The Biggest Hidden Bias in Politics
Pundits, political analysts, and political scientists all have a serious bias that makes them misunderstand our world. And...it can help you make sense of your crazy relative this Thanksgiving, too.
Happy almost Thanksgiving to all you American readers! May it be restful and relaxing, full of good food and good cheer, with plenty of toasts for everything to be thankful for this year.
However, many of you will be dreading a difficult aspect of Thanksgiving in modern America: how do you get through the meal when one (or more) of your crazy relatives believes the moon landing was faked, that the Denver airport is the secret headquarters of the Illuminati, and that the only reason you’re not clever enough to recognize these hidden truths is because of the brainwave interference you’re crippled with forever due to the 5G chip that came as a Trojan Horse inside the covid “vaccines.”
Such difficult family dynamics function as an alarming mirror for American society, which, to a greater extent than other rich democracies, is plagued by delusional, conspiratorial politics. That poses a serious, urgent puzzle: why is the United States such an outlier for unhinged political extremism that’s utterly detached from reality?
To answer that question, let’s start with a seemingly unrelated pop quiz: how many of you can correctly identify who is pictured in the photograph below?
The correct answer is Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, leader of a country that is home to nearly 1 out of every 5 people on the planet. He’s one of the most important people in the world—and, by appearance and dress, one of the most recognizable. So, when Americans were asked to identify an array of photographs of prominent figures from politics, business, celebrities, you name it, what percentage of Americans could identify Modi correctly?
The answer: 3 percent. Three percent.
Let’s put that into perspective. Sixteen percent of Americans could recognize the face of PewDiePie, the Swedish YouTuber, which was pretty close to the proportion of Americans who correctly identified the face of Xi Jinping, the President of China (20 percent).
There is a clear trend in the data: most Americans can’t identify prominent world leaders, including some of their own—but have no trouble with celebrities. Take a look at the percentage of Americans who correctly identified the following people in this 2019 New York Times quiz:
Narendra Modi (3 percent)
Xi Jinping (20 percent)
Boris Johnson (20 percent)
Mitch McConnell (35 percent)
Vladimir Putin (60 percent)
Justin Bieber (67 percent)
The Rock (85 percent)
Oprah (86 percent)
These figures are reflective of the biggest hidden bias in politics—what I call Ignorance Bias.1
We focus so much energy on how the news is reported that we don’t pause to consider how few people actually consume it, or how little of it on the airwaves is about governance rather than political gossip and horserace-style fanfare.
Even Fox & Friends, which usually has the biggest share of the cable TV morning show market, averages around 1.2 million viewers. That’s 0.36 percent of the US population. One out of every 275 Americans is watching. (Even if you don’t include children in these figures, it’s still a tiny slice of the adult population).
It’s a bit like if the Titanic lookouts got consumed in a debate over whether the tip of the iceberg slanted to the left or the right, all while they slammed into the enormous, but much more dangerous bit lurking below the surface. The disconcerting truth is this: The biggest bias in (mis)understanding politics is the bias that political elites assume most other people think about politics often and have a basic working knowledge of it that is rooted in facts and reality.
That’s not a safe assumption.
One recent survey found that 52 percent of Americans can’t name a single US Supreme Court Justice. In 2011, a poll found that twice as many Americans knew that Randy Jackson was a judge on American Idol than could correctly identify the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. And in 2006, three years after the war in Iraq began—the most important element of US foreign policy at the time—six in ten Americans couldn’t identify Iraq on a map of the Middle East. (A little over half could point to New York state on a map).
Here’s a map, from the New York Times, of thousands of Americans trying to put a dot on North Korea. It’s a pretty random spread.
Most discussions of these astonishing revelations lead only to condemnation and calls for education. And while I agree that educational investments form the long-term cornerstone of democratic success, it’s worth more carefully exploring the more immediate political implications of the fact that vast swaths of the voting public don’t have basic information about the political world or how our governments operate.
These dynamics apply, to some extent, to all democracies. But the United States has become an unfortunate outlier relative to other peer nations.
Lessons from the Campaign Trail
From April 2009 to January 2011, I worked on the political campaign and transition team for the soon-to-be Governor of Minnesota (I got hired as his driver—which is exactly what it sounds like—but eventually served at various times as the Deputy Campaign Manager and Policy Director).
I spent weeks carefully crafting five and ten-point policy plans, on everything from education to taxes, health care to transportation. These were crucial for winning the support of interest groups, but when I looked at the total number of downloads for the PDFs of our policy agenda, I was dumbstruck. By the end of the campaign, the policy plan for education had been downloaded something like 47 times. This was the future governor of a state of five million people. We won more than 919,000 votes. At most, 47 of those voters looked at our two-page summary of education policy ideas.
I saw this first-hand when I did what every American political campaign staffer must do: march in parades with the candidate. People would come up to the candidate and say “We’re voting for you!” As the policy director, I’d ask why we won their vote. The most common answers were related to feelings of trust, character, party affiliation, his deep roots in Minnesota, and the idea that he was a good person with integrity. The least common answers, by far, were about policy.
Through those experiences, the campaign taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve learned about politics—and one that’s rarely taught in political science. Ever since, I’ve been acutely aware of ignorance bias.
Consider this: in 2016, about three out of ten Americans voted for Donald Trump. About three out of ten Americans voted for Hillary Clinton. But four out of ten Americans didn’t vote. Apathy won—and we all lost.
This doesn’t mean that voters are stupid, or idiots, or that elites are right and the masses are wrong. Instead, it means that voters use cognitive and informational shortcuts—schemas—to make decisions about voting and to understand the sphere of politics. Those shortcuts rarely include in-depth analysis of policy ideas or deep-dives into issues related to governance. Whether that’s good or bad is beside the point. It’s our reality—and we make serious mistakes when we pretend otherwise.
Knowingness, Apathy Bias, and Bubble Bias
I’ve previously written about the perils of knowingness, which is an affliction in which you believe you already know everything and lose your intellectual curiosity to seek out information that might change or challenge your viewpoint. The culture wars are peak knowingness, in which nobody is trying to learn anything, only project their certainty onto others.
And, as I noted in that piece:
There are two distinct subsets of knowingness in modern society.
Type 1: People who think they know but they don’t; and
Type 2: People who don’t want to know.
These two distinct types of people provide corresponding subsets of ignorance bias (I’m coining terms with reckless abandon, I’m afraid): Apathy Bias and Bubble Bias.
Pundits and political analysts make a mistake due to apathy bias when they wrongly assume that other people care about politics like they do. This is rarely true. Those who professionally study and analyze politics are the biggest outliers in the voting public. They’re extremely unlike the people they study—and seek to explain.
Apathy bias skews your understanding of the political sphere when you falsely believe that other people have knowledge about politics that they don’t.
You see apathy bias at play when pundits chalk up a political figure rising or falling in the polls due to, say, a piece of legislation that just passed, or even a particularly blockbuster Congressional hearing. In fact, most people are oblivious to even the largest bills passing. (Only 27 percent of Americans said that they knew a great deal/a good amount about the Inflation Reduction Act, the cornerstone of Biden’s domestic agenda. And that’s a self-reported figure without any verification that they actually do know much about it, so the number is likely overly generous).
By contrast, Bubble Bias—named after the fact that millions of people inhabit badly skewed and distorted information bubbles—produces mistaken assumptions about the voting public based on the false belief that everyone is working off the same set of facts, has a basic grasp of political dynamics, and bases their beliefs on a shared sense of reality to everyone else. In the past, for better or worse, most people got their information from a few mainstream sources. Now, that world has splintered—and there has been an explosion of lies, skewed information, and polarizing content.
Apathy bias has always existed: indifference to politics and a lack of curiosity about world affairs is not a modern phenomenon, and in fact, most of us get exposed to international voices far more often than people in the past. But it was less disastrous for our political decision-making in the past because there was no specific, systematic skew to the ignorance. There were uninformed voters on the left and uninformed voters on the right. It was a bit like they canceled each other out.
That’s why misinformed voters are so much more dangerous than uninformed voters. Disinformation—the deliberate spread of false ideas to advance a political agenda—produces misinformed voters. Today, the spread of misinformed voters is both systematic and skewed. Misinformed voters believe, with dangerous certainty, that they understand something they don’t. And what we’ve got a lot of in modern American politics—and in other damaged democracies around the world—is a rapidly rising cohort of those voters.
The Proliferation of Crazy Conspiracists
Now, let’s not “both-sides” this when we have clear data to the contrary in the United States. A recent CNN poll, for example, found the 63 percent of Republicans believe—despite strong evidence to the contrary—that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. Of course, there are also millions upon millions of misinformed Democratic voters. But the current incarnation of the two parties is asymmetric when it comes to how they each treat the ideals of education, facts, and truth.
While some of this is a shared problem (it is true, for example, that the US has poorer educational attainment than many of its peer nations), America is also an outlier in terms of having a major political party—the Trumpified GOP—that demonizes educated people and celebrates conspiracism.
It’s not just Marjorie Taylor Greene and the “Jewish space lasers,” either. US Senator Mike Lee, formerly a darling of the Republican intelligentsia, recently tweeted an insane lie implying that January 6th was a “false flag” organized by federal agents. Well-educated Republicans, like Ted Cruz, downplay their credentials and cosplay as characters who somehow aren’t really part of the elite. And Barack Obama was accused of being “too smart for his own good.”
These political dynamics exacerbate ignorance bias, because politicians are modeling the idea that being intellectually curious about the world is undesirable and that clearly established, but inconvenient, facts should be supplanted by comforting lies. Terms like “alternative facts” aren’t just about disguising lies and dressing them up as facts; they’re also about suggesting that people are free to choose their own reality, not be shackled to what “the mainstream media” calls the truth.
So, this brings us back to the beginning: how can we make sense of the crazy conspiracists in one’s extended family—or indeed, in one’s own immediate family?
I certainly don’t have all the answers.
But while it’s often unwise to debate polarizing politics while eating turkey and drinking lots of beer or wine on Thanksgiving, if the “faked moon landing” is inevitably going to come up, my advice is this: try to break through the other person’s commitment to knowingness.
Ask them what information, if they discovered it to be true, might change their minds. Ask them to charitably describe an opposing viewpoint in their own words—and offer to reciprocate. And when you’re trying to figure out where all of this craziness has come from, remember that astonishing fact we began with: only three percent of Americans can identify the man who rules a fifth of the world’s population. There’s a lot that people don’t know. Many are often wrong, but rarely uncertain.
And beyond our own family divides, when you’re trying to make sense of politics in the United States and around the world, remember to be aware of ignorance bias, bubble bias, and apathy bias. Forgetting about them badly warps our understanding of our political world. Being aware of them, by contrast, can help us better understand how we ended up in with such a maddening, crazy, dysfunctional system.
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