Left & Right Come Together – When It Pays

Money Handshake

Great news! Political scientists have discovered that Americans of the left and right don’t disagree nearly as much as they seem to, and are able to come together around the facts even when the stakes are high in partisan disputes.

All you have to do is pay them!

That is to say, people think carefully about the truth and are willing to admit the facts even when the facts make the other side looks good – when accurate reporting of the facts brings them an immediate reward.

As Dylan Matthews reports (hat tip to Jim Geraghty’s newsletter), it has been well established for some time that people who identify with the left and right have different perceptions of the facts. Ask whether the deficit went up under Clinton (it didn’t) and Republicans will say yes; ask whether inflation went up under Reagan (ditto) and Democrats will say yes.

The great fear, of course is that this makes a common civic life impossible, as we all end up living in separate worlds. Defending the despised and hated (but innocent) British troops in the Boston Massacre murder trial, John Adams famously said that we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts. What happens if we end up living in a country where we don’t have a common set of facts?

Well, count on good old grubby human nature to come to the rescue. A team of political scientists reports that if you offer people a relatively modest reward (Amazon gift cards, in this experiment) if they get the questions right, suddenly the Democrats remember that hey, Reagan kicked inflation’s tail up and down the national mall, and Republicans remember that Clinton did likewise with the federal deficit.

Now there are two caveats to the good news here. One is that it’s tough to see how we hand out Amazon gift cards to all the voters – especially when the politicians in both parties have goodies of their own to reward bad memories rather than good ones. The other is that even when you can do it, this kind of immediate “carrot and stick” incentive is at best a short term solution.

What we need is a revolution in education – in homes and schools – that teaches people from early childhood that getting the facts right is worthwhile even when it sometimes rewards your political adversaries. We’re rolling a heavy stone up a steep hill here. But it can be done.

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