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December 8, 2021

Politics by osmosis: The grave implications of petty partisanship

By JOHN CORBETT | April 13, 2012

As each passing day draws us closer to the 2012 presidential election, reminders of partisan politics remain at the forefront of the discussion. Take the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, for example. In a recent poll conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post, just over half of surveyed individuals believed that a Supreme Court decision on the Act, which is expected sometime in June, will likely be made with political interests in mind.

 All of this talk of partisanship begs the question: What impact does such partisanship have on the execution of political decisions? And is there any answer to the endless debate over which side, the left or the right, political liberalism or conservatism, is correct?

I'll leave the second question for later. But as for the first, some good news: actually, there is an answer.

Or at least, so says The Huffington Post. In a study reported last month, the researchers at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (PSP) claim to have proven, empirically, that low-effort thinking tends to promote conservative ideologies. This study comes on the heels of a similar investigation earlier this year, which states rather bluntly what the PSP article hints at evasively: that conservatives are, well, stupid. This second investigation, conducted by the Association for Psychological Science, bears a title which says it all: "Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact."

I now pose the question: given this information, have we not solved the age-old question, the incessant squabble of "my-political-ideology-is-better-than-yours" that has held back decades of leaders trying to rise above such questions and act decisively in the interest of the American public? Shouldn't we all just vote liberal from now on, because that's what smart people do?

To this conclusion, I offer two responses. The first examines the nature of the conclusions reached by the cited studies, while the second considers the underlying implications of such studies in general.

First, there is the definition of conservative ideology. What is the definition used by these researchers when drawing their conclusions? Surely, an idea as nebulous as "right-wing ideology," which implies an aggregation of all positions subsumed by right-leaning politicians, requires some definition if it is to be studied objectively. What are the criteria that they provide? Mostly, as is suggested in the title, the Association for Psychological Science's standard for right-wing ideology is listed in the article's title: prejudice and low intergroup contact. Here, I identify the first problem: a claim which, by nature, is self-reinforcing and therefore logically untenable.

Here's what I mean. So long as you ascribe racism and fear of the unknown to the political right, you will always reach the same conclusion, which amounts to a tautology: lower intelligence "predicts" for more racism, hence racism is positively correlated with lower intelligence. The problem, however, is with the substitution of the word "racism" with "conservative politics." When you predicate your definition of conservative ideology on the supposition of a particular trait which does naturally stem from lower intelligence, you will always find that said ideology "predicts for" the trait in relation to which you have defined the ideology. Whether or not this identification is valid is the crux of the argument, and the discussion we should be having. Whether conservative policies tend to be harmful to the ethnically and socioeconomically marginalized, is a valid debate. Whether stupidity equals racism, which equals conservatism, on the other hand, is much more ambiguous. Not only this, but it is more superficial: none of it really gets to the root of examining conservative policies, and determining why they may or may not be harmful. Instead, it simply rests with asserting a correlation between three decidedly abstract phenomena, and posits that on these grounds, we should denounce the underlying ideology as flawed beyond saving.

All of this analysis, however, misses the point. By parsing through various academic publications, we may be able to verify or negate the validity of a scientific claim. But even if we were able to say with certainty that right-wing politics are less intelligent than those of the left, what we still cannot do is solve for any of the problems that are endemic to the American political structure. Why is this? Look to my classification of the two likely reactions to The Huffington Post's article.

Such a study, regardless of its truth or validity, has one effect: polarization. At the point where such a claim divides people based on broad classifications, rekindles the flame of partisan infighting by denouncing one entity against another, and, in short, ensures the continuation of the same divisiveness that it seeks to eliminate, the well-intended messenger has become the lifeblood of further inability to compromise, reliance on ad hominem attacks, and decline of the quality of political discourse. The truth of the claim, then, becomes irrelevant. In light of this revelation, we are just as likely to revert to party-apologetics, rather than reasoned deliberation. We haven't found an answer, and we are, in fact, no closer to a solution to the two-party problem than we were before.  

As an antidote to the questionable claims and general obfuscation of the issue of intelligence and political allegiance, I offer the following claim, which agrees, in part, with our original premise: that low-effort thinking tends to promote ideologies. Not one way or another, not conservative or liberal; simply ideologies in general.

The problem is this: the current state of the two-party system in America provides a convenient proxy. A proxy by which the majority of individuals can bypass such intellectually strenuous pastimes as searching for facts and developing perspective in favor of a cut-and-dry decision. Directly resulting from this is the fact that modern political discourse in America, for all of its diverse and pertinent arenas of debate, circumvents all of the important issues. It all devolves to one simple, and essentially meaningless question: "Are you a liberal or a conservative?"

The question is meaningless for the same reason the articles above are flawed: because without a mechanism to objectively determine what ideas are subsumed by the political left or right, partisan lines do nothing to encourage critical thinking and, what's worse, actually discourage it by allowing voters two convenient titles, either of which they can wear without ever having to investigate what those titles mean. Politics by proxy does nothing for American progress. As I write this, I am tempted to call it by another name: politics by osmosis.

Osmosis, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is, "A process of absorption or diffusion suggestive of the flow of osmotic action; especially: a usually effortless, often unconscious assimilation." The "effortless, often unconscious assimilation" is what is so damaging to political discourse. Politics by osmosis, which is facilitated by a partisan mentality, stunts progress because it permits political participation that is conscious only of two choices, rather than the thousands that surround the milieu of issues which should be informing the decision-making process of today's voters. By discouraging investigation, preventing critical analysis, and allowing "unconscious politics," partisan divisiveness accomplishes little more than one, incredibly ironic end: a hospitable environment for such crude and frighteningly underdeveloped conclusions as the belief that one political perspective, liberal or conservative, is, in all regards and situations, for stupid people only.


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