Are Political Disagreements Real Disagreements?

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Are Political Disagreements Real Disagreements? Empty Are Political Disagreements Real Disagreements?

Post by Thorin on Fri Aug 23, 2019 11:00 pm

If people disagree about anything, it’s politics. In the United States, nearly half of all Republicans and Democrats say they “almost never” agree with the other party’s positions. Whether the topic is health care, the economy, foreign affairs, education, the environment, privatization, energy, or immigration, it seems nearly impossible for political opponents to agree.

Disagreement is often a good thing for a healthy democracy. We expect values and preferences to differ in a pluralistic society, and reasonable citizens understand that people of good will can disagree about moral and political issues. For this reason, theorizing about liberal democracy has focused largely on disagreements concerning moral and political values, while taking for granted that citizens tend to agree on the facts.

But is this assumption still valid? Today, partisan disagreements seem to go beyond political values and even include disputes about obvious matters of fact. Consider the issue of climate change. The extent and causes of climate change is a scientific issue that should be settled independently of one’s political beliefs. Yet politics seems to drive our beliefs about the facts instead of the facts driving policy.

Factual disagreement is a big problem for democratic politics. If partisanship is shaping our perceptions of reality, then democratic decision-making becomes incredibly difficult. Without agreement on the facts, we will be unable to hold representatives accountable, to productively deliberate with the other side, and to find political compromise.

But is political disagreement so extensive and deep, as many have claimed, that we are unable to agree even on the facts? I want to suggest that many disagreements in politics are not genuine disagreements. What looks like a disagreement over political facts is often just partisan cheerleading or party bad-mouthing.

Consider what Trump supporters say when asked to compare these two photos.
Are Political Disagreements Real Disagreements? ObamaInauguration-300x300
Obama Inauguration, 2009

Are Political Disagreements Real Disagreements? TrumpInauguration-300x300
Trump Inauguration, 2017

In a survey of almost 700 American adults, participants were shown both images and asked a very simple question: “Which photo has more people?” Although only one answer is clearly correct, Trump supporters were six times more likely (compared to Clinton voters and nonvoters) to say that the half-empty photo of Trump’s inauguration had more people. Trump supporters with college degrees were the most likely to answer incorrectly: 26 percent of them gave the clearly wrong answer. In other words, the Trump supporters with the most education were 10 times more likely (than Clinton voters and nonvoters) to say the obviously half-empty photo had more people.

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