The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true. Not only do we tend to seek out and remember information that reaffirms what we already believe, but there is also a “backfire effect,” which sees people doubling down on their beliefs after being presented with evidence that contradicts them.To me this is by far the greatest danger to democracy in the world, in fact the only one I take seriously: the division of whole nations into competing camps that do not acknowledge the same version of reality. I am not at all sure how one goes about fighting this problem. I have tried to do my part here by taking the most reasoned tone I can manage and searching for common ground, but my conservative friends still tell me that they often can't stand to read my political posts because they are so maddening.
So, where do we go from here? There’s no simple answer, but the only way people will start rejecting falsehoods being fed to them is by confronting uncomfortable truths. Fact-checking is like exposure therapy for partisans, and there is some reason to believe in what researchers call an “affective tipping point,” where “motivated reasoners” start to accept hard truths after seeing enough claims debunked over and over.
Most successful countries in history have been governed by a political class that had a broadly shared background and outlook. When the leadership class falls into irreconcilable divisions about their fundamental vision of the world, bad things happen. In the US we seem to be heading in that direction. Our leadership class has lost all credibility with millions of ordinary people, leaving a vacuum filled by people like Trump and Sean Hannity who have nothing at all to say to their opponents. Conservatives and liberals who want to find common ground sometimes discover that they have nothing to talk about, no shared frame for even defining what our problems are, let alone what to do about them. Sometimes this worries me.