Division and divisiveness in the 21st century

I apologize in advance for posting this downbeat narrative. But it’s what came to mind after reading the news after the Mueller Report was released in the US yesterday. Let me tell you where I’m going with this and what I think it means.

The Backfire Effect

For a long time now, I have realized that so-called incontrovertible evidence doesn’t change the views of hardened partisans. In fact, evidence contradicting their views only further cements their most fervent beliefs. Why? It’s called the Backfire Effect. What happens is that someone with strongly held views, when faced with evidence that severely undercuts those views, goes through a period of severe cognitive stress. They are then forced to reconcile their pre-existing worldview with the new information. And what usually ends up happening is the new information loses that reconciliation, ironically reinforcing the existing pre-conceptions.

I first learned that this is how we deal with cognitive dissonance on important issues in 2011 via this article. And since then, I have consistently tried to ascertain where I am employing the Backfire Effect to protect my ego and sense of self in order to come up with more nuanced, self-aware and forward-looking analysis.

I shared this with a friend this morning. And he sent me a good 2015 article from the FT by John Kay. The biggest takeaway from the article for me was this:

It is generally possible to predict what people will think about abortion from what they think about climate change, and vice versa; and those who are concerned about wealth inequality tend to favour gun control, while those who are not, do not. Why, since these seem wholly unrelated issues, should this be so? Opinions seem to be based more and more on what team you belong to and less and less on your assessment of facts.

And so, that’s what led me to the title of this post.

The Mueller Report

Of course, all of this introspection is largely the result of the Mueller Report’s release. Before it came out, my expectation – largely based on the Backfire Effect – was that the report would make no difference on public opinion. Why? Because our views on Trump and Mueller have hardened. There are very few fence sitters. And so, when the ‘new information’ contained in the report is released, I reckoned it would only reinforce the existing partisan narratives. Let’s see if I’m right.

If I’m right, US Attorney General Bill Barr will have done Donald Trump a huge service because his intervention in March changed the narrative. It gives cover to Republican partisans to dismiss any damning evidence in the report and to double down on the notion that it was largely exculpatory. No ‘evidence’ to the contrary is going to convince people who had already made up their minds before the report was released – which was the aim of Barr’s intervention, to make the Mueller Report less about objective facts and more about partisan maneuvering.

In that context, the N.Y. Times’ Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman question concluding their takeaways on the report is interesting. They ask us to: “Imagine reading this report cold.” Their conclusion:

If the American public or members of Congress were learning these things for the first time, the political fallout would normally be devastating. The consequences of the report remain to be seen, but if people are not surprised or shocked by the revelations, then Mr. Trump may have benefited by the steady drip of news stories he has so loudly criticized.

I agree with that. If we look at the totality of what happened in 2016 with the Russians and Trump’s team’s reaction to it, it doesn’t paint a good picture of the American political system. It reminds me of the Easter Island narrative in Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse”, where he outlines how the Island was completely deforested over centuries. But from one generation to the next, a limited perspective of the impact of their contributions to deforestation made the calamitous end inevitable. In the US, under Trump, the erosion of rule of law in favour of pure ends-justify-the-means partisanship has accelerated.

More on Partisanship

In that context, this reaction telling Democrats “Enough playing nice. It’s time to pack the courts” in the Guardian is instructive:

Anyone who still clung to the fiction that the federal judiciary is not a political entity should have been disillusioned watching Brett Kavanaugh’s performance at his confirmation hearing…Kavanaugh lashed out at his political enemies, decrying Democrats and saying that his appointment was being delayed as part of an effort of “revenge on behalf of the Clintons”.

With this little display, Kavanaugh was all but admitting something that only the most naive or ill-informed observers of American politics don’t already know: that federal judges function as politicians, who are appointed less for their flimsy pretense of interpreting the law than for their real purpose, which is to enact and protect the policy agenda of whichever party commands their loyalty. Republicans have been behaving as if this is true for decades, campaigning on their ability to appoint judges that will enact conservative agendas and stymying or denying the confirmations of liberal judges. It is time for the Democrats to drop the pretense that the judiciary is apolitical, and admit that no progressive agenda can be enacted or maintained without a drastic overhaul of the federal judiciary. The next Democratic president must pack the courts.

That really got my attention. And I tend to look at these things first and foremost, not based on whether I agree with the logic, but on how they will impact future events. If the Mueller Report is a nothingburger in tilting public opinion regarding Trump-Russia – as I am postulating it will be – then this type of logic on the Democratic side will gain currency. Again, it hearkens to the title of this post because I see partisanship increasing, not decreasing. In that context, also read The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland who writes “The Mueller report shows that bad guys who play dirty, like Trump, always win“. The message is the same: division and divisiveness in the 21st century.

My view

No matter where you look in the advanced West, there is discord and increasing partisanship. This is true particularly in the US and the UK. And while each country has its particular set of issues to contend with, I think the fact that this dramatic increase in discord is universal suggests that there are underlying factors across countries stoking discontent. So rather than suggest what that common denominator is, I would rather point out that looking across countries may actually be a better way to find a solution than trying to fashion a specific solution to the immediate and idiosyncratic dilemmas each of our countries faces.

I don’t think that’s going to happen though. What I think will happen is that people will increasingly take on the us vs them mentality that John Kay’s article highlighted. What the excerpt illuminated for me is that “what team you belong to” is the defining element of our time. And I don’t think that kind of trench warfare mindset dissipates over time. It leads to an ultimate confrontation, where one side ‘wins’ and the other side ‘loses’. This is what’s coming — and not just in the US or the UK.

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