Perception and Politics

Do we really know what’s going on? Or do we just see what we want to see?

The Data

Larry Bartels, director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton, has an op-ed Who’s Bitter Now? which shows us a stereotype of rural voters in action. His argument? “Small-town people of modest means and limited education are not fixated on cultural issues. Rather, it is affluent, college-educated people living in cities and suburbs who are most exercised by guns and religion. In contemporary American politics, social issues are the opiate of the elites.”

Bartels sets out to actually define the “small-town working class,” making less than $60,000, living in small towns or rural areas, never graduated from college. He compares them to cosmopolitan voters, college graduates who live in the suburbs or cities making $60,000 or more. The first group makes up about 16 percent of voters, the second 13 percent.

Small-town, working-class people are more likely than their cosmopolitan counterparts, not less, to say they trust the government to do what’s right. In the 2004 National Election Study conducted by the University of Michigan, 54 percent of these people said that the government in Washington can be trusted to do what is right most of the time or just about always. Only 38 percent of cosmopolitan people expressed a similar level of trust in the federal government.

Do small-town, working-class voters cast ballots on the basis of social issues? Yes, but less than other voters do. Among these voters, those who are anti-abortion were only 6 percentage points more likely than those who favor abortion rights to vote for President Bush in 2004. The corresponding difference for the rest of the electorate was 27 points, and for cosmopolitan voters it was a remarkable 58 points. Similarly, the votes cast by the cosmopolitan crowd in 2004 were much more likely to reflect voters’ positions on gun control and gay marriage.

Bartels finishes by telling us the larger pattern behind it all. “It is true that American voters attach significantly more weight to social issues than they did 20 years ago. It is also true that church attendance has become a stronger predictor of voting behavior. But both of those changes are concentrated primarily among people who are affluent and well educated, not among the working class.”

The Interpretation

So why the problem in perception? Is it because he clings to a stereotype, as Bartels seems to suggest?

Nicholas Kristof’s column today, Divided They Fall, offers us better than a yes/no. He wants to take on “how our biases shape our understanding of reality.” Of course the candidate you favor won the debate last time… Or did he or she?

Kristof tells us about research on the infamous Dartmouth-Harvard football game of 1951, a “bitterly fought contest.”

Psychologists showed a film clip of the football game to groups of students at each college and asked them to act as unbiased referees and note every instance of cheating. The results were striking. Each group, watching the same clip, was convinced that the other side had cheated worse — and this was not deliberate bias or just for show. “Their eyes were taking in the same game, but their brains seemed to be processing the events in two distinct ways,” Farhad Manjoo writes in his terrific new book, “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.” It’s the best political book so far this year.

The problem goes beyond simple bias to the gathering of information. “We seek out information that reinforces our prejudices. One study presented listeners with static-filled recordings of speeches that they believed they were judging on persuasive power. Listeners could push a button to tweak the signal, reducing the static to make it easier to understand. When smokers heard a speech connecting tobacco with cancer, they didn’t try to improve the clarity to hear it more easily. But they pushed the button to get a clearer version of a speech saying that there was no link between smoking and cancer. Nonsmokers were the exact opposite.”

Any solutions? Kristof suggests working out daily to build our mental muscles. Bartels wants our stereotypes to be more accurate, closer to what actually is happening. It’s all supposed to be about us, about our problems. And what pushes the static and the stereotypes out there in the first place?

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