What We Need Is Red and Blue Face Paint

Posted on Categories Political Processes & Rhetoric

Andrea’s post on sports and Michael’s on the impact of the election on students’ preparation for class brought to mind this thread over at the Volokh Conspiracy. Ilya Somin links to articles in the Washington Post and Slate arguing that political partisans behave like sports fans They are less interested in a careful consideration of the issues than in identifying with one side or the other. Ilya maintains that this is a manifestation of rational ignorance, i.e., the idea that voters rationally invest little effort in obtaining political information because their vote is unlikely to be important. When some voters, e.g., political junkies, do obtain such information, the purpose is not to help in making a decision, but to enhance the enjoyment of being on, for example, the Republican or Democratic teams.

There is certainly a lot of truth to this, but it needs an important qualification. The Slate article maintains that “[p]olitics isn’t about ideology” but, rather, “it’s about joining a team . . . .” Not quite. Our preferred team isn’t a function of where we grew up or went to school. It is generally a function of some ideological presuppositions. A person becomes a conservative because she believes that a conservative approach to policy is more in keeping with the world as it is and leads to better results. Having chosen her side, she may very well, as Slate puts it, approach politics as a team member and not a truth seeker. She has found her truth and is now interested in information that confirms it or helps her to convince others to join her.

This is why so much of the stuff that we fling at each other is beside the point. If I am convinced that the country will be better off with Barack Obama as President, I am unlikely to care if he engaged in a sketchy real estate deal with Tony Rezko. If I think that we’ll be better off with McCain, I may not be very interested in whether Sarah Palin tried to get her volatile ex-brother-in-law fired. In both cases, I may recognize that my preferred candidate did something that he or she ought not to do, but, in the grand scheme of things, I am more interested in winning, not only because I am on the team but because I believe in the team.

So, in response to Michael’s question, I would think that the election does interfere with students’ class prepartation and, worse, the time-wasting only serves to confirm their pre-existing beliefs.

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