“The most concerning explanation for some of this data is that in addition to being filtered, that [people are] selectively remembering,” said Jay Van Bavel, a psychologist at New York University who studies politics and the brain. “This is happening in the unconscious. Memory is selectively latching onto pieces of information that fits their belief system and their party identity. They might be visually attending to different things, and listening to different things, even in the same environment.”
Studies and polls have shown that partisanship affects people’s estimates of the size of crowds, their ratings of politicians’ dogs, where their eyes flit to and where their gaze stays, their ability to answer simple math puzzles—and, yes, what they think of the economy. Whether the tax bill is working or not, whether the economy is going up or down, whether unemployment is increasing or falling: Answers to all those questions are now heavily influenced by party identification.
“There are two big factors here,” Van Bavel told me. “One is our basic biology and evolutionary heritage, which gives us the propensity to do something. The second is the current environment we're in, which is an environment that is adversarial and hyper-partisan, and is sending constant signals to us to act in this in this way.”
Since the 2016 election, some of the strongest of those signals have come from Trump himself, with the 45th president pitting in-groups against out-groups, fanning white voters’ fears about their place in the racial hierarchy, and making derogatory remarks about women. That adversarial and often offensive bluster has caused voters to become more tribal, more emotional, and more indignant.
“It was such a vicious election and the perceived threat for both Republicans and Democrats was so high—there was a sense that we are on a campaign against the literal embodiment of evil, on both sides,” said Liliana Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park. “No, just absolutely no. It’s completely unacceptable for the other side to be good. That was the scenario, which the culmination of this gradual process of sorting. We came to dehumanize our political outgroup.”
That Trump has cast a strong partisan glow or pallor on economic views then seems perhaps not only unsurprising, but overdetermined. Democrats and Republicans are experiencing different economic conditions, hearing different economic messages, and responding to different economic data—and are called on to look at things differently, too. To borrow from Anais Nin: We have stopped seeing things as they are, and started seeing them as we are.
There’s a good argument that the partisan gap is little more than partisan cheerleading: That voters, deep down, know that Trump is not some kind of wizard who controls the economy, and that even if he did their political tendencies would have nothing to do with the direction he wanted to take it in. In social-science surveys, respondents want to signal whose side they are on—not just what they think. “People know they are cheerleading,” Matt Levendusky, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, told me. “These surveys are not a true reflection of every thought in their head.” (He noted that in surveys where participants were paid to give a correct answer, partisan skews decrease.)