More money, less partisanship?

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  • A recent study suggests that much of partisan disagreement on facts is just cheap talk.

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  • The researchers find that if people are given a chance to earn monetary rewards for providing correct answers on factual questions, the partisan gaps found in polls sharply narrow.

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  • These findings imply that concerns about polarization may be overblown, and that Americans can actually agree on much more than opinion polls suggest.

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We often hear that the U.S. electorate is more politically polarized than ever, a claim that is supported by poll data. For example, a recent Gallup poll shows that President Barack Obama has a 90 percent job approval rating among Democrats, compared to only 8 percent among Republicans. In contrast, in 1996, President Bill Clinton had an approval rating of 23 percent among Republicans and 86 percent among Democrats.

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In other words, voters with different partisan affiliations hold vastly different political opinions, and those differences seem to be growing.

And it's not just that Republican and Democratic voters have starkly differing opinions. They also seem to disagree – along predictable party lines – on the facts. For example, polls suggest that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to overestimate the fraction of Americans who are pro-choice on abortion. And Republicans are more likely than Democrats to assert that Obama is a Muslim who was not born in the United States.

But a recent study – by John G. Bullock, Alan S. Gerber, and Gregory A. Huber of Yale University, and Seth J. Hill of the University of California of San Diego – suggests that much of this partisan disagreement on the facts is just cheap talk. The researchers find that if people are given a chance to earn monetary rewards for providing correct answers – or for being willing to admit their ignorance – on factual questions, the partisan gaps found in polls sharply narrow.

When study subjects were asked factual questions with no financial incentives, their answers differed strongly along party lines in the way that one might expect. For example, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to report (correctly) that inflation and unemployment rose under President George W. Bush. Democrats also tended to overestimate the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.

However, when the researchers offered subjects monetary prizes in exchange for correct answers, Republicans' and Democrats' responses moved closer together – in fact, the gap between the parties fell by more than half. The authors conclude that, because polls do not involve monetary stakes, respondents may engage in "partisan cheerleading," rooting for their favorite team rather than reporting their honest assessment.

Of course, subjects who are unsure of the correct answer might still engage in partisan cheerleading: if you don't know the answer, you might as well root for your team. To test this, the authors did another variation of the experiment in which subjects were offered monetary rewards not just for correct answers, but also for admitting that they did not know the answers. In this case, they found that the partisan gaps in answers fell by around 80 percent.

These findings imply that concerns about polarization may be overblown, and that Americans can actually agree on much more than opinion polls suggest. The authors of the study explain: "Just as people enjoy rooting for their favorite sports team and arguing that their team's players are superior, even when they are not, surveys give citizens an opportunity to cheer for their partisan team … Deep down, however, individuals understand the true merits of different teams and players – or, at the minimum, they understand that they don't know enough to support their expressive responding as correct."

At Marginal Revolution, Alex Taborrok points out another interesting interpretation: this study suggests that people may make smarter decisions in the marketplace – where there are personal financial consequences for getting the facts wrong – than in the voting booth. As Tabarrok puts it, "Voting is just another survey without individual consequence so voting encourages expressions of rational irrationality and it's no surprise why democracies choose bad policies." While elected officials certainly do make decisions with huge financial consequences, the chances of an individual's vote swinging an election are practically zero. Thus, the democratic process is likely to bring out the worst partisan cheerleading in individuals.

The public sector faces serious budgetary challenges in coming years, and these challenges will require voters and their elected representatives to make hard choices on entitlements and taxes. The public discussion about these issues can be made more productive if we recognize that much of the partisan rhetoric coming from supporters of both parties is merely cheerleading.

Sita Nataraj Slavov is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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