The Washington Post

Welcome to the death of civilized political discourse

On Monday, psychologist Adam Waytz published a piece on the PostEverything blog titled "We think our enemies are idiots, and that's a problem." In it, Waytz writes:

[Political] arguments, such as they are, rarely grapple with the interlocutor’s alternate view of reality, let alone the merits of the point. Rather, they center on the other side’s deficient mental capacity, and all the ways that “you” are less reflective, less rational, less empathic and more biased than “I” (or “we”). In other words, we see our opponents’ minds — their capacity for reason, emotion, thought and desire — as less sophisticated than our own minds, a phenomenon my colleagues and I have termed the lesser minds problem.

Or, as someone with a lowly bachelor's degree — like me — would put it: Partisans believe that the other side is not just wrong but stupid. Or, even more malignant to our political dialogue, purposely ignorant with evil intent. (And, yes, we mean "evil." It's a strong word, but have you watched cable TV lately?)


Politics these days. (Jens Buettner/dpa via AP)

The essence of Waytz's argument is that it is part of the human condition to assume your thoughts and feelings are deeper and richer than others because you  know your own mind in a way that you could never know the mind of someone else. (Unless of course you are Charles Xavier, but I digress from that rabbit hole of giant nerddom.) The assumption is that while you think seriously about the world around you, other people don't. You are a smart, serious citizen of the world. People who disagree with you on politics are, for the lack of a better word, Neanderthals.

Again, Waytz:

Given that this problem pervades even our daily lives, the lesser minds problem only intensifies when we encounter minds across the ideological divide that seem so different from our own. The minds of our peers may seem lesser, but the minds of our political opponents seem downright moronic.

Waytz's piece suggests that this "lesser minds problem" has always been with us — and might always be with us unless we do things like "recognize that it is a universal affliction, one that stems not from irrational hatred or stupidity, but rather from basic human tendencies to 'see' what is apparent (our own minds) and fail to see what is invisible (other minds)."

Er, okay.  I'd argue that it wasn't always this bad.  And, I'd point to the new Pew Research Center Study on polarization to back that point up.  Check out this amazing animation detailing where the median Democrat and median Republican — based on a series of values questions — stand in relation to one another over the past two decades.

To be clear: There are two major political parties in this country for a reason. Democrats and Republicans hold very different views on how to fix what ails the country (and oftentimes they even disagree on what ails us).  That's a good and healthy thing. Politics in a democracy is about presenting a variety of opinions and solutions and letting voters choose between them. The clearer those choices are, the better able voters can distinguish what exactly they are voting for (or against).

What's bad — and getting worse — is the idea that people who disagree with you are idiots solely because they disagree with you.  Remember the phrase "Reasonable people can disagree"? Dead.  How about "disagree without being disagreeable"? Also, dead.  Check out this chart from the Pew study documenting how partisans think the other side isn't just wrong but so wrong it's endangering the well-being of the country.

So, why are things worse now than ever before?  Two major reasons:

1. The growth of the partisan media. Twenty years ago, if you wanted a roundup of the day's news, you probably had to get it from the nightly newscasts on one of three major television networks. Today, you never have to leave your comfortable ideological sinecure to stay on top of the news — all tailored to your partisan viewpoint. And, remember that eyeballs (ratings, clicks, etc.) are the gold standard for all of these sites and channels, meaning —  you guessed it — that serving up partisan red meat is good for business.

2. Self sorting + redistricting. Increasingly people want to live around — and be friends with — those who agree with them on matters of culture and politics. That self sorting combines with a decennial redistricting process aimed at strengthening incumbents by lumping groups of like partisans together to create a country in which you can increasingly never run into anyone who looks at the world differently than you do. " 'Ideological silos' are now common on both the left and right," writes the Pew team. "People with down-the-line ideological positions – especially conservatives – are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views. Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families."

Add those two factors up and you get a toxic mix of not just partisanship but personal nastiness that makes compromise laughable. After all, why would you — a smart, reasonable, moral and empathetic person — spend time engaging in a debate with someone who is both stupid and amoral? You wouldn't.

Disagreement is good for politics. Demonization is awful.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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