Traits of the Hyperpartisan

Think about the people you know that are extremely politically partisan. You know the folks I’m talking about. See whether my profile below – symptoms or traits – fits them. [Note: I originally composed this in January 2012 after experiencing “exchanges” – I cannot call them discussions or dialogues – that involved some self-described American “liberals”. I have had similar encounters with people on the U.S. (hard) “right” and my experiences have been nearly identical. I originally titled this (un-posted, private) outline “Symptoms of hyper-partisan brain damage”. That’s not meant to be offensive, but to point out that I think strong partisanship severely impacts cognition, rationality, and civility in certain domains. It doesn’t mean highly partisan people are  stupid, incapable, or uninformed. Many are smart and engaged.]

Prerequisite

Identity:  The group is political in nature.  The group’s causes form the core of one’s sense of self and purpose.  The group usually contains one’s closest personal relationships.

Symptoms / Traits

Enemy:  Identification of a universal enemy.  The enemy is loathed and is a frequent topic.

Attack:  Sometimes severe lashing out even at minor comments or actions perceived to be counter to group beliefs.  Responses are usually ad hominem and/or invoke things that were not actually said or done.

Denouncement:  Self-righteous condemnation of those who express thoughts or ideas that are perceived as counter to group beliefs.

Relentlessness:  Obsession with the group’s cause(s) combined with very frequent seeking out of content to support existing group beliefs and reinforce disdain for the enemy.

Imputation of motive:  Anyone who disagrees with a group belief or points out any inconsistency or mistake, however minor, is seen to have nefarious motives.  (In some instances a person who holds different ideas is described as naïve or lacking intelligence.  There are no other allowable reasons for disagreement with the group.)

Association of beliefs:  A person expressing disagreement with or finding flaws in any individual group belief or presentation of evidence is perceived to hold beliefs counter to many or all of the group’s beliefs.  (Even if a person does not express a counter-belief, an association with the enemy may be made simply based on the person’s occupation, a single action, or some other visible characteristic that group members associate with the enemy.)

Double Standards:  Group beliefs and standards of evidence are suspended when discussing the actions or thoughts of (those perceived as) the enemy.  The double standard is usually denied, though in some circumstances it may be defended as necessary when attempting to influence someone outside of the group.

Evidence Acceptance:  “Evidence is based on conclusions.”  Evidence is accepted on an ex post basis instead of ex ante.  In other words evidence is accepted or denied depending on whether it gives the impression of support a group belief or opposing it.  If evidence is contrary to group belief then the source of data and/or quality of data and/or applicability of the data or analysis is attacked and/or an ad hominem attack is launched.  (Group members will refuse to commit ahead of time to which data are relevant and what the analysis and interpretation should be.)

Universal Battle:  The group’s belief and the fight against the enemy are seen as paramount and of the highest urgency.  Those who do not see the struggle in the same light and with the same urgency are seen to lack morality and/or insight.

Memory Hole:  Past actions of group members or group heroes that are counter to group identity and beliefs are either forgotten or dismissed as aberrations.

False Differentiation:  If a group member or group hero makes a statement or commits and act that is substantially identical to one committed by an enemy, the two instances are seen very differently.  Different motives are imputed and the differing narratives for the group and the enemy are used to put the two instances into substantially different contexts.

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5 Responses to Traits of the Hyperpartisan

  1. dbatty@yahoo.com says:

    I’ve become more interested in this topic recently. Although I loathe politics, the rise of partisan thinking (or at least its more visible and obnoxious nature in today’s politics and press) has forced to wonder why so many people are “drinking the Kool-Aid” these days. I found a book by Jonathan Haidt (“The Righteous Mind”) offered some insight along the same lines you outline here. I’ve also started looking into a school of thinking called “Cultural Cognition” associated with Dan Kahan of Yale University. Some of Kahan’s writing is a little harder to approach (not surprising given his legal background, I haven’t given up yet) but I have found some interesting blog postings that are worth a gander. For example:

    http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2013/10/15/some-data-on-education-religiosity-ideology-and-science-comp.html

    (That post tries to debunk the common belief that conservatives or Tea-party members are inherently more close-minded than their liberal counterparts.)

    One of the major themes of both bodies of work is that people’s minds work far less rationally than we expect. Most of the time, we indulge in “motivated reasoning”. Basically, we react first (often using flawed or at least limited criteria) and then use our powerful brains to selectively support that initial reaction – rather than deciding whether that reaction was actually the right one. This is particularly common for topics related to morality or politics.

    In some ways, this is a necessary thing. As adults, we can’t walk around all day like newborns reacting to every stimuli like it is something novel. We could never get anything done. The problem arises when someone gets locked into this kind of thinking and is incapable of actually talking a step back and examining their thought process in a more rational fashion. Even seemingly intelligent, well-educated people get locked into a belief system and use every neuron at their disposal to defend that system at the cost of actually having rational discussions. They become a rabid partisan and then work to surround themselves with like-minded people.

    The rising dominance of this kind of thinking is probably related to the “information overload” common in today’s world. We are so constantly deluged with input that many people just give up and refuse to consider new information. It is much more comfortable to build a belief system and just live in contented bliss, even if we look like jackasses while doing it.

    • tward says:

      Good observations. Also, see my half-baked “Anti-Science” post for a link I think you’ll find interesting.

      Let me know if you want to borrow Thinking Fast & Slow by Kahneman. He’s the father of much of this stuff and the book is not focused on politics.

      • David Batty says:

        Thanks, Tom. Some of the material I’ve been reading certainly draws heavily on Kahneman so it might be worthwhile to go back to the source.

        Most of the Haidt book does not focus on politics. He spends a great deal of time talking about his work in a more general sense. The best part of the book is the section(s) where he talks about asking people seemingly odd moral questions in order to probe the nature of moral thought. Imagining people’s reactions to these interviews is pretty amusing. The latter part of the book then applies his work to political questions and, frankly, is the weakest section. Still, it is an easy, quick read and captures a few interesting insights.

      • tward says:

        We can swap books. The Kahneman book is not an easy, quick read. It’s a bit tedious at times, but that’s because he describes the experiments in some detail.

  2. Nathan says:

    Brilliant definition. Describes exactly the Greens movement.

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