Vote Down Your Crazy Uncle

Vote Down Your Crazy Uncle

America’s most visible political activists remind us of that distant uncle who spouts the most outrageous opinions and is immovable from his decidedly out-of-the mainstream viewpoint. Tune into any political news program and you are likely to see a replication of the arguments that took place around the Thanksgiving table. Facts don’t seem to matter, and those with the strongest opinions are the least likely to accept different points of view. Unfortunately, it is these Americans – the most partisan and ideologically driven citizens our nation has to offer – who determine the outcome of our elections and set the political course for the country.

[ OPINION: Primaries Are a Good Thing ]

According to a comprehensive survey by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans identify more toward the political center. However, according to Pew, “the most deeply partisan and ideological groups…also are the most likely to vote, pay attention to politics and to be invested in the outcome of the 2018 congressional elections.” In addition, “these highly partisan ideological groups also donate money, contact elected officials and discuss politics with others at the highest rates.” These are the voters to whom candidates must appeal in order to win elections.

That’s why your crazy uncle and his hyper-partisan brethren have a distinct advantage at the ballot box. The voters in elections – especially primary elections – skew heavily toward the ideological extremes. Until this changes, we are likely to continue to send to Washington candidates who owe their political fortunes to America’s most partisan and uncompromising citizens. As a result, compromise has become a dirty word on Capitol Hill, and thoughtful moderation is scorned. That is why there are so few centrists remaining in Congress, and why Americans have become so frustrated with the dysfunction they see at all levels of government.

When we leave the task of voting and political activism to partisan ideologues, we cede our electoral outcomes to their whims and their biases. Research has proven that all humans exhibit cognitive bias that clouds our judgment and impairs our ability to think rationally. The problem is, those on the partisan extremes have been shown to have the highest levels of bias and to be the least likely to change their minds, no matter how strong the evidence to the contrary.

Social science research is awash with bewildering examples. University of Illinois professor James Kuklinski asked respondents in an experiment their level of confidence in answers they gave during a test of basic facts about America’s social welfare system. Although a majority believed they had passed the test, only 3 percent of respondents got even half the questions right. The more certain the respondents were in their answers, the worse they did on the test. Similarly, researchers in a separate experiment provided accurate information to previously misinformed respondents about immigration in the United States. Even after being told the facts, many participants in the study refused to amend their political views about the issue.

[ GALLERY: Cartoons on Congress ]

Research has also shown that partisans will go to great lengths to avoid learning alternative viewpoints, even if that information is made available to them. This “motivated ignorance” results in a situation that has become all too familiar in political discourse today – partisans exhibit extreme confidence in their own opinions even though those partisans are entirely unfamiliar with the facts supporting the viewpoints of those with whom they disagree. Sound like anyone you know?

Wondering which political ideology displays the greatest bias? A team of seven political scientists recently published the results of a comprehensive research project analyzing 41 different experimental studies of partisan bias involving more than 12,000 participants. The result? The researchers concluded that liberals and conservatives “showed nearly identical levels of bias across studies.”

How does this apply to your crazy uncle? In short, you are not going to change his mind. But you can neutralize him at the ballot box. Instead of continuing with the system of closed primary elections that has given great advantage to the ideological extremes, some states have switched to open primaries, thereby expanding the electorate to a much wider spectrum of viewpoints. Instead of appealing only to the extremes, candidates running for election in open primaries – where all candidates for an office appear on the same ballot – must tailor their message to appeal to centrists and even voters from the opposing party. The results have been encouraging in states, like California, that have instituted these types of voting reforms.

[ PHOTOS: The Big Picture – November 2017 ]

In recent congressional and state legislative elections in California, extremist candidates who in the past would have easily won their party’s nomination in closed primaries have been forced to moderate their message in order to appeal to the wider voting bloc which decides the outcome of open primaries. For the first time in decades, California has seen numerous ideologically driven incumbents lose re-election because they could no longer compete in the broader primary electorate.

Until more states implement similar voting reforms, ideologically extreme voters like your crazy uncle will continue to have a disproportionate influence in our nation’s elections. You can’t change your uncle’s mind, so this holiday season don’t even bother trying. Instead, think about how you might help move your own state in the direction of open primaries, which would level the playing field and give more thoughtful voters a much greater voice in choosing America’s leaders. Such an endeavor would be time well spent.

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