Avid political watchers are often susceptible to what psychologists call confirmation bias, meaning that we seek out information that already confirms our existing views. Rather than learn anything new or consider the other side of the argument we merely accumulate more evidence confirming our views. The more news and information we consume the more convinced we are that we were right all along.
The reasons, as Chris Mooney writes for Mother Jones, are much more banal than nefarious.
“[None of this is] to suggest that we aren’t also motivated to perceive the world accurately—we are. Or that we never change our minds—we do,” Mooney writes. “It’s just that we have other important goals besides accuracy—including identity affirmation and protecting one’s sense of self—and often these make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.”
Of course, enthusiastic politicos aren’t the only ones susceptible to confirmation bias. Indeed, it appears to be one of the subliminal factors that is driving this election.
Take, as an example, the White House, which is completely convinced that their agenda is not only full of good policy, but that it is also good politics. As Josh Kraushaar writes for National Journal:
White House officials are preemptively spinning a midterm defeat, and they’re using their own fantasies to do it. They’re starting to blame candidates for not supporting President Obama enough. As a top White House official told The Washington Post‘s Karen Tumulty, “He doesn’t think they have any reason to run away from him. He thinks there is a strong message there.”
This is pure delusion: Obama is the main reason Republicans are well-positioned to win control of the upper chamber next Tuesday. And Democrats’ biggest strategic mistake in this election is that most candidates didn’t run away far and fast enough. Given the president’s rock-bottom approval numbers in the many Republican-friendly Senate states that Democrats needed to win—as well as the reality of a worsening political environment for the party as early as last winter—that distance was a downright necessity. But a host of Senate candidates failed to create it, and the party is likely to pay the price in Senate seats.
It’s that delusion that caused this administration to believe that the stimulus worked as intended and to forget about all the silly or self-serving projects that got funded. It’s that delusion the led this president to pass a deeply unpopular and deeply flawed health care law by convincing itself that it would grow more popular over time. And it’s that delusion that has led to terrible foreign policy decisions as the White House consistently ignores the world as it is, instead attempting to govern the world as they think it should be.
Sadly, Democratic candidates are falling into much the same psychological trap – they’re convinced that despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary that they can, and should, distance themselves from the president. The problem, as Karen Tumulty reports for the Washington Post, is that there is no distance between the two:
But a new issue of Congressional Quarterly brings fresh evidence that Senate Democrats have maintained a tight formation behind the president, even as his approval ratings have sunk. It analyzed the 120 Senate votes on which Obama has urged a “yes” or “no” this year, and found that the most vulnerable Democrats stood behind him a minimum of 96 percent of the time.
Those kinds of numbers have become standard fare in Republican ads and speeches, but they stand in contrast to the Democrats’ own campaign rhetoric. Colorado’s Mark Udall (99 percent support, by CQ’s count) has said that he is the “last person they want to see coming” at the White House, while Alaska’s Mark Begich (98 percent) has described himself as “a thorn in [Obama’s posterior]. There’s times when I’m a total thorn, you know, and he doesn’t appreciate it.”
Democrats are tripping over themselves in the rush to run away from Obama, but instead of making themselves look independent, it’s making them look like fools.
Even Obama’s one-time top political strategist David Axelrod gets it: “I’ve always believed that it’s not an effective strategy to run against a president of your own party, unless you’ve been actively opposed to that president,” he told the Washington Post.
At this point it is difficult to tell who is more delusional, Democratic candidates who think they can run away from the president, or President Obama for questioning why they would even want to. Of course, it will make for interesting political theater to watch both sides attempt to explain away the results of next week’s election. It may also make for an excellent case study in confirmation bias.