Intro. [Recording date: August 6, 2018.]
Russ Roberts: Lilliana Mason is the author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, which is our topic for today.... In a recent EconTalk episode that we'll link to, I did a monologue on the tribal nature of politics and the decline in civility. And your book takes us, I think, quite a bit deeper into those ideas and really gives some insight into what's been changing, which I think is the biggest challenge. I think a lot of people understand that things seem a little bit different. The question is why, and what has changed? And let's start with a story that you tell at the beginning of your book, the Robbers Cave Experiment. Tell us what happened there.
Lilliana Mason: Yes. So, this is a very old experiment done in 1954. Social psychologists recruited a bunch of 5th grade boys from Oklahoma city, and tried to gather boys that were as similar socially to each other as possible: so, they were all white; they were all Protestant; they all did sort of, had sort of similar educational and social fitness. And, they divided the boys into two different camps, and put them in a summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park outside of Oklahoma City. And the idea was that they wanted to figure out how--what it looks like when two groups, sort of, form, and then, to what extent are they naturally inclined to engage in conflict between each other. And so they spent a week with the boys not knowing about the other team. They came up with their own names: they called themselves the Rattlers and the Eagles. And after a week, they were told about the other boys. And they immediately started competitions with the other team. Just baseball games--various kinds of competitions. And very, very early on, they started calling each other names. Derogatory names. And then, gradually, they, their conflict escalated beyond the competitions and they started doing things like attacking each other's camps. And then, by the end of the second week, the counselors--who were actually the social psychologists, had to stop all the competition, because the boys were starting to engage in violent attacks on each other--like rocks, throwing rocks, and that type of thing. So, the idea was that it took very little for these two, these two very similar groups of kids, to, you know, engage in relatively high levels of conflict. Really all it took was separation and competition for that to happen.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm a little bit skeptical of those, that experiment. And actually, a whole bunch that were done in the 1950s that seem to have persisted. I wonder, you know, how much the experimenters tweaked [?] the experience to get something dramatic. I wonder how many, if they'd done it 20 times, would have happened every time. But, putting that to the side, I want to read a quote from the book that I thought summed up the phenomenon quite well. You say,
Humans are hardwired to cling to social groups. There are a few good reasons for us to do so. First, without a sense of social cohesion we would have had a hard time creating societies and civilizations. Second, and even more basic, humans have a need to categorize. That's how we understand the world. This includes categorizing people. Third, our social categories don't simply help us understand our social environment. They also help us understand ourselves and our place in the world. Once we are part of a group, we know how to identify ourselves in relation to the other people in our society. And we drove an emotional connection in a sense of wellbeing from being group members. These are powerful psychological motivations to form groups.
And I think it's important to say from the outset that what I call 'tribalism' in my essay, and EconTalk episode, and what you call sorting or various types of identity: This is a very normal--it's a human thing. There's nothing inherently bad about it. It doesn't have to lead to violence. There are many good things about it. So, just comment about this--the human nature aspect of this. Human nature aspect.
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. So, this is a point that I try to make a few times in the book, because I think it's really important: The idea that we, you know, are strongly identified with our groups is not, it's not an insult, to say that we do that. We are all doing it at the same time. We are all, really, deeply motivated to behave in this way. The, you know, there are a few studies that I talk about in the book, you know, where there are real biological evidence of group membership--people's, you know, levels of cortisol in their saliva increases when they feel a threat to their group. The idea that your body is responding to your group membership suggests that it's very hard for us to control that. You can't control the level of cortisol in your saliva. And so, these are things that we shouldn't try to avoid, but instead learn how to work with, and learn how to sort of better understand what's happening so that we can stop it from getting out of control. It's one of those things where, you know, understanding it is the first step to being able to manage it.
Russ Roberts: I think the fascinating part about this is that, it's one thing to think about your own group, or the pleasure or comfort you get from feeling part of something larger than yourself--which I think is a deeply human urge that we economists neglect, simply I think because we don't have the tools to deal with it very well. But, the other part of this, that's the darker side, is the desire to look down on The Other. To look down on people who aren't in the group, people in the Out Group. And: What kind of research--what do we know about that phenomenon? Obviously the Robbers Cave Experiment, the Rattlers and the Eagles, is an example of that. You know, whether it was increased through some decisions made by the experimenters, who knows? But it was definitely a human urge to not just feel part of your group, but to look down on the other people not in your group.
Lilliana Mason: Right. So, the--one thing that we know is that there is sort of this basic--in terms of the basic group membership, there is work by Marilyn Brewer, a social psychologist, that has found essentially that, being a member of a group doesn't necessarily make you hate the other group. It just makes you love your group the most. And it isn't until there's a conflict between your in-group and your out-group that you start to despise the people in the out-group. But the most basic nature of group membership is just loving your group the most, thinking they're the best. One of the things that we know is that when you are a member of a group, you tend to view the world in a way that makes your group seem better. So, one of the examples from the Robbers Cave Experiment was that, you know, the boys were asked to pick up beans from the ground. And then they were counting the number of beans that each boy had collected. And, the experimenters were actually putting the same exact handful of beans on the projector for the boys to count them every single time. But, every single boy estimated that there were more beans when it was one of their in-group members than when it was one of their out-group members. We also know that partisans, for instance, think the economy is a lot better when their party is in power. And that literature can reverse, overnight, like overnight, after election day, or after inauguration. And so, there are just sort of ways in which we see the world in a biased way that makes our group seem to be, not just the best but also the most beloved and the most powerful.
Russ Roberts: And I want to mention an essay I forgot to mention in my monologue episode which is by Scott Alexander at the blog Slate Star Codex. He wrote an essay--I'm close to the right title--"I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup," so that the modern reverence we have for tolerance breaks down when it's really somebody we're not supposed to like. And I think that's a huge challenge that all of us have. What do we know about what's happened to partisanship in recent decades? There's a debate in political science--Mo Fiorina, my colleague here at the Hoover Institution who has been a guest talked about, I'm pretty sure, in that episode I did with him a while back, and we'll link to that as well. But, he's a skeptic: He doesn't think that things have gotten particularly more partisan. And yet, there's a lot of evidence also that perhaps it has. So, talk about that dispute and why you believe it's gotten stronger--partisanship has. Or the evidence that it has; and then we'll talk about why that phenomenon is happening.
Lilliana Mason: Right. So, his work is actually one of the major reasons that I started this project, because he and another political scientist, Alan Abramowitz, were having this sort of back and forth in multiple articles debating whether or not polarization was increasing in American politics, with Fiorina saying that it was not and Abramowitz saying that it was. And, in reading this debate, what I started to think is: They are both talking about polarization and defining it as 'Americans are disagreeing with each other more about policy.' And that is the traditional definition of polarization: That Democrats and Republicans are becoming more liberal and more conservative--more extreme in their issue positions. So, essentially, our attitudes are distributed across, you know, the spectrum from Left to Right in like a bimodal distribution. But it wasn't matching what I was seeing in politics, because I was seeing a lot of anger and incivility. And people seemed to be really riled up at each other but not really connected perfectly to policy positions. And so, I started looking into this and thinking, 'Well, what if we think about partisanship as just any other group identity?' And, if we do that, then there's a wealth of literature and research on intergroup conflict, mostly looking at intergroup racial conflict. And, if we can apply that research to the parties, then maybe we can understand what could motivate them to, partisans to hate each other, without necessarily disagreeing on policy positions. Because, most inter-group conflict is not rooted in policy debates. Most inter-group conflict is rooted in deep identities that people hold, and this sense of 'us versus them.' So, that was the beginning of this project--really was trying to think about Democrats and Republicans not as simply purveyors of policies, but instead as really strong groups that people can identify with so powerfully that they might be willing to even change their policy positions in order to just, sort of, have that group win.
Russ Roberts: Let's turn to that; but I want to just say as a footnote: An example would be that there would be an issue in the public debate, in the public sphere, that it used to be a source of contention--could be gay marriage, could be, say, legalizing marijuana--that used to be extremely contentious. Now, people seem to be closer together. So, there seems to be less polarization on many issues. And yet, as you point out, on the feeling of us versus them, that seems to be getting stronger. So, what evidence do we have, that that is stronger--the us versus them, or my policy, my party identification, separate from my policy positions or my ideology? [
Lilliana Mason: Right. So, we have, just sort of in general, there are increasing numbers of people that are calling themselves Strong Partisans. We have on a scale that goes from Independent to Weak Partisan to Strong Partisan: People are moving toward the Strong Partisan ends of the spectrum. Partisans are increasingly not wanting their party to compromise with the other side. They tend to rate the Out Party as much more extreme than they used to, and tend to rate their own party as not as all extreme. Partisans are happier with their neighborhood, if they are told that in-group partisans live there; and they are less satisfied with their neighborhood if they are told that outgroup partisans live there. So, we have a lot of information about partisans just sort of feeling this sense of, you know, disdain and discomfort with the other side.
Russ Roberts: What's weird about that [?]--I'm not a political scientist, but I have, many of my friends are. I just want to say that right up front. So, I talk to political scientists and read political science literature a little bit. And it was my impression till fairly recently that party identification was getting weaker in the 0-1 sense: That more people were identifying as independent. So, is the claim here is that that trend is reversed? Or is the claim are that the people who still identify as Republicans or Democrats are more intensely identifying as party members, or as partisans?
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. It's more the latter. You're right: There are increasing numbers of people identifying as Independent, as well. And, so, basically it's the people who call themselves 'weak partisans,' that there are fewer of. But, it's important to note that the vast majority of people who call themselves Independents, vote as if they are partisans. Very reliably. So, and there's a really great book called Independent Politics by Klar and Krupnikov that actually looks at why people are identifying as Independent. And most of them, they say, or a lot of them, are just embarrassed partisans--
Russ Roberts: yeah--
Lilliana Mason: They don't like what's happening. They don't like how nasty everything is. So they just call themselves Independents even though they still reliably vote with one party.
Russ Roberts: So why has this intensity come along? And I--a lot of people I think casually identify it, say, with the rise of the Trump Presidency. I view the Trump Presidency as symptom more than a cause. It's just an example, it's just an example of how both sides can hate each other more intensely than they did before. And, of course--I think I'm older than you; pretty confident about that. This goes back, for me, in my lifetime, into every--I'm born in 1954, so I remember the 1960 election. I was in grade school. I was 6 years old. I remember we drew pictures of elephants and donkeys. That was politics in 1960, in Washington, rural Washington State. But, you know, shortly after that, I'd say, 1972--I'm 18 years old--I remember how vicious politics was in, when Nixon was President; when Reagan was President. When Clinton was President. When Obama was President. Now when Trump is President. Both sides angry, disdainful, dismissive. And more than just 'My side's right and your side's wrong.' It's, 'My side's right, and you are dangerous.' It does feel like it's gotten stronger in the last 5-10 years. But it's not new. So, what is new about it, in your view; and what do you think explains, if there is something new about it?
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. So, this is a great point. I actually started this project in 2009. So, it's definitely not about Trump. I had no inclination that Trump was coming.
Russ Roberts: Shame on you. You call yourself a political scientist.
Lilliana Mason: I couldn't have known. So, yeah; this clearly is a phenomenon that predates Trump. And, I think that what you are pointing to is a really interesting sort of historical view of what's been happening. I want to sort of predicate all of this on the idea that there should be party conflict. Right? Like, we don't want the parties to be exactly the same. And, we don't--and obviously, partisans are going to want their team to win no matter what. And so, it would be weird if we didn't have parties rooting for their own side and hating the other side to some degree. Especially because elections are really just gigantic kind of games. Right? Like, it [?]--
Russ Roberts: It's like the Super Bowl.
Lilliana Mason: Right.
Russ Roberts: I used to have a good friend in St. Louis, when I lived there, who, we got together for Super Bowl parties and election night parties. And celebrated, to the extent it was possible--sometimes our team would wasn't in the Super Bowl and our team wasn't really in the election because, for me, I'm never happy generally with either side. But it's still fun. You still root--you get excited. You might prefer one to the other. It's exciting.
Lilliana Mason: Right. And we watch it on TV [television]. And we, you know--
Russ Roberts: commentary--
Lilliana Mason: the election results have come in, little music theme that each channel has. Yeah. It's fun. It's very exciting. So, it's hard not to root for one side. The thing that has changed--and this is really what the entire book is about--is that, we've always had a lot of conflict in American politics. And we've always had a lot of conflict in American society. And just thinking about the 1960s, clearly there was a lot of social unrest that I think exceeds what we are looking at right now.
Russ Roberts: Absolutely.
Lilliana Mason: The difference is that, from the 1960s, through, I would say, the 1990s, we essentially went through a period where our party identities became more closely associated with other social identities. To the extent that, in the 1960s, the social unrest wasn't entirely--you couldn't say that the two sides that were fighting were all Democrats versus Republicans. There was a mixture of partisans on both sides. And so, what we are seeing now is that the sides that are fighting are associated almost completely with either Democrats or Republicans. So, the way that I explain it is, is essentially to say the Civil Rights Act, the Civil Rights Movement--as that became a Democratic Party Platform issue, the Southern Conservative Democrats were very unhappy about that. And, but, partisanship is very strong, so it takes a really long time to change a Party. It's like converting to another religion. And so, over a generation, they gradually became Republicans. And that process--in, you know, from the 1960s until the late 1990s, there were still some people on both sides who were sympathetic to the desire to the other team. And, I think that process really sort of culminated in, maybe the Clinton years. Or possibly even later. But, during that period, there were still some people who could say, 'Oh, I understand what the other side is thinking. They are not,' you know, 'they are not completely evil.' Of course there are some people who did think the other side was evil. But there was some mixture within each party. And that is what I think has been disappearing.
Russ Roberts: Now that I think about it, you know, the famous example from the 1970s and 1980s was, you know, Scoop Jackson was a conservative Democrat. Nelson Rockefeller was a liberal Republican. Now that I think about it, you know, there are two semi-liberal Republicans in the Senate: Collins from Maine and--who am I thinking of--
Lilliana Mason: Murkowski--
Russ Roberts: Murkowski from Alaska. I can't think of a conservative Democrat. There might be one. It just doesn't come to mind. But the point you are making, which is obviously true, is that so many votes now are party line votes. And you could say, 'Well, that's because'--in the Senate, you could say, that's just because they make sure that they get everybody roped in; they make compromises. And, of course, that's part of it. But a lot of is--which is what your book is about--is: Nobody wants to be seen voting with the bad guys. And that just seems to me to be an unhealthy thing. At least, it strikes me as an unhealthy thing. And your point about the 1960s--I always lately make the point that this is getting very close to the 1960s, which was a very tumultuous time. The difference is that were in the middle of a war, where thousands of people were dying every year--thousands of Americans. That caused a lot of unrest. We had a draft--so people didn't want to be drafted into it. And here we are--we are still somewhat at war--but no, most Americans aren't at risk of going into that war. Unemployment is 3.9% in the latest report. What would this be like if things weren't going well? I mean, it's just--we'll talk later about whether this is just unpleasant or actually frightening. I'm heading toward, toward frightening. But, the point that you make in the book, and I want to--let's hone [home?] in on this because you just mentioned it but I want to now focus on it, is the social aspect of our tribalism and our identity. So, it's not just that, 'My side in politics is right.' It's 'My side is also--all my other identities, all my other tribes are also in the same party as I am.' Let's talk about that and how that--because I think that's really the deepest insight of the book, and how--because that's plausibly something that has changed, that would explain some of the vehemence with which people look at each other.
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. So, if you look at--we have--the American National Election Studies is a survey, an election-based survey, an election-year survey that's done, has been done every election year since 1948. And so, you can look at trends over time and actually find that this is happening. This has been happening. The parties are much more divided on race and on religiosity, and on calling themselves liberals and conservatives, which is a different issue but we can talk about that later. And so, you know, one of the results of this--and this is what I call social sorting--is that we, you know, we are sort of moving into the parties that are more socially like us. So, they Republican Party is increasingly the party of white, Christian, increasingly rural, more men. And the Democratic Party is sort of everyone else. And, so--and we are getting very clear cues on which side we're supposed to be in. And so we are really moving completely into these two camps. And what that does is, there is social, social/psychological research that demonstrates that, when you have two identities that are well-aligned and, by well-aligned that means that most of the people in Group A are also in Group B. So, the example that I use is like Irish Catholic. You know: People who are Irish Catholic--they know a lot of Irish people and they know a lot of Catholic people. And, maybe not as many non-Irish, non-Catholic people. And the more aligned your two identities are, actually the more intolerant people have been found to be of outsiders. And, when you have two identities that are not well aligned--so, if you are, like, Irish and Jewish--then you are going to know a whole bunch of non-Irish people and a whole bunch of non-Jewish people. And, so, you tend to be more tolerant of outsiders because you sort of have this practice, every day, of going through your life knowing that these two parts of your identity are not well-matched in society. And, that finding, alone, can explain a lot of the effect of this sorting, social sorting, on our partisanship. Because our parties are now much more socially distinct, we don't have what we used to call "cross-cutting identities," where, you know, your next door neighbor is maybe in a different party but maybe you guys go to church together; and so you have this cross-cutting identity that allows you to think of each other as normal human beings with good intentions.
Russ Roberts: Or you go hunting together, which should be unimaginable for a large swath of Americans right now.
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and increasingly, the parties are--Republicans are Christian. And Democrats are, sort of everything but. But increasingly Democrats are the party of secularism.
Russ Roberts: Yes.
Lilliana Mason: That's the main religious divide--is religious or non-religious.
Russ Roberts: Yeh.
Lilliana Mason: So, the outcome of all of these sordid identities is essentially to make the other side seem more unlike you. And more difficult to humanize. Because you don't come in contact with them; you don't think about them as part of your group. You don't think about needing to respect them or their, you know, their having families or good intentions. That is--you know, that's sort of the dangerous of this: is that it's a lot easier to dehumanize the other side when you have these really well-sorted social identities.
Russ Roberts: So, that's plausible to me. I don't know that it's true, but it definitely seems plausible. It's related to a phenomenon that I've only become aware of in the last couple of years, which is Intersectionality. This idea that, if you are with me on this issue--whatever it is--you've got to be with me on every issue. You are not on the right team. And I don't know whether that's a relatively new phenomenon; but it's consistent with what you're talking about: that, you know, that you and I, say, are consistent across the board in everything; and I think it certainly is plausible that that means we are going to have a tighter bond in feeling this group identity. And, the people who aren't--someone who is different from me on not just one thing, a different political party, but on different church or doesn't go to church or hunts or doesn't hunt or likes sports or doesn't, or eats meat or doesn't--is just--it's a weird moment to me in like human history where, again, we have this tolerance--religion, to some extent--we are supposed to be tolerant of other people. And yet, it gets harder and harder because we've got all these boxes you have to check if you want to be on the right team.
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. Right. The other thing--I mean, I would also say that the other effect of this is that, because so many identities are now aligned with the Party, it used to be that, you know, when you watch election night coverage, which is lots of fun--if your Party loses, then that's--your Party is one part of your identity but you still have all the other parts of your identity. They are not losers, in that moment.
Russ Roberts: It's like--when the Red Sox would lose in the playoffs, I'd say, 'Here comes football season.' You know, that would be a comfort to me. But, yeah. Sorry. Go ahead.
Lilliana Mason: Right. And it's the same sense. That, you are going to be okay, right? You as an individual are going to be okay. Because you have all these other things that define you, and that are part of your identity. But, if your racial identity and your religious identity and your cultural identity and your geographical identity are all wrapped up with your party, then, if the party loses it hurts a lot more. Psychologically. And if your party wins, then every part of you has won. And, so, that's--one of the effects of this increased social sorting is that when elections occur, they are not just elections--they are not just competitions between the two parties. They become competitions between racial groups and religious groups; and that kind of thing is extremely dangerous.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's--it's hard to put my finger on it. It does feel like--it, just to me it sort of ramps up the intensity of the feeling. I'm not sure--in theory, if I lose this election, I still have this religious identity; I still have my cultural identity. But, we're all in the same boat, all of us who have lost this, whatever it is, this election or whatever is, the other. Could be other issues as well, of course. Could be a Supreme Court decision on some social issue that I share with a bunch of people. But, and it just--I think the human urge--you know, Adam Smith says it in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: It's, I think it's deeply true. He says, 'We care, we want the people around us to like what we like'--which is what we are talking about here to some extent, this idea of social sorting and a lack of cross-cutting identity. But then he says, 'What we really care about then is that people our friends hate what we hate.' So, if I see a movie I like, I hope you'll like it. And if you don't, I'm going to be disappointed: 'Why didn't you like it?' But if there's a movie that I despised and you think it's wonderful, that's really hard for us to process. And I think that is the reason this isn't, perhaps--why it's so dangerous. Why it leads to this amplification.
Lilliana Mason: Right. And if you think about, you know, just in terms of evolutionary psychology: which one is more important for you to pay attention to? The thing that you really hate or the thing that you really love? Right? The thing you really love is probably going to be there tomorrow, and you can go after it again. The thing that you really hate is right in front of you and you better deal with it immediately, because it's probably dangerous to you. So, we're naturally inclined as humans to have, to pay attention to the things that we dislike. Because, they are, you know, evolutionarily they are more dangerous. They are more important. They are immediate. And so, that idea of hating the people who are on the other side, not only does it sort of make our polarization worse, but it also makes us pay more attention to politics. And then hate each other more. And then pay more attention to politics. So, it is sort of this vicious cycle.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. And I think the other part of it--you know, I talked about this in my piece on this--it's not always easy to admit, but we get pleasure from it. We get pleasure from disliking our opponents. We get pleasure--the standard way people think about it is we look down on and it makes you feel better to lower someone because you feel higher. But it's worse than that, I think. I think there's a certain visceral--I think it's clearly hardwired in us to exalt in--you know, it's Schadenfreude writ large--to exalt in the misery of our enemies. And political discourse on both Left and Right, Republicans and Democrats, is--you know, we have Trump talking about losers and we have Hillary talking about baskets of deplorables. It's not a healthy situation.
Lilliana Mason: No. And in fact there is a study that demonstrated that you can actually see in people's brain activity--you put people in like an FMRI [Functional magnetic resonance imaging ] machine and show them a member of their in-group, you know, winning something, and they, you know--or, sorry--a member of their in-group losing, and they have these sort of sad, upset areas of their brain light up. And then you show them a member of their out-group losing, and the pleasure parts of their brain light up. So, it's really happening.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: So, what's to be done about this? Or, let me just make one more point, which is the role of the media. Which is--I don't think you talked about in your book. What I argued in my piece is that the media has allowed us to customize our information flow and thereby reinforce this again to a large degree: I don't have to watch the news channels or the commentators who are even-handed, or who, you know, might disagree with me: I'm just going to continually confirm my bias by my Twitter feed and my Facebook feed and the social media I consume, and the cable stations I watch. Do you think that plays a role?
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. But it works in concert with a couple of things that we're already doing. So, the first thing that I would say is--one thing I haven't talked about yet that's an important part of the book is this Minimal Group Paradigm experiments, which essentially, very briefly, people were told that they were a member of a group that they had never heard of before: They are either over-estimators or under-estimators. And then they are asked to allocate money to people that they've never met and they are never going to meet. And, they give the choice between, let's say, allocating $5 to everybody in the whole experiment, or allocating $4 to their own group but $3 to the outgroup members. And, the experimenter, when he was running this study, actually expected there to be no bias in this situation, because the groups were so meaningless. And in fact what he found was people were concerned about their group winning, and willing to sacrifice money in order to get the win condition. So they were not choosing the greater-good condition where every gets the most. They were choosing the condition where everyone gets less but the out group gets even less. So, there is a natural inclination for us to want our groups to win. And so, one of the things that the media does is it tends to portray legislation, even, as Democrats or Republicans winning. And when you--when every single thing the government does becomes a win for one side or the other, then there will be no compromise. Right? There's no reason for anyone to compromise, because if they lose then the whole party has this sense of loss. Even if they came--if they did good legislation. Even if they came up with a great compromise and a really good policy that solved the problem. That doesn't matter, because it's being portrayed as a loss for one side. And so, that side's never going to agree to that policy. We essentially are like gamifying the important work the government does. And the media does this. Not only do they cover everything as a horse case, but they also cover health care as a win for one side or the other. Which is damaging.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. No. You give the example of government shut down versus votes on Obamacare; and I feel like that's also what is happening right now with immigration. Neither side wants to give the other side a win, so they can't compromise and solve the problem. And now we have this issue with tariffs: We are ratcheting up a trade war with China. And it's--you'd like to think, 'Well, wiser heads will prevail. They'll compromise on some issue of intellectual property, or some issue of investment flows, or whatever it turns out to be.' But, I'm not convinced that's going to happen. It's hard for me to imagine--I know a little bit more about American politics than Chinese politics. They are both--this is a small amount in each case--but it's hard to imagine that Trump would "take a loss" on this. And I doubt the Chinese will, either. I don't think they are eager to tell their people, 'Oh, yeah, the Americans pushed us around.' So, I just--so many issues today seem beyond compromise, and it's a winner-take-all where your guys get into power and then you get to do what you want. One of the deepest, most depressing things as a small government type of person, a classical liberal, is that the idea that the executive power keeps growing--I like to fantasize that that would encourage people to think that maybe we should limit executive power because, 'The guy who is in right now isn't my guy.' And instead, people say, 'It's okay, because when my guy gets in, it will be better.' And--'I'll get mine,' or, 'We'll get ours,' or whatever it is--
Lilliana Mason: And 'We'll get everything.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. 'We'll be in charge.' And that just seems like--a parliamentary system is a little more like that. Not totally. But a little more like that. And America has always been less like that. We're heading to being more like that, where, if you can control things, that's where you get stuff done. And nothing gets done when there's gridlock--when there's literally gridlock--because the parties have mixed control of the institutions. Because they don't compromise.
Lilliana Mason: Right. And the important thing--this is the 'Agreement' part of the Uncivil Agreement title--is that this is true on issues where the vast majority of the American public agrees. So--right? It's just that you can't get legislation done, because it seems like a win or a loss. So, the example, one of the examples I give in the book, is that after Sandy Hook, you know, 90% of Americans agreed that we should have background checks for gun purchases. And, like 86% of Republicans agreed to that. But then, asked whether or not they wanted the Senate to pass a background checks bill, only 57% of Republicans agreed that there should be legislation passed to enact the thing that 87% of them thought was good. And, that means that there is a disconnect between what the people actually want government to do, and what they are willing to allow government to do in order to protect their sense of victory. And, this is them sacrificing that dollar, you know, to get the victory over, you know, something that almost the entire country agrees would be beneficial.
Russ Roberts: [40:26] Yeah. Well, you talk about the fact that--and I have this romance myself to some extent, though I think listeners would maybe think that it is not the case. But, there is this view that political outcomes are the aggregation of preferences of citizens. We spend a lot of time on this program talking about how there's a lot of slippage in that connection; and also the fact that we don't have a 'will'--the people. There's often a great deal of disagreement. But, your point is that the correlation between--policy preferences of citizens and political outcomes is being reduced because of this partisan intensity.
Lilliana Mason: Right. When you have a zero-sum type of competition between the parties, there is no place in the middle for compromise to occur. And compromise is the only way that legislation gets done and democracy functions. There is no other way for democracy to work, if there is no compromise.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think you say, and this is a quote, you say:
Democrats and Republicans are in a battle over health care, over abortion, over tax policy. The political fights in American politics are supposed to be about something.
An abundance of evidence, however, contradicts this view.
Which is--crazy. Like, what's the alternative? And, how does this reality start to change what politicians--how they behave and how they campaign?
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. So, this is a really dangerous part of it. Because once the need for victory surpasses the actual policy preferences of people--or even, you know, your party's position can actually change your policy position at this point. There's evidence that if your party switches position, then the majority of people will also switch their position on something.
Russ Roberts: Well, the Trump and trade example is just a perfect example of that. So many Republicans were "free traders." I'm a big free trader. So, I kind of like the fact--again, it's kind of naive to think this, but I like imagining the possibility that because Trump is so protectionist, this will cause many people who used to be protectionist to become free traders. But, certainly, many Republicans who were free traders have started to think, 'Well, actually, you know, it turns out--'. And it's effortless. It's effortless. It's not like there's this long process by which they come to a different view. It's overnight.
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. And there's not a lot of reflection about, like, 'What happened when we changed our position?' Like, 'What were the reasons?' It's as if reality shifts and no one talks about it.
Russ Roberts: I interrupted you. Go ahead. Sorry.
Lilliana Mason: Yeah, no, no, no. So, the problem with this, though, is that, if your party can change your policy positions, then your party can do almost anything without being held accountable for it.
Russ Roberts: Yep.
Lilliana Mason: So, if you--if we really did care--if we really held these trade policies genuinely--then Trump would be held accountable for, you know, shifting the trade policies of the Republican Party. But that's not happening. So, there is, essentially, our elected officials can do really bad things and be, and still be just as popular as they were before they did bad things. Because, we're so, we're so focused on winning--partisan victory--that we'll allow our, you know, our elected officials to do almost anything. It's like that picture of those two guys that's going around Twitter last couple of days saying, 'I'd rather be a Russian than a Democrat.'
Russ Roberts: No--yeah--that's what it was. Right. Yeah.
Lilliana Mason: I mean, it's like, literally, I mean like, 'What the heck?' Like--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That is perfect.
Lilliana Mason: Like, yeah, you prefer to be in another country.
Russ Roberts: That used to be called treasonous. Or, like, un-American. Let's just leave it at that. It's a perfect description. It used to be considered un-American. Now, it's not. It's bizarre.
Lilliana Mason: Well, and this is actually something. This is, kind of tying this back to the very beginning of the Republic. George Washington in his Farewell Address warned about this. He said--he specifically warned about really intense partisanship. He said--I can't remember the exact quote, but basically what he said was, 'If partisanship becomes too intense, then outside--foreign influences--can start to take advantage of our divides and influence our government via party passions.'
Russ Roberts: Hmm. He's on to something.
Lilliana Mason: So, Washington himself figured this out, and he was worried about it. Going forward. And, of course, partisanship immediately started the very next election.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Lilliana Mason: But, it's not an unfamiliar idea that extreme partisanship is dangerous. And, but, we seem to just not care about it because we are all so focused on our partisanship.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, the point about the media allowing, in the current landscape of the Internet, social media, to allow us to tailor our own information flows to confirm our biases and make us feel good about ourselves and not so good about others--that's a world where I'm talking about the honest media. Meaning, just the natural choices that people can make now are different, and for what they watch, or just through [?] TV networks that watch the news, which are all pretty much the same. But, of course, that doesn't take account of the potential for manipulation, either by partisan activists or by foreigners, to influence our election. And, I'm deeply worried about this. I don't have an easy solution. Are you worried about that? And, by 'that,' I mean the ability to inflame partisan intensity--literally with fake news or lies? Just, showing stuff that didn't happen, because people understand through their--the data that they have on people's search habits and other things--to manipulate them in ways that people don't realize.
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. Yeah. I mean it's--one of the things to remember about the Russian ad-buys is that they were buying ads not just on behalf of Donald Trump--like, pro-Trump ads--but they were also buying pro-Bernie [Bernie Sanders] ads, and pro-Black-Lives-Matter ads, in order to further inflame the Democratic Party, divide the Democratic Party from itself. And make both Democrats and Republicans focus on these sort of racial differences that were there between the parties, that are these very deep divides that we've always been--that we've always had in American politics. But making sure that we remembered that that was what we were voting about. And, yeah. It is--it is particularly because we will listen to almost anything our party says: Yeah, we are very vulnerable, to any kind of influence. Including our party's influence. And also--this is the other sort of distressing thing, is that: One thing that we know about the way that people process information is that, not only do we look for information that we agree with, and we try to avoid information that we disagree with; but also, if we see information that we don't like, we tend to counter-argue it in our heads.
Russ Roberts: Yup.
Lilliana Mason: And the more political information we have, the better we are at it. So, the people who are paying the most attention to politics are actually the ones that are best able to counter-argue any argument that they don't want to hear. So--and it's not necessarily that they have good information. They just have a lot of information.
Russ Roberts: That's fascinating.
Lilliana Mason: So, it's not like educating people or giving them tons of corrective information is going to solve anything, because the people who know the most, and therefore are the most active, usually, are also the most biased in their processing of information.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; I love that. So, their--it's true in economics, too, of course; in social science, generally--that so-called experts, people like you and I who have Ph.D.s, what we're really good at is telling a story and finding, cherry-picking the data--one of the things we're good at is cherry-picking data to show that we're still right: We can find that study because we know about a lot of studies. So, we can find the studies that confirm our ideological or methodological biases. And, it flips on its head the idea that, you know, people who are uninformed, you kind of hope they don't vote much. But, maybe they are the ones who are the less vulnerable to this. But, I think we are all vulnerable to it, obviously. It's so easy to dismiss the other side's arguments: 'If we can't think of the arguments of the studies, we'll just dismiss them, because they are just wrong anyway. We know that.'
Lilliana Mason: Well, this is actually--it's sort of a controversial argument. But, one of the earliest books about political behavior--it's just called Voting--the authors actually said, 'We actually need the disinterested and cross-pressured voters. They may not have a lot of information, but they will respond to large things.' And so, if something gigantic happens and the government needs to be held accountable for it, those are the people who are going to create accountability. We actually need the people who don't know much to be in the electorate, because they are the only place where we have any room to hold elected officials accountable.
Russ Roberts: So, one of the ways you'd think we could do something about this is to have a third party that was based on civility, based on tolerance, more centrist. And, of course, people who are out there say, 'That's my party. That already exists.' And I can't--it's amazing to me how often people write me and say--and I'm sure you get this, too--that this is only true of one party, or one type of views. But, of course, it's both sides. We're both vulnerable. Both sides are vulnerable to these psychological phenomena. So, you think, 'Well, let's have a party that's--we need a third party.' And, of course, as you say, the Democratic Party was greatly challenged by the 2016 election. As was the Republican Party. Either party could split, very, very dramatically. The populist wing of the Republican Party, which was basically silent until very recently, now seems to be totally in charge: the nationalist--what I'd call the Nationalist Populist/Protectionist side. So, there's room among Republicans, in theory, for a more economically free market party or socially liberal party to come along and peel off some Republicans who are uncomfortable with the direction that Trump has taken the Party. And similarly a lot of Democrats want to go much farther to the left than, say, Hillary Clinton--who was the last candidate--in their next election. And that may not be sustainable. That may lead to a--I think that's what's going to happen, and that could easily lead to the re-election of Trump, which could is going to cause a lot of hair to be pulled out. So, you'd think this is a time when a third or fourth party with some serious potential to have an impact could start. And yet, it's very hard in a two-party system to get a third party that's effective. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. That's--so, Lee Drutman at the New America Foundation has been writing a lot of really interesting stuff on how what we actually need to do is change to a parliamentary system. Because, until we have proportional representation, we will never have a third party. This is, Duverger's Law, which is that, if you have a first-past-the-post, majority wins electoral system, then you will always have two parties. Right. It's because if we had a proportional representation system, then, if there's a party that won 15% of the vote, they could get 15% of the seats--that would be great. Right? Then you could actually have a viable [?]--
Russ Roberts: You'd have to compromise; you'd have to get stuff done; you'd have to take them into account.
Lilliana Mason: Right. And there would be coalitions. And therefore, different, you know, the different parties would be sometimes working together and sometimes not, so that reduces the zero-sum aspect of what we currently have.
Russ Roberts: Of course, if you go to a system that's parliamentary--like, my favorite's Israel--they all will tell you the only problem with the Israeli political system is it's parliamentary.
Lilliana Mason: Hah, hah, hah.
Russ Roberts: It's always greener--
Lilliana Mason: The grass is always greener. But, I think I'm more, in terms of--I don't think America is going to move to a proportional representation system. And that takes--that's probably a step too far. Who knows? But, a more realistic possibility would be something like what happened to the Southern Democrats in the 1960s. Which is that sort of a wing of one of the parties, or a substantial group of one of the parties starts voting with the other side, in a somewhat reliable way. And that really changes the dynamic of the, you know, win/lose, zero-sum part of it. So that gradually, these, you know, sort of like libertarian Republicans would, you know, vote with Democrats, centrist Democrats, you know, more and more. And maybe gradually, if, you know, the Trump wing and sort of populist and also somewhat, like also, sort of like White Supremacist wing of the Republican Party is still there, that will turn away a lot of the more libertarian Republicans. And they might start voting with Democrats, if it means they are voting against White Supremacy. Right?
Russ Roberts: The only problem with that is, if Bernie--Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or someone, Kamala Harris--is the nominee, it's going to be really hard, I think, for those Republicans to hold their nose and vote for them. And, part of it, of course, is: I just can't put on a Yankee's hat. I'm sorry. It's just not happening. 'But it's really sunny out. It's all I've got.' I know. It's okay. I'll get sunstroke.
Lilliana Mason: Okay, the sunburn. Yeah. Well, so--that's--I think a really good example of this is the Alabama Senate race--
Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah--
Lilliana Mason: Where, it wasn't that a whole bunch of white Republicans voted for the Democrat. Although, some did.
Russ Roberts: Some did. Yeah. Some did.
Lilliana Mason: But mostly, the most pro-Roy Moore districts in Alabama just had much lower turnout--
Russ Roberts: yep--
Lilliana Mason: than normal. And so, that is one way that this could go. Is that, you know, if, if there is such an extremism within the ascendant, within the Republican Party, that might just turn off enough people that they are just going to stop voting. And that--you know, if they don't vote, that swings the election. So, that is--one--you know, there should be some accountability, maybe not in switching to voting for the other party, but in just not turning out, that would be sort of the only way I can imagine accountability working.
Russ Roberts: Well, that's the same thing that happened on the Democratic side--
Lilliana Mason: Yeah--
Russ Roberts: If they end up pushing way to the Left--very few Democrats are going to vote for Trump, but they just won't vote. They just will stay home.
Russ Roberts: Well, we don't have a lot of time left--but, which is good, because we are going to turn now to what we can do about this. And, since, it's a short list for me, I have a few thoughts. But, most of my listeners have heard mine. I have one to add. What are your thoughts? What can we do as human beings, not necessarily as--we are not giving consulting advice now to operatives within either party--which is an interesting moral question, what you should do in that situation. You know, how to manipulate people. But, just as citizens, or as policy positions that might--policy things that might change to make this better: What are you thinking?
Lilliana Mason: So, one thing is actually for the media to stop doing the horse-racing, legislation. I think that will be helpful.
Russ Roberts: Then they'll get fewer listeners, and viewers--
Lilliana Mason: Exactly!
Russ Roberts: That ain't going to happen.
Lilliana Mason: It's boring, if you talk about the minutiae of a bill. So, that's unlikely. The thing we can do as individual people is, first of all, acknowledge that we are inclined to think this way--
Russ Roberts: yeah, big thing--
Lilliana Mason: By understanding it, it's easier to counter-argue it in your own head. And to try not to do it so much. The other--the other thing is to--honestly, because politics is so fraught at this point, my argumentation is always just like, 'Don't talk about politics. Go hang out with people who are not like you, but don't talk about politics with them.' Do something else. Like, everybody go do some service together. Or, you know, join a club with people who are in your outgroup party and don't talk about politics. But, find ways to connect with people that are--
Russ Roberts: as humans. As human beings.
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. And so then, and then you can start thinking of them as people who have families. And then when, you know, when they come up with their, when they are thinking about politics, they have thoughts in their head, and they are trying to work things through, and they are trying to be good people. Sometimes. And so, you know, it's this idea of trying to reach out. The problem with this, though, is that the people who are most likely to do that are also the people who are also the least needing of it. Right. So, you have to be motivated to want to create less of a divide, to want to do that. And the most divisive people don't want a less, don't want less of a divide. So, it doesn't work exactly--it doesn't work all that well. Because the people who need it are not doing it. And in fact, I think, maybe we should just enforce it somehow on a national level, like have some kind of some kind of national service. This is--you know, in the military, this--you know, partisanship sort of disappears. So, if there was some way to get Americans working together at some point to, you know--I'm not sure how--but, you know, working on some type of national service could bring people together in ways that are unlikely in their current lives. And, yeah. Other than that, it's very--it's just very hard to get people who don't want to do this, don't want to heal a divide, to heal it. You can't really force them to.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I do think what we are doing right now, to make people aware of it, is a good thing. I think most people don't like the idea of being disdainful of others, and switching their views to satisfy their party identity. I think most people, when confronted with that in the light of day think, 'I wouldn't do that.' And if they are doing it would go, 'Maybe I shouldn't.' So I think that helps something. I think we're doing something here. Though, we think about the media--and I wasn't joking, obviously--very much in the media is interest in a world that's extremely competitive and where there's been an immense amount of disruption, to desperately seek eyeballs and clicks. So I understand why they do what they do. But there are organizations like ProPublica that have been started by foundations that are not as driven by clicks and views. Which I think has some potential. In my essay, and in my podcast on this episode, I suggested that people follow people on Twitter and Facebook who aren't like them. And yet, one of the problems there is that actually can make it worse. Because a lot of the people aren't like me--I do, I follow on Twitter, I do increase my outrage because they are so unfair. They are so wrong. Or whatever it is. So, when I give that advice, I now add, and try to find the quieter, more thoughtful ones--there are some on the other side, no matter what side you are on. But the other advice that I, that your book made me think of, and I had just, was actually writing about it a little was: Find some different groups to hang out in. You know: Get outside your partisan group. My joke was, 'If you are a Democrat, go to a NASCAR race.' And, 'If you are Republican, do some Yoga.' Of course, there are people who, there are Democrats who go to NASCAR races. There are Republicans who do yoga, already. The problem there, again, is that if you pick the wrong group to try to humanize the other side, it could just might make you madder to see--it just confirms your prejudices if you are not careful. So, you need to find an activity that isn't likely to make it worse.
Lilliana Mason: And, also, you know--what we're--we don't want to recommend that, for instance, an African American Democrat go by themselves to a NASCAR race. They are probably going to feel possibly threatened there.
Russ Roberts: I don't know. I'm not sure about that. I mean, I think that's a prejudice. I don't know if that's true. It's hard for me to say. I've never been to a NASCAR race.
Lilliana Mason: Me, neither.
Russ Roberts: So, it's--but that's a fascinating question, right, of how far you should go out of your comfort zone, right? If you are not a church-goer, to go to church. If you are not a hunter, to go hunting. I think that would be extremely difficult. It's true: I think you'd find out that there are nice, normal people. Many of them. Maybe some of them aren't, of course. But, I think that is a way--I think exposure in general is good. So, I'm all for that. I think the question is: There may be some challenges people have with their biases and processing those experiences that might be challenging. That's all.
Lilliana Mason: Yeap.
Russ Roberts: So, let's close with a really cheerful question. Do you think we are at risk of a Civil War? I've started to wonder whether that's a possibility. If we did get, say, 10% unemployment in this world that we are in now or worse--you know, a terrorist event of some kind, equivalent to 9-11, which, you know, I think the aftermath of 9-11 most people would say was pretty good for America: We did come together for at least a couple of days. Maybe even a few weeks. But, in this time maybe that wouldn't be the response. Maybe it would be something worse. And different. So, what are your thoughts on that? Do you think we are in a uniquely dangerous time here, or is this just sort of where we are and we are over-exaggerating?
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. I go back and forth on this, partly because I don't want there to be a civil war, so I'm trying to find ways to suggest that there won't be one. There's work on, like in comparative politics looking at other countries, that, you know, where scholars are, they make models predicting, you know, the probability that a nation will descend into civil war. And there are certain things that are really good predictors of that. Racial and ethnic political divisions is one of them. Or, religious political divisions. We have both of those. Adverse regime change, which I think, you know, some people would say is what Trump was--Democrats would say is what Trump was for them. And economic struggles. So, the last one is the one that we don't have yet. And, I don't want to say, like all of, if we have a recession then we're going to, you know, descend into civil war, because I think a lot of that is in countries where democratic institutions are not as strong as ours, presumably, are. The--one of my concerns in 2016, actually--was that if Clinton did win, that we would have a legitimacy problem, because Trump was already starting, you know, 'The election is rigged' type of language. And so my one concern is that if we have a close election, our--the amount of faith that voters have in the electoral system right now is probably not that great. And, so, any question about the validity of an electoral outcome, that could be the type of thing, I think, that causes a type--a really dangerous clash between Democrats and Republicans. Because it puts partisanship right up front. It seems like an unfair thing that happens. And, people are going to get very, very angry if that type of thing happens. So, for me, that's my biggest concern.
Russ Roberts: Well, I think we're already there. To some extent. I hear, constantly, in my Twitter feed from people on the Left, that Trump is illegitimate because he only won the Electoral College. That is the way we elect a President. You might not like it, but that is the way you are elected in America. And, of course, it's the way people campaign. At least, they are supposed to, if they are smart. So, I feel like--it's just so easy to spread rumors of voter, you know, dishonesty, corrupt voting--which is a real problem on both sides of the political divide, the partisan divide. And we're not going to have--I don't think we are going to have a non-close election, for a while.
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. No. It's very unlikely--
Russ Roberts: It seems that way. Ehhh, it's hard to say. But I think that is a good point. I think the feeling that an unfair result happened--which is what I think people would use to justify violence--is really scary.
Lilliana Mason: Yeah. And we're not there yet in the sense that there isn't violence. We're not in a violent place, yet. The question is, you know, if: The difference between the Left and the Right is that the Left is generally not armed.
Russ Roberts: Yes. Exactly.
Lilliana Mason: As well.
Russ Roberts: Well, that'll change. Don't worry. But you're right.
Lilliana Mason: Well, it might. But, so that the--so, the Left goes, does marches. And that's why I was concerned about the Clinton victory was that I was concerned about sort of, you know, there are hundreds of identified, you know, armed militia groups in the United States. And they tend not to be Democrats. Or liberals.
Russ Roberts: That's true. But that will--I'm saying though, that will change. Historically there has been, there is violence on both sides. So, it's not--
Lilliana Mason: Right. So, if violence begins, then, yeah.
Russ Roberts: But you are right. Right now, it's--at least, that seems to be the case, that Republicans are more likely to own guns than Democrats. That's definitely true.
Russ Roberts: Let's close on a slightly cheerier note. Do you have anything positive, anything encouraging, that makes you feel somewhat comfortable, comforted, going forward?
Lilliana Mason: I don't usually have a lot of comforting research. But, I did just finish a project looking at providing information to voters about candidates' character and whether or not that can, a). whether you can correct misinformation that they might hold, and b). whether that changes their approval of the candidate. And we found a little bit of evidence that if you explain, you know, if the assumption--the story was Trump was a sort of a self-made billionaire. And, all we did was say, 'Were you aware that Fred Trump--Donald Trump's father--was a successful businessman and loaned him millions of dollars?' And, just asking them the question introduced that information into respondents' minds. And after reading that, they rated Donald Trump as less sympathetic and less good at business. And their approval ratings of him declined. Not a lot. But a little. Like 12 points or something.
Russ Roberts: That's a lot.
Lilliana Mason: That's--yeah, that can be a lot if you are in the middle. So, that to me was like, 'Oh, we actually--you can provide information in some contexts' that can change people's opinions. And correct misinformation that they may be holding. So, that's one tiny little bit of optimistic evidence.