What does it mean to have a political bias?

Political bias is a type of cognitive bias and is ubiquitous. It is the tendency to alter information in a way that is more favorable to one’s political position. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, all of us are subject to bias in the way we form our opinions, beliefs, positions and that we behave politically. While the goal of appearing impartial to ourselves and to others has its merits, an equally important goal is to understand our bias, the bias of others in a way that can still create a harmonious and productive space for creating a shared set of truth and facts, dialogue, negotiation, compromise and synthesis of a political consensus on collective action problems.

A few points

  1. Cognitive bias is ubiquitous[1]
  2. Politics is a social phenomenon emerging from collective action problems requiring the synthesis of many individuals into a decision that represents the group as a whole
  3. We all participate in political process with our own unique political interests, consciously or subconsciously
  4. Political interest is multi-dimensional along either issues, identity, ideology, or affiliation to a team in the national political process (candidate, political party)

Cognitive bias is ubiquitous.

We are learning more from the fields of sociology and behavioral economics[1][2] that humans are far from impartial judgements of reality. Our perception of reality and judgement reply on heuristics and make decisions that are pervasively colored by subconscious biases. To a large extent, we are responsive to our environment — the stimulus we receive and the people and information channels that we surround ourselves by. Under certain circumstances with conscious effort, these biases can be mitigated although not fully eliminated. Exposure to a wide range of information sources and acknowledgement of one’s own biases, being in control of one’s emotional state, cross-examination self-critique review at a later date is one countermeasure, and going a step further would be to subject one’s draft statements to critique by someone else (peer-review).

So what is politics and political bias?

Creator: Caiaimage/Sam Edwards Credit: Getty Images/Caiaimage

Political bias is the tendency to alter information in a way that is more favorable to one’s political position[3]. Just as cognitive bias is ubiquitous and mostly unobservable, so is politics. There is no consensus definition of what is politics. Ironically the word that refers to the process of arriving at a social consensus, is itself a socially constructed concept. So here the proposed definition of politics is

Politics

A social phenomenon which emerges from collective action scenarios where groups of individuals must synthesize individual preferences and opinions into one that represents the group as a whole.

Where two or more are gathered and there is a collective decision to be made, politics will be part of that process. A simple example of politics that everyone would be familiar with is the family dinner table. The first collective action problem is the decision of what dishes to make, when to eat, who is invited, and who prepares the meal. Many of the decisions are not formally decided in explicit forms like taking a vote for each of these decisions, they may be guided by unspoken, informal norms, imagined roles, precedence from past situations or reflect the interpersonal dynamics of the relationships in the group. Some decisions may be announced and offered for negotiation, invitation for edits, revisions, proposals or checking to confirm consent. In all of its forms explicit or implicit, the most generic concept of politics is the process which guides all of these decisions. This perspective on the political process is specific to democratic institutional environments, which assumes that the right to govern rests on a popular mandate and that individual participants are treated as equals in their right to form and express opinion and preferences. This is in contrast to an authoritarian system where the social contract operates based around the framework of a central authority figure and degrees of loyalty or dissent relative to that central authority.

When two individuals negotiate a decision, there is an obvious binary interpretation of support and oppose positions. The binary classification in politics emerges from the necessity to make a decision. Do, or don’t do. Agree, or disagree. However once three or more are involved, a binary classification becomes a socially constructed concept and open to multiple possible interpretations. Decision making in groups rarely appears like a standardized test where individuals act on their own private information without cooperating, strategizing, communicating with other participants. Instead participants behave socially — interact with one another, adapting their expressed preferences in a way that balances their private views and interests with what they perceive as constraints from preferences of others in the group on what can be realistically achieved for the final consensus. The political binaries that we see are the emergent outcome from this dynamic social adaptation behavior. The exact form of the binary however has different meaning depending on what question we are asking. Four common ways of interpreting political lines in group decisions are — issues, team, ideology or identity. Whether one of these affiliations is a more prominent driver than the others is not a question that has an obvious conclusion within the field of political science or sociology. There is evidence for each of them occurring and in some cases the same observations can be interpreted using either explanation.

Four types of political affiliation — Issues, Identity, Ideology and Team

Issues

Issues are specific decisions, such as whether to increase the federal budget, or whether to stay at home or go out for dinner. On any given issue, individuals will fall into a spectrum of opinions for or against any particular proposal. Some issues which have reached a social consensus have a very large number of those who support and only a small minority who oppose. This is the case for a very large number of decisions such as whether it is wrong to murder someone or whether governments should collect taxes to provide funding for public goods such as law enforcement and education. For other decisions a consensus has not yet formed and it is these questions that occupy the majority of the space in political discourse. Examples of current issues where there is divided public opinion are questions about the size of government, individual rights such as for a women to have an abortion of an individual to carry a firearm, and how public funds should be allocated. Some contested issues are time dependent, such as approval of the Vietnam war and attitudes about the 2019 coronavirus pandemic, whereas other issues are open debates that stretch across generations and centuries such as the size and role of government. Another name for an “issue” is an “interest”. Someone who is an issue-based voter is someone who selects one particular issue that they care about, and then uses that issue as a frame against all other political decisions such as selecting a candidate or other forms of political expression. An issue-based voter strategically selects a candidate or a party based on how that candidate supports their main interest while not agreeing with everything that is in the party’s platform.

One example of an issue in politics is global warming. Yale put together 6 Americas on global warming to describe the different ways that individuals respond to global warming, with some highly activated individuals very concerned “Alarmed” about global warming and it is a major issue that drives and motivates them politically[4]. On the opposite side are the “Dismissive” who are openly critical to either the scientific evidence or the proposals aiming to solve the problem by moving away burning fossil fuels into the atmosphere for energy[4]. Together these on the opposing sides make up a minority and the majority of people fall somewhere in the middle, less activated and in some cases less informed about the issue. Usually those who are more activated on an issue tend to have more information about the issue, although this doesn’t tell anything about the accuracy of the information but only that they are more tuned to receiving information once they have been activated8.

Identity

Identity based politics is supporting candidates or parties who more closely align with, represents the individual’s group identity “community” or “values”. Examples would be if a member from a minority community supported a candidate who was also from that community. Another example is support for a candidate who uses symbolic gestures for a particular religion such as talking about “faith in God” quoting scripture, talking in a positive light about the church and Christian people. Identity politics could explain why an individual who strongly self-identifies as a Christian supports that candidate in the absence of other information about the candidate’s position on issues. Some may be more comfortably openly describing themselves as an issues based voter than an identity voter and individuals may have varying levels of consciousness of their tendency to behave through identity politics.

Ideology

The motivation for forming an ideology is to construct a guide for decisions across a range of issues. The idea is that this ideology is a more fundamental, abstract concept of the basic set of values, beliefs, principles that provides both descriptive answers to how the world works normative judgements about how the world should work. An individual’s concept of their own ideology may appear consistent to them, but contradictory to someone else. Popular examples of ideologies relevant in the US are Libertarianism, Democratic Socialism, Populism, Market fundamentalism, Christian evangelicalism[9]. There may be multiple interpretations as to whether the dominant binaries of the main political parties “liberalism” and “conservatism” represent a coherent ideology or a strategic alliance of sub-ideologies that shifts and evolves to adapt to what has a realistic chance of winning a majority in a popular national election. There may also be contrasting opinions as to whether it is meaningful to compare ideologies between different political environments such as the US and South Korea using the same terminology of “conservative” in both contexts to suggest that there is some common features between these two context that transcends the local specifics of the respective environments. A similar challenge of developing a coherent narrative about political discussions is also present when comparing political environments across states in the US.

Team — (party, candidate)

Parties and coalitions are emergent phenomena from the complex non deterministic dynamics of pluralistic democracies. In some countries like Malaysia, Serbia coalitions emerge from diverse groups of smaller minority political groups and other countries have long periods of two party dynamics such as the US, UK. The process is dynamic with both interest groups, individual voters responding to the party and other interest groups, and visa-versa the parties responding to the electorate and other political parties.

The modern US Democrat and Republican parties themselves have been characterized by some political historians as evolving coalitions that have strategically adapted their policy platforms and outreach narratives to appeal to a broad enough coalition of interests groups to form a popular mandate. The Republican Party emerged from a vacuum left behind by the collapse of the Whig Party and spearheaded by abolitionists activists and unified otherwise non-affiliated causes on the single issue of slavery. Another example of how political alliances have evolved in the US two party system is the movement of a portion of the Southern evangelicals represented formally by outspoken figures such as Oral Roberts and Southern Baptist Convention from the Democrats to Republican in the 1968 election of Nixon, then back to the Democrats when Carter, a Southern bible teacher from Georgia in 1976, then back to the Republicans in 1980 with the emergence of the Reagan conservatism ideology which combines elements of market fundamentalism with Southern evangelicalism and has continued to have political relevant in 2016 and 2020 election. The Democratic Party has also evolved in a similar manner in an attempt to appeal to a winning coalition of interest groups.

To reach a consensus and a winning coalition with a popular mandate necessitates compromise and trade-offs. This is true for the parties and for the individual voters and interest groups. Voters and interest groups also adapt in various ways and to varying degrees of participation commitment, public expression and conscious intent. It is not possible for a particular interest group to find any one individual candidate or party which simultaneously satisfies their ideal political position — issues, identity or ideological and at the same time participate in the current mainstream political process that has a chance of achieving a political mandate. Some chose to participate in a two-step process, first to internally make the calculus of trade-off to which party they chose to support, and then secondly their degree to which they throw their weight of support behind that team, how much loyalty and how far they are willing to sacrifice to ensure ultimate political success for their team.

Political bias can occur at either of these two steps, and it can be intentional by choice, or subconscious. Interest groups can selectively pressure candidates from different parties and actively promote their cause with a bias that presents their cause favorably. Once they join on and endorse a particular team, they can then behave with a bias that presents that team favorably. This is considered partisanship, and the degree of partisanship to either interest or party ranges within the population.

Bias can take a number of forms, with different degrees of intensity. A few examples are:

  1. Selection of information to present, or not to present
  2. Favorable portrayal of the support, and unfavorable portrayal of the opposition
  3. Manipulation of evidence and facts to present an alternative interpretation of reality

Evidence of one type of biasing behavior does not guarantee biasing behavior in other areas. Some may behave biased in their favorability or unfavorability, but still make a good faith attempt to represent facts impartially. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, all of us are subject to bias in the way we form our opinions, beliefs, positions and that we behave politically. While the goal of appearing impartial to ourselves and to others has its merits, an equally important goal is to understand our bias, the bias of others in a way that can still create a harmonious and productive space for creating a shared set of truth and facts, dialogue, negotiation, compromise and synthesis of a political consensus on collective action problems.

Towards that end, the conversation doesn’t stop here, two other related questions :

  1. What can be said about political bias in the US media, and how should individuals respond?
  2. What would ground rules look like for engaging in good faith dialogue when it comes to determining truth and what constitutes a reliable evidence source?

References

  1. Wikipedia — Cognitive bias
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias
  2. Wikipedia — Behavioral economics
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behavioral_economics
  3. Wikipedia — Political bias
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_bias
  4. Yale program on climate change communication — global warming six americas
    https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/about/projects/global-warmings-six-americas/
  5. CAPE how to convince people to your point of view
    https://cape.commons.yale-nus.edu.sg/2019/10/17/how-to-convince-people-to-your-point-of-view/
  6. What is politics?
    https://www.macmillanihe.com/resources/sample-chapters/9780230363373_sample.pdf
  7. How well can you tell fact from opinions
    https://www.pewresearch.org/quiz/news-statements-quiz/
  8. Political polarization and media habits
    https://www.journalism.org/2014/10/21/political-polarization-media-habits/
  9. Political ideologies in the United States
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_ideologies_in_the_United_States

--

--

Applied research, engineering, and projects for solutions to sustainable cities. SG Green New Deal https://aseangreennewdeal.wixsite.com/home

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Taylor Hickem

Applied research, engineering, and projects for solutions to sustainable cities. SG Green New Deal https://aseangreennewdeal.wixsite.com/home