In raw human terms, who wasn’t moved by the hearings into Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh?
Ford said she felt it her civic duty to recount details of a horrific event in her life. Kavanaugh tearfully protested that his career and reputation were being destroyed by false accusations.
The drama produced a rare moment of bipartisanship, as Republican Sen. Jeff Flake and Democrat Sen. Chris Coons requested the Senate pause its proceedings while the FBI investigated.
The rest of the Senate, however, reverted to partisan squabbling. Sen. Lindsey Graham angrily called Ford part of a partisan “hit job.” Sen. Mazie Hirono indignantly told men to “shut up and step up.”
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In workplace conversations across the country, Americans are equally polarized. Ford is either a victim who must be believed, or Kavanaugh is the target of an unfair smear.
How can any of us be certain? How has supporting our tribe become more important than facts, reason or empathy?
Research in political psychology provides clues. We know that individuals process information differently as issues become politically polarized. Confirmation biases kick in, and we latch on to evidence confirming our prior position and ignore evidence to the contrary.
Republicans, for instance, discount Ford’s polygraph examination and the fact she recounted her allegations years ago to others (including medical professionals), insisting they are just fabricated smears. Democrats are loath to admit that false accusations happen (think of the false rape accusations against a University of Virginia fraternity), and that witnesses have yet to corroborate Ford’s allegations.
Experts on social cognition suggest something even more depressing is at work. Dan Kahan argues that hyperpolarization is creating a “tragedy of the belief commons,” wherein the individual-level social rewards of group affirmation outweigh the collective interest in reaching correct political decisions.
To illustrate, consider what difference it makes whether you adopt the factually correct position regarding Ford’s allegations. As an individual, your view will have little or no influence whether Kavanaugh is confirmed or not. However, if you adopt a position contrary to your social group — if, as a Republican, you declare Ford is telling the truth, or vice versa as a Democrat — you will suffer social costs. You may be shunned by friends, lose trust within your social network, even lose future professional opportunities. If you are a politician you may lose your career.
In other words, social disincentives at the individual level can keep us from adopting positions in our collective interest. We are incentivized to affirm social identities at the expense of reaching correct decisions.
In other areas, we understand how institutional rules and norms function to overcome individual bias. In the courtroom, there are rules about evidence, cross-examination, and the impartiality of juries. In scientific research, there are norms governing peer review, replication studies and data transparency. These filter out bias and incentivize collective fact-based decision-making.
Politics is, of course, different than science. But facts still matter, and we should have reasons beyond partisan loyalty for the decisions we reach. As in other arenas, institutional process can help.
In Congress, for example, norms that give the minority party a say over how hearings and investigations are conducted, or that require members to share information or avoid impugning each other’s motives, foster trust in the collective process of reasoned decision-making and dampen partisan bias.
Unfortunately, these norms have decayed in recent years and have been abandoned during the Kavanaugh hearings. That is why we saw an ugly spectacle of raw partisan bias.
It is possible to rebuild institutional norms and trust. But it is gradual process. It begins when each side makes incremental gestures and then invites the other to reciprocate.
In admitting their uncertainty and calling for further investigation of the facts, Sens. Flake and Coons made a beginning. If we are weary of the tribal politics, their example shows us the way out.