Trickle-Down Politics

"How can they possibly think that?" It's a sentiment you've probably expressed at one time or another when witnessing the wrong-headedness of people on the other side of a political debate. And it comes up not just on matters of philosophy but on matters of fact. It's not just politicians and pundits anymore: We're seeing substantial portions of the public coming to positions that seem absurd or reprehensible -- and that they might not have believed just a short time ago.

It's increasingly evident in part because we just had a transfer of power, and the old adage "Where you stand depends on where you sit" has never seemed truer. While the Obama administration has reversed itself on a few policies, Republicans in particular seem to be training for the hypocrisy Olympics. Dick Cheney and Karl Rove argue on TV for more government openness because they want some documents declassified, which is kind of like Donald Trump advocating for more frugality and modesty. Those who gleefully supported a war that could cost as much as $3 trillion, and the Bush tax cuts, which cost $2.3 trillion, are terribly concerned about the size of the deficit, now that they no longer control what gets spent and who gets taxed. And the same Republicans now saying that a torture inquiry would just be a big distraction? They were so concerned with getting to the bottom of things when they controlled Congress in the 1990s that they undertook a solemn investigation -- including 140 hours of sworn testimony -- into the question of whether Bill Clinton had misused the White House Christmas-card list. No, that isn't a joke -- it actually happened.

But let's put aside the politicians -- their motives are always a mixture of belief and calculation. What about the rest of us? Why is it so hard to look at public debate and acknowledge the absurdity of arguments made by people we respect?

Do so few of us react that way because we're all just seeing things through partisan eyes? To a degree. For instance, when there's a Republican in the White House, Republican survey respondents say the economy is doing much better than Democrats do; the effect is reversed when a Democrat is in power (that gap widens in a presidential election year, when partisanship is heightened). But partisans do not necessarily rely on pre-installed ideological filters that cause them to adopt their side's position. Instead, they wait to get cues from their party leaders before determining what they think.

If you're a Republican, you're suddenly getting a whole bunch of elite cues that torturing prisoners is as American as apple pie. Not that you hadn't heard this before, of course, but the release of the "torture memos" written by the Bush Justice Department and the possibility of a genuine investigation have amped up the debate. To see how and why this debate might affect public opinion, consider that the public includes people at all levels of political awareness. Some don't pay any attention to current events, some pay a little bit of attention, and some pay a lot of attention.

Imagine three people who usually vote Republican but have very different levels of engagement. Bob hasn't been paying any attention to the news lately; he doesn't read the newspaper or go online. Alice likes to watch the 6:30 news every night, but that's about as far as she goes. Muffy reads the newspaper, visits five different political blogs every day, and watches Fox whenever she can. What happens when a new debate on torture begins? Very quickly, Muffy understands that the conservative position, taken by people whom she respects and admires, is that torture is both effective and necessary to protect American lives. She hears the liberal arguments against it but decides they just don't hold water. Alice hears bits and pieces of the debate. For a while, it seems like there are people she doesn't recognize arguing on both sides, and she's not exactly sure what she thinks. Eventually, she realizes which side she's on, and she assimilates the arguments made by people like Cheney and Rove. Bob, on the other hand, isn't aware there's a debate going on at all -- ask him about torture, and he might give you any number of answers.

The result is that the opinions of people like Muffy can be easily predicted by their party affiliation; people like Alice are going to be a little more diverse in their views; and people like Bob will be all over the map. As the debate becomes louder and goes on longer, the "official" Republican position moves down the ladder of awareness, until the vast majority of Republicans have adopted it.

This dynamic has been documented by a number of political scientists, most notably John Zaller of the University of California, Los Angeles. He analyzed the effect in a number of situations, from thoughts on elections to opinions about foreign policy. In the early stages of Vietnam, for instance, there was little difference among elites on the war: Members of both parties were supportive, and little dissent was heard in the media. At that point, the opinions of liberals and conservatives at any given level of political awareness were almost identical. But in the war's later stages, elite Democrats had moved into opposition, and their arguments against the war were commonly found in the news. Opinion data from that time showed that liberals and conservatives with low political awareness -- who weren't receiving those messages -- still looked much the same as each other in their opinions. But among the more politically aware, opinions diverged sharply, with liberals more likely to oppose the war and conservatives more likely to support it. When the elite cues changed, public opinion followed.

Now let's look at a contemporary example. Last week, Gallup published new results on opinions about global warming. The data showed that, over the past decade, Republicans have been more and more likely to say that news of global warming has been exaggerated, while the opinion among Democrats has stayed pretty much the same:

So what changed over those 11 years? It wasn't as though new evidence emerged casting doubt on the idea that the globe is warming. Quite the contrary, in fact -- the scientific consensus has grown stronger, and the warnings more urgent. Nor is it the case that elite conservatives have grown more extreme in the arguments they make. In fact, they have been moving in the direction of reality, albeit slowly. Whereas a typical Republican 10 years ago might have said that global warming was an utter hoax, that argument has now been left to the occasional buffoon like Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma. These days, you're more likely to hear a Republican play the uncertainty card: Yes, the planet is getting hotter, but we really don't know whether humans had anything to do with it, so it's best not to take any action to address the problem -- and who knows, maybe it'll just go away if we try really hard not to think about it.

It's possible that the explanation for the shift to the "no big deal" attitude lies in the gradual accumulation of Republican opposition to action on global warming, as more and more rank-and-file GOPers figure out which stance they're supposed to take. Over time, understanding of the Republican position moves down the ladder of awareness. Consider also that since the 2006 release of An Inconvenient Truth, the most prominent advocate of action on global warming has been Al Gore, someone particularly unpopular among Republicans. Since 2006, the proportion of Republicans saying news of warming is exaggerated has risen from 51 percent to 66 percent.

We all like to think that, while the masses may be influenced by simple-minded arguments, we reach our conclusions through a careful process by which information and reason are applied to principle. We know what we think, and why we think it. The truth, of course, is that everyone can be influenced, not least by what others are saying. While no pollsters thought to ask the question at the time, one wonders how many conservatives would have supported torture 10 years ago, when none of their leaders were advocating for it.

But today, to be Republican is in most cases to be a torture advocate, just as it is to be, if not a global-warming denier, then a global-warming minimizer. Fully 64 percent of Republicans recently told Pew that torture is "sometimes" or "often" justified. And this figure hasn't changed much over the last couple of years, indicating that the minds that could be changed may have been already.

At some time in the future, progressives may find themselves supporting a barely defensible position for no reason other than the fact that everyone on their side seems to have reached the same conclusion. But I'd guess that the next time that happens, it won't lead the left to a position as morally abominable as support for torture. At least I hope not.

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