How Partisans Fool Themselves Into Believing Their Own Spin

Science shows that we often allow our moral judgment to overshadow factual arguments.


This month's presidential election was between two fairly centrist candidates. And yet political discourse between ordinary Republicans and Democrats is more contentious and hostile than it's been in decades. I bet you strongly agree with one of these statements:

  • If you're a Democrat: The Obama campaign for reelection was run largely based on telling the truth. The Romney campaign was laregely based on lies.
  • If you're a Republican: All political campaigns stretch the facts from time to time to make a point. Romney and Obama both did.

I'd like to suggest that both these statements are false. 

Let's first take on the claim that the Obama reelection team did not lie. During the campaign President Obama said, directly and through campaign advertising, that Romney opposed gay adoption, opposed abortion even in cases of rape or incest, and that Romney's plan could take away middle-class tax deductions. He claimed that during his first term we doubled our use of renewable energy, doubled exports, and that 30 million Americans are going to get health care next year because of Obamacare. And that's before we even get to how the campaign twisted the facts around when Romney left Bain Capital to make him look bad.

So, "everyone does it"? Not so fast, Republicans. A quick dip into the evidence makes it clear that Mitt Romney's lies were of a scope, magnitude, and brazeneness that is unmatched in modern political history. His first TV ad, back in November 2011, featured audio of Obama saying, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." That sounds terrible -- except it's from 2008, and Obama actually said, "Senator McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, 'If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.'" Romney said that Obama began his presidency with an apology tour, wants to end Medicare as we know it, and didn't mention the deficit or debt in the 2012 State of the Union (he mentioned them six times). Then there were Romney's misguided statements about the Cairo embassy situation, his running mate's untruth-riddled convention speech, and the campaign's blatant admission, "we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."

What's happening here? We weigh facts and lines of reasoning far more strongly when they favor our own side, and we minimize the importance and validity of the opposition's arguments. That may be appropriate behavior in a formal debate, or when we're trying to sway the opinion of a third party. But to the extent that we internalize these tendencies, they injure our ability to think and see clearly. And if we bring them into the sort of open and honest one-on-one political debates that we'd like to think Americans have with each other, we strain our own credibility and undermine the possibility of reaching an understanding.

A defense attorney presents the best case for his client's innocence in court, but he's realistic with himself about what he believes the truth of the matter is. Too often in political arguments we have drunk our own Kool-Aid. Take, for example, the national debate we had about torture during the Bush Administration. Almost universally, people who thought torture was unjustified also believed it was ineffective, and people who thought it was justified believed it was effective. There are two questions: Is torture effective for increasing national security? (A matter of fact.) If it is, is it justified? (A matter of judgement.) The pursuit of the answer to the factual question was anemic because most partisans appeared to assume the answer that supported their moral judgment was correct.

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Alesh Houdek lives and works in Miami. He writes occasionally at Critical Miami.

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