Author: Rachel Cohn
Following the first Democratic primary debate of the 2016 presidential cycle, liberal-leaning political conversation and social media flooded with opinions of how Democrats had stacked up against Republicans. Despite the split between progressive voters on which of the party’s two front-runners — Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders — had the best performance, across the media, commentators agreed that the Democratic candidates had struck a more thoughtful and congenial tone than the Republican candidates.
“Civility was a big winner on Tuesday night, and the discussion of real issues was refreshing,” read an opinions piece by the New York Times Editorial Board the day after the first Democratic debate. “Democrats See a More Substantive, if Sleepy Debate compared to Republicans,” a Washington Post headline read. Even David Brooks, a conservative commentator for the New York Times, recognized his own party’s failure in the debates when he accused Republicans of ignoring inconvenient facts.
Left-leaning media, and even some conservative writers, converged on one central argument: no matter who you support within the Democratic party, you can rest assured that they all have real experience and real opinions on public policy — something that can’t be said of all the candidates on the Republican side.
For all this talk of substance within the Democratic party, it might come as a surprise that that there’s actually little difference between Democratic and Republican supporters in how they use and interpret facts to articulate their beliefs about the presidency. Members of both parties have a strong tendency to interpret data according to their ideological predispositions. This leaves both Democrats and Republicans susceptible to unsubstantiated claims that seem to support their existing ideological preferences and thus guilty of propagating them.
For example, when individuals are given two sets of conflicting empirical studies on an issue like the death penalty, individuals will interpret the information in a way that supports their existing opinion. This means that individuals in favor of the death penalty will be highly skeptical of empirical evidence suggesting that the death penalty is not an effective means of punishment and simultaneously find evidence that supports the death penalty highly compelling. The same is true in the reverse for individuals who are against the death penalty.
This is highly problematic for both parties because it means that no matter how much data substantiates a well-intentioned political policy, individuals with a predisposition to oppose that policy will be unlikely to change their views in the face of such information. This is even more problematic for the Democratic party. Not only does this pose an obstacle to it passing policy, this also directly challenges a key component of its collective self-identity: its members’ attention to facts.
To be fair, there is some rationale to the argument that Democrats and Republicans are different on the issue of truth when looking solely at the candidates they put forward. According to Politifact, a non-partisan offshoot of the Tampa Bay Times which ranks the statements of political leaders according to varying degrees of truth, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both make generally factual statements 70 percent of the time, whereas the Republican front runners, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, make generally factual statements only 25 percent of the time.
Even Republican candidates with longer experience in public office, like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, fall an average of almost 10 percentage points short of the Democratic candidates on the truth rating. Therefore, it is correct to argue that Democratic politicians or elites tend to make statements that are more on the side of substance than Republican politicians — part of the reason that this shared problem of myth-spreading goes largely overlooked in the media. However, at the level of the supporters, this dichotomy between Republicans being a party of lies and Democrats being a party of reason altogether disappears.
According to a new study by two professors of political science at the University of Miami, Democratic and Republican supporters are equally likely to hold conspiratorial beliefs. In this instance, conspiratorial beliefs refer to those that suspect a group has carried out an illegal or illicit action in secret, for their own gain. The study finds that these conspiratorial views are ramped up when the party is out of power. In other words, when there is a Republican president in power, you can expect Democrats to have a more conspiratorial mind-set about the actions of government — and when a Democrat is in power, you can expect Republicans to be more conspiratorial. When the power is up for grabs and hotly contested, as it will be for the next year in the in the lead up to the 2016 Presidential election, both sides may be prone to exaggerated language and paranoia.
The only subtle difference between the parties comes through the means of dissemination of the myths.
For Republicans, the conspiracies tend to come directly from the mouths of their politicians, echoed by their supporters. Take Carly Fiorina’s claim during the Republican debate that a Planned Parenthood video shows a “fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.'” That video doesn’t exist, but her comments have been reiterated again and again by conservative pundits and turned into viral text–embedded photos.
For Democrats, candidates may be telling the truth for the most part while supporters at home are doing the work of promoting and perpetuating misinformation. A recent viral video by the organization Now This suggested that CNN had deleted a poll that asked viewers which candidate had won the debate. According to the video’s claim, when Bernie Sanders was the overwhelming favorite over Hillary, CNN deleted the poll in an effort to side with Hillary, to whom Time Warner (the owner of CNN) has donated funding. The video, which garnered thousands of re-posts, is simply not true. Later inquiry found that CNN never deleted the poll, but the video remains online and continues to be re-posted.
Videos like these slip past us precisely because they play into the conspiratorial beliefs that we are likely to hold. For progressives, that’s a fear of big money and big business and the corruption that those forces can cause. Recognizing that these views are in fact a part of conspiratorial bias, and developing an awareness for when this conspiratorial bias is most likely to take hold is the first step to preventing the dissemination of baseless myths.
If Democrats want to be the serious and substantiated party that they claim to be, supporters need to be consistently vigilant in scrutinizing not just Republican claims but also their own.
Rachel Cohn is a senior Diplomacy and World Affairs major. She can be reached at [email protected]
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