In their book Partisan Hearts and Minds, political scientists Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist and Eric Schickler show most voters don’t select a political party because it reflects their views. Instead, voters first identify with a political position, usually inherited from their parents or peers. Once they have decided on a political position, they choose the appropriate party.
These findings don’t surprise psychologist Michael Shermer who has spent 30 years of research thinking about how humans form beliefs about the world.
In his brilliant book The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer argues the brain is a belief engine: “Beliefs come first, explanations follow.” The power of these beliefs, Shermer says, shows up in the tribal nature of politics and the stereotypes of what liberals think of conservatives.
Watch the political advertisements in the ongoing battle for the US presidency between the Republicans and Obama’s Democrats.
Here is Shermer’s stereotypes of what liberals think of conservatives:
“Conservatives are a bunch of Hummer-driving, meat-eating, gun-toting, small-government-promoting, tax-decreasing, hard-drinking, Bible-thumping, black-and-white-thinking, fist-pounding, shoe-stomping, morally dogmatic blowhards.”
And what conservatives think of liberals?
“Liberals are a bunch of hybrid-driving, tofu-eating, tree-hugging, whale-saving, sandal-wearing, big-government-promoting, tax-increasing, bottled-water-drinking, flip-flopping, wishy washy, namby-pamby bedwetters.”
If we accept Shermer’s argument that “beliefs come first, explanations follow,” how do you negotiate or settle a dispute between two groups such as mining companies and environmentalists who start with hardened, negative polarised stereotypes of each other?
That’s the challenge I live with constantly, and that’s the challenge I will address in a number of future blog articles.
It’s an urgent and challenging issue. As a world, we can’t afford the cost of intractable disputes caused by partisan disputes.
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