The Darker Side of the Kavanaugh Confirmation

The evidence overwhelmingly supports whatever it is you already believed.

Posted Oct 06, 2018

The Kavanaugh FBI report is in, and it explains why American politics are so polarized and will probably continue to be for a long time. As we're rapidly learning, what the FBI report says is, in a sense, meaningless. If, following the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, we believed Kavanaugh, we believe him now, too. If we believed Blasey Ford, we still believe her.  The FBI alongside the Senate Judiciary Committee has proven as ineffectual as the popular press at convincing anyone of anything: It has only managed to confirm our original beliefs. 

This is a bleak situation, and one that exposes a huge flaw in the long-term prospects for American democracy.  The system seems to lack an adequate way of weighing the evidence for or against anything. 

This effect has a host of psychological names: biased assimilation, confirmation bias, and motivated reasoning (Corner, Whitmarsh, & Xenias, 2012; Greitemeyer, 2014).  Psychologists will also note that this is all the outcome of cognitive dissonance, the need for coherence in identity (Festinger, 1962). If something doesn't jibe with what you already believe, then you're likely not to believe it. 

Though these labels offer some understanding of the polarizing effect of information, their growing impact on American political views is the outcome of a long campaign of American self-defamation. Plainly put, the problem is that when people don't collectively believe in any politician or media source, there is no way to change anyone's mind. We cannot make a reasoned judgment about anything except on the basis of what we already believe.  There can be no new information, only confirmation of prior beliefs.

Consider the case of George W. Bush's war in Iraq. In this instance, Americans were able to confirm that, in fact, there were no weapons of mass destruction.  But by the time the failure to confirm the Bush era's rush-to-judgment arrived, the American media was incapable of making the point. Amidst the falling statues, the hunt for the Grizzly-Adamsed Saddam, and Bush claiming "victory," there was little hint of reflection or the necessity of limiting quick-draw executive powers. Indeed, as numerous studies have shown, because we took actions against Saddam, we were then more likely to believe he was in the wrong.  Yes, the causality is backward, but that's how the mind works.   

These days, the basis on which we make informed decisions seems even more elusive. If you are in favor of gun control, no amount of argumentation about America's cultural history will convince you otherwise.  If you are in favor of the right to bear arms, there is apparently no number of failures to miss the bad guy that will change your mind

The evidence is no longer about making decisions, it is about figuring out whether the producer of that evidence is on your side or not.

If you think taxing the hyper-rich is wrong, you're going to think that tomorrow, too, despite the fact that something like 10 families in America own as much as the entire bottom half of American households. Even Warren Buffet thinks that American tax laws are essentially a license to steal. And if you think the taxes need to be higher on the hyper-rich, no one is going to change your mind with arguments about the negative consequences of wealth redistribution.

The evidence is overwhelmingly in support of whatever it is you already believe. 

This problem of American polarization has always been an issue, but the problem grows as the number of impartial sources of information shrinks. 

President Trump's talking out of the side of his mouth is now recognized by everyone, Republicans and Democrats alike, as a huge liability. But Trump's real error is that he shows his hand as he does it. Even as Trump claimed he was letting the FBI investigation of Kavanaugh run its course, he also made it clear that he was rooting for one side. But doublespeak is not entirely unfamiliar in American politics. JFK, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Nixon all lied as a matter of course about America's chances of winning the Vietnam war. Ken Burns's Vietnam documentary shows this in painful detail. Knowing full well that the situation in Vietnam was not salvageable, each of these presidents said one thing behind closed doors and another to the American people.  People trusted the government, up until the time they didn't. 

As the vote for Kavanaugh comes to the table, the Democrats will claim that an investigation that doesn't interview key witnesses can hardly be called an investigation.  The Republicans will claim that the Democrats asked for an investigation and they got it. The fact that Trump said the investigation would be "limited" and have "free rein" at different times should be enough doubletalk to help everyone sleep better at night knowing that they are in the right.

This might not be so bad if the current American government were not so effectively misrepresenting its citizens through gerrymandering and electoral voodoo (Arnold, 2017).  Not only is the current government unable to resolve conflict through evidence, but its choices don't even reflect the beliefs of the majority it is supposed to be representing.  

Kavanaugh is just another symptom of this distinctive national pathology, whereby a democracy loses its capacity to weigh information in a balanced way.  The polarization of American politics is not because anyone on either side was stupid to begin with.  But the lack of anything besides a partisan wrapper or a television station on which to base beliefs is certainly changing that.  The potential sources of impartial information have been so defamed that they no longer provide any grounding for coherent judgment.  Meanwhile, the amount of biased information is growing. This is a natural process of information evolution. Without anything to put the train back on the tracks, the echo chambers grow louder and the filter bubbles larger (Barberá et al., 2015). 

References

Corner, A., Whitmarsh, L., & Xenias, D. (2012). Uncertainty, scepticism and attitudes towards climate change: Biased assimilation and attitude polarisation. Climatic Change, 114(3-4), 463–478.

Greitemeyer, T. (2014). I am right, you are wrong: How biased assimilation increases the perceived gap between believers and skeptics of violent video game effects. PloS One, 9(4), e93440.

Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Arnold, C. (2017). The mathematicians who want to save democracy. Nature News, 546(7657), 200.

Barberá, P., Jost, J. T., Nagler, J., Tucker, J. A., & Bonneau, R. (2015). Tweeting from left to right: Is online political communication more than an echo chamber? Psychological Science, 26(10), 1531–1542.

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