possible because there are often ways to accommodate those differences. If, for example, A places the highest premium on the protection of individual choice (the “liberty” imperative) and B values collective responsibility (the “social” obligation), solutions can be found that address communal problems using incentives rather than coercion, and creating minimal interference with freedom of choice. Another, less attractive, assumption has been at play as well. Liberals and Democrats sometimes tend to believe that conservatives and Republicans are either mean-spirited or — a shoulder shrug and an eye roll here — not very smart. Republicans and conservatives have the same view of Democrats and liberals: they just don’t get it, and those who do get it don’t seem to care very much about the rights of the housewife/shop owner/investor. But here, too, compromise seems attainable if the opposing sides are able to marshal enough voices in town meetings and visits to congressional offices to force attention to the impacts of A’s or B’s proposals.

Mickey Edwards. (Photo credit: Dale Robbins)

Mickey Edwards.
(Photo credit: Dale Robbins)

George Mason University economics professor Daniel B. Klein put his finger on one of the most difficult obstacles in the way of creating a Congress that is more amenable to cooperation and compromise. His observation came after he discovered a bias that prompted him to retract a study he had done a year earlier. Klein said that the study, which he conducted with Zeljka Buturovic, a public opinion researcher with a doctorate in psychology, found that respondents who had identified themselves as liberals or progressives “did much worse than conservatives and libertarians” when it came to “real-world understanding of basic economic principles.” Klein (who describes himself as libertarian) subsequently published a summation of their findings in The Wall Street Journal, arguing that their research demonstrated that, as he later summarized it, “the American left was unenlightened, by and large, as to economic matters.” That article was headlined “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader,” thus suggesting that liberals are not. However, Klein and Buturovic subsequently did a follow-up study that showed that their original findings had been wrong; if the survey were done differently, they found, “under the right circumstances, conservatives and libertarians were as likely as anyone on the left to give wrong answers to economic questions.”

We and our elected officials are operating from different ideas as to what the facts are. And while we may be willing to find common ground, we will do so within the facts we think we know. “Myside bias” — choosing the “fact” that validates your side’s position — makes compromise almost inconceivable. If I “know” you are wrong, I can only try to stop you.
Superficially, this would seem to be a reassuring discovery: rather than a case of dummies battling geniuses, it’s simply a matter of conflicting views held by equally well-intentioned and intelligent competitors. But in fact the implications of what Klein and Buturovic found are quite disturbing, especially if one hopes for a Congress more inclined toward cooperation. “The proper inference from our work,” Klein wrote in the Atlantic, “is not that one group is more enlightened or less. It’s that ‘myside bias’ — the tendency to judge a statement according to how conveniently it fits with one’s settled position — is pervasive among all of America’s political groups.” In other words, given a set of possible conclusions, politicians, like the rest of us, will choose not the one that comports with dispassionate analysis but the one that fits their own preconceptions. This was a common occurrence during the Cold War, with one group of Americans arguing that deploying space-based defensive missiles would increase our security, and others arguing that such a provocative deployment would increase the chances of war. Does government spending hurt or harm economic growth? Do relaxed college admissions requirements help or hurt disadvantaged students? Everybody reading these questions will “know” the right answers, but the answers each of us gives will likely be the ones that fit our preconceptions about the proper role of government, the roles of nature and nurture, and the relative benefits of “tough love” and “comforting” love. We and our elected officials are operating from different ideas as to what the facts are. And while we may be willing to find common ground, we will do so within the facts we think we know. “Myside bias” — choosing the “fact” that validates your side’s position — makes compromise almost inconceivable. If I “know” you are wrong, I can only try to stop you.

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