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Vestal: Democracy suffers as belief gap widens


Does living in different political parties mean we occupy different realities?

The narratives of the Republican and Democratic conventions suggest that’s true. And new research by a Washington State University professor finds that highly contentious issues reveal something about the political moment: What we “know” is governed more by our beliefs than facts.

“It’s not so much, anymore, what you know,” said Doug Hindman, associate professor of communication at WSU. “It’s what your party tells you to believe.”

To get a good sense of Hindman’s research, you need to spool back forty-odd years – to a time when it was more commonly accepted that news coverage helped to distribute facts and knowledge to help people govern themselves.

In the 1970s, researchers proposed a less-sunny view: The media was feeding a “knowledge gap” between educational haves and have-nots, who also tended to be the other kind of haves and have-nots. In this way, the media was reinforcing the existing power structure, not empowering the powerless. The knowledge gap is one of the major pieces of communication research of recent decades.

Hindman began wondering about other gaps, as he confronted repeated polls showing that conservatives and liberals had starkly different beliefs – even on matters with a presumably neutral source of information, such as the scientific community or the Congressional Budget Office. He cited the differing range of views regarding global warming – a subject of great agreement in scientific circles – between conservatives and liberals.

“I thought, ‘Geez, I wonder if education still matters, because these are smart people believing very different things,’ ” Hindman said.

He looked into this “belief gap” by studying polling on Obamacare to see who was most knowledgeable about the law itself. Democrats favored the law, generally, and Republicans didn’t, obviously. But Democrats knew more about the law – the basic, inarguable elements of what the law does – than Republicans.

In addition, “The present study shows that Republicans appeared to know less about the components in the health care law in April of 2010 than they did three months earlier,” according to Hindman’s paper. “In an era of political polarization in which political elites map themselves into intractable positions opposite that of their opponents, knowledge of heavily publicized and politically contested issues does not accumulate; instead, beliefs about knowledge accumulate in directions that serve the political objectives of the parties.”

So the Republicans are the counter-factual ones, right? It often seems so to me, but this tendency – to see the other side as misguided, misled, misinformed – is a part of the gap, too. I can’t always be right if you’re not always wrong.

Hindman says it cuts both ways: Democrats consistently expressed sour opinions of the economy under Bush and more positive views under Obama, though by most concrete measures the opposite was true. And both sides cite the neutral fact-keeper – whether it’s a research paper or the CBO – when the facts are friendly, and disregard them otherwise.

“I think it comes down to who you acquiesce to, in forming your opinions,” he said. “Do you acquiesce to scientists, to religious leaders, to political leaders?”

In a sense, Hindman is mapping what a lot of people already know: Our political landscape has been divided into friendly “facts” and contradictory narratives. It often feels as if we are not even sharing the same arguments, so disparate is our understanding of the basic terms. And if anyone – especially a media anyone – attempts to wrench a politician back toward factuality, you’ll see the belief gap spring into action.

Do we share a set of facts anymore? Do we live in the same world?

It feels naive to even ask. Hindman does not blame the media for this, though the media does too much reporting that merely places competing claims side by side. He lays the fault primarily at the feet of the parties and political elites themselves – for fostering and encouraging a fast-and-loose attitude toward the facts, with an eye on a short-term political agenda.

“In general, these are troubling findings for those who believe that democracy depends on a factual discussion of issues,” Hindman wrote. “News media distribution and amplification of partisan beliefs help transform knowledge into a strategy for political gain rather than an indispensible component of self-government.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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