Beck: The legitimacy factor, that also seems to play into partisanship—is it possible that Democrats would see any Republican attempts to hold them accountable as illegitimate and vice versa?
Tetlock: They always do that to some degree. It’s a question of how intensely polarized the political system becomes, the degree to which people start to deny the legitimacy of the claims of the other side across the board. That’s what happens when countries start to drift towards civil war.
Beck: It does seem to be a pretty polarized situation right now. Is it a situation where people would only do this careful pre-decisional consideration if the accountability was coming from their own side?
Tetlock: It’s a dance, in which each side is trying to find the upper and lower boundaries of the acceptable. If the nominee for attorney general Jeff Sessions was a KKK sympathizer at some point, does that automatically disqualify him from being the attorney general of the United States? If he said X, Y, or Z, does that automatically disqualify him? There’s going to be this vigorous back and forth of defining what the boundaries of the acceptable are, and each side is really good at this. Each side is really good at taking extreme instances of behavior, either good or bad, and trying to magnify them and portray them as typical.
Beck: Is there any sort of broader takeaway about how accountability’s going to play out going forward?
Tetlock: I would just say there is this big gap between what goes on in the lab and what goes on in the world. And what goes on in the world is very two-directional. Each side is making very active efforts to influence each other and influence the audiences to which each is accountable, and the influence is ebbing back and forth in a very dynamic, messy way. It's hard to draw simple extrapolations.
There comes a point where administrations get stuck with certain policies that they are responsible for and they face a choice and the natural psychological thing for them to do is to dig in and bolster. That famously happened with Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War. But other times they make tactical retreats and try to cut their losses.
In the lab, we can really specify with precision whether this is conformity, this is bolstering, this is preemptive self criticism. In the real world, these things become much blurrier and it depends what kind of a spin you want to put on it. With strategic attitude shifting, you could say it’s cowardice or you could say you’re being responsive to the will of the people. Post-decisional bolstering—you could say it’s rigid or you could say it’s principled. Pre-emptive self criticism—you can say it’s thoughtful and statesmanlike, or you can say you’re a flip-flopper the way George W. Bush successfully characterized John Kerry in the 2004 election. You’ve got this potential to flip and spin the meanings of the coping strategies that’s not there in the lab and you’ve got people who are good at it. They're spinmeisters. It's their job, it's their profession.
Beck: So it becomes hard, then, to know if you’re holding people accountable and that’s why they're doing things or if it's just part of the plan?
Tetlock: That’s right. It eventually becomes a hall of mirrors.