Sunday, February 12, 2017


By Ronald T. Fox


Like many of you, I recently discovered that a number of my long-time friends voted for Donald Trump.  All are establishment Republicans who ridiculed Trump during the primary campaign.  So I was surprised by their votes. What were they thinking?

I have several old friends who identify with the Republican Party.  Over the years, this has given rise to many heated political exchanges, but in the end we always agreed to disagree.  Our political differences had no negative bearing on our friendships; if anything, our bonds were strengthened as we relished bouncing ideas and arguments off each other.  But, voting for Trump?  Had they crossed the line?  I began to wonder if our respectful partisan exchanges would continue.  Worse yet, would we be able to remain friends?  

I was aghast to think I might sever ties with old friends over partisan differences. Had the Trump election been that poisoning?  Has the partisan divide in America become so extreme that it's souring personal as well as political relationships?  A scary thought, indeed.

Extreme partisanship has been growing for some time, reaching at least back to Nixon’s Southern Strategy.  But it took Donald Trump and his allies in mass media to inflame it to a level where anger, hatred, intolerance, disrespect and incivility have come to dominate our political discourse. Angry partisanship is corroding the very foundation of American democracy.
So why did my friends vote for Donald Trump, a man whose principles and temperament contradicted nearly everything they have claimed to stand for? The easy answer is that they simply couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton. True, but this doesn’t explain why so many establishment Republicans voted for the obnoxious bully who portrayed them as the enemy. There had to be more to the story.
I can understand why many working class whites would vote for Trump. After years of lost jobs, stagnant wages, dashed hopes and political marginalization, presided over by an elite establishment that promised much and delivered little, they were in a mood for a change away from politics as usual. To them, the elite establishment had rigged our political and economic system to serve the privileged few. They also held it responsible for the steady erosion of America’s standing in the world. Anger and frustration ran deep.
Given this growing ferment, it is understandable why disaffected Americans would turn to a fire-breathing demagogue who promised to drain the Washington swamp and make America great again, one that was not tainted by an establishment political history.  Besides, where else could they turn for salvation?  Certainly not to Hillary Clinton, who epitomized the establishment. Many disgruntled white voters had lost faith in the Democratic Party, which had abandoned its working class roots and now built its appeal around identity politics. This aggravated their alienation. White, especially male, voters were ready for an anti-establishment maverick-- or at least one who claimed to be one.
But this doesn’t explain or excuse my circle of establishment conservative friends who voted for Trump. All of them were college educated and had successful professional careers that brought them wealth and enviable lifestyles. They had no cause to be anti-establishment; on the contrary, they had good reason to celebrate an establishment that had served them well. I don’t believe they harbored racist, misogynist, xenophobic or other hateful sentiments (at least none that I was aware of).  So why would they vote for Donald Trump?
They couldn't have fallen for the steady stream of fake, deceptive, misleading, and downright false information that was spewed forth by the Trump campaign? No way, I thought, they were too savvy. Trump lies may have energized his white, mostly rural, base, but not my sophisticated friends.

To my great surprise, and shock, I found in post-election conversations that several of them had indeed swallowed many of the lies: about immigrants, Obamacare, the President’s “socialism,” his alleged timidity abroad, Hillary’s emails, Benghazi—one even bought into the birther lie; another gave credence to the fake sex trafficking story. How could this be? These were educated, intelligent people.  Why didn’t they separate fact from fiction?
For an answer, I started thinking about how partisan polarization was playing out. This stirred up a myriad of other question.  Could it be that partisan loyalty has trumped reason (no pun intended). Has it tricked our brains to redefine what is fact or fiction, fake or real, just or unjust, heroic or villainous? Do we believe what fits our partisan biases and reject what doesn’t?  Has partisanship become so powerful a force that it now joins race and class as key filters for political and social behavior?  As we go forward, will partisanship even determine whom we choose as friends and foes?
I can’t answer these questions with any certitude, but it’s clear to me there has been a paradigm shift in American political thinking away from facts, science, and personal experience toward truth as defined by partisan loyalty. Most interesting, and more unsettling, partisanship appears to have stretched beyond the political world to issues that have nothing to do with politics: to what we believe and the choices we make in our personal lives.  It seems to underlay a great deal of what we do and how we try to decide what is and what isn’t so. It is even making Republicans and Democrats, as recent data has shown, reluctant to marry or be friends.  In this, politics nowadays is not just personal, as it has always been; it appears the personal has become political. 
Sean Westwood, while a graduate student at Stanford, uncovered evidence supporting the thesis that partisanship has indeed become one of the most powerful forces in American life. A report on his research and findings appeared in the January 11 issue of The Nation magazine, written by Amanda Taub. I’ve decided to include it below as a guest commentary.


The Real Story About Fake News Is Partisanship
Amanda Taub, The Nation, Jan. 11, 2017
In his farewell address as president Tuesday, Barack Obama warned of the dangers of uncontrolled partisanship. American democracy, he said, is weakened “when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service, so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow malevolent.”
That seems a well-founded worry. Partisan bias now operates more like racism than mere political disagreement, academic research on the subject shows. And this widespread prejudice could have serious consequences for American democracy.
The partisan divide is easy to detect if you know where to look. Consider the thinly disguised sneer in most articles and editorials about so-called fake news. The very phrase implies that the people who read and spread the kind of false political stories that swirled online during the election campaign must either be too dumb to realize they’re being duped or too dishonest to care that they’re spreading lies.
But the fake-news phenomenon is not the result of personal failings. And it is not limited to one end of the political spectrum. Rather, Americans’ deep bias against the political party they oppose is so strong that it acts as a kind of partisan prism for facts, refracting a different reality to Republicans than to Democrats.
Partisan refraction has fueled the rise of fake news, according to researchers who study the phenomenon. But the repercussions go far beyond stories shared on Facebook and Reddit, affecting Americans’ faith in government — and the government’s ability to function.
The power of partisan bias
In 2009, Sean Westwood, then a Stanford Ph.D. student, discovered that partisanship was one of the most powerful forces in American life. He got annoyed with persistent squabbles among his friends, and he noticed that they seemed to be breaking along partisan lines, even when they concerned issues that ostensibly had nothing to do with politics.
“I didn’t expect political conflict to spill over from political aspects of our lives to nonpolitical aspects of our lives, and I saw that happening in my social group,” said Mr. Westwood, now a professor at Dartmouth.
He wondered if this was a sign that the role of partisanship in American life was changing. Previously, partisan conflict mostly applied to political issues like taxes or abortion. Now it seemed, among his acquaintances at least, to be operating more like racism or sexism, fueling negative or positive judgments on people themselves, based on nothing more than their party identification.
Curious, Mr. Westwood looked at the National Election Study, a long-running survey that tracks Americans’ political opinions and behavior. He found that until a few decades ago, people’s feelings about their party and the opposing party were not too different. But starting in the 1980s, Americans began to report increasingly negative opinions of their opposing party.
Since then, that polarization has grown even stronger. The reasons for that are unclear. “I suspect that part of it has to do with the rise of constant 24-hour news,” Mr. Westwood said, “and also the shift that we’ve unfortunately gone through in which elections are more or less now a permanent state of affairs.”
To find out more about the consequences of that polarization, Mr. Westwood, along with Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford professor who studies political communication, embarked on a series of experiments. They found something quite shocking: Not only did party identity turn out to affect people’s behavior and decision making broadly, even on apolitical subjects, but according to their data it also had more influence on the way Americans behaved than race did.
That is a sea change in the role of partisanship in public life, Mr. Westwood said.
“Partisanship, for a long period of time, wasn’t viewed as part of who we are,” he said. “It wasn’t core to our identity. It was just an ancillary trait. But in the modern era we view party identity as something akin to gender, ethnicity or race — the core traits that we use to describe ourselves to others.”
That has made the personal political. “Politics has become so important that people select relationships on that basis,” Mr. Iyengar said. For instance, it has become quite rare for Democrats to marry Republicans, according to the same Westwood/Iyengar paper, which cited a finding in a 2009 survey of married couples that only 9 percent consisted of Democrat-Republican pairs. And it has become more rare for children to have a different party affiliation from their parents.
But it has also made the political personal. Today, political parties are no longer just the people who are supposed to govern the way you want. They are a team to support, and a tribe to feel a part of. And the public’s view of politics is becoming more and more zero-sum: It’s about helping their team win, and making sure the other team loses.
How partisan bias fuels fake news
Partisan tribalism makes people more inclined to seek out and believe stories that justify their pre-existing partisan biases, whether or not they are true.
“If I’m a rabid Trump voter and I don’t know much about public affairs, and I see something about some scandal about Hillary Clinton’s aides being involved in an assassination attempt, or that story about the pope endorsing Trump, then I’d be inclined to believe it,” Mr. Iyengar said. “This is reinforcing my beliefs about the value of a Trump candidacy.”
And Clinton voters, he said, would be similarly drawn to stories that deride Mr. Trump as a demagogue or a sexual predator.
Sharing those stories on social media is a way to show public support for one’s partisan team — roughly the equivalent of painting your face with team colors on game day.
“You want to show that you’re a good member of your tribe,” Mr. Westwood said. “You want to show others that Republicans are bad or Democrats are bad, and your tribe is good. Social media provides a unique opportunity to publicly declare to the world what your beliefs are and how willing you are to denigrate the opposition and reinforce your own political candidates.”
Partisan bias fuels fake news because people of all partisan stripes are generally quite bad at figuring out what news stories to believe. Instead, they use trust as a shortcut. Rather than evaluate a story directly, people look to see if someone credible believes it, and rely on that person’s judgment to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.
“There are many, many decades of research on communication on the importance of source credibility,” said John Sides, a professor at George Washington University who studies political communication.
Partisan bias strongly influences whom people perceive as trustworthy. One of the experiments that Mr. Westwood and Mr. Iyengar conducted demonstrated that people are much more likely to trust members of their party. In that experiment, they gave study participants $10 and asked how much they wanted to give to another player. Whatever that second player received would be multiplied, and he or she would then have a chance to return some of the cash to the original player.
How much confidence would the participant have that the other player would give some of the money back? They found that participants gave more money if they were told the other player supported the same political party as they did.
Partisanship’s influence on trust means that when there is a partisan divide among experts, Mr. Sides said, “you get people believing wildly different sets of facts.”
Beyond fake news: how the partisan divide affects politics
The fake news that flourished during the election is a noticeable manifestation of that dynamic, but it’s not what experts like Mr. Iyengar and Mr. Westwood find most worrying. To them, the bigger concern is that the natural consequence of this growing national divide will be a feedback loop in which the public’s bias encourages extremism among politicians, undermining public faith in government institutions and their ability to function.
Politicians “have an incentive to attack, to go after their opponents, to reveal to their own side that they are good members of the tribe, that they are saying all the right things,” Mr. Iyengar said. “This is an incentive for Republicans and Democrats in Congress to behave in a hyperpartisan manner in order to excite their base.”
That feeds partisan bias among the public by reinforcing the idea that the opposition is made up of bad or dangerous people, which then creates more demand for political extremism.
The result is an environment in which compromise and collaboration with the opposing party are seen as signs of weakness, and of being a bad member of the tribe.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Mr. Iyengar said. “All of this is going to make policy-making and fact-finding more problematic.”
He already sees it affecting politicians’ partisan response to Russia’s election interference, for instance: “The Republicans are going to resist the notion that there was an intervention by the Russians that may have benefited Trump, because it is an inconvenient act. Whereas the Democrats are obviously motivated to seize upon that as a plausible account of what occurred.”
Mr. Westwood agreed. When Russia intervened in the American election, “for a lot of voters it was to help defeat Hillary Clinton, so it’s not surprising that many Republicans see that as righteous.”
“To be clich√©, the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” he said.
Already, partisan bias is undermining confidence in the last election. “We saw some symptoms of that in this last campaign,” Mr. Iyengar said. “You begin to have doubts about the legitimacy of the election. And you begin to view the outcome as somehow contaminated or tainted. And you had all of Trump’s comments about how he would not concede if the election went to Clinton, and then you had all the people demonstrating.”
Now, “you have quite a few people who are willing to call into question an institution for centuries that has been sacrosanct,” Mr. Iyengar said.
Mr. Westwood was even more pessimistic. “The consequences of that are insane,” he said, “and potentially devastating to the norms of democratic governance.”
“I don’t think things are going to get better in the short term; I don’t think they’re going to get better in the long term. I think this is the new normal.”


  1. I agree Ron. Cross party dialogue is so important and an integral part of our democracy, however, the insane rhetoric coming out of this administration makes it difficult for those of us "on the othe side" to remain level- headed. If only we could sit down with our friends who are Trump supporters and have have a rational discourse but the venom that has been spewed back at me makes it impossible. In fact the thought of continuing to try really upsets me as I know what the pushback will be.
    Paul Gottlieb

  2. I can't fully understand why your educated, economically successful long time friends would vote for a guy like Trump. I don't know them so I can only guess.
    In my family situation my sister is very uninformed and only gets her source of news from Fox or her husband Bob. He can be sweet and charming while at the same time being a right wing ideologue. He liked Sara Pailin. To them government is collecting to much money in the form of high taxes and spending it on people that don't work or pay taxes. For the record they are both on medicare, social security and my sister collects a retirement from a city government job.
    My other brother in law is very wealthy and all his close friends are also very wealthy. Unlike your friends he is not educated and never reads anything but real estate or boating news. He is so uniformed that he wasn't sure what Roe vs Wade is about during one of our discussions. Its not that he likes Trump so much as he likes the idea of getting a big tax cut even though he shelters much of his taxes through real estate. He doesn't like government regulation and thinks government workers are basically lazy and unproductive as compared to "private" enterprise workers. He is not a hard core right wing Ideologue since he does support a number of liberal and progressive issues. Go figure! But like Bob he's against "wasting" our tax dollars on people that are leaching off those of us who pay taxes. Government should not be providing health care, or too much unemployment insurance, raising the minimum wage is a job killer.
    But why support Trump? Well my opinion is and maybe it is true for your friends also is that racism plays a big part.

    Vito D'Albora


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