Americans just can’t stop accusing each other of bad faith.
Take Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent’s claim that Sen. Joe Machin’s “inflation fearmongering” about the Build Back Better Act “is saturated in bad faith.” According to Sargent, the West Virginia Democrat “has reportedly been presented with reams of counter-evidence, which he ignores.”
And then there’s Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, who said President Biden made bad-faith statements about Afghanistan. According to Ernst, a Republican, “President Biden’s bad faith spin of his catastrophic exit and gross mishandling of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is insulting.”
These are strong allegations. But are they true? And, generally, is the amount of bad faith in politics really as high as it seems?
Sure, there’s undoubtedly some bad faith in politics. Even if ten percent of Congress operates in bad faith, for example, that’s over 50 politicians.
But there’s more confusion and misunderstanding in politics than there is bad faith – a lot more.
What’s actually happening, more than anything, is the prevalence of what University of Toronto psychology professor Keith Stanovich calls myside bias. This bias “occurs when people evaluate evidence, generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward their own prior opinions and attitudes.”
Myside bias causes people to embrace and amplify what fits their preexisting beliefs and to diminish and ignore what doesn’t fit them. It’s a powerful filter that fundamentally alters how people perceive reality. As a result, two people with opposing worldviews will see two very different worlds – just like two musicians with different sheets of music will play two very different songs.
Of course, most people understand there’s bias and partisanship in politics. But several important things aren’t well understood. The first is that myside bias is powerful and widespread – it’s not simply quirky misunderstandings at the margins. According to Harvard professor Steven Pinker, myside bias is “probably the most powerful of all the cognitive biases.”
Nor does myside bias only impact one side of the political aisle and not the other. Myside bias fundamentally distorts how most Americans view politics. As Stanovich explains, liberals and conservatives alike “accept and reject science depending upon whether the conclusion aligns with the political policy that maps their ideological position.”
Myside bias, moreover, is just as pervasive among intelligent and informed people as among others. As Stanovich has written, “research across a wide variety of myside bias paradigms has revealed a somewhat surprising finding regarding individual differences. The magnitude of the myside bias shows very little relation to intelligence.”
Yale professor Dan Kahan has shown, in fact, that intelligent and informed people are often the most biased of all. “The capacities associated with science literacy,” Kahan explains, “can actually impede public recognition of the best available evidence and deepen pernicious forms of cultural polarization.”
Myside bias thus not only makes people, of all stripes, think their group is good, but also – mistakenly – that the other group is bad. Or, as Pinker puts it, myside bias makes us think “that our own tribe is virtuous and wise and knowledgeable and the other tribe is evil and stupid and ignorant.”
Indeed, was Manchin, as Sargent alleges, really operating in bad faith by expressing concern about Build Back Better’s impact on inflation? Probably not. While the economics can be debated, many people – on both sides of the political aisle – have concerns about rising inflation.
Likewise, is it really true, as Ernst asserts, that Biden’s statements about Afghanistan were made in bad faith? This is doubtful. All human beings, including the President of the United States, tend to view their own decisions in a favorable light. Would Ernst levy the same charge against former Vice President Dick Cheney, who in 2015 still believed invading Iraq in 2003 was the right decision?
The good news is that bad faith is much less prevalent than it seems. People tend to be decent and well-intentioned. The bad news, however, is that misunderstanding rooted in myside bias is ubiquitous. And the accusers, like Sargent and Ernst, are usually just as afflicted as everyone else.
William Cooper’s commentary has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, New York Daily News, Baltimore Sun, USA Today, PBS, Yahoo News, and Huffington Post.