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Post Partisan
Posted at 04:19 PM ET, 04/18/2012

Gas prices: A partisan story

How much are your opinions of the world shaped by partisanship?

Probably a lot more than you think. Via the Monkey Cage, Charles Franklin has a great set of paired surveys which show once again just how important partisanship is to our perceptions of what appear to be relatively neutral facts. It turns out that back in 2006, when prices at the pump were spiking, Democrats were far more likely to believe that presidents could affect gasoline prices than were Republicans; now, the numbers have flipped, with Republicans more likely to believe that presidents can control these prices. Of course, the driving force is party control of the White House; back then Democrats believed that George W. Bush was responsible while Republicans didn’t, while now Republicans believe Barack Obama could do something about it and Democrats can’t.

To be sure: This isn’t just a cognitive bias. I’m sure that, if you looked around, you would find that the changes in public opinion are consistent with changes in what politicians and other opinion leaders are saying. Whether those opinion leaders have changed their minds as circumstances change is more of a puzzler.

It does, however, remind me of my favorite story about all this. During the recount controversy in 2000, there was polling (if I recall correctly) indicating a dramatic split between Democrats and Republicans were on one of the subquestions at issue, which was whether hand-counting ballots was more accurate than machine-counting ballots. That’s consistent with the gas prices story, and to be expected. But what I found when talking to my students about it at the time — and these were first-year college students taking an intro class because it was required, so it wasn’t the most partisan group in the world — was that not only did their beliefs about counting ballots match their partisan attachments, but many of them were completely convinced that they had always held those convictions about how best to count ballots. Of course the reality is that few, if any, of them had thought about it at all before Election Day 2000.

Oh — and you out there, thinking to yourself that you’re not like that; you’re an independent. It’s possible. But if you’re reading political blogs, you’re likely among the Americans with the highest levels of political information — and that correlates highly with partisanship. Although it may not correlate quite as highly with thinking of oneself as partisan; there’s lots of stuff in the U.S. political culture that frowns on partisanship and celebrates political independence, and I suspect (although I don’t know) that highly informed citizens are more likely to buy into that without it affecting their underlying attitudes and behavior.

Not that I think there’s anything wrong with it. Sure, it’s a good thing generally to be aware of both cognitive biases and the limits we impose on our own information sources. But it’s not as if anything rides on a lot of this stuff. Party is a very good way of cutting the costs of getting information and opinions. Is it imperfect? Sure. But unless you’re considering taking a cram course every time a new issue shows up, most of us have little choice on most issues.

By  |  04:19 PM ET, 04/18/2012

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