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Guest opinion: Now is not the time for blind tribalism

We all want a better nation for our families, friends and neighbors. This comes when we let go of imagined competition and allow our beliefs to mold with the evidence.

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Julio Cortez, Associated Press

The 18th-century philosopher David Hume said, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” As more evidence is gathered through the impeachment hearings of Donald Trump, we would expect beliefs to shift and morph according to the strength of the evidence presented. Has that been the case, or have we been blinded by tribal partisanship?

In a classic 1979 study, Stanford psychologists asked participants who either supported or opposed capital punishment to read two purported studies. One study seemingly confirmed their existing beliefs about the efficacy of the death penalty as a deterrent and one study disconfirmed their beliefs. The essays did influence the participants’ beliefs but did so by making their originally held beliefs even stronger. Each side was more impressed with the evidence that supported their original belief and was critical of the contrary.

Similarly, politics have overridden facts, at times. In the late 1980s, many Democrats believed that inflation had risen under President Ronald Reagan when it had actually dropped. In 2016, two-thirds of Republicans surveyed said that under President Barack Obama, unemployment had increased and the stock market had dropped. In reality, the unemployment rate plunged and the stock market nearly tripled.

The past two decades have shown large shifts away from ideological overlaps between Democrats and Republicans. Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow and his team developed a machine-learning algorithm that analyzed 530,000 phrases spoken from 1872 to 2009 by Republicans and Democrats. Through the first 135 years of data, the machine had a 55% accuracy rate. It began improving dramatically around 1994, and by 2008, the computer could state with 83% accuracy whether the speaker was a Democrat or Republican.

Current politics surrounding the impeachment of Trump show a similar divide. When combining poll data from several sources, FiveThirtyEight found a 64.6-point gap between Democrats and Republicans on their support for impeachment as early as March 1, 2019. As more evidence has come to light through the Mueller report, Mueller testifying before Congress, and the House Impeachment report, Democrats have risen from 76.4% support to 83.5%. Independents have shifted from 41.7% support in March to 43.2%. However, Republicans have gone from 11.8% to 8.9% in support of impeachment.

The polarization has grown so great, it looks as if there isn’t even a need to appear impartial. Sen. Lindsey Graham demonstrated this recently when he said, “I’m not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here.” Sen. Mitch McConnell said, “Everything I do during this, I’m coordinating with White House counsel. There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position as to how to handle this.” This is despite the Constitution requiring an oath from members of the Senate to complete impeachment trials with “impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws; So help me God.” 

I’m grateful to my representative, Rep. Ben McAdams, who, despite living in a conservative state, has decided to support the articles of impeachment drafted by the House of Representatives. His support could cost him his reelection, but as he wrote in a statement announcing his vote, “(The president’s) actions warrant accountability. I cannot turn a blind eye to his actions, thereby condoning this president and future presidents, Republican or Democrat, to do the same.”

Now is not the time for blind teamsmanship and tribalism. We are not just Democrats or Republicans, but Americans. We all want a better nation for our families, friends and neighbors. This comes when we let go of imagined competition and allow our beliefs to mold with the evidence.

Veronika Tait is a social psychologist, adjunct professor and volunteer with Mormon Women for Ethical Government.